Minutes of the AGM of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Virtual. Thursday 4 March.
1 Attendance. MPs: Robert Halfon, Peter Gibson, Mary Glindon, Alicia Kearns, Ben Everitt, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Jack Lopresti, Jason McCartney, Jerome Mayhew, Alexander Stafford, Paul Bristow, Henry Smith, Anthony Higginbotham. Lords: Lord Walney. Lord Austin, and Baroness Ramsay. Holly Papworth and Eden Duggan (office of Robert Halfon) and Gary Kent (Secretary)
2 Apologies. Steve Reed. Stephen Metcalfe.
3 Election of Chair and Registered Contact. Robert Halfon nominated by Mary Glindon and agreed.
4 Co-Chairs elected were Mary Glindon. Alicia Kearns. Lord Ian Austin. Jack Lopresti
5 Vice-Chairs elected were Feryal Clark, Jason McCartney, Baroness Ramsay, Steve Reed, Henry Smith, Alex Stafford, and Stephen Metcalfe.
6 Income and Expenditure Statement agreed.
7 Discussion on the 30th anniversary of John Major’s efforts to establish a safe haven and no-fly zone.

Income and Expenditure Statement

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John Major, the quiet revolutionary who saved Kurdistanis from genocide and proved they have more friends than the mountains.

Thirty years ago, accidents of history sparked Kurdistani revolution from 5 March against Iraq’s genocidal dictator Saddam Hussein whose bloody vengeance sent millions of Kurdistanis into the freezing mountains. The Kurdistani plight inspired a ferment of public horror and quick-witted Kurdistani lobbying that found new British Prime Minister John Major on his moral mettle in a frantic month of activity to avert disaster.

To his eternal credit, John Major defied foreign policy orthodoxies to save the Iraqi Kurdistanis from further genocide. He cannily improvised innovative action and persuaded an initially reluctant American President and (therefore) a keener French President to join the UK in an operation that lasted 12 years.

The safe haven and no-fly zone he pioneered enabled Iraqi Kurdistanis to survive and become a continuing force for good in the Middle East. We should remember what happened because Iraqi Kurdistanis may require such action again.

This short history of a few frantic weeks of suffering and action in March/April 1991 provides a snapshot of the key moments in an historic decision.

Short History of Sir John Major and Kurdistan in 1991

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Prime Minister: “we continue to work closely with our partners in the Kurdish region of Iraq.”

APPG Chair, Rt Hon Robert Halfon welcomed the Prime Minister’s vision on the integrated Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

He also urged that vision to “be aligned with smaller nations around the world such as Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, and Israel, which are vanguards of religious pluralism, democracy, a free society, the rule of law and security against terrorism.”

He quoted the late and respected American Senator John McCain who said in a 2008 speech: “We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact—a League of Democracies—that can harness the vast influence of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.”

Mr Halfon urged the UK to lead a new alliance of democracies around the world, as proposed by the late Senator John McCain.

The Prime Minister replied that “we continue to work closely with our partners in the Kurdish region of Iraq.”

My comment. The APPG has long backed the growing bilateral relationship between the UK and the Kurdistan Region in Iraq in all its forms: military, cultural, commercial, and political. We have firm allies in Kurdistan and they see us as friends and allies of choice. The PM’s commitment to close co-operation with the Kurdistan Region is very welcome. Happy new year to all Kurds on 21 March. Gary Kent

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Ian Austin asks necessary question in the Lords on the recent rocket attacks in Erbil

Lord Austin of Dudley asked Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of who is responsible for the rocket attacks in Erbil on 15 February.

FCDO Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon replied on 8 March 2021: “The Government of Iraq (GoI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are urgently investigating circumstances around the rocket attacks in the vicinity of Erbil Airport on 15 February. Although publicly claimed by a militia group called Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of the Blood), investigations are still ongoing. The UK has committed along with the US, France, Germany, and Italy to support the GoI’s and KRG’s efforts, with a view to holding accountable those responsible.”

My Comment. Many thanks to Ian Austin for asking this question. His action and the government’s response illustrate that the terrible attack, in which two people were killed, is taken seriously, as it should. Such attacks are rare and should be pursued and punished at the right time and to show everyone that there is a fundamental solidarity with the people of the Kurdistan Region whose long-nurtured security and stability has made them stand out in Iraq and the Middle East. Gary Kent

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APPG Chair Robert Halfon’s question in the Commons on the 30th anniversary of John Major’s historic safe haven

In today’s FCDO Oral Questions, APPG Chair, Rt Hon Robert Halfon, would have asked this question but the connection sadly failed.

“The Kurdistan Region has merits such as religious freedom and some flaws. But it wouldn’t exist without Sir John Major’s brave decision 30 years ago to pioneer a safe haven and no-fly zone. Sir John saved the Kurds from further genocide after the notorious chemical weapons attack on Halabja, where I paid my respects beside its mass graves. Will he convey deep gratitude from us all and our allies, the Kurds to Sir John and fully mark this milestone in our bilateral relations.”

The APPG will be doing its best to mark the 30th anniversary which can be dated between 5 March, when the Kurdistani uprising began, and 8 April when Sir John Major secured the support of the EC Council of Ministers and subsequently the US Administration. Allied soldiers and aircraft were in operation in and over Kurdistan from mid-April for 12 years.

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Guest column. One for post-Covid travel. Gideon Benedyk outlines his experience of visiting the Kurdistan Region

London black cabs in Iraqi Kurdistan? Absolutely. Kurds can now hire newly imported Hackney Cabs for weddings and photo-ops in the city of Duhok. Kurds love classic British brands in this beautiful, Western loving near-nation where I have just spent two months working and exploring in several cities and its expansive countryside.

Kurds also know what they hate after decades of resisting genocide and tyranny from Saddam Hussein and Isis. Unlike federal Iraq, whose government struggles to contain terrorism and pro-Iranian militia groups, the Kurdistan Region is a proud beacon of religious pluralism and is generally very safe.

Kurdistan is a dream destination for travellers seeking adventure, history, nature or just a luxury break but it is almost completely off the tourism map. The scenery is stunning. My trip took me hiking in snowy mountains in Choman and lush green hillsides around Shaqlawa. I enjoyed the spiritual and environmentally protected Barzan village (the spiritual home of the Barzani tribe) and the gushing Bekhal waterfalls in the largest Canyon in the Middle East.

Kurdistan sports a plethora of sites spanning biblical, ancient, and medieval history, along with locations of more recent interest. Within hours, you can see where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Gaugamela, view carved-rock reliefs inscribed in 690 BC by Assyrian King Sennacherib, and explore the eerie, harrowing prisons used by Saddam’s regime to detain, torture, and execute Kurdish dissidents. You can inspect the Erbil Citadel (Earth’s oldest continuously occupied human settlement for about 6,000 years) and visit Pira Delal, the Roman-era stone bridge in Zakho. The panorama of human history is breath-taking.

Journeying through rural villages allowed me to spend time with local people whose authentic hospitality was constantly pressed upon me for no gain. Even in the centre of Erbil, the region’s capital city, the goodness of everyday Kurds was always evident. Every morning I would walk from my bedsit to Iskan Street, a popular neighbourhood filled with restaurants, shisha bars and teahouses.

Car drivers would often ask if I needed help or a lift. They regularly insisted on taking me to my destination, buying food for me, and then going on their way. My local Kurdish friends were unsurprised. ‘It is our culture’, they would remark. If a car pulled over to stop me in the UK, I would more likely leg it.

Kurdistan also has a vibrant café culture and nightlife scene, with a huge range of bars, tobacco shops, clubs, and restaurants offering all kinds of local and international cuisine. The attractions are many, but Kurdistan’s tourism sector is rudimentary. British travellers get a free 30 day free visa on arrival and can extend it for £50. But it was a painfully slow process that pointlessly wasted three hours in 11 offices. Shared taxis between cities are cheap and easy but public transport is almost non-existent. Many hotels and food places are not advertised on the internet and museum opening times are unpredictable.

I befriended inspiring young Kurds who were well-educated, ambitious, and patriotic, but despise a traditional system that stymies those without ‘wasta’ (connections). A good friend who recently started a business gave the latest iPhone to an official to jump the paperwork queue.

They’re going to have to stamp this out to encourage entrepreneurs to create new businesses, especially in tourism, that can help overcome recent years of severe economic hardship due to fighting ISIS, hosting two million refugees, declining oil revenues, COVID-19, and Baghdad withholding budget payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Whether solo or as a family, whether you’re seeking adventure or a restful break, you will receive a welcome so warm that it’s humbling. From colourful and lively bazaars to ancient treasures, delectable food to untouched nature, vibrant cities to ancient villages – Kurdistan is a truly stirring place. Their old icons and our new ones blend well together.

Gideon Benedyk After studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East at Cambridge University, Gideon went on to work in UK politics before working and travelling in the Kurdistan Region.

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Religious freedoms in the Kurdistan Region

APPG Chair Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP has tabled this Commons motion, so far supported by MPs, Jonathan Edward, Jim Shannon and Bob Blackman.

This House warmly welcomes the visit in March by His Holiness The Pope to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region where he will lead Holy Mass at the football stadium in Erbil;

fully recognises that the Kurdistan Region enjoys considerable religious and ethnic diversity, that its Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs upholds the political, civil, social, cultural, and economic rights of minorities, and that the region has also provided a safe haven for refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) of many faiths from Syria and Iraq, including individuals fleeing religious persecution across the wider Middle East;

further recognises that Kurdistani law, passed at the height of the war against Daesh, enshrines fundamental freedoms of thought, religion, speech, and culture, mandates the KRG to guarantee equality for all groups, and criminalises religious discrimination;

notes peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Sabie Mandani, Zoroastrians, and Bahais, that religious leaders are frequently consulted by ministers and government officials, and that the 111 strong Kurdistan Parliament includes a list of five Turkmen representatives, five Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac representatives, and one Armenian representative;

acknowledges that the KRG has allocated lands and built three churches and one cultural centre at its own expense for the Christian community in Erbil, that there are 135 different churches and 92 religious shrines in the region, and that there are public holidays on all religious occasions;

and proudly commends the Kurdistan Region on its record and aspirations on religious freedom as exemplary in the Middle East.

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The AGM is on Thursday 4 March. 9am.

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The UK will continue to play its part in supporting the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to build a more peaceful, more prosperous future, says UK Minister

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, APPG Chair, asked the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what assessment he has made of the long-term effect on (a) UK foreign policy and (b) bilateral relations with the Kurdistan Region of the 1991 decision to initiate a safe haven and no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region.

Middle East Minister, Rt Hon James Cleverly. Answered on 22 February 2021

UNSCR 688, and the subsequent initiation of no-fly zones over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) represented a historic moment for Iraqi Kurds, and for the UK-KRI partnership. The no-fly zones provided a crucial security umbrella to protect the Kurdish people, and to promote stability in the region. In the years since, we have further strengthened our relationship with the KRI. Many of their interests and values align with our own: a belief in diversity, tolerance, and publicly stated commitment to preventing extremism are some examples. The UK will continue to play its part in supporting the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to build a more peaceful, more prosperous future.

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UK backing for unifying the Peshmerga with training for 9,000 members

APPG member Alicia Kearns MP tabled a written question asking the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what the purpose is of his Department’s technical support to the Peshmerga Ministry in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Middle East Minister James Cleverly answered on 5 February 2021

“We continue to provide the Kurdish Peshmerga with technical and military support to enhance their capacity and capability to tackle the threat from Daesh. To date, the UK has trained over 9,100 Peshmerga fighters. During my (Minister Cleverly’s) visit to Erbil in December, I discussed the need to continue supporting Peshmerga reform with the Kurdistan Regional Government, in order to ensure a unified and modernised Peshmerga. To this aim, the UK and other multi-national partners are, in concert with the global Coalition and the Kurdistan Regional Government, working closely on a Peshmerga Reform Programme.”

My comment. The programme is a vital contribution to building a strong KRG within Iraq. Gary Kent.

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