Full text of SNP Spokesman Douglas Chapman MP in debate on the Kurdistan Region

I thank the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his speech. His knowledge of and passion for the Kurdistan area came through strongly, and his work for the all-party group is impressive. The imminent recapture of Mosul from Daesh control by Iraqi security forces is a welcome development, and it will bring multiple complex challenges. The transition from offensive combat operations to a post-conflict stabilisation phase—notably the performance of constabulary police—has not always been well handled by the Iraqi Government forces. Above all, it is critical that there should be no repeat of the stories and allegations that emerged, for example, from the recapture of Fallujah when Iraqi Government forces were accused of reprisals against suspected Daesh fighters and the civilian population alike. Of equal importance are humanitarian aid, stabilisation and the restoration of functioning state institutions. As things stand, there are 820,000 Iraqis currently displaced from Mosul and the surrounding areas since military operations to retake the city began in October 2016. Their needs must become an immediate priority.

Although it is not part of Kurdistan proper, Mosul’s position within the disputed territories of northern Iraq, its multi-ethnic demography and its overall importance for the economy and governance of northern Iraq make it imperative that the authorities in Baghdad and Irbil should collaborate effectively in the aftermath of its recapture. We urge the UK and the other members of the international coalition to exert their influence to make sure that the collaboration works. I believe that yesterday the Foreign Secretary met Iraqi Foreign Minister Jaafari, and we expect to hear how that message might be communicated to him at a later time.

As many hon. Members have said, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have the right to decide their own future, and we urge all parties to work together to ensure that Kurdish self-determination is supported. My hon. Friends and I support the right to self-determination for all, provided it is expressed through peaceful democratic processes. We welcome the fact that the Government in Irbil intend to pursue their legitimate aspirations by means of a popular vote, but we would stress the importance of dialogue with Baghdad and with all regional actors to ensure that it passes off peacefully and contributes to regional stability.

I was taken by an article by President Barzani who, writing in The Washington Post, made a compelling case for Kurdistan to be an independent country. He wrote: “On Sept. 25, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will decide in a binding referendum if they want independence or to remain part of Iraq. The vote will resolve a conflict as old as the Iraqi state itself between the aspirations of the Kurdish people and a government in Baghdad that has long treated Kurds as less than full citizens of the country.Iraqi Kurdistan’s exercise of its right to self-determination threatens no one and may make a volatile region more stable. It will not alter the borders of any neighboring state and, if done right, will make for a much stronger relationship between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. We are determined to do everything possible to accommodate Iraqi concerns in the likely event that the vote is for independence.”

The President argues that Kurdistan’s case for independence is compelling and he points out that 100 years ago, in the peace negotiations that followed world war one, the Kurds were promised their own state. Instead they were divided against their will, and their lands were carved up among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The newly-established state of Iraq was supposed to be an equal partnership between Arabs and Kurds, but that hopeful dream gave way to a grim reality. All Iraqi Governments suppressed the Kurds, and the resulting atrocities culminated in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein used poison gas extensively on Kurdish towns and villages, levelled more than 5,000 Kurdish villages and deported Kurds to the south, where they were murdered and buried in mass graves; 182,000 Iraqi Kurds—nearly 5% of the population—including members of the President’s family, perished in that period.

The article continues:“With the overthrow of Hussein’s Baath regime, the Kurds worked hard to build a new Iraq, including drafting a constitution that guaranteed Kurdistan’s autonomy and protected the rights of all Iraqis. Fourteen years later, Baghdad has failed to implement key provisions of that constitution, and we have good reason to believe that it never will. This failure of the political system is also responsible for the drastic deterioration of relations between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the rise of the Islamic State, with disastrous consequences for all Iraqis, including the Kurds.”

The President notes that the principal argument that is made for Iraqi unity is that a single Iraq is better able to protect its citizens, but that that claim is not supported by evidence and experience. When the Islamic State attacked Kurdistan in 2014, using advanced US weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul, the Iraqi Government refused to give Kurdistan its constitutionally mandated share of the federal budget, and it certainly did not provide soldiers—known as the peshmerga, as other hon. Members have noted—with weapons. As an independent country, Kurdistan would have been able to finance and equip its own troops and to bring the fight to a much swifter conclusion.

The article states: “The war on the Islamic State since then provides a model for how Kurds and Arabs might cooperate in the future. In the battle to drive the Islamic State from Iraq, the peshmerga and the Iraqi army have been in an alliance of equals. Each army has its own chain of command. The peshmerga’s joint operations with the Iraqi military support each other in ways that never occurred in an Iraq where Baghdad sought to dominate and control Kurdistan. Regardless of the referendum, we will continue our close cooperation with Iraqi and Western forces until the final victory over the Islamic State.”
That statement tells us a lot about how Kurdistan would be a stabilising force in the region, should it be able to move to independent status and not have to rely on Baghdad for its orders. The President argues that an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad and would be a great neighbour, co-operating against terrorism and sharing resources, including water, petroleum and many kinds of infrastructure, in ways that would benefit both countries: “Without the sanctions that Iraq has applied to our imports and exports, we could jointly develop our human and natural resources in a common market to the benefit of both Kurdistan and Iraq.

While the results of the referendum will bind future Kurdistan governments, the timing and modalities of our independence will be subject to negotiation with Baghdad and consultation with our neighbors and the wider international community.” That is not the view of an aggressive state trying to have things all its own way. There is room for negotiation, and I am sure that the way the President has phrased his article means that his approach would be very peaceful and reasonable.

The article goes on to say: “In our negotiations with Baghdad, we will be practical. The issue of what territory joins Kurdistan will be the most contentious issue in the separation. Despite a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline, the Iraqi government refused to implement a key constitutional provision…that would have the people of the disputed areas decide their future democratically. Nearly ten years later, we propose to give them that opportunity.”That is a fantastic step in the right direction.“We wish to incorporate into Kurdistan only those territories where the people overwhelmingly want to be part of Kurdistan as expressed in a free vote. The last thing we want is a long-lasting territorial dispute with Iraq that could poison our future relations.”

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) talked about Kurdistan’s culture and diversity, which it values. It is home to Christians, Yazidis, Turks, Shabaks and Arabs, all of whose separate identities are recognised by its laws. Since 2003, many Iraqi Christians have moved to Kurdistan to escape the violence and persecution elsewhere in Iraq. Since Islamic State seized part of Iraq in 2014, Kurdistan has also provided support for more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, with only minimal help from Baghdad and the international community.

I appreciate the input from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who talked about having a vibrant civil society within a progressive Muslim nation. He referred to the disgraceful Red House—I was not aware of it, and I think most Members would look on it with disgust. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) talked about having respect for the peshmerga, which has support in the north-east. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen talked about the people of Birmingham all moving to Scotland—I am not sure that is a very good idea at the moment, although they would be very welcome—which indicates the scale of what has happened in that country.

Finally, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) said that the people of Kurdistan have the inalienable right to decide their own future. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s position, and that they will reconsider their attitude to Kurdistan and the referendum that is about to take place.

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Full text of Nadhim Zahawi MP’s speech in Commons debate on the Kurdistan Region

As I have so often said in my parliamentary contributions since being elected for the first time in 2010, I am very proud to be the first British Member of Parliament of Kurdish descent. I therefore feel, perhaps more strongly than most, that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have an inalienable right to self-determination, as do all peoples. That is why it is my belief that September’s referendum should be welcomed by our Government, without the need for the Minister to express a desire or opinion for or against independence.

There are many who say that Kurdistan could not survive as an independent state, that it is not ready for such an important vote, or that now is not the time for it. Whatever the outcome of September’s vote, I believe Kurdistan can and will prosper. Although the most recent delays to holding September’s long-awaited and long-overdue referendum are understandable given the conflict in the region, I cannot help but draw attention to the deficiencies of previous Iraqi Governments in helping to facilitate the vote. In so doing, I am sympathetic to arguments that claim previous Iraqi Governments have effectively contributed to the mood for separation in Iraqi Kurdistan. The so-called Iraqi Barnett formula works in the opposite way to ours. I say that slightly in jest: since 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan has been almost totally cut off in terms of central Government funding. The region questioning its independence is shouldering a greater financial burden than other regions of the country, rather than the other way round.

In 2005 Iraq approved its new federalist constitution, with 79% in favour and 21% against. However, significant parts of the constitution are, sadly, yet to be implemented by Baghdad, denying regional Governments the autonomy for which an overwhelming majority of Iraqis had voted. Perhaps the most significant part of the constitution for Iraqi Kurdistan that is yet to be implemented is article 140. It has long been the expectation that the disputed Kurdish regions within particular governorates would be dealt with as Kirkuk was: they would have a referendum on whether they should become part of the Kurdistan Regional Government or remain within the greater Iraq. Article 140 makes it imperative that significant and sufficient measures to reverse Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation process in the disputed regions are undertaken so that the referendum is seen to be fair.

Thousands of Kurds returned following the events of 2003, and those regions are now under the control of the KRG after it claimed them from Daesh, but a formal referendum has not taken place. We now face a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence while the status of the disputed regions remains unresolved.

President Barzani has confirmed that residents of the disputed regions, which Baghdad still considers not to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan, will be allowed to partake in September’s referendum. My fear, however, is that whatever the outcome of September’s vote, without the prior resolution of the regions’ statuses, Baghdad or Irbil will use the treatment or inclusion of those regions as a means to negate the result or make the referendum illegitimate. If it is a no to independence, Irbil may say that the result would have been different had disenfranchised Kurds been formally reunified with Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the referendum. If it is a yes, Baghdad may say that the result would have been different had the disputed regions not been included in the plebiscite as, they would argue, should have been the case all along.

I realise that I may be painting a rather bleak picture of a post-referendum Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the concerns I have raised, I am still on balance far more optimistic than pessimistic. Although we may see a minor war of words between Irbil and Baghdad in the wake of September’s result, whatever it is I think the wider and longer-term result will be greater stability in the whole region. We will almost certainly see greater devolution to the KRG as a result of the vote: either total devolution in the case of independence or more devolution in order to placate the unsuccessful side in the case of a no vote. It is this devolution, the autonomy and power to control its own economic affairs, to manage its public services and to raise its own army, that has made Iraqi Kurdistan such a powerful force for regional stability.

The peshmerga have enjoyed immense success in combating Daesh-Isil, as many of my colleagues have mentioned, and in bringing stable and lasting liberation to large parts of Iraq and the adjoining parts of Syria. They have played an instrumental role in the liberation of Sinjar, and are continuing to do so as we speak on the eastern front in the battle to liberate Mosul. The leaders of western forces, our great military leaders, are all too ready to praise the peshmerga as the most effective military operators in the region. It is precisely their status as a regional army that has led to their effectiveness. I see a clear causal link between greater devolution to Irbil and the liberation and eventual political stability of Kurdistan and the country of Iraq as a whole. For that reason, I welcome the prospect of any further devolution, whatever the degree.

I would also like to make reference to the very strong relationship that the KRG has with Turkey—another critically important power in the conflict taking place in Iraq and Syria and one on which regional stability also depends. I further welcome more devolution to Irbil in the hope of closer and more unified co-operation with Turkey in the campaign against Daesh.

My overall point is that rather than seeing a fully independent or more powerful Kurdistan as indicative of an increasingly divided and chaotic Iraq, one should see it as an opportunity to bring greater stability to the region. I urge the Government, represented here so ably by the Minister, whom I thank for giving up his time, to look closely at the opportunities that an Iraqi Kurdistan with more devolved power could bring.

I know from conversations with leading politicians in the KRG, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that the Iraqi Kurds would never resort to any violence of any kind against the Iraqi Government to make their case for more control over their own affairs. The KRG, and indeed the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, see Baghdad as their closest and most important strategic ally. My message to my Government is this: let us learn the lessons from our invasion of Iraq in 2003; let us recognise that we may have won the war but we certainly did not win the peace; and let us be open-minded about the role we can now play in restoring stability to Iraq by being positive about a more autonomous Kurdistan, whatever path it chooses for itself in September.

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Tracy Brabin MP on film and psychologists in the Commons debate on the Kurdistan Region

I have travelled to the region as the guest of the Regional Government of Kurdistan. I was invited to visit as part of a cross-party group of fact-finding parliamentarians. Aware that the conflict in the region is one of the biggest issues facing our world, I was very keen to go, and having spent a number of years volunteering in London with victims of torture—some from the region—I jumped at the chance to find out more.

On arriving in Irbil, I was shocked by the progressive and sophisticated surroundings. I was expecting a war zone, but the city could be mistaken for Dubai in its high-rise ambition and elegance. Sadly, war was not very far away. Half an hour’s ride out of the city, we were in a Syrian refugee camp near the border with the Kurdistan region. Chatting to families, surrounded by playful children, I heard so many stories of pain and suffering: loved ones missing believed dead, people injured by mines, children made orphans by war. Most of those I spoke to had been there for more than three years, with no guarantee of when they would return home. They were weary and exhausted; all they wanted was to be reunited with their families and get back to their homes.

Kurdistan is host to not just refugees from Syria, but 1.5 million people displaced by war from other parts of Iraq. Although refugees have special status in international law and are cared for by the UN, internally displaced people are the responsibility of the host Government. Sadly, Baghdad seems to be doing little to help and leaves the task to Kurdistan, which is already suffering an economic tsunami, thanks to a dramatic fall in oil prices, the hostility of Baghdad, which has cut its budget since 2014, and Kurdistan’s own dysfunctional economy, which needs massive reform.

As the Kurds and Iraqis move to liberate Mosul from the brutality of the self-styled Islamic State, more displaced people are heading into Kurdistan—the population has expanded by a third, which is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham moving to Scotland. Understandably, there are electricity and water shortages, and schools and hospitals are overwhelmed.

Travelling to the frontline in Mosul to talk to peshmerga fighters and Iraqi special forces, we saw clearly the sacrifices made by those men and women. Over the border, in Mosul province, we visited the Christian village of Bartella, which had been seized by the Iraqis after a brief firefight. ISIS did not have time to destroy houses or set booby traps, but many houses were pockmarked by bullets, while some were entirely destroyed by airstrikes. Later, visiting a local hospital, we saw soldiers suffering life-changing injuries. I was humbled to witness a female peshmerga fighter passing away. We and the rest of the world owe them so much.

Another poignant visit was to a camp that is home to Yazidis, who practise a pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religion. Many have been murdered as apostates, sold into sexual slavery between one IS emir and another across Iraq or Syria, or killed because they were deemed too old to sell. Women survivors saw their men slaughtered before their eyes and their babies killed for fun. Of the 5,000 Yazidi women abducted as spoils of war, 2,000 have escaped, but they must still endure daily nightmares and flashbacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) alluded to.

At the SEED project, which operates from a schoolhouse building, assiduous professionals were working carefully to help victims overcome such traumas. A couple of therapists had studied clinical psychology at Koya University, but that is the only such course in the whole of Kurdistan: the country is in desperate need of people who understand post-traumatic stress. It must be our priority, and the Government’s, to offer that support, alongside physical reconstruction and the political reform the country so desperately needs.

Another way to heal psychological wounds can be through culture, which can be a force for rebellion and resistance, as well as for rebuilding empathy and tolerance in communities. The Kurds’ love of poetry and music attest to that. The legendary Iranian-Kurdish folk singer Mazhar Khaleghi, who now runs the Kurdish Heritage Institute in Sulaymaniyah, says: “We have lost our lands and we’re probably never going to get them back. But we have to fight to save what is left of our culture. If we lose that, we have lost everything.” As 150,000 peshmerga fighters push back against IS, Khaleghi’s team of a dozen ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and historians are fighting to preserve the Kurdish identity.

Kurdistan is an exceptionally beautiful country and I was privileged to meet a number of film makers and producers, who were anxious to use the beautiful location to create greater creative links with the rest of the world. I was shown around a disused cigarette factory by a local producer who had some of the finance in place to create a film studio to rival Shepperton or Pinewood. Nearby Turkey has a vibrant film industry and I am sure the same could be true of Kurdistan. It is younger film makers such as Syrian-Kurdish director Lauand Omar, making films such as “Curse Of Mesopotamia”—a low budget horror that can be screened anywhere in the world—who are leading the way.

We can help by supporting Kurdistan’s ambition for inward investment, domestic production and private-sector employment within the Kurdistan region and working with the UK film industry to secure an efficient unified film industry organisation, merging the cinema directorates within the KRG. Kurdistan has huge potential to be a film-making centre in the middle east, bringing economic, social and cultural benefits to the region and its people. I hope there are people listening to this debate who could make that happen.

To visit Iraqi-Kurdistan was an absolutely fascinating opportunity. Yes, there are grave challenges in that part of the world—but where terror has done untold damage, a rose is growing through the cracks in the cement. Beauty and creativity is growing. I think we can all agree that that is testament to the Kurdish people. Over the coming years, they will look to us for support, and sometimes guidance. I hope that, in years to come, such support will be more forthcoming from our Government.

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Robert Halfon MP’s speech on the Kurdistan Region

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and, in particular, my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who introduced this debate and knows a huge amount about the region. Without sounding too sycophantic, I could not be more pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Minister back in his rightful position as the Minister for the Middle East.

I have been privileged to join all-party group delegations to Kurdistan—I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—five times since becoming an MP. Kurdistan has its problems, but it successfully has the essential ingredients for a flourishing society. It is an extraordinary place run by a progressive Muslim Kurdish Government dedicated to improving property rights, boosting private enterprise and encouraging inward investment. Unusually for that part of the world, the Kurdistan Government have determined that the rule of law must prevail. There are the beginnings of a vibrant civil society. I have met the trade unions several times on my visits, and I wish them well in developing sharp elbows to ensure that working people get a fair slice of the cake, although I would not recommend they follow the example of Len McCluskey and others. I have spoken to women’s organisations that have put domestic violence on the agenda and helped reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation. I salute the religious pluralism, and commend Prime Minister Barzani who said: “What differentiates [us] from most of the countries around us is religious and ethnic tolerance. Accepting and defending each other’s rights strengthens the principle of humanity in this country, particularly in difficult times.”

It is astonishing to see religions from all over the region—Turkmen, Christians and others—literally fleeing to Kurdistan, because they know that it is the one place where they will receive protection. I note that the KRG has appointed an official in charge of Jewish affairs. Jews once made up 17% of the population in Slemani before they were expelled in the bad old days, and there is a large Kurdish Jewish community in Israel. I remember driving past a Jewish area synagogue that was being preserved. Not many other nations in the middle east would preserve synagogues; they are usually knocking them down or demolishing them. I was very pleased when President Barzani told me that if Iraq recognised Israel, there would be a consulate-general in Irbil the next day. The relationship with Israel could be a major asset for both countries in future. Just imagine, Mr Davies, a progressive Muslim nation building relations with Israel, working together to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would set an example across the middle east.

There is one place, however, that I will never visit again: the Red House in Slemani. It was a horrific Ba’athist torture centre where thousands were murdered, tortured and raped. It is now a museum. More than anything, it shows the devastating inhumanity of Saddam’s regime. I remember going into a room inside the prison that was called the “party room”. In that room, women were raped by the guards and the subsequent foetuses were thrown into furnaces, in echoes of the holocaust. I remember going into the rooms of the prison, which were bugged. That was not for the prisoners, but to bug the guards in case they were giving anything to the prisoners, which has echoes of Stalin and Nazism. When we visited the Red House the second time, I refused to go in; I just sat outside.

The visits encouraged me to lead the Kurdistan Genocide Task Force, which united the KRG in the UK with MPs, academics and legal practitioners. In 2013 it helped persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide. We wanted to encourage the UK Government to do the same, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister will remember very well, the Government did not agree on the grounds that the decision should be legal and not political. I suspect we will still disagree, but I ask him to rethink. I give my real thanks to him for agreeing that the British Government should formally mark Anfal Day every April. I passionately believe that given the suffering of the people of Kurdistan, it is vital that we recognise the genocide, because it was the demonisation, marginalisation and annihilation of the Kurdish people.

Some people at the time asked why we focused on the past, but the history of genocide remains relevant to the Kurdistan story. Let us remember that they lost nearly 200,000 people, most notoriously in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. Let us also remember that Saddam bombed the area before he used chemical weapons, so that the windows of all the Kurdish people’s houses were broken. That meant that when the chemical weapons were dropped, the people could not protect themselves by shutting themselves in their houses and shutting their doors and windows. More than 4,000 villages were razed to the ground. That was the beginning of forcible urbanisation, which makes it difficult nowadays to persuade people to leave the cities and make their money from agriculture. It could be a major source of income and help Kurdistan diversify away from a reliance on oil.

The past is never far from the surface. Just a few months after the Commons recognised Halabja and Anfal, the Syrian Ba’athist regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta. It is no coincidence that that was done by a Ba’athist party. In 2014, ISIL attacked Iraq and later Kurdistan. I am sure I have no need to persuade the Minister that ISIL undertook a genocide against the Yazidis and the Christians. I would welcome his update on the measures the UK is taking to help preserve evidence to mount criminal prosecutions. I remember being in Kurdistan and being warned by Kurdistan Ministers that, “In some months, we will have al-Qaeda in Mosul.” I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), was at that meeting. They called it al-Qaeda, not ISIL, but they said that that would happen. All the awful things they predicted would happen tragically did happen.

The genocide against the Kurds ended when they rose up against Saddam in 1991 and evicted him from most of Kurdistan under our armed protection. For that the Kurds will always thank the then British Prime Minister, John Major, and British public opinion, which was appalled at the sight of so many people dying in the freezing mountains which had, in the old Kurdish saying, been their only friends. It is a privilege to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who was so involved at that time.

Whenever one thinks of the Iraq war, the thing we must always thank Tony Blair for is the fact that but for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan nation would likely still face an existential threat. Saddam has gone. Leaders that followed may not have been like him, but their actions did much to break the hope of federalism. That is why the Kurds are now seeking their sovereignty. I worry, however, that the mentality that allowed thousands of soldiers to conduct genocide is still obvious in the condescending and high-handed manner in which the Kurds are treated by Baghdad. I am also concerned about the attitude of the Shi’a militia towards the Kurds.

I have much sympathy with the Kurds’ desire for independence so that they can always protect themselves. I certainly believe they have the right to exercise self-determination by holding a referendum in September. I have signed the early-day motion stating that, and would be willing to observe the referendum. I understand that the Government’s position is to ask them to be proactive in seeking to facilitate the negotiations that will follow a successful referendum result, so that the Kurds and Arabs currently in Iraq can negotiate a more productive relationship. The UK must do everything possible to support this remarkable nation, which is at the vanguard of the fight against ISIS and for democracy, rule of law and a free economy in Iraq and the middle east.

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Mary Glindon MP’s speech on Kurdistan Region and people to people diplomacy

Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab). I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate, on his excellent and passionate speech and on being elected chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. Unlike many Members here, I have not yet visited the Kurdistan region, but I have attended many all-party group meetings with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s High Representative, Karwan Jamal Tahir, and others, to gain insight into the region. I, too, would like to thank the peshmerga for their bravery in resisting so-called Islamic State, and I am relieved that Mosul is near to full liberation from a ghastly organisation whose brutality is beyond reasonable comprehension.

Through the all-party group I have heard disturbing direct testimony about girls who were enslaved and raped multiple times but managed to escape. Sadly, I am sure that their psychological traumas will last forever, but at the very least they can be treated. I understand there is just one university department of clinical psychology in Kurdistan. I fear that the department will be overwhelmed by the anguish that will become ever clearer and more in need of urgent attention over the coming weeks. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to play any role they can in increasing the number of clinical psychologists in Iraq and Kurdistan. Those young women—those victims—deserve nothing less than being able to look forward to a future when they can at least manage their traumas, and so manage their lives.

We know that there are more than 1 million internally displaced persons—IDPs— currently accommodated in the Kurdistan region, as well as more than 200,000 Syrian refugees. Resettlement is limited because of poor security and the lack of basic services. However, the Catholic Church, working in the region, has played a significant role in helping IDPs and refugees since the beginning of the crisis. The diocese of Irbil currently supports about 70,000 people with accommodation, subsistence, education and employment. Many of those people are from religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has welcomed the Government’s recent decision to extend the vulnerable person resettlement scheme to non-Syrian refugees in the region. I hope that the Minister can say what support the Government plan to provide, during this Parliament, for Churches and religious communities that are helping IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan.

I join colleagues in supporting the right of the Kurds to express their self-determination through the referendum in September. I commend the Kurdistan leadership’s decision to ask the people for a mandate to negotiate full independence and new relations with Iraq. I also understand the position of the British Government, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, who visited Kurdistan in January 2015 as the then Mayor of London. He visited British troops training the peshmerga and was even pictured alongside one of them with an AK47. He wrote that he had previously met “a dynamic and forward-looking young politician”—Nechirvan Barzani— “the prime minister of the fledgling state of Kurdistan.”

He further stated: “Then we should help because we have a moral duty to that part of the world. It was the British who took the decision in the early Twenties to ignore the obvious ethnic divisions, and not to create a Kurdistan”, which he described as “one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.”

I accept that such solidarity and the right hon. Gentleman’s recent statement as Foreign Secretary are not incompatible, but I also recognise that the referendum will proceed. We will see whether the long negotiations achieve independence or a firm guarantee of equality in a new Iraq. It is not for me to say what is best for the Kurds, but I suggest that the UK and its diplomats use their experience and expertise to facilitate progress.

I want to highlight how the struggle of the Kurds has captured the hearts and minds of many ordinary British people who are practising their own version of diplomacy, and I am proud to speak about an example from the north-east. The Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers have held charity fundraising events in both Gateshead and Newcastle. Its founder, Kurdistan-born Professor Deiary Kader, mobilises health professionals from the north-east to visit Kurdistan two or three times a year, to provide free orthopaedic care. He and his colleagues are literally putting Kurds back on their own two feet through many free hip and knee operations, which are beyond the capacity of the health system there, or for which people would have to wait many years. The charity undertakes formal educational events to raise the standard of surgical care, as well as providing blankets and winter clothing to the Yazidi refugee camps in Duhok. The charity is also building a connection between Kurdistani doctors and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon, to transfer war-injured casualties to the committee’s war-wounded trauma reconstruction centre there.

Although I have yet to visit Kurdistan, I am an enthusiastic advocate of deep and broad links with our friends in the Kurdistan region, which is inclined to friendship with us and describes us as a partner of choice. The Minister has travelled to Kurdistan in his former official capacity and on an all-party group delegation. He was prepared to put aside Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefings to meet the passionate pleas of many Members here when the Commons discussed and agreed to formally recognise the genocide by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. I hope his wisdom will enable him to understand that the Iraqi Kurds have a special place in British hearts and do his best to help ensure their freedom, equality and justice.

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Jack Lopresti MP: opening speech in Commons debate on the Kurdistan Region

I begin by declaring an interest. I travelled to Kurdistan in November 2016 as a guest of the Kurdistan Regional Government and I am now chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. It is three years since the last debate here on the Kurdistan region, and everything has fundamentally changed in that time. The Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), earned much respect in his first stint as the Middle East Minister, and his wisdom, experience and expertise, not least with the Kurds, will be major assets in his second stint.

I have visited Kurdistan twice with the all-party group, which has done much in its 10 years of service to improve and increase understanding of Kurdistani issues. I use the term “Kurdistani” because Kurdistan contains non-Kurds as well; however, I refer only to the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I will start by testing key points and end with the measures that I believe require our Government’s help.

My basic points are that Iraqi federalism has sadly failed and cannot be revived, because the Shi’a majority has no appetite for federalism or minority rights. The Kurds voluntarily re-joined Iraq in 2003, on the basis of western and Iraqi promises that Iraq would be federal and democratic. This exercise of their right to self-determination did not expire on its first use. They cannot be forced into subordination by leaders in Baghdad. In effect, Iraq has severed itself from Kurdistan—it pays no budget contributions and does not help Arabs sheltering there—but recent co-operation between their separate militaries have been very successful indeed.

The Kurds have rejected the option of making a unilateral declaration of independence and wisely seek a reset of relations with Iraq, which could be much stronger without the constant internal disputes between Baghdad and Irbil. Sectarianism and centralisation caused the rise of Daesh and could do so again. A yes vote in September’s independence referendum in the Kurdistan region will lead to negotiations. The west should help, not least over the disputed territories, and the UK should send observers to the region during the referendum. In any case, the west should continue to nurture relations with the Kurds, as they are a beacon of moderation and pluralism and support for western values.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that the Kurdish people have helped to fight Daesh and have been a key ally to the western world?

Jack Lopresti I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I absolutely agree. I will return to the peshmerga and the fight against Daesh later, but we owe the Kurds a huge debt of gratitude for what they are doing on a daily basis, including as we are here today.

I will briefly give some history. The treaty of Lausanne in 1923 led to the Turks formally ceding all earlier claims on Syria and Iraq and, along with the treaty of Ankara, settled the boundaries of the two nations. The earlier post-world war one discussions about a Kurdish state being formed after the break-up of the Ottoman empire, which had been nominally supported by the British, including Sir Winston Churchill, were absent from the treaty of Lausanne.

The Kurds have a long history of suffering second-class citizenship, and in the late 1980s they experienced genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein—a genocide that was formally recognised by this House in 2013. From 1991 onwards, Sir John Major’s no-fly zone and safe haven protected the Iraqi Kurds from further attack by Saddam Hussein, and Tony Blair and George Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein was welcomed by the Kurds as a liberation. Indeed, on my visits to the region I have personally been thanked for the British contribution to the liberation of Iraq.

The Kurds re-joined Iraq in 2003 and they have tried to make that arrangement work. They brokered a federal constitution, which was agreed by 80% of people in the Iraqi referendum in 2005. It enshrined a binational country of equals and, for instance, agreed a mechanism for resolving the status of the disputed territories. The deadline for that resolution was supposed to have been 2007, but it has still not been carried out. The end to federalism was demonstrated in February 2014 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, who unconstitutionally cut all federal budget transfers to Kurdistan.

In June 2014, Daesh captured Mosul, took a third of the country and seized sophisticated American military kit, including lots of vehicles and heavy weapons. A Kurdistani offer of help before the attack was spurned. Maliki failed the most vital duty of any leader, which is to uphold the security of the state and protect its people. So the Kurds suddenly acquired a 650-mile border with Daesh and there was an overnight influx of Iraqi Arabs from Mosul, who increased the population by a third, straining all public services to breaking point. Daesh attacked Kurdistan in August 2014 and came within 20 miles of the capital, Irbil, which was only saved by immediate American air strikes and other assistance.

Then, a massive slump in the price of oil exposed the inefficient nature of the Kurdistani economy—massive state employment, little productivity, a miniscule private sector and an almost complete reliance on energy revenues, which now came through independent exports via Turkey. The Kurds faced a perfect storm of crises and came through, not unscathed but in one piece. This highlights their great resilience.

The story of how the Kurds eventually united with the Iraqi army against Daesh is instructive. When I visited the Kirkuk frontline in November 2015, I was told that there was no co-ordination, or indeed any communication, between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army. A year later, with western support the two forces concluded a deal to continue to drive Daesh out of Mosul, and I saw for myself the result of that deal last November, both on the road to Mosul and inside Mosul. This unprecedented military partnership came despite the historic bad blood and bad feeling between the Kurds and the Iraqis, which largely exist because of the Iraqi army’s chemical weapons attacks on hundreds of villages and the extermination of nearly 200,000 people in the 1980s.

I will not focus on the moral reasons for airing arguments for Kurdish independence; instead, I will address the strategic gains for the west. Once Daesh is defeated in Mosul and later in Raqqa, the key question is how to prevent any such force re-emerging and how to undermine the ideological and political appeal of such “vile fascism”, as the KRG’s High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, has put it.

We have to understand why many Sunnis came to believe that Daesh was less awful than Baghdad. Many could not accept the loss of the privileges they had enjoyed under Saddam. Thanks to the Kurds, however, Sunnis joined power-sharing Governments in Baghdad, and their militias and tribes helped to defeat the al-Qaeda insurgency in 2007-08.

However, the immediate consequence of the disastrous American decision to withdraw all its forces, a decision favoured by Maliki, was that Maliki brutally repressed Sunni civil rights protests. Sunnis had seen how badly Shi’a politicians had treated the Kurds and concluded that they themselves could face worse.

The central task now is to eradicate the drivers of Sunni radicalism and protect minorities, who have suffered rape, murder and dispossession by Sunni neighbours, as well as facing the massive cost of reconstruction and the need for a “Marshall plan of the mind” to tackle the deep traumas of those who were raped in their thousands and saw their menfolk slaughtered. The Kurdistanis also need devolved governance.

Already, we see that the old centralising is in contention; and it would be odd—bizarre, even—if the status of Kurdistan was not part of the conversation after Daesh. There are those who say that this is the wrong time, citing internal division in Kurdistan, the starkest symbol of which is the paralysis of its Parliament. I hope that the continuing negotiations, which have involved our diplomats, will resolve the dispute. As candid friends, we must continue to put pressure on the Kurds, so that their Parliament sits again and there is a functioning democracy as quickly as possible.

The state of the economy is another reason why some people say that now is the wrong time for the Kurds to consider, ask for and seek their own independence. However, I take the point made by the Kurdistani leader and former Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, that “if we wait for all the problems to be resolved, we will have to wait forever”.

I commend the reforms of Prime Minister Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Talabani: aligning revenues with state spending and introducing better forms of identification of the work force, to eliminate double-jobbing and ghost workers. They have much further to go, but statehood could end excuses for neglecting reform and allow access to development funds that are conditional on such reform.

The Kurds reckon that old foes are weaker or amenable to a potential independence deal, agreed with Baghdad. Turkey, Kurdistan’s major trading partner, could see Kurdistan as a major source of secure energy supplies, an interlocutor with the Kurds in Turkey, and a buffer between Turkey, Sunnis and Shi’as. Iran, of course, is resolutely opposed, but it is, thankfully, under intense pressure from America and the Gulf states and has absolutely no right to veto Kurdish independence. Arab-Iraqis adore Kurdistan, as Shimal Habib—the beloved north—thanks to the holidays they have there, enjoying the temperate climate and the hospitality. But Bagdad has refused to treat the Kurdish region fairly or with any good will. As for the bilateral relationship, the Kurds see us as a partner of choice, and the APPG supports a bigger British footprint in Kurdistan.

There are three specific issues I would like the Minister to address in his remarks. The first is the peshmerga. The gallant, brave, wonderful peshmerga are fighting Daesh on the ground, and that helps to secure our own security, freedoms and way of life. One of my most moving visits was when I went to see wounded peshmerga soldiers in Irbil. Many seriously injured soldiers are beyond the capacity of the medical facilities and the health system there, and I have asked two Prime Minister’s questions urging the British Government to supply a small number of beds at Queen Elizabeth hospital Birmingham because, as I am sure we agree, we owe the peshmerga a huge debt of honour and gratitude.

The second matter is visas. The visa application system is a vexed issue and the rejection rate has increased from 55% to 66%. We need up-to-date figures, and I ask the Minister to help with that. Entry clearance officers have perhaps three minutes to examine an application, and any small query means a no. One application was rejected due to a small discrepancy over claimed income, even though exchange rates had moved in the intervening days. Such issues are not clarified because we no longer interview and our diplomats and Ministers can no longer intervene to assert a national interest. We should, of course, police and secure our borders, but we must, looking forward to a post-Brexit world, encourage people to do business and holiday here, and not make it excessively difficult for them to do so.

Thirdly, on bilateral relations, the KRG’s Prime Minister visited the UK in May 2014, and we established a joint committee, which was obviously then overtaken by events. When will the committee begin to function or a new committee be set up? I urge the Government to invite the Prime Minister or the new President of Kurdistan to meet our Prime Minister.

Today’s debate coincides with independence day in the United States. The Kurdish people will decide in their referendum in September whether they, too, want to be an independent state.

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The British debate about Kurdexit

When Daesh menaced Kurdistani cities in 2015, London Mayor Boris Johnson visited British troops training the Peshmerga and was pictured with an AK47 alongside a Peshmerga. He had previously met ‘a dynamic and forward-looking young politician,’ Nechirvan Barzani, ‘the prime minister of the fledgling state of Kurdistan’ and wrote that ‘…we should help because we have a moral duty to that part of the world. It was the British who took the decision in the early Twenties to ignore the obvious ethnic divisions, and not to create a Kurdistan,’ which he described as ‘one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.’

Two years later, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has issued a formal statement on the referendum on Kurdistani independence in September. The text is worth citing in full: ‘We note the announcement by the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq regarding a referendum on independence. We understand the aspirations of the Kurdish people and continue to support them politically, culturally and economically within Iraq. But a referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political issues that led to Daesh’s rise. Any referendum or political process towards independence must be agreed with the Government of Iraq in Baghdad. Unilateral moves towards independence would not be in the interests of the people of Kurdistan Region, Iraq or of wider regional stability.’

It adds: ‘The UK supports a stable, democratic and unified Iraq, one that is able to provide the security, jobs and healthcare and education all Iraqis want and deserve. We urge all parties to engage in dialogue to deliver a better future for their people on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution.’
His passionate plea for solidarity and his restatement of the FCO’s One Iraq policy are not in conflict. I suggest analysis of the recent statement falls into three parts: timing, viability, and morality.

The Foreign Secretary says this is not the time given the priority of defeating Daesh and resolving Sunni issues. But the military defeat of Daesh in Mosul is imminent and a referendum in September will not affect that.

Iraq effectively disintegrated three years ago and is a failed state. The Kurds are entitled to decide how to relate to a new Iraq whose governance is up for negotiation. September is a good time for the Kurds to secure a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad. The Kurds agreed to remarry Iraq in 2003 and did their best to make it work but their natural right to self-determination did not expire on its first use.

Viability is not explicitly mentioned in the FCO statement but is a concern. The Kurds have made massive political and economic advances since 1991. They achieved a rapprochement with Turkey, developed their energy sector from scratch, boosted living standards, and transformed their cities. But they are hobbled by major internal differences that resulted in parliament being suspended, and a dysfunctional economy whose deep flaws have been exposed and exacerbated by external crises.

Most parties have endorsed the referendum but some Kurds and friends argue that they should get their house in order before a referendum. Indeed, they should move more quickly. The international community’s patience over the reactivation of parliament is fading and a referendum would be more credible if parliament is restored.

Transforming a top-heavy statist economy with massive reliance on one commodity and boosting private enterprise is widely accepted in theory and practical steps are being taken to reduce the deficit. But no new state is born in perfection and independence could boost reform and allow access to development and capacity-building resources that are denied a sub-sovereign entity. In any case, independence is conceived not as a total rupture but a collaborative process.
As for morality, normative arguments don’t cut the mustard with hard headed ministers and diplomats. Kurds can, however, highlight common strategic interests: that an independent Kurdistani state will remain a good military ally to the West, a buffer between Sunnis and Shias, a reliable source of energy, and a beacon of pluralism and religious tolerance.

The UK and other statements will not stop the Kurds acting as they see fit. Independence has acquired a greater urgency because Iraqi federalism has failed. Sovereignty is the last resort for the Kurds who have spent many decades seeking equality, autonomy, and full federalism.
They got genocide in the second half of the twentieth century and were rescued by the international community. They have suffered economic sabotage by Baghdad since 2014 even when they and the Iraqis together faced an existential threat. Iraq’s failure to stop Daesh capturing its second city of Mosul underlines the Kurdistani fear that Iraq cannot protect them.

The Iraqi and Peshmerga’s unprecedented military co-operation co-exists with Baghdad shirking its responsibilities in helping nearly two million internally displaced people, mostly Iraqi Arabs, who have been welcomed by the KRG, although it has severely strained their resources and capacity.
The dynamics of Iraqi politics are also becoming post-federal as Shia elites want majority rule which means tyranny for minorities, as former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari told me recently in Kurdistan.

Otherwise, the Kurds and their friends could reasonably urge those who want progress under the Iraqi constitution to help reinstate federalism, and reduce the urgency of Kurdistani sovereignty. It does not seem likely they can persuade Baghdad to do this and the Kurds won’t accept subordination and inequality. They have sacrificed too much blood and treasure. And many Kurds worry that the Islamicisation of Iraq politics will threaten their moderate religiosity and tolerance for different faiths and none.

Furthermore, the treatment of the Kurds by Nouri al Maliki, in particular, is connected to the radicalisation of Sunnis who came to prefer Daesh to Baghdad. If the Kurds, who were long allies of the Shia, can be treated that badly then Sunnis could expect worse.

Brits have warmed to the Kurds thanks to their bravely resisting the common enemy of Daesh. People know a good friend when they see one. Kurdistani diplomacy has assiduously won allies, many of whom see the establishment of an independent state as both deserved and necessary. And the APPG and other political, cultural and commercial bodies have helped promote partnership. Kurdexit is now firmly on the agenda.

Gary Kent is the director of All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is appgkurdistan@gmail.com.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.

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Full report of November 2016 delegation to Kurdistan including Mosul

Who and what the delegation saw

The delegation visited the cities of Erbil, Slemani and Duhok as well as Bartella, a newly liberated Christian suburb twelve miles from the centre of Mosul. And five camps for internally displaced people and one camp for Syrian refugees to grasp the experience of nearly two million people who have fled to the Kurdistan Region. We also visited the Lalish temple, the spiritual home of the Yezedis, who have borne the brunt of genocide in the last three years.

We saw senior representatives of the three main parties and spoke to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leaders including the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament and ministers for Foreign Affairs, Interior/Peshmerga, and Natural Resources as well as cabinet-ranking Chiefs of Staff to the President and the Prime Minister. We also met the Head of the Provincial Council and members in Slemani, and talked with the Governors of Erbil and Duhok provinces. We engaged with fellows from the respected and independent think tank – the Middle East Research Institute.

Members toured the Red House Museum in Slemani, which graphically records the horrors of the Anfal genocide, and heard how an old cigarette factory nearby could become a base for the film industry. Kurds telling stories of their tragic past and their hopeful future should be a vital money-spinner, given awesome locations that could easily suit a Bond or Bourne action sequence, and also a powerful means to woo the world about their past, present and future.

We joined tourists at the ancient Citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. We took in the views at Lake Dukan and saw the so far under-utilised yet fertile and astounding countryside between the cities. Members had a useful discussion with the British acting Consul-General and met others at a networking reception at the European Technology and Training Centre in Erbil. We also visited a powerful symbol of Anglo-Kurdistani trade – the Jaguar showroom in Erbil.

Thanks are due to the KRG High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, the KRG’s Protocol Department, our drivers and security officers for their hard work in providing and facilitating the itinerary requested.

The delegation consisted of Jack Lopresti MP (APPG officer and team leader), Rosie Winterton MP, Graham Jones MP, Tracy Brabin MP, author Jonathan Foreman, and Gary Kent, the Director of the APPG.

The start of the crisis in 2014

This report builds on insights gathered in APPG fact-finding delegations since 2008 since when progress has ebbed and flowed. At the beginning, Kurdistan’s oil and gas reserves lay largely untouched and Turkey seemed likely to invade. The energy sector was quickly turned into the world’s latest oil frontier while Turkey became a valued partner to the KRG with which it has a 50 year economic agreement. The KRG seeks to be a good partner in what Kurdistani leaders usually describe as “a tough neighbourhood.”

Oil revenues funded a construction and infrastructure boom and average wages soared tenfold. But poverty and unemployment have increased since February 2014 when Baghdad completely severed budget transfers to the KRG. The dramatic drop in oil prices worsened things. The capital, Erbil is littered with half-finished buildings and idle cranes on the skyline as thousands of public projects were stalled.

And then came the resistible rise of the so-called Islamic State – Daesh as they say in the Middle East. Kurdistani leaders first told us of this new group in late 2013. In June 2014 they vainly offered to send the Peshmerga to protect Mosul before it fell and the Iraqi army retreated leaving copious amounts of American equipment to Daesh, which also captured Syrian Army kit.

Mass influx of displaced people into Kurdistan

Overnight an exodus of internally displaced people (IDPs) fled to Kurdistan in June 2014. A senior leader told us last November that “Baghdad has not given a dime in support” to the KRG for the IDPs. The Erbil Governor said that 700,000 IDPs live in his province but Baghdad has not increased medicines to the governorate. Yet officials at the West Erbil Emergency Hospital told us that it was planning to receive many Iraqi Army and Peshmerga casualties. We talked to those there and sadly saw an Iranian woman Peshmerga in the throes of death.

The Kurds know well what life as a refugee is like and have generously made great efforts to accommodate them, although many are Sunni Arabs whose legacy includes support for Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds. As we toured a makeshift and barren camp near the Iraqi border, the accompanying Peshmerga General told us that many were Daesh supporters in the groups of sullen men eyeing us suspiciously.

There appears to be little tension between Arab Sunnis and Kurds, although some Kurdistani towns have been transformed. Human rights organisations have criticised the KRG for alleged ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs in villages captured from Daesh. The team was not able to judge these claims but the KRG contests them and highlights the wider positive treatment of Sunni IDPs. We will examine these claims on a future visit and urge the KRG to swiftly reply to such allegations, rebut them, or admit culpability and make any necessary changes.

Internal security

The Kurds have prevented persistent Daesh attempts to smuggle in sleeper cells. Many commend their tip-top internal security and note that Duhok, which could be the tourist capital when stability returns and its airport is completed, has suffered no attacks since 2003.

Attacks in Erbil have been rare although the delegation paid its respects at the monument to the biggest single atrocity when 99 people were killed by two Al Qaeda bombs in 2004. The monument is in Sami Abdul Rahman Park, named after the former Deputy Prime Minister who was murdered on that day.

The delegation bumped into his daughter, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman at the airport. After her father and brother’s murder she left the Financial Times to become the KRG’s High Representative to London, a close partner of the APPG, and now represents the Kurds in Washington. She asked why Iraq has always been a “theatre of massacres.” Another senior leader said that Iraq has been “a failed state since the beginning” and that “the world has long tried to put a square peg in a round hole” given the increasing lack of a national identity in Iraq, whose social fabric has been torn apart.

Psychological impact

The physical damage can in time be repaired. Psychological damage is a different matter, especially for the Yezedis and the Christians. Many were slaughtered and many women repeatedly raped as sex slaves. They suffer continuing post-traumatic stress disorder without sufficient resources to care for them and to manage their nightmares and flashbacks. Women are at the sharp end of this long-term psychological crisis.

The trauma of Saddam’s “Anfal” (spoils of war) genocide, in which 200,000 Kurds were exterminated in the 1980s was less of a priority as Kurds rebuilt society in the safe haven afforded by the British-led no fly zone and after the ousting of Saddam in 2003. The latest traumas of Yezedis and Christians cannot be ignored and we recommend a major injection of funds and psychological expertise. It requires a Marshall Plan of the Mind.

Even if the Syrian war ended tomorrow and Daesh-occupied lands were liberated, cleansed of IEDs, and reconstructed, many would find it difficult to return home – their natural and widespread desire. Fellows from the Meri think tank explained the complex dynamics of peoples in the Nineveh province who once lived together but now cannot trust each other. Building a new governance there could employ a truth and reconciliation process and concerted international efforts to rebuild the physical, psychological and political fabric of this tortured territory, prevent the return of jihadist extremism, and cultivate peaceful co-existence.

The case for economic reform

Oil returning to anything like its hundred dollar level will not solve the KRG’s structural problems. One senior party figure said he had originally advised against developing oil because Kurdistan would be better off without it – an echo of the famous Dutch disease whereby reliance on one revenue distorts development. The Natural Resources Minister candidly conceded that the drop in prices “exposed our illnesses.” He said unsustainable income and expenditure imbalances presented a greater long-term threat than Daesh.

It is a testament to the business-like candour of Kurdistani leaders that we explored the pathologies of patronage and corruption that underpin the KRG’s dysfunctional and unproductive economy. There is no avoiding these Mesopotamian Pachyderms.

The state is too dominant – “a sort of big brother state” as one leader dubbed it – and too many of its vast workforce don’t work, even exist, or do too little. This has developed over decades as the two main parties paid “salaries for votes,” as the Erbil Governor put it.

The KRG has rightly looked after the relatives of martyrs, and those wounded in war but one senior leader said “just because you’ve lost your finger does not mean you cannot work.” The bloated state has also done little to ration resources such as electricity and water, which are in shorter supply after the influx of so many IDPs. The Duhok Governor said they have six hours of water every three days.

Many Kurds are feeling the pinch and there have been teachers’ strikes in the region. But the KRG must fairly close the deficit, increase taxes and charges, and pay down the debt including monies owed to international oil companies without which they cannot be expected to develop substantial untapped energy reserves.

The KRG is pioneering the use of biometrics to ensure that people are legitimately employed and to smarten the state. In December 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani delivered a speech at Chatham House in which he explained that “biometric registration represents a first step down this road that answers the question: who are we paying and how much? This will open the way to more complex questions of ‘why and to do what’ under subsequent civil service reforms.”

Reform could also unleash an essential enterprise revolution. Kurds have survived for centuries between large empires as an entrepot. But entrepreneurial skills need to be recultivated for new generations, and that in turn requires a transformation of education from quantity to quality, and more vocational education.

They have long made the most of their non-oil resources but agriculture was destroyed in a scorched earth policy by Saddam Hussein. Kurds now produce maybe 10% of their food and farming skills have been lost. APPG delegations have often heard of the quality of pomegranates from Halabja and elsewhere. High value superfoods are cherished by Western consumers. Halabja being identified with pomegranates rather than genocide would be a powerful symbol of a new Kurdistan, as part of boosting agriculture and tourism.

Internal political disputes

The Kurds chose to adopt democracy after their uprising in 1991 and established a parliament in 1992. Later they chose a President first through parliament and then in direct elections but have yet to agree a constitution for the region.

The presidential term expired in 2013 and was extended by agreement between the two leading parties for a further two years. The extended term ran out last year without resolution of the differences between the parties on the terms of the presidency. The single biggest party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), prefers direct elections while other parties favour indirect elections. The relative powers of the two institutions and those of governorates and mayoralties can best be established in a draft constitution. The APPG takes no view on these choices but the final deal should be endorsed in a referendum.

There was street violence in Slemani in October 2015 and the torching of five KDP buildings with the loss of life. The President’s Chief of Staff, Dr Fuad Hussein, who was conducting inter-party negotiations, told us he had remonstrated with Gorran about a plot to attack him in front of the cameras at a hotel in Slemani the day before KDP offices were attacked. The Speaker, whose Gorran (the Change) party was also blamed by the KDP for the violence, was banned from entering Erbil province and hence taking his post in Parliament, which has been in deep freeze since then.

The APPG met the Speaker in London and accepted his invitation to meet him in Slemani. We believe that his reinstatement is essential, if only perhaps briefly before Parliament decides to confirm him or elect a new Speaker. His reinstatement is the only red line for Gorran, which did not mention reinstating their ministers whose expulsion was within the parameters of acceptable action by any Prime Minister.

Kurdistani leaders should know that failure to end this dispute will make it more difficult for them to engage with Western parties, and institutions such as the Council of Europe. We hope that the paralysis of parliament is a temporary interruption on the road to further embracing democracy and the rule of law. The hiatus should not long outlast the direct military phase of the war against Daesh and would increasingly undermine KRG credibility.

We also believe that the emergence of Gorran, first as an opposition, then in government – where its ministers were widely judged to have done a good job – is a big bonus in developing democratic norms and accountability of those in power, and rare in the Middle East. We suggest offering Gorran training in how to be a loyal opposition.

Parliament and the KRG have long played second fiddle to the politburos of the political parties. We heard that in the nearly two years before its suspension Parliament had only considered eight Bills and there is now a logjam of legislation. Parliament could become the cockpit of national debate in due course. Its reinstatement should lead to increased support from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and others.

Auditing oil revenues

We note the Speaker’s reliance in our meeting on unsubstantiated allegations by a news channel, NRT, about missing oil revenues to the tune of $500 million a month. A previous delegation visited the NRT studios in Slemani in solidarity after it was outrageously burnt to the ground in 2011 by armed and uniformed men.

We take the point made by the Natural Resources Minister that international oil companies in Kurdistan are accountable to their shareholders and that this drives transparency. His ministry also produces monthly export and sale figures. The UK offered to fund the auditing of oil export and revenue figures but the KRG decided to proceed on its own account and tender for contracts to audit historic and current figures. Two major companies won the contracts.

We urge the KRG to fully publish the reports given the pressing need to boost the confidence of Kurdistani public opinion in such figures, which was the main reason for seeking third party validation of these often contested figures in the first place. Oil revenues are the main source of the KRG budget but most citizens do not understand the economics of the oil sector and distrust official statistics. Anything short of full disclosure would fuel such scepticism and cynicism, although we have no doubt about the probity of the auditing companies.

Media rights and responsibilities

Distrust is deepened by unsourced and sensationalist reporting, a lack of professional ethics, and alleged repression of journalists, including several murders. Kurdistan is in transition from what they call mountain journalism and politics. This refers to when they were fighting either a common enemy in Saddam Hussein or then, sadly, each other in their bitter and bloody civil war in the 1990s. A free but responsible media can cultivate a more coherent and diverse national conversation rather than a partial, atomised, and unrealistic dialogue.

Several journalists have been murdered in recent years with reports saying that some had previously been harassed by security personnel. We cannot judge such murders but the principle of the matter is utterly clear: all murders must be investigated with the utmost rigour, prosecutions brought, and those found guilty punished. Anything else will tarnish the reputation of the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistani leaders must overcome behaviours that taint them and make their claim to independence less credible.

Pluralism and women’s rights

But we also salute their clear dedication to building a progressive and pluralist country. They are part of the Middle East with all its pathologies about corruption, influence, and a lesser role for women. Kurdistan is largely a man’s world but less so than other countries in the region and we note a determination to increase female participation in work and public life. We applaud their insistence on legislation to combat domestic violence, so-called honour killings, FGM and polygamy – sometimes imaginatively within the constraints of the less progressive Iraqi constitution.

We saw a moderately religious Muslim country whose state institutions are secular. We commend the fact they have a minimum number of women in parliament – a higher proportion than in ours – and a list of 11 out of 111 members from Christian and national minorities.

The Speaker spoke for all in saying that the Kurds want “to keep Christians in our country – they are part of our past, present and future.” The Foreign Minister stressed the need to ideologically challenge extreme Mosques and jihadist ideology after Daesh is despatched. Kurdistani leaders scotched the myth that the invasion of Iraq had created the jihadist menace which they see as home-grown – “not from another planet” according to the Prime Minister.

Various organisations could help the KRG counter extremist messages from within and from Arab countries. There are two relatively moderate Islamist parties but some hundreds of Kurds from Halabja have joined Daesh and we should not be complacent about the ability of Islamism to attract support in the event of the failure of state-building in Kurdistan.

“We get the breakfast but are not sure of lunch let alone dinner.”

We were struck by the positive assessment of British military intervention both in 1991 and in 2003, and in the current fight against Daesh. It has, they said, been a positive force for the good. We envisage a continuing role for the British military in assisting the Peshmerga. Disengagement would be dangerous. We assume that Mosul will be taken within the next few months and the administration of Donald Trump will then face a decision on whether it wishes to maintain the coalition to ensure that there is no revival of jihadism. President Obama’s premature withdrawal in 2011 helped fuel the rise of Daesh.

One major issue is the need to unite and professionalise the Peshmerga as a full state institution rather than partly controlled by the two historic parties, although all Peshmerga are directed by the government. We were assured that party influence has not undermined their unity against Daesh. In fact, we heard that the Peshmerga represent a greater popular unity and can be a guarantor that the Kurds will not return to killing each other. Leaders on all sides stressed that those days have gone but that cannot be taken for granted.

We were told that 70% of the fight against Daesh had been carried out by the Peshmerga and pay our respects to the Peshmerga who have lost 1600 members and nearly ten thousand injured in resisting Daesh. We joined the Peshmerga on the frontline and also visited a hospital in Erbil to express solidarity with wounded members of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. The APPG delegation in November 2015 urged the British government to supply free beds for the most seriously wounded Peshmerga at its specialist hospital in Birmingham. Other countries have done this and it is the least we can do to help those whose lives have been massively altered by fighting Daesh for the sake of their own homeland and as part of the frontline between global civilisation and barbarism.

The Foreign Minister told us he had informed the Americans that the KRG has zero weapons or ammunition in their warehouses while another leader talked of hand to mouth supplies. The Interior/Peshmerga Minister illustrated the imbalance between Daesh and the Peshmerga on the battlefield – “we send over 5 or 6 shells and they reply with 200.” He added that it is always better to have stocks of ammo in case they are needed and quickly. They need more military support including heavy weapons to reduce their casualties against an often better equipped enemy and longer-term threats.

Externally provided military training has done much to transform the Peshmerga from a force using guerrilla tactics in the mountains to one capable of fighting on the plains and in urban areas. But the Prime Minister memorably argued that “We get the breakfast but are not sure of lunch let alone dinner.”

Shia militia, the PKK and Iran

Kurdistani leaders are wary about the intentions of the Shia militia, the Hashd al Shabi or Popular Mobilisation Units which supplement the Iraqi Army. The Kurds, Iraq and the Americans have agreed that the militias and the Peshmerga stay out of the city of Mosul in case this leads to violent sectarian retaliation by the militia or sparks Arab/Kurdistani tensions.

Instead, the militias have been tasked to areas west of Mosul and are particularly interested in Tal Afer, a Sunni Turkmen city which has long been a base for Baathist and jihadists. One Shia militia leader has declared the aim of avenging Sunni defeats of 1400 years ago. The city is also on the strategic route for Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and may become a major flash point between Sunnis and Iran. We also heard that the PKK is illegitimately laying down roots in the Shingal area and wants to build a base on the town’s long mountain. Iran has long nursed the desire for a route to the Mediterranean and one KRG leader said they had been punished in the 1990s for resisting the plan.

Amicable Divorce?

Deteriorating relations with Baghdad have put independence on the agenda. The main arguments for sovereignty are allowing the KRG to borrow on international markets, receive the full non-discounted price for oil, attract more foreign investment, diversify its economy, and deprive those who resist reform of excuses for profound economic and political change.

It would also allow Kurdistan full access to global financial institutions such as the IMF. The KRG says it has not received a penny of funds from international financial institutions that have gone to Baghdad. Any similarly positioned country such as Kurdistan would, if it were not a sub-sovereign entity in a middle-income country, be a priority for national and international development, capacity-building and political exchange programmes.

There is no doubting the depth of Kurdish leaders’ criticisms of Baghdad’s broken promises but they also accept that the relationship with Baghdad is the priority whether Kurdistan remains in Iraq or not. They have not been urging external powers to force the pace of separation and have instead insisted it must be negotiated with the federal government. Agreement with Baghdad would allow the international community to recognise independence and better help stabilise and reform the country.

The enormous scale of “Kurdexit” compares to Brexit. It will require extensive technical expertise but also great political skills in framing agreements that command popular support across Iraq.

One of the most vexed issues will be the southern border of the Kurdistan Region and the status of Kirkuk. The border of the Kurdistan Region was unilaterally set by Saddam Hussein who excluded nearly half the region from what became the autonomous region in 1991. The collapse of the Iraqi Army in Kirkuk forced the KRG to reinforce its military presence there and the liberation last year of Shingal brought it into the region.

The US, Baghdad and Erbil agreed that the KRG’s defence lines at 17 October – the day of the beginning of the joint offensive to take Mosul – will be respected and the Peshmerga will fall back to those lines. The agreement has not been published and some suspect a temporary fudge which will be contested after Mosul. The KRG stresses it will not cede lands for which blood has been sacrificed.

The argument that such lands have been taken illegally will be countered by recognising that the historic Kurdistani province of Kirkuk was forcibly Arabised. But new borders have to be agreed or irredentism will follow, perhaps for decades. We are worried that the Shia militia will contest Kurdistan’s new borders and that emphasises the need for a lasting agreement between Erbil and Baghdad.

Foreign powers still express a formal preference for a united Iraq. But this is becoming a position of neither obstructing nor advocating it. It is not for foreign powers to insist that independence is necessary, or to rule it out. The people of the Kurdistan Region have the right to self-determination. We believe that while the UK will not proactively recommend separation it should be prepared in due course to assist the process of amicable divorce.

In the event of independence, an American military base in Kurdistan would be in Western interests as could the dollarisation of the economy. An independent Kurdistani Republic might also seek to join Nato and perhaps even the Commonwealth.

Bilateral relations

The KRG clearly values the bilateral relationship with the UK, where many leaders spent years in exile, and in a country where English is the second language. The APPG has helped improve Anglo-Kurdistani links and we note agreements during the Prime Minister’s visit to Britain in May 2014 to establish a joint High Committee have understandably been delayed by the war. The purpose of the committee was to meet every quarter and mobilise technical assistance to help reforms, fight corruption and restructure the Peshmerga.

Conclusion

Kurdistan has made huge advances in a generation but has gone backwards in important respects in the last two years. Kurdistani leaders have set high standards for themselves and their society is open to foreign visitors, both of which magnify contrasts between rhetoric and reality.

One of the most attractive aspects of the Kurdistan Region is its stated commitment to shared values of democracy and the rule of law, which has made it stand out from much of the rest of the Middle East and has underpinned wide public sympathy in America and Europe towards it, not least given the palpable bravery of the Peshmerga in fighting Daesh. If that commitment proves to be paper-thin, Kurdistan will lose its political advantage and could become just another “Stan,” with diminishing public sympathy and support.

We are concerned that discussion of strategic political change is confined to a narrow circle. Developing political activity and policy-making is crucial, not least given that the vast majority of Kurds were born after the tumultuous events of the uprising in 1991 and the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

The new generation is impatient for change and will not allow political leaders to rest on their laurels. Whilst Kurdistani society is heavily politicised, too few young people are involved in politics. Opening up political debate is essential in itself and to prevent youth despairing. A very small minority of Kurds has embraced Daesh but radicalisation could grow if secular politics is further gridlocked. We are not suggesting that jihadism could build a big base because most Kurds know that Daesh is their enemy. But nor should one be complacent.

The bigger danger is that more people who have returned from exile in the West could decide that Kurdistan offers them little hope and return to the West. Their skills should be nurtured and those who stay in Nashville, the biggest single Kurdistani gathering in America, or in Croydon, Birmingham or Manchester have a vital role too in bolstering Anglo-Kurdistani relations .

We welcome Kurdistani leaders’ straight-talking and hope they welcome ours as a good friend. We are deeply respectful of their sacrifice in pushing back Daesh – a common enemy which will come for us more in Europe if they are not fully defeated, militarily and ideologically. Their defeat on the battlefield is now certain thanks to the Kurds and their unprecedented unity with the Iraqi Army.

The Prime Minister told us that he was cautiously optimistic that this newfound military unity could have positive political dividends. There have been new signs of that since we returned. We cannot hold a candle for independence or renewed federalism – that is up to the Kurds – but it’s increasingly difficult to resist the likelihood that the Kurds in Iraq will achieve their dream and that this can be done on a co-operative basis with Arab Iraq. As part of Iraq or as a sovereign nation, the Kurds will, we are sure, remain staunch friends. We owe them much and their progressive, tolerant and creative people have much to offer the Middle East.

But settling domestic political divisions is of the utmost importance as is continuing and bold economic reform. As ever, the Kurds face potentially tumultuous changes in the Middle East, with uncertainty about the role of the USA, and need, above all else, to ensure their divisions do not obstruct major opportunities to secure lasting gains whether they become a valued part of Iraq, or embrace sovereignty and a new and closer relationship with a new Iraq.

Kurdistan has come far since 1991 and is still on a long journey in a wider region that teeters on a wider Sunni/Shia war. We hope recent setbacks can be overcome and we ask the UK and the West to be candid friends and show tough love and conditionality in helping Kurds drive thorough reform that most Kurds want.

Jack Lopresti MP and Gary Kent

Parliamentary disclaimer and funding sources

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or any of its committees. All-Party Parliamentary Groups are informal groups of members of both Houses with a common interest in particular issues. The views expressed in this report are those of APPG Director Gary Kent, who was then paid to be the Secretariat by Petoil Chia Surkh Ltd, and is based on a fact-finding delegation in November 2016 funded by the Kar Group and the Kurdistan Regional Government. We thank our sponsors for their generosity in funding the delegation but they have had no influence over this independent report.

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Can the Kurds pull off Kurdexit?

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani grabs a book about Kurdish independence written in 1905 to demonstrate the pedigree of their struggle. He also tells me how Winston Churchill and the Iraqi King chewed the cud about Arab-Kurd equality rather than an Arab Iraqi empire. But Baghdad constantly spurned Kurdish equality and the record of discrimination and genocide weighs heavily as the Kurds approach an independence referendum on 25 September.

Barzani sketches the vision behind the vote: ‘the referendum is for the people as the source of legitimacy, not individuals or parties, to give a mandate not for independence the next day but for the leadership to undertake serious and meaningful negotiations [with Baghdad]. We oppose violence and are ready to show flexibility over the timescale but not the principle. We cannot be stable or subordinate in Iraq. It is shameful to keep making the same mistakes.’

Asked about benefits to the West, he replies that ‘I am proudest of our peaceful co-existence, the way we have dealt with women’s emancipation and national rights, and opposed extremism and racism. Kurdistan can be a factor for security and stability and that is best done through an understanding with Iraq.’

Government spokesman, Safeen Dizayee says sovereignty means survival: ‘a people that are part of a sovereign state don’t have international protection. Yes, people express their concerns – the Kurds are being gassed to death – but authorities in the West said it was an internal matter. If you’re sovereign you’re in a position to protect the destiny and well-being of your people.’ Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa slams the Islamicisation of Iraq and says Kurds ‘cannot accept a ban on alcohol, forcing the segregation of students, and other violations of individual rights.’

The Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) point man for ‘the referendum movement’ is Hoshyar Zebari, who was the international face of Iraq as foreign minister after 2003. Zebari argues ‘we can do it, it is within our reach, and we cannot find better international and regional conditions.’
Landlocked Kurds in Iraq often feel encircled by the four ‘wolves’ of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq itself. Zebari starts his Cook’s tour with Syria which ‘will not be fixed for a long time’ before moving to Turkey, whose opposition is commonly assumed. But Zebari details how ‘President Erdogan’s reaction, contrary to many perceptions, is reasonable.’

As a seasoned diplomat, Zebari emphasises strategic interests. For Turkey, he says, ‘Kurdistan is the only place from which they can ensure energy supplies,’ and is ‘a buffer between them and the expansionism of Shia militants.’ Furthermore, Erdogan’s recent victory in a controversial constitutional referendum relied on millions of Kurds in Turkey.

Kurdistan’s second biggest trade partner, Iran, he says, is ‘opposed vehemently and has the tools to derail and sabotage’ independence but is itself under ‘intense economic and military pressure’ from America and the Gulf States.

As for Iraq, Zebari says the Kurds ‘gave the new Iraq our best shot for 14 years’ but ‘nothing is moving between Erbil and Baghdad apart from military co-ordination.’ The once senior Baghdad insider, Zebari bluntly concludes that ‘we have given up on Iraq because it is going back on everything we agreed in 2005,’ when the federal constitution was overwhelmingly endorsed by Iraqis. The Kurds sought consensual democracy and partnership but that ship has sailed.

Furthermore, he says, Shia ruling elites want majority rule although ‘Iraq is not a normal democracy – you cannot rule by 50% plus one in a divided society, or you get tyranny.’
Zebari insists that ‘we don’t want a complete break up with Baghdad [because] Baghdad will still need us and we will still need Baghdad’ in continuing commercial, cultural and security links. He highlights the Iraqi Prime Minister’s comment that the Kurds have a natural right to independence. The major sticking point to an amicable divorce is the formal incorporation into Kurdistan of disputed territories such as Kirkuk, an emotive issue for Kurds and Arabs alike, and whose oil and strategic position are vital.

Zebari acknowledges American fears but says Kurdistan is ‘the only trusted ally of the Americans,’ and that their ‘almost bases’ in Kurdistan supply the military effort in Syria more than Nato’s air base in Incirlik in Turkey. He adds that ‘the Shia are not America’s friends, Iran is domineering every aspect of Iraq’s political, security and military life’ and that Kurds worry about Shia militia which are ‘expanding and encroaching’ on Kurdistan.

The Kurds are under pressure on the timing of the referendum and Zebari says Britain asked that the Iraqi Parliament approve the referendum, as Scotland’s was by the Commons. He retorts that Iraq lacks a Westminster. But so does Kurdistan. Its parliament was suspended in 2015 when security forces controversially prevented the Speaker from returning to Erbil after violence in the second city of Slemani amid deep disputes about the status of the Presidency.

Differences were amplified by war and the influx of nearly two million refugees which increased the population by a third. Collapsing oil prices sank its dysfunctional economy into a crisis of unpaid wages, increasing debt and deficit, increased unemployment and poverty, and stalled investment. Economic reforms are balancing the books but more is needed and that requires a Kurdistani consensus to ease the political pain.

Some say an internal political deal should precede the referendum, and it may, but Zebari insists that ‘if we wait for all the problems to be resolved we will have to wait forever’ but adds that ‘as we move towards this bigger goal party leaders have to sacrifice something for the greater good of the people.’

The international community will urge more reform once Daesh is defeated. The menu is well-known and Kurdistan’s friends should offer tough love conditional on thorough reform. It needs less state employment and less reliance on energy exports. It needs more income from agriculture and tourism in a beautiful landscape that already attracts Arabs in their millions. All this requires a much bigger private sector to boost dynamism and underpin political pluralism.

Above all, people have to work harder and smarter. I once asked a senior leader if the average working day in the bloated state sector was 25 or 45 minutes – he plumped for the former. Zebari chuckles and says ‘our biggest problem is that we are not accustomed to the culture of work, things go slowly and people don’t know how to operationalise ideas but independence is a huge project, your future. I tell many of my friends and colleagues – how can you build a state when you close your door at 2pm.’

It’s nearly 2pm and our time is up as Zebari heads to Europe for a conference as part of increasing efforts to persuade the world that they are deadly serious about commencing the countdown to Kurdexit in September.

Gary Kent has been the director of the all party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region for ten years and has travelled to Iraq and Kurdistan 26 times since 2006. He is Deputy Chairman in Erbil of the European Technology and Training Centre, where he is setting up an Academy for Enterprise and Management. He writes a weekly column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and is also writing a book about Kurdish independence. This article is based on a fortnight in Kurdistan in May 2017 and is in a personal capacity.

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After Mosul: independence for the Kurdistan Region?

Introduction to APPG on the Kurdistan Region report of its delegation to Kurdistan in November 2016 by Jack Lopresti MP (Delegation Leader and Chairman of the APPG)

The Kurdistan Region in Iraq has made massive strides since its uprising against Saddam in 1991 first won a perilous autonomy that was protected by Sir John Major’s No Fly Zone until the liberation of Iraq in 2003. In a generation, it has endured genocide and civil war, was formally recognised in Iraq’s federal constitution before becoming the world’s new oil frontier with soaring living standards, and then suffered an economic tsunami, and near catastrophic military calamities.

The Kurds have survived, are on the global political map, and may now be on the cusp of statehood if they secure a yes vote in the referendum on 25 September, which they see as providing a mandate for negotiating divorce terms with the government of Baghdad.

The APPG, which celebrates a decade of active solidarity with the Kurdistani people this year, has highlighted the achievements of Kurdistan and sought support for them. We persuaded the Commons in 2013 to formally recognise the genocide carried out by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in the 1980s. We also encouraged Top Gear to film a high-profile programme in Kurdistan and its presenters’ remarks on its beauty and safety put it on the map for many.

The watchwords of our dozen delegations have been to witness Kurdistan without any restrictions and show ‘tough love’ towards our Kurdistani friends. Those form the spirit of this latest report. We would not be good friends if we failed to highlight an economic model that sustains poor productivity and imperils its potential to increase the well-being of its people.

Kurdistani leaders welcome our approach because advice from trusted friends – they formally consider the British as ‘a partner of choice’ – helps bolster arguments for change. The President of the independent Middle East Research Institute put it very well in a briefing to us at the Commons. Dlawer al Alaldeen’s message to Kurdistan’s Western friends is ‘you should help the Kurds become the partner you deserve.’

This report focuses on a whirlwind delegation just after the start of the operation to free Mosul when MPs visited the three main cities of the Kurdistan Region and Mosul. We have waited until now to release the report because the all-consuming fight against Daesh had frozen developments in Iraq, which will now move centre stage.

John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the UN, wrote in April 2017 that ‘complex, seemingly intractable issues lie ahead, as the post-First World War Middle East order collapses, but they cannot be ignored under the complacent assumption that Syria and Iraq will simply re-emerge..and that ‘the Kurds are already de facto independent from Iraq and no one will force them back into Iraq against their will.’

The Daesh crisis was accompanied by a hibernation in internal Kurdistani politics but its aftermath allows and requires resolution of its rifts and ailments. These are deep-seated but have been exacerbated and exposed by recent crises.

Kurdistan’s economic problems have also been analysed very well. Last year, the World Bank Group released a roadmap, Reforming the Economy for Shared Prosperity and Protecting the Vulnerable, which serves as an economic guide to help policy makers address both immediate and longer term challenges in Kurdistan.

Before that, the APPG urged the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) in 2013 to undertake an inquiry into the state of UK-Kurdistan Relations, and it conducted a major investigation, which reported in January 2015. Our initial expectation was that it would concentrate on issues that marred and restricted the Anglo-Kurdistani relationship: the need for improvements in visa processing, direct aviation links, and more efforts to encourage British trade and investment, for example. These remain vital issues.

Yet the context of that inquiry rapidly changed. After the inquiry began, profound events pummelled Kurdistan in 2014: the complete and unconstitutional cut in federal budget transfers, the rise of Daesh and their capture of one third of Iraq, the dramatic decline in oil prices, and the influx of now nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people. Daesh came within 20 miles of the capital, Erbil and the menace was averted by American air action in August 2014. Otherwise, many thousands would have been killed.

The final and substantial report of the FAC provides a detailed guide to Kurdistan’s problems and potential as well as a menu for improved Anglo-Kurdistani relations but also broke new ground with its sympathetic understanding of the possibilities of independence.

I am not talking about the century old dream of a Greater Kurdistan carved out of territories in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. That could now spark inter-state war and/or a civil war between Kurds whose interests and leaders have diverged. There may be a virtual Kurdistan but it is certain there will be four distinct Kurdistans, just as there are many separate Arab nations, and Kurdish leaders in all four regions recognise this.

Kurdistan’s divisions, political defects and economic dysfunctionality could be a bigger impediment to independence than international opposition. Even if oil prices returned to levels above $100, it would leave an economy that is dangerously over-reliant on energy exports and state employment. The largely rentier economy needs to be rebalanced and diversified in any case for its long-term health.

Tough love and candid dialogue from friends are, therefore, more essential to encourage the Kurds to make their society match fit whether they stay in or leave Iraq, although persuading Kurds to remain part of Iraq would require credible guarantees given the litany of broken promises and arbitrary behaviour by leaders in Baghdad.

Kurdistani leaders stress that they want to negotiate a deal with Baghdad, which would enable foreign powers to more easily accept the outcome. They also emphasise that an amicable divorce could vastly improve relations between Erbil and Baghdad in what I call a special relationship.

Independence is a matter for discussion between Erbil and Baghdad in the first place and ultimately for the Kurds in Iraq. Their contribution is also essential to the complex process of reconstruction, demining, deradicalisation, and devising protections for minorities who bore the brunt of the Daesh genocide. The Kurds have no territorial designs on Mosul but are keen to have a say on the stabilisation of their near neighbour.

Another major issue is resolving the status of the disputed territories, now back in Kurdistani hands after the Peshmerga protected Kirkuk from Daesh, as the Iraqi Army retreated, and after they liberated Shingal in November 2015. The Kurdistan Region needs fixed borders to avoid revanchism stretching for generations ahead. They are rightly wary of the potential for violence from the Shia militia on this. They also know they have to reassure their neighbours that independence would present no threat to them.

But I agree with the FAC that independence for the Kurds in Iraq should be accepted and respected by the UK and its international allies if Erbil and Baghdad achieve an amicable divorce. Sovereignty could unlock international funds and development assistance so far denied a sub-sovereign state and assist reform. It would enable the new republic to take control of its defence and destiny, which I believe could be a bonus for the free world.

There is less full-throttled opposition by many foreign powers to the independence of the Kurds in Iraq because they have proved themselves to be a valiant and vital ally in the fight against fascism. They held the line when the Iraqi Army was in crisis following its humiliating defeat by Daesh, without a shot being fired.

Yet the Kurds have accomplished this with too few arms – especially heavy weapons – and at the cost of a huge sacrifice in Peshmerga deaths and injuries. The APPG will continue to make the case for the British and other governments supplying heavy weapons and also providing free beds, as other countries do, in our specialist hospital in Birmingham for some of the most seriously injured Peshmerga.

Above all, the West must not walk away once Daesh is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa. President Obama did that after the success of President Bush’s surge in 2007 and the Obama retreat was a major factor in the formation of Daesh.

The conditions that cultivated the Daesh death cult have yet to be resolved. Kurdistani leaders have repeatedly warned British MPs and the international community that failure to tackle the alienation of Sunnis could lead to the emergence of Daesh Mark 3. It will take huge efforts to reconcile Sunnis in Mosul, who have suffered three years of severe repression and brutality.

The Kurds in Iraq, with their longer experience of state-building and greater coherence, can make a major difference. They have maintained their integrity in their dealings with their neighbours and the rapprochement with Turkey is testament to their diplomatic skills. Before the rise of Daesh there were also encouraging signs of co-operation between Sunni neighbouring Sunni dominated provinces and the then economically dynamic Kurdistan Region, which exported spare electricity to them. This was despite Sunnis being a key component of the genocidal actions of the Saddam Hussein regime.

But playing a constructive role externally requires settling internal issues. There are promising signs of a thaw in Kurdistan’s needlessly divided internal politics. The Kurdistani commitment to democracy, pluralism, tolerance and secularism has been its most attractive feature. Any move to independence is best accompanied by the revival of the role of their Parliament, frozen since October 2015.

The second party, Gorran (the Change movement) which is a breakaway from an established party could become the formal Opposition and that role, essential to vibrant democracies, could be cultivated by external assistance.

Kurdistan is a strong ally of the West with the potential to be a powerful example to the rest of the Middle East. If it were to achieve statehood, it could be welcomed into international alliances such as Nato and the Commonwealth. My view is that Kurdistan and the West would also benefit from an American base in Kurdistan, and the dollarisation of the economy.

But the Kurds should get their act together, nurture a new patriotic work ethic and entrepreneuliasm, and refuse to be their own worst enemies in the dramatically changing geopolitics of the Middle East. And in return the Kurds deserve much more support from the UK and the West.

Jack Lopresti MP

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