Guest column. One for post-Covid travel. Gideon Benedyk outlines his experience of visiting the Kurdistan Region

London black cabs in Iraqi Kurdistan? Absolutely. Kurds can now hire newly imported Hackney Cabs for weddings and photo-ops in the city of Duhok. Kurds love classic British brands in this beautiful, Western loving near-nation where I have just spent two months working and exploring in several cities and its expansive countryside.

Kurds also know what they hate after decades of resisting genocide and tyranny from Saddam Hussein and Isis. Unlike federal Iraq, whose government struggles to contain terrorism and pro-Iranian militia groups, the Kurdistan Region is a proud beacon of religious pluralism and is generally very safe.

Kurdistan is a dream destination for travellers seeking adventure, history, nature or just a luxury break but it is almost completely off the tourism map. The scenery is stunning. My trip took me hiking in snowy mountains in Choman and lush green hillsides around Shaqlawa. I enjoyed the spiritual and environmentally protected Barzan village (the spiritual home of the Barzani tribe) and the gushing Bekhal waterfalls in the largest Canyon in the Middle East.

Kurdistan sports a plethora of sites spanning biblical, ancient, and medieval history, along with locations of more recent interest. Within hours, you can see where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Gaugamela, view carved-rock reliefs inscribed in 690 BC by Assyrian King Sennacherib, and explore the eerie, harrowing prisons used by Saddam’s regime to detain, torture, and execute Kurdish dissidents. You can inspect the Erbil Citadel (Earth’s oldest continuously occupied human settlement for about 6,000 years) and visit Pira Delal, the Roman-era stone bridge in Zakho. The panorama of human history is breath-taking.

Journeying through rural villages allowed me to spend time with local people whose authentic hospitality was constantly pressed upon me for no gain. Even in the centre of Erbil, the region’s capital city, the goodness of everyday Kurds was always evident. Every morning I would walk from my bedsit to Iskan Street, a popular neighbourhood filled with restaurants, shisha bars and teahouses.

Car drivers would often ask if I needed help or a lift. They regularly insisted on taking me to my destination, buying food for me, and then going on their way. My local Kurdish friends were unsurprised. ‘It is our culture’, they would remark. If a car pulled over to stop me in the UK, I would more likely leg it.

Kurdistan also has a vibrant café culture and nightlife scene, with a huge range of bars, tobacco shops, clubs, and restaurants offering all kinds of local and international cuisine. The attractions are many, but Kurdistan’s tourism sector is rudimentary. British travellers get a free 30 day free visa on arrival and can extend it for £50. But it was a painfully slow process that pointlessly wasted three hours in 11 offices. Shared taxis between cities are cheap and easy but public transport is almost non-existent. Many hotels and food places are not advertised on the internet and museum opening times are unpredictable.

I befriended inspiring young Kurds who were well-educated, ambitious, and patriotic, but despise a traditional system that stymies those without ‘wasta’ (connections). A good friend who recently started a business gave the latest iPhone to an official to jump the paperwork queue.

They’re going to have to stamp this out to encourage entrepreneurs to create new businesses, especially in tourism, that can help overcome recent years of severe economic hardship due to fighting ISIS, hosting two million refugees, declining oil revenues, COVID-19, and Baghdad withholding budget payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Whether solo or as a family, whether you’re seeking adventure or a restful break, you will receive a welcome so warm that it’s humbling. From colourful and lively bazaars to ancient treasures, delectable food to untouched nature, vibrant cities to ancient villages – Kurdistan is a truly stirring place. Their old icons and our new ones blend well together.

Gideon Benedyk After studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East at Cambridge University, Gideon went on to work in UK politics before working and travelling in the Kurdistan Region.

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Religious freedoms in the Kurdistan Region

APPG Chair Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP has tabled this Commons motion, so far supported by MPs, Jonathan Edward, Jim Shannon and Bob Blackman.

This House warmly welcomes the visit in March by His Holiness The Pope to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region where he will lead Holy Mass at the football stadium in Erbil;

fully recognises that the Kurdistan Region enjoys considerable religious and ethnic diversity, that its Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs upholds the political, civil, social, cultural, and economic rights of minorities, and that the region has also provided a safe haven for refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) of many faiths from Syria and Iraq, including individuals fleeing religious persecution across the wider Middle East;

further recognises that Kurdistani law, passed at the height of the war against Daesh, enshrines fundamental freedoms of thought, religion, speech, and culture, mandates the KRG to guarantee equality for all groups, and criminalises religious discrimination;

notes peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Sabie Mandani, Zoroastrians, and Bahais, that religious leaders are frequently consulted by ministers and government officials, and that the 111 strong Kurdistan Parliament includes a list of five Turkmen representatives, five Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac representatives, and one Armenian representative;

acknowledges that the KRG has allocated lands and built three churches and one cultural centre at its own expense for the Christian community in Erbil, that there are 135 different churches and 92 religious shrines in the region, and that there are public holidays on all religious occasions;

and proudly commends the Kurdistan Region on its record and aspirations on religious freedom as exemplary in the Middle East.

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Notice

The AGM is on Thursday 4 March. 9am.

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The UK will continue to play its part in supporting the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to build a more peaceful, more prosperous future, says UK Minister

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, APPG Chair, asked the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what assessment he has made of the long-term effect on (a) UK foreign policy and (b) bilateral relations with the Kurdistan Region of the 1991 decision to initiate a safe haven and no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region.

Middle East Minister, Rt Hon James Cleverly. Answered on 22 February 2021

UNSCR 688, and the subsequent initiation of no-fly zones over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) represented a historic moment for Iraqi Kurds, and for the UK-KRI partnership. The no-fly zones provided a crucial security umbrella to protect the Kurdish people, and to promote stability in the region. In the years since, we have further strengthened our relationship with the KRI. Many of their interests and values align with our own: a belief in diversity, tolerance, and publicly stated commitment to preventing extremism are some examples. The UK will continue to play its part in supporting the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to build a more peaceful, more prosperous future.

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UK backing for unifying the Peshmerga with training for 9,000 members

APPG member Alicia Kearns MP tabled a written question asking the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what the purpose is of his Department’s technical support to the Peshmerga Ministry in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Middle East Minister James Cleverly answered on 5 February 2021

“We continue to provide the Kurdish Peshmerga with technical and military support to enhance their capacity and capability to tackle the threat from Daesh. To date, the UK has trained over 9,100 Peshmerga fighters. During my (Minister Cleverly’s) visit to Erbil in December, I discussed the need to continue supporting Peshmerga reform with the Kurdistan Regional Government, in order to ensure a unified and modernised Peshmerga. To this aim, the UK and other multi-national partners are, in concert with the global Coalition and the Kurdistan Regional Government, working closely on a Peshmerga Reform Programme.”

My comment. The programme is a vital contribution to building a strong KRG within Iraq. Gary Kent.

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Praising our diplomats in Kurdistan

The UK Consulate-General in Erbil is a vital interface in bilateral relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region as an arm of British diplomacy and in conveying Kurdistani views to the UK government. Our diplomats regularly meet a wide range of groups and people in Kurdistan and have a high media profile. We wish them all the best of British.

APPG delegations since 2007 usually meet the Consul-General and his staff. The APPG is independent of HMG and the KRG but seeks the best relations with both and in advancing the common aims of building better bilateral relations and a bigger understanding in the UK of Kurdistani needs and views. The following question and answer formally outlines the UK’s policy.

Incidentally, the full name of the diplomatic mission is the Consulate-General for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is a fully recognised region within Iraq and forms part of the wider geographical area of northern Iraq, which includes Mosul in Arab Iraq, for instance. They are not interchangeable terms as is often sloppily used by those who don’t understand the distinction and also deliberately used by those who refuse to acknowledge that the Kurds secured a regional status in a federal Iraqi constitution.

Gary Kent

Commons Written Questions

Robert Halfon on 19 January 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what the policy priorities are of the UK Consulate-General for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and northern Iraq.

Answered by: James Cleverly on 25 January 2021

The UK supports a strong and successful Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) within a thriving Iraq. During my December visit to Erbil, I discussed the mutual desire to deepen the UK-KRI partnership with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The UK looks forward to continued close engagement with the KRG as a critical and valued partner in the region; progressing security cooperation, increasing our business links, and supporting sustainable economic reform that delivers for all Iraqis.

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Can the UN do more to help resolve Erbil/Baghdad disputes?

APPG Chair Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Minister “what assessment he has made of the potential role of the UN in assisting the federal and regional governments of Iraq to support (a) resolution of the status of disputed territories in Iraq and (b) a budget deal and a revenue-sharing agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government.”

The Middle East Minister James Cleverly replied: “We work closely with the UN and international partners to encourage the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to resolve their issues, including on a sustainable budget and disputed internal boundaries. The recent agreement on Sinjar, which the UN supported, is a positive step in this regard. I discussed these issues with the Governments of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during my visit in December 2020.”

My comment. Questions put issues on the agenda for further pursuit. There is a good case for the UN to take a more pro-active position with encouragement from a member of the UN Security Council such as the UK. The government may not think the time is right and that current diplomatic pressures are enough.

Resolving the differences between Erbil and Baghdad are vital to the peoples of Iraq and for international security to defeat Daesh, which recently carried out an atrocity in Baghdad which murdered 32 innocent people.

Last December, Robert tabled a Commons motion which highlighted the work of the UN on this matter. It reads: “That this House endorses the statement of 24 November to the Security Council by Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq; agrees that Iraq faces several interlinked and mutually reinforcing crises and that the devastating economic impact of Covid will probably outlast the pandemic; shares her view that a constructive relationship between federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region underpins the stability of Iraq; deeply regrets the continuing impasse on federal budget payments to Kurdistan for civil servants’ pay who, in her view, should be shielded from political disputes rather than collectively victimized; agrees that constructive negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil are hampered by 15 years of unclear constitutional guidance, which cannot be ignored as it will block lasting solutions; agrees that the recent agreement between Baghdad and Erbil on the governance of the disputed territory of Sinjar is the first step towards stable security structures followed by a unified administration there; believes that such agreements can then be rolled out to other disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, and as part of greater co-ordination between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army to tackle Daesh extremists who operate in the no man’s land between the two forces; and urges the Government to encourage negotiated solutions on all outstanding issues based on the provisions of the federal constitution of Iraq and the rights of the Kurdistani people.

Gary Kent

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Jack Lopresti MP highlights UK aid to the Peshmerga

APPG member Jack Lopresti MP, who has been our Chair and has joined several delegations to the Kurdistan Region, has tabled a written question asking the Secretary of State for Defence, what assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the Peshmerga programme.

The Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, who visited Kurdistan in December, replied as follows “The support to Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) Security Sector Reform (SSR) has been very important. Indeed, when visiting the KRG myself in December 2020 I was able to see how it contributes to our overarching support to the Iraqi state towards the enduring defeat of Daesh. So far, the UK has trained over 120,000 Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Security Forces in Infantry skills, counter-IED, engineering, and medical expertise. As a result, their capabilities have increased considerably, and they are able to contribute to the success of the counter-Daesh campaign.”

My comment. The Peshmerga have proved to be vital to defending Kurdistan from attack several times in recent years and often against the odds. They need help to modernise themselves and to become a single unified force under the KRG. The assistance of the UK, US, and German forces is very valuable. We have seen for ourselves the work of British service personnel in Erbil. It is a brilliant example of how the UK can help build a strong Kurdistan in a unified Iraq. Gary Kent

The photo shows Jack Lopresti MP and our Chair, Robert Halfon MP outside the British base in Kurdistan.

zorbash

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Lord (Ian) Austin highlights British opportunities in Kurdistan’s tourism and film sectors.

Lord Austin of Dudley, who joined the delegation to observe the referendum in 2017, has asked the UK’s Department of Culture, Media, and Sport what assessment they have made of whether there are new opportunities for British companies in (1) in the tourism sector, and (2) the film industry, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Minister Baroness Barran replied: “Our Departmental priority for the Kurdistan region of Iraq is to support the continuing reconstruction of its infrastructure and the protection of its cultural heritage. We work closely on this issue with the British Embassy, British Council and heritage experts from the UK and Iraq. If we are successful in protecting its cultural heritage, UK and Iraqi businesses in the tourism sector will be among the beneficiaries.”

My comment. Many thanks to Ian Austin for tabling the question. It highlights an important role for UK official bodies and private companies looking for opportunities, in their own interests and for mutual benefit, to help boost the vital tourism sector. The APPG has long argued that Kurdistan is a treasure trove for western visitors due to its beauty, hospitality, and safety. Clearly, Covid obstructs it for now. The APPG has also argued that Kurdistan’s location is ideal for film-making but that this requires a home-grown film production centre, with training for budding film-makers, script-writers, and technicians. Not only could that be a major source of income, as countries such as Jordan and Tunisia have found, but can enable Kurds to tell their own stories to the world to increase understanding and solidarity. The Minister’s thoughtful answer is commendable. My hope is that British tourism and film experts and investors will see this and make a mental note to explore this, perhaps through joining the official UK Trade Mission we are also advocating.

#PuttingKurdistanRegionOnTheMap

Gary Kent, APPG Secretary.

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APPG Chair urges urgent UN action on Erbil/Baghdad relations

The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the APPG, today raised the issue of Kurdistan/Iraq relations in the Commons.

He said “Covid is bankrupting Iraq and the Kurdistan region. A stalled budget deal between Erbil and Baghdad is bleeding the Kurds dry, and public servants were not paid for half of last year. A Barnett-style revenue sharing formula and progress to resolve the status of the disputed territories are vital, as ISIL is regrouping in the no man’s land between Kurdistan and Iraq. Could the UK urge the United Nations to take a more active role between Erbil and Baghdad to help break the logjam so that they can stabilise their relations—and quickly?”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, James Duddridge, replied.

“I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We recognise the importance of securing a budget deal between Erbil and Baghdad. The UK continues to encourage both sides to work towards resolving their issues to get a sustainable budget solution, but also to solve internal boundary disputes. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa discussed this with the Governments of Iraq and of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during his visit in November and December. We regularly raise this in the United Nations and will continue to do so.”

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