British Lords recount experiences in Kurdistan and urge British action

The British government this week came under pressure from several parliamentarians in the House of Lords who have visited Kurdistan and Iraq to detail its strategy for protecting religious and ethnic minorities there.

The debate was opened by the Bishop of Coventry who highlighted the mixed blessings faced by Christians hounded out of Mosul by Daesh, who then returned to celebrate mass but find the city is still not safe enough for them to return permanently.

The Bishop argued that military victory over Daesh is only the first step to its defeat: unless the causes of the violence are rooted out, it will return and minorities will be the first victims. The UK has a moral responsibility and a strategic interest in a stable and flourishing Iraq because “Daesh might be like a Hydra, with heads surfacing across the world, but if it could be fatally wounded in the country of its birth, it would be starved of vital sources of energy, morale and inspiration.” And protecting minorities is critical to a secure and politically stable Iraq.

He cited the need for reconstruction of cities and villages accompanied by social reconstruction, which requires rebuilding trust based on security. He quoted an Assyrian priest from Duhok: “We may not be able to restore the Christian demography that we had in the past but we can preserve for the future a presence and role for the Christian community in our society so that through our schools, our skills and our hospitals we can serve all the people of this land”.

Other Lords who have visited Kurdistan weighed in. Former foreign minister, Baroness Anelay highlighted the need for public trust in a unified, independent and sovereign Iraqi state and asked the minister to assess the likelihood of resolving historic differences between Erbil and Baghdad consistent with the Iraqi constitution

Labour’s Lord Glasman, a vice-chair of the APPG on Kurdistan, recalled his visit to the church of the red stone in Kirkuk where the congregation still speak Aramaic and highlighted the steady historical decimation of Christian and Jewish communities in Iraq. He described “the rupture of trust” among refugees he met in Erbil who had been told they could return home but “Not one moved…because…their neighbours had attacked them. They were subjected to murder, their homes were taken by their neighbours and they felt no security.”

He concluded that the UK should continue to support the KRG in the solidarity that they are providing these refugees and expressed concern about Iraqi military activities and the suppression of the Kurdish language in Kirkuk.

Conservative Baroness Hodgson, who was an APPG observer of the independence referendum, focused on the Kurds as the largest ethnic minority in Iraq. She recalled her visit to the Red House museum in Slemani, which shows the grimly ingenious means used to rape, torture and murder.

She outlined lessons from her visit to Kurdistan. Kirkuk would have fallen to Daesh if the Peshmerga had not immediately reinforced their positions, and security was improved under Kurdistani control. Baghdad’s withholding of federal fiscal transfers to the KRG in 2014 caused great problems and sparked calls for an independence referendum. She said Kurds “told us that they felt that there was never going to be a ‘right time’ but insisted the referendum would not mean an immediate declaration of independence, but rather negotiation with Baghdad to start state building.”

She told the Lords that “Many we met were bewildered by the lack of UK and western support for their referendum. I was told that they always felt that we were talking about democracy and that they were trying to exercise their right to self-determination.”

She urged the government “to recognise that the situation in Iraq has not been satisfactory for the Kurds,” and that Kurds need to defend themselves from “roaming Shia militia, every bit as brutal as Daesh.” She stressed that “whether the Baghdad Government or the KRG controls the disputed territories, they are still disputed territories that require the implementation of the article of the Iraqi constitution to hold censuses and then referendums so the people can decide whether they wish to be part of the Kurdistan region.”

She praised pluralism in Kurdistan, which provides “sanctuary to very many Christians who live there peacefully and practice their faith without hindrance, as I saw for myself when I visited St Joseph’s Cathedral in Erbil.”

Baghdad, she said, has shown no signs of wanting to help re-establish a better relationship with the KRG but she was pleased the UK has joined France, Germany and the USA in encouraging dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. She concluded that “just doing nothing and allowing the present crisis for the Kurds to simmer for years will damage them in the long term and deprive Iraq and the world of a potentially dynamic and reforming country that has done so much to stabilise and improve Iraq, protect religious minorities and resist Daesh.”

Baroness Goldie, for the government, said it is “encouraging dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil to ensure they put the relationship on to a sustainable long-term footing, and we are doing everything we can to encourage the resolving of differences.”

The powerful personal testimony of parliamentarians who have seen Kurdistan for themselves will not change government policy or public opinion overnight but an accumulation can keep the issue on what is always a crowded agenda.

Gary Kent. Personal capacity.

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The growing case for Kurdish statehood

Baghdad has closed Kurdistan’s airports to international flights, a ban that has just been extended despite its impact on commerce and medical treatment for all Kurds, writes Jack Lopresti MP

Letters. Guardian. 16 January 2018

Your report (UK ‘inadvertently helped neuter’ its Iraqi Kurdish allies, 8 January) is a timely reminder that our vital Kurdish allies start the new year with the same old blockade-and-punish mentality in Baghdad, encouraged and assisted by the Iranian regime for its own malevolent purposes. Newspapers that once hailed the contribution of the Kurds to defeating Daesh (Isis) largely ignore the fact, for instance, that Baghdad has closed Kurdistan’s airports to international flights, a ban that has just been extended despite its obvious impact on commerce and medical treatment for all Kurdish people. I observed their independence referendum last year with an open mind but Baghdad is doing much to convince me and others that it spurns a federal Iraq of equals, and that eventual statehood may best suit both Kurds and Iraq.

Jack Lopresti MP (Conservative)

Chairman, APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

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Why the UK Consulate-General changed its Facebook designation

The recent redesignation of the British Consulate-General’s Facebook title from the British Consulate General in the Kurdistan Region to the British Consulate General Erbil worried some Kurds given Iraqi efforts to downgrade the officially recognised Kurdistan Region. APPG Chairman Jack Lopresti MP tabled a written parliamentary question seeking clarification from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.

Respected Middle East Minister Alistair Burt’s answer, for the record, was: ‘The British Consulate General in Erbil has not changed its name. Its Facebook page was recently changed from a monolingual (English) to a bilingual (English and Kurdish) version. Subsequently, the Kurdish name on the site was shortened as the previous title exceeded the maximum allowed characters in Kurdish. The British Consulate General in Erbil has informed local media and officials of the change.’ The question confirms that the reasons for redesignation were mundane and understandable but also elicited further confirmation that ‘the British Government continues to support the security, stability and prosperity of the Kurdistan Region within a unified Iraq.’

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Importance of invitation to Kurdistan Region leaders

Theresa May has had a lot on her hands but has found time to help resolve the standoff between two important allies, the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the federal government in Baghdad.

May is inviting the Kurdistani Prime Minister to Downing Street for talks next year. Nechirvan Barzani has been before but this will be the first such meeting with a British Prime Minister. Its importance is further lifting Baghdad’s blockade on Kurdistani leaders meeting international allies.

Baghdad has banned international flights to and from Kurdistan. Barzani recently managed to use the land route through Turkey to visit the French President in Paris. But the German Foreign Minister was denied permission to visit the capital, Erbil after official meetings in Baghdad. Such obstructiveness flows from Baghdad’s fierce reaction to a referendum in September seeking eventual and negotiated independence from Iraq.

The Kurds are stuck between competing international relations doctrines and ambiguities in the Iraqi constitution. The theory of international relations in various UN declarations favours self-determination but the practice privileges existing sovereign states.

The Iraqi constitution says Iraq is a free union of peoples including Arabs and Kurds. But it also says the federal government should protect the country’s territorial integrity and uphold the federal constitution.

It was flagrant flouting of many federal provisions that forced Kurds to seek statehood. Even the Iraqi supreme court that pronounced the referendum as constitutional is not part of the same constitution. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledges that the Iraqi constitution has never been fully implemented.

The Kurds voted clearly for statehood but the Iraqi government, in league with Iran, took unconstitutional action to compel surrender of their desire to leave. Given Kurdistan is landlocked they got their way.

The worry is that Baghdad leaders are acquiring a taste for strongman actions that are feathers in the cap for the current Iraqi Prime Minister, keen to prevent harder-line Shia politicians from ousting him in elections next year.

The UK and the US urged the Kurds to defer their ambitions with a promise of structured negotiations and a possible internationally supported referendum in two years. The Kurds went ahead and have at least established in this generation the widespread desire for statehood. It’s off the table now and the KRG accepts that. But Baghdad has so far refused all pleas for dialogue and international mediation.

The British PM treads a delicate and diplomatic line on this but Kurds are buoyed by her invitation. Its basis is that Iraq is indivisible but May also says the UK will continue to fight to protect the identity and rights of the Kurdish people under the Iraqi constitution. May also says the UK will continue to encourage reform to strengthen Kurdistan’s institutions and deliver for the Kurdish people.

This invitation bolsters the Kurds whose decent, democratically-minded, and pluralist instincts have long made us a respected ally. My hope is that their airports are re-opened before Barzani leaves for Downing Street.

This article by APPG Secretary Gary Kent is in a personal capacity

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Cross-party Commons motion backs UK Prime Minister’s invitation to KRG leaders

Early day motion 684

Session: 2017-19
Date tabled: 13.12.2017
Primary sponsor: Lopresti, Jack

Total number of signatures: 6
Austin, Ian Blackman, Bob Bottomley, Peter Glindon, Mary
Halfon, Robert Lopresti, Jack

That this House congratulates the Prime Minister on her decision to invite the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq to London; believes that the UK is well-placed, thanks to its history with Iraq and Kurdistan and the respect for the UK there, to encourage much needed dialogue on all outstanding issues between the Kurdish Regional Government and the federal Government in Iraq, based on the full implementation of the Iraq constitution whose neglect in recent years underpinned the Kurdistani decision to hold a referendum on eventual and negotiated independence; welcomes the Prime Minister’s commitment that the UK would continue to fight to protect the identity and rights of the Kurdish people under the Iraqi constitution and the UK’s continued support for the Kurdistan Region and Kurdish people within a unified Iraq, while urging continued reform in the political, economic and security sectors to strengthen Kurdistan’s institutions and deliver for the Kurdish people; and wishes the very best for the visit by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani.

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The Kurds are down but far from out. A personal view

Kurds seeking independence did not justify Iraqi violence but Iraqi violence now justifies Kurds seeking independence. The needlessly harsh Iraqi reaction clarifies the stakes for the world to see if it were paying any great attention.

The referendum was a long time coming. For most of the time I have visited Kurdistan since 2006, independence was on the backburner and they made Iraq work while insisting they would only stay if Iraq remained federal.

Baghdad never fully accepted equality but was relatively weak and the Kurds had a state in all but name. But the game was up when Iraq unilaterally cut Kurdish budget payments and lost a third of the country to Isis in 2014.

A desperate Kurdish people sought to escape a loveless Iraq. The referendum was not a unilateral declaration of independence but the beginning of the bargaining. Self-determination is rarely consensual but the Kurds gave it a try.

Baghdad could have responded politically but instead blockaded international flights – I took one of the last flights out – and then used violence as a first resort in which 60 Peshmerga were killed.

A sophisticated Iraqi Ambassador once said that Iraq should emulate Switzerland, which keeps its neighbours at bay and its different ethnic groups together. But Baghdad’s instinct is centralisation.

On the day of the referendum, I saw joyful crowds in their best and colourful clothes enthusiastically voting in Erbil, Kirkuk and Slemani where the celebratory tracer gun fire was thankfully going the other way.

International observers joined the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk for lunch at his mansion, once the home of Saddam Hussein’s notorious general, Chemical Ali who organised multiple mustard gas attacks against Kurds.

Weeks later Shia militia broadcast triumphalist videos insulting Kurds from the same offices with pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei in the background. They trampled on the Kurdish flag and the Iraqi commander stopped the police chief speaking Kurdish in a country where Kurdish and Arabic are official languages. The governor was whisked away to safety. 160,000 Kurds also fled from Kirkuk and elsewhere since the Iraqi attacks.

Iraq will ‘keep’ Kurdistan for now but any internal settlement should respect their rights in the Iraqi constitution, long neglected and the cause of the Kurdish attempt to secure statehood. Any deviation from the constitution makes living together untenable in the long term.

If Baghdad continues down the road of punishment, strangulation, and possibly partition of the officially recognised Kurdistan Region, many Kurds will conclude that next time it will be ‘no more Mister Nice Guy.’

Young Kurds who don’t speak Arabic and don’t identify with Iraq will not bow the knee to a sectarian and more corrupt politics that despises their progressive policies and wants, for instance, to ban alcohol and reduce the age of sexual consent and marriage to 9.

Independence may have been forcibly taken off the agenda for a decade or a generation but the impulse remains strong. The problem is that Kurdistan is stuck between competing international relations doctrines of respecting the sovereignty of current members of the UN club and also upholding the right to self-determination.

British and American diplomats tried to avert the referendum with an alternative based on supporting dialogue with Baghdad and a referendum if that didn’t work out in a year or two. Sadly, the final offer was only delivered hours before the referendum. There was no guarantee that Baghdad would play ball and it seems likely they wanted to cut the Kurds down to size anyway.

Kurds feel abandoned by the world, despite their courage in defeating our common enemy Isis, but must get their act together for the next phase in the long struggle for freedom. They may be out of sight but should not be out of our minds in the dark days they are enduring. The Kurds are down but far from out.

This article appears in the Newcastle Journal on 11 November 2017. Gary Kent is the Secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity @garykent

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Kurdistan in Prime Minister’s Questions on 1 November

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

Last month I was in the Kurdistan region of Iraq—I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—where I saw people’s enthusiasm for independence and a fresh dialogue with Baghdad. The subsequent military actions against the peshmerga by Iranian-backed militia and the Iraqi army are wholly unjust and completely unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister accept that the peshmerga and the Kurdistan region, to whom we owe so much both for resisting Daesh when the Iraqi army dumped their weapons and ran and for helping to keep our own streets safe, remain vital to our security? Will she do all she can to encourage a resolution based on full respect for the Iraqi constitution and the democratic will of the Kurdish people?

The Prime Minister

It is right that we are working with our international partners in the region to defeat Daesh together with the global coalition. Daesh is losing territory. The action being taken is having an impact on it; its finances have been hit, its leadership is being killed and its fighters are demoralised. But we do want to see political reconciliation in Iraq and a political settlement to the Syria conflict to deny Daesh safe space and prevent its re-emergence. My hon. Friend raises a particular point about Iraq and the Kurdistan region. The Government have always been clear that any political process towards independence should be agreed with the Government of Iraq. We want political reconciliation in Iraq and we have been urging all parties to promote calm, to pursue dialogue and to take this issue forward through dialogue.

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MPs’ cross-party Commons motion rejects ‘punitive peace’

APPG Chairman Jack Lopresti and other APPG officers, Mary Glindon and Robert Halfon have tabled a Commons motion outlining an analysis of the current situation.

It reads in full: ‘That this House regrets Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s decision, for electoral reasons and in collaboration with the Iranian regime, its revolutionary guards and brutally-sectarian Shia militia, to use force as a first resort to take Kirkuk and other disputed territories from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); notes that the KRG, on the request of the Iraqi Government, reinforced its military presence to prevent Daesh capturing Kirkuk when Iraqi troops fled in 2014 and was constitutionally compliant; further regrets that Prime Minister Abadi claims to follow the Iraqi constitution, although serial and flagrant violations of its federal provisions bolstered Kurds resoundingly backing eventual and negotiated independence; fears that violence rather than co-ordination and negotiation will fuel divisions; believes that a punitive peace and centralisation, in violation of the constitution, could reduce the KRG’s contribution to the Iraqi economy, diminish its ideological and military resistance to jihadist extremism, and encourage Sunni Arab resistance; accepts that Baghdad’s actions illustrate the case for independence and that Kurds should not be subordinated in express violation of the Iraqi constitution; rejects Vice President Maliki’s proposal to partition Kurdistan; urges governments to support resetting relations based on fully implementing the Iraqi constitution, including long deferred moves to finalise the status of the disputed territories; urges the UK and its international partners to recognise that Iranian involvement in Iraq and a weaker KRG contradict Western interests and the prospects of peace in the Middle East; and further urges the appointment of a mutually-respected mediator to resolve differences peacefully.’

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Urgent statement by Jack Lopresti MP and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

The Iraqi Army and Iranian backed Shia militia using American tanks to advance towards Erbil could spark civil war across Iraq. We can argue about the merits or otherwise of the referendum but it does not deserve this response. I am urging the Government to pull out the diplomatic stops to urgently encourage a freeze on military operations and dialogue before it is too late.

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British MPs raise Kurdistani Concerns in Commons debates

MPs in the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq have been assiduous after the fall of Kirkuk this week in raising key issues in the Commons and we also organised a briefing in Parliament with Karwan Jamal Tahir, the KRG High Representative to the UK.

The British-Kurdish MP, Nadhim Zahawi was the first to raise the issue in the Commons in the wake of the referendum and military action in Kirkuk. He asked: ‘Will the Foreign Secretary join me in thanking Ambassador Frank Baker for all his tireless work in Iraq? He has worked with the Foreign Secretary, Secretary Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister to put together a deal that would have avoided the catastrophic situation that now plagues the country between the Kurds and Baghdad. Will the Foreign Secretary urge all sides to come back together around the negotiating table on that framework and negotiate a deal?’

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thanked Zahawi for his work as ‘there is no one who knows the Kurdistan Regional Government or Kurdistan better than he does.’ He added that ‘Clearly, to a great extent the troubles that are now befalling that area were anticipated. We saw this coming, and we warned our friends in Kurdistan that it would happen. [Zahawi] also did a great job of warning them. We now have to manage a very difficult situation, and it calls for calm heads and negotiation.’

This raises the notion of returning Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to the position of just over three weeks ago when, by my reading of the letter from US Secretary of State to President Barzani on 23rd September, he was willing to discuss all disputes with Erbil and to contemplate the possibility of a referendum if those talks failed or Baghdad showed bad faith.

Labour MP Ian Austin, who was on the recent delegation to Kurdistan to witness the referendum, then posed the following question: ‘We should all be very worried about the malevolent involvement of the Iranian hard-line al-Quds force using American heavy weapons against our brave allies the Kurds. Will the Minister make it clear that Iraqi forces must not enter the four provinces of the Kurdistan region, and that the only way forward is co-operation in Kirkuk and wider dialogue based on the Iraqi federal constitution, which is supposed to guarantee Kurdish rights?’

The Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt urged caution on all sides, and to continue a careful dialogue to make sure that there is no possibility of a miscalculation leading to conflict. It is essential that matters are pursued on a constitutional basis, but there is a difficulty at the moment in getting accurate information about precisely what is happening in the region. We are doing all we can to verify all stories, but we are also doing all we can to cool down the situation.’

APPG Chairman and Conservative MP Jack Lopresti, who led the delegation last month, asked: ‘Given the grave situation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, what does my right hon. Friend think will be the impact on our currently deployed British Army teams who are training the Peshmerga as we speak?’

Burt replied that ‘At present, I do not think there is any reason to change the arrangements of the armed forces who have worked with the Peshmerga and have done such an outstanding job to push back Daesh. What we are all hoping for is that there will be no conflict in the area and that the determination already expressed by both sides to prevent any conflict will lead to a peaceful resolution of the current difficulties.’

My own contribution at the briefing was to point out that Kirkuk was not taken by the Kurds in 2014 but saved from Daesh when the Iraqi Army left its positions and at the request of the then Iraqi Prime Minister. I also said that the budget deal between Abadi and the KRG in December 2014 accepted that Kirkuk’s oil would be piped through the KRG to Turkey.

I also argued that if the Iraqi constitution had been respected since 2005 there would probably not have been a push to seeking independence. When I first visited Kurdistan in 2006 it was seen as The Other Iraq and its leaders were helping to stabilise Iraq as a whole with great success. Yet the abandonment of the Article 140 process in 2007 and the complete cut in the budget in 2014 propelled the push for independence.

The assessment that the neighbours were weaker than for some time was wrong, clearly, and Kurdistan faces a long haul in renewing itself for being a part of Iraq, hopefully on the terms promised in the constitution and which Abadi selectively quotes to defend his actions. These are some of the necessary, reactive positions to take in this crisis and I expect further interventions in parliament.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the APPG and writes in a personal capacity

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