Urgent statement by Jack Lopresti MP and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

The Iraqi Army and Iranian backed Shia militia using American tanks to advance towards Erbil could spark civil war across Iraq. We can argue about the merits or otherwise of the referendum but it does not deserve this response. I am urging the Government to pull out the diplomatic stops to urgently encourage a freeze on military operations and dialogue before it is too late.

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British MPs raise Kurdistani Concerns in Commons debates

MPs in the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq have been assiduous after the fall of Kirkuk this week in raising key issues in the Commons and we also organised a briefing in Parliament with Karwan Jamal Tahir, the KRG High Representative to the UK.

The British-Kurdish MP, Nadhim Zahawi was the first to raise the issue in the Commons in the wake of the referendum and military action in Kirkuk. He asked: ‘Will the Foreign Secretary join me in thanking Ambassador Frank Baker for all his tireless work in Iraq? He has worked with the Foreign Secretary, Secretary Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister to put together a deal that would have avoided the catastrophic situation that now plagues the country between the Kurds and Baghdad. Will the Foreign Secretary urge all sides to come back together around the negotiating table on that framework and negotiate a deal?’

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thanked Zahawi for his work as ‘there is no one who knows the Kurdistan Regional Government or Kurdistan better than he does.’ He added that ‘Clearly, to a great extent the troubles that are now befalling that area were anticipated. We saw this coming, and we warned our friends in Kurdistan that it would happen. [Zahawi] also did a great job of warning them. We now have to manage a very difficult situation, and it calls for calm heads and negotiation.’

This raises the notion of returning Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to the position of just over three weeks ago when, by my reading of the letter from US Secretary of State to President Barzani on 23rd September, he was willing to discuss all disputes with Erbil and to contemplate the possibility of a referendum if those talks failed or Baghdad showed bad faith.

Labour MP Ian Austin, who was on the recent delegation to Kurdistan to witness the referendum, then posed the following question: ‘We should all be very worried about the malevolent involvement of the Iranian hard-line al-Quds force using American heavy weapons against our brave allies the Kurds. Will the Minister make it clear that Iraqi forces must not enter the four provinces of the Kurdistan region, and that the only way forward is co-operation in Kirkuk and wider dialogue based on the Iraqi federal constitution, which is supposed to guarantee Kurdish rights?’

The Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt urged caution on all sides, and to continue a careful dialogue to make sure that there is no possibility of a miscalculation leading to conflict. It is essential that matters are pursued on a constitutional basis, but there is a difficulty at the moment in getting accurate information about precisely what is happening in the region. We are doing all we can to verify all stories, but we are also doing all we can to cool down the situation.’

APPG Chairman and Conservative MP Jack Lopresti, who led the delegation last month, asked: ‘Given the grave situation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, what does my right hon. Friend think will be the impact on our currently deployed British Army teams who are training the Peshmerga as we speak?’

Burt replied that ‘At present, I do not think there is any reason to change the arrangements of the armed forces who have worked with the Peshmerga and have done such an outstanding job to push back Daesh. What we are all hoping for is that there will be no conflict in the area and that the determination already expressed by both sides to prevent any conflict will lead to a peaceful resolution of the current difficulties.’

My own contribution at the briefing was to point out that Kirkuk was not taken by the Kurds in 2014 but saved from Daesh when the Iraqi Army left its positions and at the request of the then Iraqi Prime Minister. I also said that the budget deal between Abadi and the KRG in December 2014 accepted that Kirkuk’s oil would be piped through the KRG to Turkey.

I also argued that if the Iraqi constitution had been respected since 2005 there would probably not have been a push to seeking independence. When I first visited Kurdistan in 2006 it was seen as The Other Iraq and its leaders were helping to stabilise Iraq as a whole with great success. Yet the abandonment of the Article 140 process in 2007 and the complete cut in the budget in 2014 propelled the push for independence.

The assessment that the neighbours were weaker than for some time was wrong, clearly, and Kurdistan faces a long haul in renewing itself for being a part of Iraq, hopefully on the terms promised in the constitution and which Abadi selectively quotes to defend his actions. These are some of the necessary, reactive positions to take in this crisis and I expect further interventions in parliament.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the APPG and writes in a personal capacity

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MPs raised Kurdistani issues in FCO Questions on 17 October.

• Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in thanking Ambassador Frank Baker for all his tireless work in Iraq? He has worked with the Foreign Secretary, Secretary Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister to put together a deal that would have avoided the catastrophic situation that now plagues the country between the Kurds and Baghdad. Will the Foreign Secretary urge all sides to come back together around the negotiating table on that framework and negotiate a deal?

• Boris Johnson

I want to thank my hon. Friend very much for his work in this sphere. There is no one who knows the Kurdistan Regional Government or Kurdistan better than he does. Clearly, to a great extent the troubles that are now befalling that area were anticipated. We saw this coming, and we warned our friends in Kurdistan that it would happen. My hon. Friend also did a great job of warning them. We now have to manage a very difficult situation, and it calls for calm heads and negotiation.

• • Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab)

We should all be very worried about the malevolent involvement of the Iranian hard-line al-Quds force using American heavy weapons against our brave allies the Kurds. Will the Minister make it clear that Iraqi forces must not enter the four provinces of the Kurdistan region, and that the only way forward is co-operation in Kirkuk and wider dialogue based on the Iraqi federal constitution, which is supposed to guarantee Kurdish rights?

• Alistair Burt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I spoke this morning to the Foreign Minister of Iraq, and I am speaking later to representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government to do exactly what is being expressed in the House—to urge caution on all sides, and to continue a careful dialogue to make sure that there is no possibility of a miscalculation leading to conflict. It is essential that matters are pursued on a constitutional basis, but there is a difficulty at the moment in getting accurate information about precisely what is happening in the region. We are doing all we can to verify all stories, but we are also doing all we can to cool down the situation.

• Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

Given the grave situation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, what does my right hon. Friend think will be the impact on our currently deployed British Army teams who are training the peshmerga as we speak?

• Alistair Burt

At present, I do not think there is any reason to change the arrangements of the armed forces who have worked with the peshmerga and have done such an outstanding job to push back Daesh. What we are all hoping for is that there will be no conflict in the area and that the determination already expressed by both sides to prevent any conflict will lead to a peaceful resolution of the current difficulties.

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Why Baghdad’s ‘control and punish’ mentality will harm fight against Daesh

Sectarianism and centralisation by Baghdad leaders against the spirit and letter of the 2005 federal constitution was a major recruiting sergeant for Sunnis to the belief that Daesh was less dangerous to their own interests than Baghdad. That the previous Prime Minister unilaterally cut federal funds to the Kurds in early 2014 consolidated that belief on the grounds that if Shia leaders treated their old Kurdish allies against Saddam in this way, then they would be treated worse. Baghdad’s reaction to a valid referendum about eventual not immediate independence achieved through negotiation may crudely assert the old ‘control and punish’ mentality but could provide tinder to the fire of Sunni grievance and accelerate the ideological rejuvenation of Daesh or some even more toxic version of the death cult.

Gary Kent
Director All-Party Parliament Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

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The terrible events overnight in Kirkuk are mainly made in Iran. Statement by Jack Lopresti MP, APPG Kurdistan Chairman

The terrible events overnight in Kirkuk are mainly made in Iran. The physical presence of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in the Kirkuk area proves that in spades and even the Iraqi government acknowledges that he is an adviser to the Shia militia. Iranian hardliners are seeking as ever to destabilise and control all around to preserve their malign influence and keep America and its allies diverted. It is supremely ironic that Iranian pawns are able to make use of American battle tanks to attack brave allies of America and Britain. The urgent priority is for the West to intervene to freeze conflict and encourage dialogue so that Erbil and Baghdad can resolve their differences without malevolent Iranian stirring of the pot.

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Urgent statement by APPG Chairman Jack Lopresti MP

The West cannot stand idly by as the Shia militia and Iran exploit differences within Iraq for their own selfish ends.

Statement by Jack Lopresti MP, Chairman All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The unwarranted aggression of the Shia militia against the Peshmerga in Kirkuk is far less to do with the post-referendum dispute between Iraqis and Kurds than Iran exploiting these divisions for its own ends.

Before last night’s aggressive manoeuvres, an Iranian designed explosively formed penetrator (EFP) killed US Specialist Alexander W. Missildine and wounded another American soldier in Salahaddin province on 1 October.

I note that IRGC leader, General Qasem Solemani has been in Baghdad for the past three days, which underlines the malign influence of Iran on Iraq and reinforces US President Trump’s calling Iran out on their expansionism.

It appears that Prime Minister Abadi is being sidelined by the Iranian backed militia. We may be just a few hours from a shooting war between the Shia militia and the Peshmerga which have reinforced their positions south of Kirkuk, which myself and other MPs visited in November 2015 as a guest of their commander Wasta Rasool.

The UK must do all in its power to encourage Prime Minister Abadi to rein in the Shia militia, which are now technically part of the Iraqi Security Forces following a two hour debate in the Iraqi parliament. We should ask Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to abide by his recent statement that “We will not use our army against our people or fight a war against our Kurdish and other citizens.”

I have asked the Foreign Office to raise the matter through our Permanent Representative at the UN and to do all it can to urge an immediate halt to offensive military actions by the Shia militia and any Iraq forces in the Kirkuk area. It underlines the importance of encouraging dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad.

I also commend the Peshmerga for their moderate response, their withdrawal from some front-line areas this morning and their adoption of purely defensive positions. They are clearly not spoiling for a fight but will defend themselves and the citizens of Kirkuk if necessary.

The world should remember that the Peshmerga were vital in the fight against ISIS, at great cost in lives and wounded, and that their actions were for the benefit of Iraq as a whole and the wider international community.

It would be catastrophic for Kurdish/Arab relations were the Iranian proxy militia to use American weapons against our vital allies in the Peshmerga. It would demonstrate a complete abdication of responsibility to Iranian backed forces that have no interest in a peaceful settlement between Baghdad and Erbil – the key actors in the post-referendum discussions. The West cannot stand idly by as the Shia militia and Iran exploit differences within Iraq for their own selfish ends.

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Jack Lopresti MP. Helping our Kurdistani friends a moral priority

Our friends in the north need our help. I mean the valiant and brave Peshmerga and the people of the Kurdistan Region, north of Iraq.

Our friends stood alone against our common enemy, ISIS, when Iraq lost a third of its territory and the second city of Mosul. Their bravery defended their homeland but also reduced the ranks of those wanting to kill us on our streets. They swallowed their differences with Baghdad and initiated joint operations that liberated Mosul.

Our friends took in nearly two million Arabs from Mosul although this shattered their economy. They are moderate Muslims who routinely protect Christians and other minorities as I recently saw for myself at a Catholic Church in the middle of Kirkuk and an Assyrian Cathedral in their capital, Erbil.

Yet our friends are in trouble. They had the temerity to indicate in a free, fair and exuberant referendum that they want to negotiate their eventual exit from Iraq. The vote does not mean UDI or the end of the common struggle against ISIS. Kurdistani leaders insist their statehood is not connected with the struggles in the other Kurdistans.

Our friends point out that Iraq is a voluntary union in theory but loveless in practice. A third of the constitution has been violated by Baghdad. Promises to settle the status of disputed territories ran out ten years ago. Kirkuk is only now back in Kurdistani hands because the Iraq Army deserted its posts in 2014 and the Peshmerga saved the city from a fascist death cult.

Before that Baghdad had unilaterally cut all federal financial transfers required under the post-Saddam settlement. Baghdad refused to fund the Peshmerga for years even as it fought alongside the Iraq Army. Yet Baghdad formally incorporated Shia militia into the Iraqi Army in just two hours.

Baghdad has failed our friends and has now lost its marbles. It is trying to strangulate the Kurds with collective punishments. Baghdad is blockading international flights with dire consequences for foreign agencies looking after refugees and displaced people. Baghdad is choking off the supply of Iraqi dinars to Kurdistan. Baghdad is seeking to expel Kurdistani MPs from the federal parliament and threatening to prosecute them. Baghdad is collaborating with the mullahs in Iran to squeeze and menace Kurdistan. It won’t be long before our friends run out of money and food.

Our friends were offered an honourable plan by the UK, the US and the UN for structured talks and the promise of a referendum in two years time. They considered the offer but decided that Baghdad would not play ball and they had to put a marker down now as we move into discussing how a new form of Isis can be prevented in a new Iraq.

Maybe they were wrong but the scale of the vote – 93% Yes in a 73% turnout – leaves no doubt that they want to leave Iraq in the coming years. However, another interesting option is emerging as a transitional or perhaps permanent solution – confederation of two sovereign nations under a common capital and within current borders. New Kurdistani leaders could also find it easier to reset relations with the neighbours.

Our friends are up against it. They used to say they have no friends but the mountains where they fled from Baghdad’s genocidal army in the past. Our friends have possibly new friends to their north – Russia, which has important oil interests in Kurdistan and could further consolidate its role in the Middle East.

Our friends deserve friends like us to oppose the blockade and the collective punishment of a people who want to be our friends and share our values of democracy, pluralism, secularism and freedom for women.

A new settlement with Iraq will be complex and take time. But for now the most urgent priority is to urge calm, dialogue and de-escalation. Our friends, the Kurds, can then come to a lasting deal with Baghdad. In the meantime, how can we tolerate their outrageous treatment given our debt to them. Why should they be imprisoned in an Iraq that is sectarian, centralised and ruthless? This should be a moral and pragmatic priority for the West.

Jack Lopresti is a Conservative MP and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

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You can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Mary Glindon MP in the Newcastle Journal

Last week’s under-reported and often misunderstood referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has caused ructions in the Middle East but also deeply affects our security and trade interests.

The Kurds voted 93-7% for their leaders negotiating eventual independence with Baghdad. Observers from across the world including British parliamentarians agree the poll was fair and free. Yet the air was suddenly choked by dire warnings and threats from Baghdad, which has banned international flights to Kurdistan in a form of collective punishment.

Our diplomats honourably sought to facilitate a consensual deal. The details are private and were considered seriously by the Kurdistani leadership who were prepared until the last moment to delay their referendum but decided the deal was insufficient.

Separation into new states is often frowned upon by old states while the UN upholds the rights of peoples to self-determination. It reminds me of the Eagles’ Hotel California where ‘You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.’

Squaring that circle requires great care. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stepped up to the plate by quickly and wisely tweeting that all parties should remain calm and work together to defeat Daesh, or Isis as we know it. He added that ‘Iraq’s future lies in dialogue’ while the ‘UK [is] ready to help.’

Quite right. The Kurds in Iraq are a decent people who defend religious liberty in a mainly and moderate Muslim country where Christians and others seek protection. Kurds have long suffered discrimination, genocide and displacement and put themselves out to look after nearly two million Iraqi Arabs who fled to Kurdistan when Daesh captured Mosul three years ago.

Their Peshmerga took the lead in rolling back Daesh at a huge cost in lives. Their brave resistance makes us all safer and they should be considered a vital part of our own security system.

The Kurds also tried their best for decades to work within Iraq but Baghdad increasingly flouted the constitution that guaranteed minority rights and also deprived them of resources even as they were jointly fighting Daesh. They are clearly pro-Western in outlook and, from my meetings with Kurds, I know they have a great affinity with the British.

Their referendum result does not mean immediate independence. The Kurds are landlocked and cannot just start up a new country without agreements with Baghdad. They also say Kurdistan and Iraq need the closest possible relations to maximise their common security, finalise disputed borders, and maintain water, oil and trade flows. The eventual outcome could even be a new Iraqi federation or a confederation, which means two sovereign countries within one border.

The Kurds cannot be expected to live under a bullying regime in Baghdad that treats them as second class citizens. It sometimes seems that Baghdad leaders are doing everything possible to alienate the Kurds and drive them out. The hope is that the air blockade will be brief and bluster will become dialogue.

The Kurds have made a bold step towards freedom and the West would be wise to recognise the reality. One fear is that any vacuum in Kurdistan could be filled by Russia, which has important business interests in Kurdistan and could attract an isolated Kurdistan into their orbit.

Some readers will ask what this has to do with us. There are strong moral reasons for protecting a plucky people from violence and subordination. But there are also strong political reasons for helping the Kurds find a safe niche for themselves in a volatile region. They admire and share our values, could help solve the separate Kurdish conflict with Turkey, and be a buffer between Sunnis and Shia. This would enhance peaceful co-existence there and therefore help reduce the extremism that has so often means murder and mayhem at home. Boris Johnson’s approach could sustain a cross-party consensus to help our friends and advance our security at the same time.

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Settled will of the Kurdistani people

The 93 percent Yes vote on a high turnout demonstrates the settled will of the Kurdistani people for eventual independence. The high vote follows years of broken promises by leaders in Baghdad who have done little to persuade the Kurds they are respected and valued. The outbreak in Baghdad of belligerent bullying and a probable blockade is further evidence of that. Kurdistani leaders of all persuasions have told us they will not be subordinates in Iraq and that the referendum is a mandate to negotiate a new settlement with Baghdad over years rather than UDI, and does not diminish their contribution to fighting Daesh. We agree with the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that all parties should remain calm and we welcome his statement that the UK is ready to help. We will report back our observations on the process of the referendum, which we witnessed in Erbil, Kirkuk and Slemani, and its ramifications to parliament with a view to encouraging bipartisan support for dialogue. We also aim to visit Baghdad to listen to their views and convey our understanding of Kurdistani concerns. We are anxious to maintain the UK’s good relations with Kurdistan which is a valued ally and shares our values of freedom, democracy and pluralism.

Jack Lopresti MP, Chairman All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region
Gary Kent, Director

Erbil, Kurdistan Region

28 September 2017

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Building global friendship on the road to Kurdistani freedom after referendum

A personal view by Gary Kent, Director of the APPG

Watching the dramatic events unfolding in Kurdistan from afar has been fraught and frustrating for friends of Kurdistan. We wanted to know which news reports to believe, how to identify bargaining gambits and disentangle rhetoric, and the detail of the diplomatic demarches from the US, the UK and the UN.

The key principle is the right to exercise self-determination. It was up to the Kurds to decide if that meant delaying the referendum, proceeding with the referendum and creating a bargaining process with Baghdad that could result in independence, a renewed federalism or some form of confederation. Leaders listened to and considered the alternative path but have decided to proceed with the referendum.

Friends also need to understand why governments friendly to the KRG opposed the referendum. My summary of their position is that established states rarely back secession in advance as that would constitute an interference in the internal affairs of states. A Yes vote, in my view, would establish a settled will to securing statehood, which UN declarations also say is an inalienable right. How these are squared is a political not technocratic question. The rule of thumb is that new nations seize the chance and persuade the world to recognise them after the fact.

The UK and the others were operating the first part of this equation but went further than formally stating their opposition. They strongly and directly urged the Kurdistani leadership to delay the referendum but have not threatened sanctions if their appeals were not heeded and have, indeed, made it clear that their strong bilateral relations will continue.

Diplomats were also worried that a referendum would divide allies in the continuing fight against Daesh, destabilise the wider region, undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi before the scheduled Iraqi elections next year, and that the Shia militia could attack Kirkuk.

There are strong counter-arguments. The lack of political unity between Erbil and Baghdad and domestic divisions made no difference to the campaign to liberate Mosul. Kurdistani leaders are well versed in the complexities of co-existence in a tough neighbourhood. They reject war, conquest and coercion but will defend their homeland and don’t see why they should remain imprisoned in a dysfunctional and increasingly sectarian Iraq that does not respect minority rights.

The West is understandably concerned about developments in Iraq and Abadi is better than Maliki, although I also remember how the Americans stubbornly supported Maliki despite growing evidence that his policies were disastrous.

Yet, if the West had been able to secure a reliable deal with Baghdad backed by solid international and UN guarantees then deferring the referendum would have been possible. The trouble for the Kurds is who to trust or depend on in Baghdad after so many years of broken promises and worse.

Some years back, the Provisional IRA had a similar dilemma although I am not suggesting moral equivalence with the KRG. The IRA’s problem in concluding agreements with the British and Irish governments centred on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Neither government could bind successive governments or parliaments in principle but lasting agreements were secured in practice. That is far less certain with Baghdad as no one knows if Abadi can stay in power or if Maliki or someone else could replace him.

The understandable fear in Kurdistani minds and that of their friends is that the Kurds will be seen as lesser people, pawns in the great geopolitical game, and once again abandoned. However, new and strong countervailing pressures show times have changed significantly since the Kurds always said that they have no friends but the mountains.

The British public was shocked to see Kurds dying in the mountains in 1991 and this helped persuade the UK to initiate the no-fly zone. This brought the Kurds into British politics where they have consolidated their position ever since as their diplomats cemented links with the government, parties, civil society and others since freedom was achieved in 2003. This is also the case in America, France, Germany and elsewhere. More and more foreign friends have seen the success and potential of Kurdistan for themselves. Most of the MPs who spoke in a major parliamentary debate in July had been to Kurdistan on APPG visits.

Western opinion also knows that the Peshmerga are a reliable ally in stopping Daesh and that smashing Daesh ultimately increases our safety. They admire the religious pluralism of Kurdistan and know it provides sanctuary to Christians and others.

But public opinion could prove fickle and turn its attention elsewhere without constant efforts to keep and win friends. My hope is that the APPG, which is independent of the KRG and HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) but works with both, can increase its influence in the coming complex times. Friends around the world also need to up their game and better co-ordinate solidarity and support efforts. But ultimately the Kurds are in the driving seat as they navigate their way to freedom.

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