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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.