Our friends in the north need our help. I mean the valiant and brave Peshmerga and the people of the Kurdistan Region, north of Iraq.
Our friends stood alone against our common enemy, ISIS, when Iraq lost a third of its territory and the second city of Mosul. Their bravery defended their homeland but also reduced the ranks of those wanting to kill us on our streets. They swallowed their differences with Baghdad and initiated joint operations that liberated Mosul.
Our friends took in nearly two million Arabs from Mosul although this shattered their economy. They are moderate Muslims who routinely protect Christians and other minorities as I recently saw for myself at a Catholic Church in the middle of Kirkuk and an Assyrian Cathedral in their capital, Erbil.
Yet our friends are in trouble. They had the temerity to indicate in a free, fair and exuberant referendum that they want to negotiate their eventual exit from Iraq. The vote does not mean UDI or the end of the common struggle against ISIS. Kurdistani leaders insist their statehood is not connected with the struggles in the other Kurdistans.
Our friends point out that Iraq is a voluntary union in theory but loveless in practice. A third of the constitution has been violated by Baghdad. Promises to settle the status of disputed territories ran out ten years ago. Kirkuk is only now back in Kurdistani hands because the Iraq Army deserted its posts in 2014 and the Peshmerga saved the city from a fascist death cult.
Before that Baghdad had unilaterally cut all federal financial transfers required under the post-Saddam settlement. Baghdad refused to fund the Peshmerga for years even as it fought alongside the Iraq Army. Yet Baghdad formally incorporated Shia militia into the Iraqi Army in just two hours.
Baghdad has failed our friends and has now lost its marbles. It is trying to strangulate the Kurds with collective punishments. Baghdad is blockading international flights with dire consequences for foreign agencies looking after refugees and displaced people. Baghdad is choking off the supply of Iraqi dinars to Kurdistan. Baghdad is seeking to expel Kurdistani MPs from the federal parliament and threatening to prosecute them. Baghdad is collaborating with the mullahs in Iran to squeeze and menace Kurdistan. It won’t be long before our friends run out of money and food.
Our friends were offered an honourable plan by the UK, the US and the UN for structured talks and the promise of a referendum in two years time. They considered the offer but decided that Baghdad would not play ball and they had to put a marker down now as we move into discussing how a new form of Isis can be prevented in a new Iraq.
Maybe they were wrong but the scale of the vote – 93% Yes in a 73% turnout – leaves no doubt that they want to leave Iraq in the coming years. However, another interesting option is emerging as a transitional or perhaps permanent solution – confederation of two sovereign nations under a common capital and within current borders. New Kurdistani leaders could also find it easier to reset relations with the neighbours.
Our friends are up against it. They used to say they have no friends but the mountains where they fled from Baghdad’s genocidal army in the past. Our friends have possibly new friends to their north – Russia, which has important oil interests in Kurdistan and could further consolidate its role in the Middle East.
Our friends deserve friends like us to oppose the blockade and the collective punishment of a people who want to be our friends and share our values of democracy, pluralism, secularism and freedom for women.
A new settlement with Iraq will be complex and take time. But for now the most urgent priority is to urge calm, dialogue and de-escalation. Our friends, the Kurds, can then come to a lasting deal with Baghdad. In the meantime, how can we tolerate their outrageous treatment given our debt to them. Why should they be imprisoned in an Iraq that is sectarian, centralised and ruthless? This should be a moral and pragmatic priority for the West.
Jack Lopresti is a Conservative MP and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.