This article by Jack Lopresti appears in the Times Red Box outlet today
British parliamentarians have closely observed Kurdistan’s progress from a region suffering genocide and grave injustices to a fledgling nation seeking to determine its own destiny. This has taken place over a decade of fact-finding delegations working on the front line with the Peshmerga in the city of Kirkuk, with Iraqi soldiers in Mosul as it was being liberated, and in Baghdad.
Kurdistan often fits into Iraq like a square peg in a round hole. Their only cordial decade of relations in a century ended in 2014 when Baghdad unilaterally severed federal fiscal transfers. Both parties united to expel Daesh, but then fell out over Kurdistani independence.
I had the privilege of being in Kurdistan for the referendum on negotiated independence last year and was horrified that Baghdad violently seized Kirkuk, killed Peshmerga, blockaded Kurdistani airports, and tried but failed to dismantle the Kurdistan regional government. The violence supposedly upheld the constitution although the constitution explicitly defines Iraq as a voluntary union.
Baghdad’s behaviour was vicious and unnecessary, while Kurds are clear what they want in the longer term, but they are now stuck as part of a federal Iraq. The Kurds need robust pragmatism in dealing with Baghdad, which is changing in any case, and all based on applying the long-neglected constitution, which should protect Kurdistani rights.
There’s much to commend Kurdistan. Its deep and natural support for religious tolerance, openness to the world, and pro-Western attitudes, top the list. Its pivotal geopolitical position makes it useful to easing wider tensions, bridging Europe and Iraq, and basing those rebuilding a shattered Mosul.
But friends must not ignore its own internal challenges. Kurdistan needs thorough reform of its dysfunctional and unproductive economy with its huge state employment rolls, a tiny private sector, corruption, an over-dependence on oil, and little progress in tapping its plentiful agriculture and tourist potential. Visitors are always amazed by the beauty of the vast verdant plains, astonishing mountains and rivers, and historical sites as well as commendable security.
The Kurds should make themselves fit for any possible future. A neutral, efficient and accountable military is vital. I visited British soldiers in Erbil who have trained thousands of enthusiastic Peshmerga. This matters to us because the Peshmerga were decisive in defeating Daesh, whose roots in Baghdad’s sectarian centralisation remain live and which could re-emerge in even more vicious forms.
But the Kurds cannot do this alone and look to Britain to boost their capacity. English is their second language, many leaders and others have spent years here and have UK passports — this includes their deputy prime minister. Our universities and quality services and goods attract them.
It is a singular honour that the Kurdistani Parliament’s first ever all-party group focuses on Britain. They want our parliamentarians and others to train them to be more effective, and deepen their new and shallow democracy. We can also encourage civil society and help to lift the voices of young people who are a vast majority there.
The Kurds have survived so many injustices, but we should never take this for granted and need to do more as a strategic priority to protect and promote the positive power of our great friends and allies.
Jack Lopresti MP is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.