You can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Mary Glindon MP in the Newcastle Journal

Last week’s under-reported and often misunderstood referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has caused ructions in the Middle East but also deeply affects our security and trade interests.

The Kurds voted 93-7% for their leaders negotiating eventual independence with Baghdad. Observers from across the world including British parliamentarians agree the poll was fair and free. Yet the air was suddenly choked by dire warnings and threats from Baghdad, which has banned international flights to Kurdistan in a form of collective punishment.

Our diplomats honourably sought to facilitate a consensual deal. The details are private and were considered seriously by the Kurdistani leadership who were prepared until the last moment to delay their referendum but decided the deal was insufficient.

Separation into new states is often frowned upon by old states while the UN upholds the rights of peoples to self-determination. It reminds me of the Eagles’ Hotel California where ‘You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.’

Squaring that circle requires great care. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stepped up to the plate by quickly and wisely tweeting that all parties should remain calm and work together to defeat Daesh, or Isis as we know it. He added that ‘Iraq’s future lies in dialogue’ while the ‘UK [is] ready to help.’

Quite right. The Kurds in Iraq are a decent people who defend religious liberty in a mainly and moderate Muslim country where Christians and others seek protection. Kurds have long suffered discrimination, genocide and displacement and put themselves out to look after nearly two million Iraqi Arabs who fled to Kurdistan when Daesh captured Mosul three years ago.

Their Peshmerga took the lead in rolling back Daesh at a huge cost in lives. Their brave resistance makes us all safer and they should be considered a vital part of our own security system.

The Kurds also tried their best for decades to work within Iraq but Baghdad increasingly flouted the constitution that guaranteed minority rights and also deprived them of resources even as they were jointly fighting Daesh. They are clearly pro-Western in outlook and, from my meetings with Kurds, I know they have a great affinity with the British.

Their referendum result does not mean immediate independence. The Kurds are landlocked and cannot just start up a new country without agreements with Baghdad. They also say Kurdistan and Iraq need the closest possible relations to maximise their common security, finalise disputed borders, and maintain water, oil and trade flows. The eventual outcome could even be a new Iraqi federation or a confederation, which means two sovereign countries within one border.

The Kurds cannot be expected to live under a bullying regime in Baghdad that treats them as second class citizens. It sometimes seems that Baghdad leaders are doing everything possible to alienate the Kurds and drive them out. The hope is that the air blockade will be brief and bluster will become dialogue.

The Kurds have made a bold step towards freedom and the West would be wise to recognise the reality. One fear is that any vacuum in Kurdistan could be filled by Russia, which has important business interests in Kurdistan and could attract an isolated Kurdistan into their orbit.

Some readers will ask what this has to do with us. There are strong moral reasons for protecting a plucky people from violence and subordination. But there are also strong political reasons for helping the Kurds find a safe niche for themselves in a volatile region. They admire and share our values, could help solve the separate Kurdish conflict with Turkey, and be a buffer between Sunnis and Shia. This would enhance peaceful co-existence there and therefore help reduce the extremism that has so often means murder and mayhem at home. Boris Johnson’s approach could sustain a cross-party consensus to help our friends and advance our security at the same time.

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Settled will of the Kurdistani people

The 93 percent Yes vote on a high turnout demonstrates the settled will of the Kurdistani people for eventual independence. The high vote follows years of broken promises by leaders in Baghdad who have done little to persuade the Kurds they are respected and valued. The outbreak in Baghdad of belligerent bullying and a probable blockade is further evidence of that. Kurdistani leaders of all persuasions have told us they will not be subordinates in Iraq and that the referendum is a mandate to negotiate a new settlement with Baghdad over years rather than UDI, and does not diminish their contribution to fighting Daesh. We agree with the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that all parties should remain calm and we welcome his statement that the UK is ready to help. We will report back our observations on the process of the referendum, which we witnessed in Erbil, Kirkuk and Slemani, and its ramifications to parliament with a view to encouraging bipartisan support for dialogue. We also aim to visit Baghdad to listen to their views and convey our understanding of Kurdistani concerns. We are anxious to maintain the UK’s good relations with Kurdistan which is a valued ally and shares our values of freedom, democracy and pluralism.

Jack Lopresti MP, Chairman All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region
Gary Kent, Director

Erbil, Kurdistan Region

28 September 2017

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Building global friendship on the road to Kurdistani freedom after referendum

A personal view by Gary Kent, Director of the APPG

Watching the dramatic events unfolding in Kurdistan from afar has been fraught and frustrating for friends of Kurdistan. We wanted to know which news reports to believe, how to identify bargaining gambits and disentangle rhetoric, and the detail of the diplomatic demarches from the US, the UK and the UN.

The key principle is the right to exercise self-determination. It was up to the Kurds to decide if that meant delaying the referendum, proceeding with the referendum and creating a bargaining process with Baghdad that could result in independence, a renewed federalism or some form of confederation. Leaders listened to and considered the alternative path but have decided to proceed with the referendum.

Friends also need to understand why governments friendly to the KRG opposed the referendum. My summary of their position is that established states rarely back secession in advance as that would constitute an interference in the internal affairs of states. A Yes vote, in my view, would establish a settled will to securing statehood, which UN declarations also say is an inalienable right. How these are squared is a political not technocratic question. The rule of thumb is that new nations seize the chance and persuade the world to recognise them after the fact.

The UK and the others were operating the first part of this equation but went further than formally stating their opposition. They strongly and directly urged the Kurdistani leadership to delay the referendum but have not threatened sanctions if their appeals were not heeded and have, indeed, made it clear that their strong bilateral relations will continue.

Diplomats were also worried that a referendum would divide allies in the continuing fight against Daesh, destabilise the wider region, undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi before the scheduled Iraqi elections next year, and that the Shia militia could attack Kirkuk.

There are strong counter-arguments. The lack of political unity between Erbil and Baghdad and domestic divisions made no difference to the campaign to liberate Mosul. Kurdistani leaders are well versed in the complexities of co-existence in a tough neighbourhood. They reject war, conquest and coercion but will defend their homeland and don’t see why they should remain imprisoned in a dysfunctional and increasingly sectarian Iraq that does not respect minority rights.

The West is understandably concerned about developments in Iraq and Abadi is better than Maliki, although I also remember how the Americans stubbornly supported Maliki despite growing evidence that his policies were disastrous.

Yet, if the West had been able to secure a reliable deal with Baghdad backed by solid international and UN guarantees then deferring the referendum would have been possible. The trouble for the Kurds is who to trust or depend on in Baghdad after so many years of broken promises and worse.

Some years back, the Provisional IRA had a similar dilemma although I am not suggesting moral equivalence with the KRG. The IRA’s problem in concluding agreements with the British and Irish governments centred on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Neither government could bind successive governments or parliaments in principle but lasting agreements were secured in practice. That is far less certain with Baghdad as no one knows if Abadi can stay in power or if Maliki or someone else could replace him.

The understandable fear in Kurdistani minds and that of their friends is that the Kurds will be seen as lesser people, pawns in the great geopolitical game, and once again abandoned. However, new and strong countervailing pressures show times have changed significantly since the Kurds always said that they have no friends but the mountains.

The British public was shocked to see Kurds dying in the mountains in 1991 and this helped persuade the UK to initiate the no-fly zone. This brought the Kurds into British politics where they have consolidated their position ever since as their diplomats cemented links with the government, parties, civil society and others since freedom was achieved in 2003. This is also the case in America, France, Germany and elsewhere. More and more foreign friends have seen the success and potential of Kurdistan for themselves. Most of the MPs who spoke in a major parliamentary debate in July had been to Kurdistan on APPG visits.

Western opinion also knows that the Peshmerga are a reliable ally in stopping Daesh and that smashing Daesh ultimately increases our safety. They admire the religious pluralism of Kurdistan and know it provides sanctuary to Christians and others.

But public opinion could prove fickle and turn its attention elsewhere without constant efforts to keep and win friends. My hope is that the APPG, which is independent of the KRG and HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) but works with both, can increase its influence in the coming complex times. Friends around the world also need to up their game and better co-ordinate solidarity and support efforts. But ultimately the Kurds are in the driving seat as they navigate their way to freedom.

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Mary Glindon MP column on Kurdistan

It was such good news to see the horrific Isis death cult defeated in Mosul. Their brutality is beyond reasonable comprehension and I am sure we will soon begin to understand that in grim detail.

I recently took part in a major parliamentary debate on the Kurdistan Region. I have not yet been there but have heard disturbing direct testimony about girls who were enslaved and raped multiple times but managed to escape. I urged the government to help boost numbers of clinical psychologists in Iraq and Kurdistan to help manage their deep traumas.

I asked ministers to help churches and religious communities that are helping internally displaced people and refugees in Kurdistan.

I also praised the people-to-people diplomacy carried out by the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers who are literally putting Kurds back on their own two feet through many free hip and knee operations.

The Kurds may be two thousand miles away but their bravery in fighting Isis has been a great and direct benefit to us all. We owe them a great debt and I know how keen they are to have the best relations with us because they have a deep affection for us as a people, and for our language and our businesses.

The people of Iraqi Kurdistan are voting in a referendum on independence in September and I have backed a cross-party Commons motion supporting the right of the Kurds to express their self-determination. Their freedom benefits the whole world.

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Minutes of the AGM of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq held on Monday 26 June 2017

Attendance. Jack Lopresti MP, Graham Jones MP, Mary Glindon MP, Lord Clement-Jones, Mike Gapes MP, Tracy Brabin MP, Bob Stewart MP, Karwan Jamal Tahir and Hawre Wahid of the KRG UK, and Gary Kent, APPG Director.

Apologies. Nadhim Zahawi MP, Andrea Jenkyns, Stephen Metcalfe MP, Henry Smith MP, Ian Austin, Lord Glasman.

Elections

Jack Lopresti was elected as Chairman. Statutory vice chairs were elected: Lord Clement-Jones, Mike Gapes MP and Robert Halfon MP.

Other vice chairs elected: Mary Glindon, Bob Stewart, Henry Smith, Andrea Jenkyns, Ian Austin, Nadhim Zahawi, Tracy Brabin, Mark Hendrick, John Mann, Stephen Metcalfe, Seema Malhotra, John Woodcock, Lord Glasman, and, subject to confirmation, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, and Jonathan Edwards.

The remit of the group was agreed as: To promote friendship and understanding between the peoples and representatives of the Kurdistan Region and the UK.

A draft EDM on the referendum was discussed.

The reports of the APPG delegation in November 2016 will be published online with hard copies to follow.

Chairman to seek Westminster Hall debate on the Kurdistan Region

Agreed to send observers to the referendum in Kurdistan on 25 September and if possible combine with a fact-finding mission.

Agreed to send observers to monitor scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections in November.

Agreed to ask the UK Consul General in Erbil to address a future meeting.

Agreed to continue the campaign to urge UK government to provide beds at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for most seriously wounded Peshmerga.

A general discussion on the current situation in Kurdistan was led by the KRG High Representative and included the need for beds in the UK for wounded Peshmerga, further supplies of weaponry and other equipment.

Officers and supporters
Chairman: Jack Lopresti
Vice-Chairs
Lord Clement-Jones
Robert Halfon
Mike Gapes

Other Vice-Chairs

Bob Stewart
Henry Smith
Andrea Jenkyns
Nadhim Zahawi
Mary Glindon
Mark Hendrick
John Mann
Stephen Metcalfe
Seema Malhotra
John Woodcock
Ian Austin
Lord Glasman
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Jonathan Edwards.

Other members

Conor McGinn
Daniel Carden
Christian Matheson
Chris Stephens
Douglas Chapman

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Full text of SNP Spokesman Douglas Chapman MP in debate on the Kurdistan Region

I thank the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his speech. His knowledge of and passion for the Kurdistan area came through strongly, and his work for the all-party group is impressive. The imminent recapture of Mosul from Daesh control by Iraqi security forces is a welcome development, and it will bring multiple complex challenges. The transition from offensive combat operations to a post-conflict stabilisation phase—notably the performance of constabulary police—has not always been well handled by the Iraqi Government forces. Above all, it is critical that there should be no repeat of the stories and allegations that emerged, for example, from the recapture of Fallujah when Iraqi Government forces were accused of reprisals against suspected Daesh fighters and the civilian population alike. Of equal importance are humanitarian aid, stabilisation and the restoration of functioning state institutions. As things stand, there are 820,000 Iraqis currently displaced from Mosul and the surrounding areas since military operations to retake the city began in October 2016. Their needs must become an immediate priority.

Although it is not part of Kurdistan proper, Mosul’s position within the disputed territories of northern Iraq, its multi-ethnic demography and its overall importance for the economy and governance of northern Iraq make it imperative that the authorities in Baghdad and Irbil should collaborate effectively in the aftermath of its recapture. We urge the UK and the other members of the international coalition to exert their influence to make sure that the collaboration works. I believe that yesterday the Foreign Secretary met Iraqi Foreign Minister Jaafari, and we expect to hear how that message might be communicated to him at a later time.

As many hon. Members have said, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have the right to decide their own future, and we urge all parties to work together to ensure that Kurdish self-determination is supported. My hon. Friends and I support the right to self-determination for all, provided it is expressed through peaceful democratic processes. We welcome the fact that the Government in Irbil intend to pursue their legitimate aspirations by means of a popular vote, but we would stress the importance of dialogue with Baghdad and with all regional actors to ensure that it passes off peacefully and contributes to regional stability.

I was taken by an article by President Barzani who, writing in The Washington Post, made a compelling case for Kurdistan to be an independent country. He wrote: “On Sept. 25, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will decide in a binding referendum if they want independence or to remain part of Iraq. The vote will resolve a conflict as old as the Iraqi state itself between the aspirations of the Kurdish people and a government in Baghdad that has long treated Kurds as less than full citizens of the country.Iraqi Kurdistan’s exercise of its right to self-determination threatens no one and may make a volatile region more stable. It will not alter the borders of any neighboring state and, if done right, will make for a much stronger relationship between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. We are determined to do everything possible to accommodate Iraqi concerns in the likely event that the vote is for independence.”

The President argues that Kurdistan’s case for independence is compelling and he points out that 100 years ago, in the peace negotiations that followed world war one, the Kurds were promised their own state. Instead they were divided against their will, and their lands were carved up among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The newly-established state of Iraq was supposed to be an equal partnership between Arabs and Kurds, but that hopeful dream gave way to a grim reality. All Iraqi Governments suppressed the Kurds, and the resulting atrocities culminated in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein used poison gas extensively on Kurdish towns and villages, levelled more than 5,000 Kurdish villages and deported Kurds to the south, where they were murdered and buried in mass graves; 182,000 Iraqi Kurds—nearly 5% of the population—including members of the President’s family, perished in that period.

The article continues:“With the overthrow of Hussein’s Baath regime, the Kurds worked hard to build a new Iraq, including drafting a constitution that guaranteed Kurdistan’s autonomy and protected the rights of all Iraqis. Fourteen years later, Baghdad has failed to implement key provisions of that constitution, and we have good reason to believe that it never will. This failure of the political system is also responsible for the drastic deterioration of relations between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the rise of the Islamic State, with disastrous consequences for all Iraqis, including the Kurds.”

The President notes that the principal argument that is made for Iraqi unity is that a single Iraq is better able to protect its citizens, but that that claim is not supported by evidence and experience. When the Islamic State attacked Kurdistan in 2014, using advanced US weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul, the Iraqi Government refused to give Kurdistan its constitutionally mandated share of the federal budget, and it certainly did not provide soldiers—known as the peshmerga, as other hon. Members have noted—with weapons. As an independent country, Kurdistan would have been able to finance and equip its own troops and to bring the fight to a much swifter conclusion.

The article states: “The war on the Islamic State since then provides a model for how Kurds and Arabs might cooperate in the future. In the battle to drive the Islamic State from Iraq, the peshmerga and the Iraqi army have been in an alliance of equals. Each army has its own chain of command. The peshmerga’s joint operations with the Iraqi military support each other in ways that never occurred in an Iraq where Baghdad sought to dominate and control Kurdistan. Regardless of the referendum, we will continue our close cooperation with Iraqi and Western forces until the final victory over the Islamic State.”
That statement tells us a lot about how Kurdistan would be a stabilising force in the region, should it be able to move to independent status and not have to rely on Baghdad for its orders. The President argues that an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad and would be a great neighbour, co-operating against terrorism and sharing resources, including water, petroleum and many kinds of infrastructure, in ways that would benefit both countries: “Without the sanctions that Iraq has applied to our imports and exports, we could jointly develop our human and natural resources in a common market to the benefit of both Kurdistan and Iraq.

While the results of the referendum will bind future Kurdistan governments, the timing and modalities of our independence will be subject to negotiation with Baghdad and consultation with our neighbors and the wider international community.” That is not the view of an aggressive state trying to have things all its own way. There is room for negotiation, and I am sure that the way the President has phrased his article means that his approach would be very peaceful and reasonable.

The article goes on to say: “In our negotiations with Baghdad, we will be practical. The issue of what territory joins Kurdistan will be the most contentious issue in the separation. Despite a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline, the Iraqi government refused to implement a key constitutional provision…that would have the people of the disputed areas decide their future democratically. Nearly ten years later, we propose to give them that opportunity.”That is a fantastic step in the right direction.“We wish to incorporate into Kurdistan only those territories where the people overwhelmingly want to be part of Kurdistan as expressed in a free vote. The last thing we want is a long-lasting territorial dispute with Iraq that could poison our future relations.”

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) talked about Kurdistan’s culture and diversity, which it values. It is home to Christians, Yazidis, Turks, Shabaks and Arabs, all of whose separate identities are recognised by its laws. Since 2003, many Iraqi Christians have moved to Kurdistan to escape the violence and persecution elsewhere in Iraq. Since Islamic State seized part of Iraq in 2014, Kurdistan has also provided support for more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, with only minimal help from Baghdad and the international community.

I appreciate the input from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who talked about having a vibrant civil society within a progressive Muslim nation. He referred to the disgraceful Red House—I was not aware of it, and I think most Members would look on it with disgust. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) talked about having respect for the peshmerga, which has support in the north-east. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen talked about the people of Birmingham all moving to Scotland—I am not sure that is a very good idea at the moment, although they would be very welcome—which indicates the scale of what has happened in that country.

Finally, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) said that the people of Kurdistan have the inalienable right to decide their own future. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s position, and that they will reconsider their attitude to Kurdistan and the referendum that is about to take place.

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Full text of Nadhim Zahawi MP’s speech in Commons debate on the Kurdistan Region

As I have so often said in my parliamentary contributions since being elected for the first time in 2010, I am very proud to be the first British Member of Parliament of Kurdish descent. I therefore feel, perhaps more strongly than most, that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have an inalienable right to self-determination, as do all peoples. That is why it is my belief that September’s referendum should be welcomed by our Government, without the need for the Minister to express a desire or opinion for or against independence.

There are many who say that Kurdistan could not survive as an independent state, that it is not ready for such an important vote, or that now is not the time for it. Whatever the outcome of September’s vote, I believe Kurdistan can and will prosper. Although the most recent delays to holding September’s long-awaited and long-overdue referendum are understandable given the conflict in the region, I cannot help but draw attention to the deficiencies of previous Iraqi Governments in helping to facilitate the vote. In so doing, I am sympathetic to arguments that claim previous Iraqi Governments have effectively contributed to the mood for separation in Iraqi Kurdistan. The so-called Iraqi Barnett formula works in the opposite way to ours. I say that slightly in jest: since 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan has been almost totally cut off in terms of central Government funding. The region questioning its independence is shouldering a greater financial burden than other regions of the country, rather than the other way round.

In 2005 Iraq approved its new federalist constitution, with 79% in favour and 21% against. However, significant parts of the constitution are, sadly, yet to be implemented by Baghdad, denying regional Governments the autonomy for which an overwhelming majority of Iraqis had voted. Perhaps the most significant part of the constitution for Iraqi Kurdistan that is yet to be implemented is article 140. It has long been the expectation that the disputed Kurdish regions within particular governorates would be dealt with as Kirkuk was: they would have a referendum on whether they should become part of the Kurdistan Regional Government or remain within the greater Iraq. Article 140 makes it imperative that significant and sufficient measures to reverse Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation process in the disputed regions are undertaken so that the referendum is seen to be fair.

Thousands of Kurds returned following the events of 2003, and those regions are now under the control of the KRG after it claimed them from Daesh, but a formal referendum has not taken place. We now face a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence while the status of the disputed regions remains unresolved.

President Barzani has confirmed that residents of the disputed regions, which Baghdad still considers not to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan, will be allowed to partake in September’s referendum. My fear, however, is that whatever the outcome of September’s vote, without the prior resolution of the regions’ statuses, Baghdad or Irbil will use the treatment or inclusion of those regions as a means to negate the result or make the referendum illegitimate. If it is a no to independence, Irbil may say that the result would have been different had disenfranchised Kurds been formally reunified with Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the referendum. If it is a yes, Baghdad may say that the result would have been different had the disputed regions not been included in the plebiscite as, they would argue, should have been the case all along.

I realise that I may be painting a rather bleak picture of a post-referendum Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the concerns I have raised, I am still on balance far more optimistic than pessimistic. Although we may see a minor war of words between Irbil and Baghdad in the wake of September’s result, whatever it is I think the wider and longer-term result will be greater stability in the whole region. We will almost certainly see greater devolution to the KRG as a result of the vote: either total devolution in the case of independence or more devolution in order to placate the unsuccessful side in the case of a no vote. It is this devolution, the autonomy and power to control its own economic affairs, to manage its public services and to raise its own army, that has made Iraqi Kurdistan such a powerful force for regional stability.

The peshmerga have enjoyed immense success in combating Daesh-Isil, as many of my colleagues have mentioned, and in bringing stable and lasting liberation to large parts of Iraq and the adjoining parts of Syria. They have played an instrumental role in the liberation of Sinjar, and are continuing to do so as we speak on the eastern front in the battle to liberate Mosul. The leaders of western forces, our great military leaders, are all too ready to praise the peshmerga as the most effective military operators in the region. It is precisely their status as a regional army that has led to their effectiveness. I see a clear causal link between greater devolution to Irbil and the liberation and eventual political stability of Kurdistan and the country of Iraq as a whole. For that reason, I welcome the prospect of any further devolution, whatever the degree.

I would also like to make reference to the very strong relationship that the KRG has with Turkey—another critically important power in the conflict taking place in Iraq and Syria and one on which regional stability also depends. I further welcome more devolution to Irbil in the hope of closer and more unified co-operation with Turkey in the campaign against Daesh.

My overall point is that rather than seeing a fully independent or more powerful Kurdistan as indicative of an increasingly divided and chaotic Iraq, one should see it as an opportunity to bring greater stability to the region. I urge the Government, represented here so ably by the Minister, whom I thank for giving up his time, to look closely at the opportunities that an Iraqi Kurdistan with more devolved power could bring.

I know from conversations with leading politicians in the KRG, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that the Iraqi Kurds would never resort to any violence of any kind against the Iraqi Government to make their case for more control over their own affairs. The KRG, and indeed the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, see Baghdad as their closest and most important strategic ally. My message to my Government is this: let us learn the lessons from our invasion of Iraq in 2003; let us recognise that we may have won the war but we certainly did not win the peace; and let us be open-minded about the role we can now play in restoring stability to Iraq by being positive about a more autonomous Kurdistan, whatever path it chooses for itself in September.

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Tracy Brabin MP on film and psychologists in the Commons debate on the Kurdistan Region

I have travelled to the region as the guest of the Regional Government of Kurdistan. I was invited to visit as part of a cross-party group of fact-finding parliamentarians. Aware that the conflict in the region is one of the biggest issues facing our world, I was very keen to go, and having spent a number of years volunteering in London with victims of torture—some from the region—I jumped at the chance to find out more.

On arriving in Irbil, I was shocked by the progressive and sophisticated surroundings. I was expecting a war zone, but the city could be mistaken for Dubai in its high-rise ambition and elegance. Sadly, war was not very far away. Half an hour’s ride out of the city, we were in a Syrian refugee camp near the border with the Kurdistan region. Chatting to families, surrounded by playful children, I heard so many stories of pain and suffering: loved ones missing believed dead, people injured by mines, children made orphans by war. Most of those I spoke to had been there for more than three years, with no guarantee of when they would return home. They were weary and exhausted; all they wanted was to be reunited with their families and get back to their homes.

Kurdistan is host to not just refugees from Syria, but 1.5 million people displaced by war from other parts of Iraq. Although refugees have special status in international law and are cared for by the UN, internally displaced people are the responsibility of the host Government. Sadly, Baghdad seems to be doing little to help and leaves the task to Kurdistan, which is already suffering an economic tsunami, thanks to a dramatic fall in oil prices, the hostility of Baghdad, which has cut its budget since 2014, and Kurdistan’s own dysfunctional economy, which needs massive reform.

As the Kurds and Iraqis move to liberate Mosul from the brutality of the self-styled Islamic State, more displaced people are heading into Kurdistan—the population has expanded by a third, which is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham moving to Scotland. Understandably, there are electricity and water shortages, and schools and hospitals are overwhelmed.

Travelling to the frontline in Mosul to talk to peshmerga fighters and Iraqi special forces, we saw clearly the sacrifices made by those men and women. Over the border, in Mosul province, we visited the Christian village of Bartella, which had been seized by the Iraqis after a brief firefight. ISIS did not have time to destroy houses or set booby traps, but many houses were pockmarked by bullets, while some were entirely destroyed by airstrikes. Later, visiting a local hospital, we saw soldiers suffering life-changing injuries. I was humbled to witness a female peshmerga fighter passing away. We and the rest of the world owe them so much.

Another poignant visit was to a camp that is home to Yazidis, who practise a pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religion. Many have been murdered as apostates, sold into sexual slavery between one IS emir and another across Iraq or Syria, or killed because they were deemed too old to sell. Women survivors saw their men slaughtered before their eyes and their babies killed for fun. Of the 5,000 Yazidi women abducted as spoils of war, 2,000 have escaped, but they must still endure daily nightmares and flashbacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) alluded to.

At the SEED project, which operates from a schoolhouse building, assiduous professionals were working carefully to help victims overcome such traumas. A couple of therapists had studied clinical psychology at Koya University, but that is the only such course in the whole of Kurdistan: the country is in desperate need of people who understand post-traumatic stress. It must be our priority, and the Government’s, to offer that support, alongside physical reconstruction and the political reform the country so desperately needs.

Another way to heal psychological wounds can be through culture, which can be a force for rebellion and resistance, as well as for rebuilding empathy and tolerance in communities. The Kurds’ love of poetry and music attest to that. The legendary Iranian-Kurdish folk singer Mazhar Khaleghi, who now runs the Kurdish Heritage Institute in Sulaymaniyah, says: “We have lost our lands and we’re probably never going to get them back. But we have to fight to save what is left of our culture. If we lose that, we have lost everything.” As 150,000 peshmerga fighters push back against IS, Khaleghi’s team of a dozen ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and historians are fighting to preserve the Kurdish identity.

Kurdistan is an exceptionally beautiful country and I was privileged to meet a number of film makers and producers, who were anxious to use the beautiful location to create greater creative links with the rest of the world. I was shown around a disused cigarette factory by a local producer who had some of the finance in place to create a film studio to rival Shepperton or Pinewood. Nearby Turkey has a vibrant film industry and I am sure the same could be true of Kurdistan. It is younger film makers such as Syrian-Kurdish director Lauand Omar, making films such as “Curse Of Mesopotamia”—a low budget horror that can be screened anywhere in the world—who are leading the way.

We can help by supporting Kurdistan’s ambition for inward investment, domestic production and private-sector employment within the Kurdistan region and working with the UK film industry to secure an efficient unified film industry organisation, merging the cinema directorates within the KRG. Kurdistan has huge potential to be a film-making centre in the middle east, bringing economic, social and cultural benefits to the region and its people. I hope there are people listening to this debate who could make that happen.

To visit Iraqi-Kurdistan was an absolutely fascinating opportunity. Yes, there are grave challenges in that part of the world—but where terror has done untold damage, a rose is growing through the cracks in the cement. Beauty and creativity is growing. I think we can all agree that that is testament to the Kurdish people. Over the coming years, they will look to us for support, and sometimes guidance. I hope that, in years to come, such support will be more forthcoming from our Government.

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Robert Halfon MP’s speech on the Kurdistan Region

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and, in particular, my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who introduced this debate and knows a huge amount about the region. Without sounding too sycophantic, I could not be more pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Minister back in his rightful position as the Minister for the Middle East.

I have been privileged to join all-party group delegations to Kurdistan—I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—five times since becoming an MP. Kurdistan has its problems, but it successfully has the essential ingredients for a flourishing society. It is an extraordinary place run by a progressive Muslim Kurdish Government dedicated to improving property rights, boosting private enterprise and encouraging inward investment. Unusually for that part of the world, the Kurdistan Government have determined that the rule of law must prevail. There are the beginnings of a vibrant civil society. I have met the trade unions several times on my visits, and I wish them well in developing sharp elbows to ensure that working people get a fair slice of the cake, although I would not recommend they follow the example of Len McCluskey and others. I have spoken to women’s organisations that have put domestic violence on the agenda and helped reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation. I salute the religious pluralism, and commend Prime Minister Barzani who said: “What differentiates [us] from most of the countries around us is religious and ethnic tolerance. Accepting and defending each other’s rights strengthens the principle of humanity in this country, particularly in difficult times.”

It is astonishing to see religions from all over the region—Turkmen, Christians and others—literally fleeing to Kurdistan, because they know that it is the one place where they will receive protection. I note that the KRG has appointed an official in charge of Jewish affairs. Jews once made up 17% of the population in Slemani before they were expelled in the bad old days, and there is a large Kurdish Jewish community in Israel. I remember driving past a Jewish area synagogue that was being preserved. Not many other nations in the middle east would preserve synagogues; they are usually knocking them down or demolishing them. I was very pleased when President Barzani told me that if Iraq recognised Israel, there would be a consulate-general in Irbil the next day. The relationship with Israel could be a major asset for both countries in future. Just imagine, Mr Davies, a progressive Muslim nation building relations with Israel, working together to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would set an example across the middle east.

There is one place, however, that I will never visit again: the Red House in Slemani. It was a horrific Ba’athist torture centre where thousands were murdered, tortured and raped. It is now a museum. More than anything, it shows the devastating inhumanity of Saddam’s regime. I remember going into a room inside the prison that was called the “party room”. In that room, women were raped by the guards and the subsequent foetuses were thrown into furnaces, in echoes of the holocaust. I remember going into the rooms of the prison, which were bugged. That was not for the prisoners, but to bug the guards in case they were giving anything to the prisoners, which has echoes of Stalin and Nazism. When we visited the Red House the second time, I refused to go in; I just sat outside.

The visits encouraged me to lead the Kurdistan Genocide Task Force, which united the KRG in the UK with MPs, academics and legal practitioners. In 2013 it helped persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide. We wanted to encourage the UK Government to do the same, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister will remember very well, the Government did not agree on the grounds that the decision should be legal and not political. I suspect we will still disagree, but I ask him to rethink. I give my real thanks to him for agreeing that the British Government should formally mark Anfal Day every April. I passionately believe that given the suffering of the people of Kurdistan, it is vital that we recognise the genocide, because it was the demonisation, marginalisation and annihilation of the Kurdish people.

Some people at the time asked why we focused on the past, but the history of genocide remains relevant to the Kurdistan story. Let us remember that they lost nearly 200,000 people, most notoriously in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. Let us also remember that Saddam bombed the area before he used chemical weapons, so that the windows of all the Kurdish people’s houses were broken. That meant that when the chemical weapons were dropped, the people could not protect themselves by shutting themselves in their houses and shutting their doors and windows. More than 4,000 villages were razed to the ground. That was the beginning of forcible urbanisation, which makes it difficult nowadays to persuade people to leave the cities and make their money from agriculture. It could be a major source of income and help Kurdistan diversify away from a reliance on oil.

The past is never far from the surface. Just a few months after the Commons recognised Halabja and Anfal, the Syrian Ba’athist regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta. It is no coincidence that that was done by a Ba’athist party. In 2014, ISIL attacked Iraq and later Kurdistan. I am sure I have no need to persuade the Minister that ISIL undertook a genocide against the Yazidis and the Christians. I would welcome his update on the measures the UK is taking to help preserve evidence to mount criminal prosecutions. I remember being in Kurdistan and being warned by Kurdistan Ministers that, “In some months, we will have al-Qaeda in Mosul.” I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), was at that meeting. They called it al-Qaeda, not ISIL, but they said that that would happen. All the awful things they predicted would happen tragically did happen.

The genocide against the Kurds ended when they rose up against Saddam in 1991 and evicted him from most of Kurdistan under our armed protection. For that the Kurds will always thank the then British Prime Minister, John Major, and British public opinion, which was appalled at the sight of so many people dying in the freezing mountains which had, in the old Kurdish saying, been their only friends. It is a privilege to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who was so involved at that time.

Whenever one thinks of the Iraq war, the thing we must always thank Tony Blair for is the fact that but for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan nation would likely still face an existential threat. Saddam has gone. Leaders that followed may not have been like him, but their actions did much to break the hope of federalism. That is why the Kurds are now seeking their sovereignty. I worry, however, that the mentality that allowed thousands of soldiers to conduct genocide is still obvious in the condescending and high-handed manner in which the Kurds are treated by Baghdad. I am also concerned about the attitude of the Shi’a militia towards the Kurds.

I have much sympathy with the Kurds’ desire for independence so that they can always protect themselves. I certainly believe they have the right to exercise self-determination by holding a referendum in September. I have signed the early-day motion stating that, and would be willing to observe the referendum. I understand that the Government’s position is to ask them to be proactive in seeking to facilitate the negotiations that will follow a successful referendum result, so that the Kurds and Arabs currently in Iraq can negotiate a more productive relationship. The UK must do everything possible to support this remarkable nation, which is at the vanguard of the fight against ISIS and for democracy, rule of law and a free economy in Iraq and the middle east.

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Mary Glindon MP’s speech on Kurdistan Region and people to people diplomacy

Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab). I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate, on his excellent and passionate speech and on being elected chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. Unlike many Members here, I have not yet visited the Kurdistan region, but I have attended many all-party group meetings with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s High Representative, Karwan Jamal Tahir, and others, to gain insight into the region. I, too, would like to thank the peshmerga for their bravery in resisting so-called Islamic State, and I am relieved that Mosul is near to full liberation from a ghastly organisation whose brutality is beyond reasonable comprehension.

Through the all-party group I have heard disturbing direct testimony about girls who were enslaved and raped multiple times but managed to escape. Sadly, I am sure that their psychological traumas will last forever, but at the very least they can be treated. I understand there is just one university department of clinical psychology in Kurdistan. I fear that the department will be overwhelmed by the anguish that will become ever clearer and more in need of urgent attention over the coming weeks. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to play any role they can in increasing the number of clinical psychologists in Iraq and Kurdistan. Those young women—those victims—deserve nothing less than being able to look forward to a future when they can at least manage their traumas, and so manage their lives.

We know that there are more than 1 million internally displaced persons—IDPs— currently accommodated in the Kurdistan region, as well as more than 200,000 Syrian refugees. Resettlement is limited because of poor security and the lack of basic services. However, the Catholic Church, working in the region, has played a significant role in helping IDPs and refugees since the beginning of the crisis. The diocese of Irbil currently supports about 70,000 people with accommodation, subsistence, education and employment. Many of those people are from religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has welcomed the Government’s recent decision to extend the vulnerable person resettlement scheme to non-Syrian refugees in the region. I hope that the Minister can say what support the Government plan to provide, during this Parliament, for Churches and religious communities that are helping IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan.

I join colleagues in supporting the right of the Kurds to express their self-determination through the referendum in September. I commend the Kurdistan leadership’s decision to ask the people for a mandate to negotiate full independence and new relations with Iraq. I also understand the position of the British Government, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, who visited Kurdistan in January 2015 as the then Mayor of London. He visited British troops training the peshmerga and was even pictured alongside one of them with an AK47. He wrote that he had previously met “a dynamic and forward-looking young politician”—Nechirvan Barzani— “the prime minister of the fledgling state of Kurdistan.”

He further stated: “Then we should help because we have a moral duty to that part of the world. It was the British who took the decision in the early Twenties to ignore the obvious ethnic divisions, and not to create a Kurdistan”, which he described as “one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.”

I accept that such solidarity and the right hon. Gentleman’s recent statement as Foreign Secretary are not incompatible, but I also recognise that the referendum will proceed. We will see whether the long negotiations achieve independence or a firm guarantee of equality in a new Iraq. It is not for me to say what is best for the Kurds, but I suggest that the UK and its diplomats use their experience and expertise to facilitate progress.

I want to highlight how the struggle of the Kurds has captured the hearts and minds of many ordinary British people who are practising their own version of diplomacy, and I am proud to speak about an example from the north-east. The Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers have held charity fundraising events in both Gateshead and Newcastle. Its founder, Kurdistan-born Professor Deiary Kader, mobilises health professionals from the north-east to visit Kurdistan two or three times a year, to provide free orthopaedic care. He and his colleagues are literally putting Kurds back on their own two feet through many free hip and knee operations, which are beyond the capacity of the health system there, or for which people would have to wait many years. The charity undertakes formal educational events to raise the standard of surgical care, as well as providing blankets and winter clothing to the Yazidi refugee camps in Duhok. The charity is also building a connection between Kurdistani doctors and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon, to transfer war-injured casualties to the committee’s war-wounded trauma reconstruction centre there.

Although I have yet to visit Kurdistan, I am an enthusiastic advocate of deep and broad links with our friends in the Kurdistan region, which is inclined to friendship with us and describes us as a partner of choice. The Minister has travelled to Kurdistan in his former official capacity and on an all-party group delegation. He was prepared to put aside Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefings to meet the passionate pleas of many Members here when the Commons discussed and agreed to formally recognise the genocide by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. I hope his wisdom will enable him to understand that the Iraqi Kurds have a special place in British hearts and do his best to help ensure their freedom, equality and justice.

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