APPG Chair Jack Lopresti MP’s introduction in full to the Commons debate on the bilateral relationship between the UK and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq


Reform requires peace and stability, which Kurdistan lacks. I must end with a blunt warning about its current perilous plight. Kurdistan is completely defenceless, with no means of detecting or deterring missile and drone attacks or even of evacuating target areas. Iran and its proxies are victimising and attacking Kurdistan. The UK should help to stand up for and protect our dear friends, so that we have a strong KRG within a peaceful, stable, federal Iraq.

Jack Lopresti
(Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
I beg to move,

That this House has considered the relationship between the UK and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. The relationship between Iraqi Kurdistanis and the UK—people and Governments—goes back many decades but has emerged as a more enduring and vital alliance in the last third of a century, for great mutual benefit. Before that, Kurdistanis, as they prefer to be called, were long demonised in Iraq as second-class citizens. That developed into genocide in the 1980s, which was formally recognised by the House of Commons on the 25th anniversary of the tragic gassing in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s air force of the town of Halabja, with the instant death of 5,000 people and many maimed for life. Overall, nearly 200,000 people were murdered in a systematic genocide that also razed thousands of villages to the ground and destroyed the backbone of the rural economy.

Many Kurdistanis were exiled here before returning. That drives a great affinity with the UK and the widespread use of English. That living link was boosted when Saddam, defeated in Kuwait in 1991, turned on the Kurdistanis with genocidal intent. They revolted, and about 2 million people fled to the freezing mountains to escape Saddam’s revenge. I am immensely proud that Sir John Major showed fantastic leadership and moral courage by establishing with America and France a no-fly zone. I am delighted that the Kurdistan Regional Government agreed to name a major thoroughfare in Irbil after Sir John, and very much hope that they do the same for Sir Tony Blair.

The creation of the safe haven, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) participated as an RAF officer, averted further genocide and helped to usher in an autonomous region. Kurdistanis elected their first Parliament in 1992 and, despite harsh Iraq and UN sanctions, laid the basis of a new society that bettered Saddam’s Iraq in, for instance, one key area: infant mortality. Sadly, civil war marred that fresh start.

Iraqi Kurdistan won a place at the forefront of our foreign policy, which was a great advantage when Iraq was liberated in 2003. Kurdistani leaders stabilised the new Iraq with peaceful elections and a landmark constitution in 2005, based on federalism and rights for the officially recognised autonomous region. Kurdistan enjoyed a golden decade in which new oil, long denied by Saddam, boosted living standards and infrastructure in “the Other Iraq”. However, there were difficult challenges; most important was Baghdad’s refusal to implement a settlement by 2007 in which the people of Kirkuk and other disputed territories could choose to join Iraq or the autonomous region. That is unfinished business and requires greater attention, and I ask the Minister to comment on it in his remarks.

Worse was to come with the complete and unilateral suspension of budget payments from Baghdad to Irbil in early 2014, the sudden seizure by ISIS of Mosul in June 2014 and its broader attack on Kurdistan. The Kurdistanis took the brunt of the defence of Iraq by saving Kirkuk and, with a refreshed Iraqi army and coalition forces, by helping to liberate Mosul in 2017. I saw the Kurdistani army—the peshmerga, which means “those who defy death”—in action in Kirkuk and Mosul. The peshmerga were valiant allies in fighting a foul fascism, with British help, especially from the RAF. Kurdistani action reduced a serious threat to our own people in the United Kingdom.

It was deeply disappointing that the Iraqi Prime Minister “forgot” to thank the peshmerga at the UN, and that his reaction to a peaceful referendum in 2017 on the principle of independence, which I observed in three cities, was to violently seize Kirkuk, killing peshmerga. Baghdad closed international flights and even tried, unsuccessfully, to invade the autonomous region. All of that was a tragic indictment and demonstration of the very dysfunctional nature of the relationship between Baghdad and the KRG at the time, to say the least.

The all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq returned in 2018 to Kurdistan and for the first time visited Baghdad, where there was a stated desire to seek reconciliation. Sadly, the momentum has stalled due to the undue influence of Iran and its proxy militias and terrorist organisations.

Warfare and lawfare via a supreme court that has not been constitutionally established is destabilising and suffocating Kurdistan, and Shi’a militia attacks have targeted British and American military facilities at the main airport in Irbil.

Mr Gregory Campbell
(East Londonderry) (DUP)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must not allow those elements, particularly in Iraq and in other locations, to replace what most of us want to see, which is democratic accountability in each of these regions and nations? They try to make it seem as though these are western values, thereby devaluing the independence of regions such as Kurdistan.

Jack Lopresti
I absolutely agree. We have to look only across the broader middle east, where we have seen in recent and historical events the malign influence of Iran, with its wish to diminish and extinguish any country or region that exemplifies the western values of freedom and democracy.

Chris Stephens
(Glasgow South West) (SNP)
The hon. Gentleman’s expertise in and knowledge of the area of Kurdistan is always a joy to listen to. He has mentioned Iran and recent attacks. Does he agree that we, as a House, should show full solidarity with the Kurdish people against those attacks from Iran? Does he also agree that we need to start showing solidarity with a people who did more than anything else and had boots on the ground to take on Daesh and roll it back?

Jack Lopresti
Again, I completely agree. As we speak, we are seeing action being taken against Iran and its proxies. I will continue to elaborate on the fact that we must continue to support our Kurdish friends and allies.

Iran has attacked Iranian Kurdish camps and, more recently, the houses of two prominent businessmen on the laughable grounds that they were Mossad bases. In January, Iranian missiles killed Peshraw Dizayee, whose skyscrapers in Irbil symbolise his ambition to emulate Dubai. His baby daughter was killed, and more than two dozen were killed or injured. Iran is the main menace, so let us hope for regime change from below in Iran. I will come back to Iran at the end.

It does not help that the PKK terror group is taking actions to kill peshmerga, scupper good governance in key areas and attract Turkish military action. It would be better—and I think this is crucial—if British, American and other international allies stayed in Iraq with a military footprint of some measure, with Baghdad’s agreement, clearly, which would help to counter and deter ISIS and stabilise the country. We could also further train the peshmerga, as we are doing, and underpin the confidence of external investors. Negotiations on that began last year.

Baghdad is also drip-feeding budget payments to Kurdistan below the amounts stipulated by a clear political agreement. Its vital oil pipeline to Turkey remains closed after nearly a year, with the loss of billions. Teachers, police officers, nurses and the peshmerga are not being paid.

The UK supports a strong KRG within Iraq. Our excellent diplomatic mission has gone from strength to strength, with senior appointments and more staff, which makes it bigger than in many sovereign countries. Our Army and others are seeking to professionalise and unify the peshmerga so that it is completely controlled by the KRG and not by the two main political parties, which is a hangover from the civil war. Government control over the military and security apparatus is essential.

Bilateral relationships depend on people who are active over many years. Kurdistan’s high representatives in London, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman and now Karwan Jamal Tahir, who is here today, have helped to inform us. Our now-voluntary APPG secretary Gary Kent has been active on this for nearly 20 years, and I pay tribute to his excellent work and fantastic contribution to UK-Kurdistan relations.

The diaspora is an asset, as are Anglo-Kurdistani activities such as those of the Gulan charity on culture. Trade bodies have encouraged investments in areas where our companies can add niche value. The University of London is set to establish a campus in Irbil and join three universities that teach in English, in a testament to the soft power of our language, history and higher education.

The Kurdistan region is only 32 years old and has further to go in overcoming the economic and political pathologies of its past and of the wider middle east. For more than half its existence, we have closely observed the ebbs and flows in Kurdistan’s fortune. It is too small to go it alone and too big to be ignored, but it operates in what its leaders call a tough neighbourhood, and even as a landlocked nation surrounded by sharks. It has previously overcome chauvinism towards it as a square peg in the round hole of Iraq, many of whose leaders do not accept the concept of a binational and federal state but prefer centralisation. For now, the centralisers, buttressed and supported by the malign Iranian regime, have the upper hand, but they need not triumph. That depends on Kurdistani diplomacy, crucial western support and internal reforms so that Kurdistan can be a subject rather than an object of history. However, we should not, and must not, put Kurdistan on an impossible pedestal where vice and virtue do not co-exist; we should be candid friends.

I will start with the pros. First, given its experience of exile and oppression, Kurdistan is open to those who flee from neighbouring areas. In 2014, its population soared by a third to accommodate 2 million displaced people from Mosul as well as Syrian refugees. One million remain in Kurdistan, whose generous care is exemplary. Secondly, Kurdistan upholds peaceful co-existence for people of all faiths, including Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. Its state institutions are secular and its religious faith moderate. Thirdly, Kurdistan is in the vanguard of women’s rights in the middle east. Firm action was taken to stamp out female genital mutilation and domestic violence, but it still often looks like a man’s world, which should change faster if Kurdistan is to unleash its fantastic potential. Fourthly, there is its modernised road network and digital highway. A railway from the Gulf to Turkey could one day boost jobs, trade and peacebuilding.

The cons apply across the middle east, where Kurdistan fares better in reality, but these defects are drag anchors on making Kurdistan match fit. First, the youth, as a majority of the population, seem disaffected, judging by falling electoral turnout. They have to be part of a patriotic renewal. Better higher and vocational education can prepare them for jobs that do not currently exist and opportunities that are coming. Secondly, the economy is dangerously dependent, for more than 80% of revenues, on oil and gas reserves and a bloated and unproductive public sector. The energy reserves are of strategic interest to the UK and the west generally, and I hope the Minister will comment on that. Thirdly, reliance on a volatile commodity crowds out a dynamic private sector, which can complement democracy and a thriving civil society. Fourthly, the scourge of corruption, in a region less industrial than the south, must be eliminated. The judicial system and dispute resolution—important for foreign investors—are immature, and there is an authoritarian approach to dissent and the media. That needs to be more professional and reliable. Britain could provide Kurdistan with more judicial, media, policing and commercial training.

The crisis in relations with Baghdad and the material basis of public services are driving more determined reform. The KRG seek to diversify their economy through more agriculture, tourism and light industry. Visitors marvel at the beautiful vast plains, rivers and mountains in the Iraqi breadbasket, plus the vibrant, growing cities. Kurdistanis say that they have “no friends but the mountains”. The APPG has sought to disprove that through 15 delegations with 50 parliamentarians and others. This is about not just solidarity, but a pragmatic calculation of the allies we need and who share our values. Kurdistan could have sided with Iran but has stuck with us in these very difficult and dangerous times.

Reform requires peace and stability, which Kurdistan lacks. I must end with a blunt warning about its current perilous plight. Kurdistan is completely defenceless, with no means of detecting or deterring missile and drone attacks or even of evacuating target areas. Iran and its proxies are victimising and attacking Kurdistan. The UK should help to stand up for and protect our dear friends, so that we have a strong KRG within a peaceful, stable, federal Iraq.

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