A decade of Anglo-Kurdistani friendship

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the formation of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

It began for me almost accidentally. My first fleeting experience of the Kurds was in 1991 when I helped send blankets and food to those sheltering in the freezing mountains. After the invasion of Iraq, I helped found the Labour Friends of Iraq group, and organised a senior delegation to Kurdistan in 2006 to meet union leaders from across Iraq.

We also met the President and other political leaders in Erbil and Slemani. The Communist Party leader asked to borrow our bourgeoisie to invest and trade and break the isolation of Kurdistan. On our return, I asked several MPs to form the APPG and we started talking about commercial and cultural opportunities for British companies and institutions. It was difficult because few people could then place Kurdistan on the map and the mere mention of Iraq often caused people to gulp.

The group’s influence is based on frequent delegations where we decide who and what to see and include visitors who have been before as well as those who are fresh to Kurdistan. The combination of in-country experience and fresh insights from new MPs maximises our understanding.

On our first APPG trip in 2008, two of us had been before and two were new. We heard a lot about the potential of agriculture but had not yet ventured outside Erbil. The new MPs were sceptical about investing in agriculture but fully saw the point when we made the road trip through the wonderful countryside to Slemani.

Delegations have often been told of the quality of Kurdistani pomegranates and our reports mention the merits of exporting them from, say, Halabja to western supermarkets where these superhealth goods are valued and valuable and could allow Kurdistan, and Halabja, to be seen as about much more than genocide.

A highlight of our work was to persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide in the year of its 25th anniversary in 2013. Some suggested this was backward-looking but the argument for recognising the past was soon illustrated by the use of chemical weapons that year in Syria and the continuing contempt of many in Baghdad for the rights of the Kurds, whose budget transfers were unilaterally halted in 2014.

Frequent delegations also allow us to see for ourselves the pace of change in Kurdistan. Back in the mid-noughties, there was barely an energy sector and our drivers used to buy petrol in jerry cans at the roadside as there were few petrol stations then. The drivers used the opportunity to light up cigarettes and walk around the cars. We came to understand the need to boost health and safety provision. The hotel we stayed at in Slemani later burnt to the ground with significant loss of life, for instance.

On our second APPG delegation in 2009, we toured the new airport as it was being constructed and drove down the runway – the fifth largest in the world. Derek Wyatt MP suggested that we ask the petrolhead programme, Top Gear to organise a race down the runway. I wrote to the producer and they eventually did a programme in Kurdistan which reached millions of people with high praise for the beauty and security of Kurdistan.

Our regular reports seek to encourage the UK government to implement small but iconic measures that put Kurdistan on the political and commercial map. We persuaded the government to send an official trade mission in 2010 and that began to encourage companies and trade bodies to look west.
We heard many complaints about the visa system and encouraged reform so that Kurds no longer had to travel to Amman or Baghdad but we know that there is still great unhappiness about the high refusal rate, which was 66% at the last count.

There are limits to what we can judge and we instead encourage calm and moderate dialogue on vexed questions and urge continuing political and economic reform. We do not, for instance, take a collective view on whether the President should be directly or indirectly elected but we can urge a negotiated settlement. We can encourage the sharing of experience and expertise from our parliament. Some years back myself and the then Chair, Meg Munn MP, did presentations to most Kurdistani MPs on how Westminster works.

We are independent of both the KRG and the HMG – Her Majesty’s Government – but I hope we can continue to be a bridge of mutual interest between the Kurdistan Region, its High Representation in the UK, its Diaspora and the people and parliamentarians of the UK. It has, I hope, been a fruitful decade of solidarity and friendship.

This article by Gary Kent, writing in a personal capacity, appears in Rudaw.

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The APPG on the Kurdistan Region holds an extraordinary general meeting on Monday 23 January from 5-6pm in W4 in the Commons with discussion led by the Director Gary Kent and the KRG High Representative Karwan Jamal Tahir.

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Graham Jones MP outlines his experience of visiting Kurdistan and Mosul with the APPG

I stood over the toilet and thought long and hard. ‘Should I press the button and flush it’?

The house we were in was once an ordinary house. Now it is an empty house in a place no-one has ever heard of until three weeks ago. The town of Bartella is just 12 miles from Mosul. It had a population of 20,000 mostly Christians and is the last town before Mosul itself. The frontline against Daesh.

It had been a Daesh stronghold for two years until the recent bloody fight. One they fought to the death to keep. The most bloody battle so far with casualities on both sides, a battle brought into all our living rooms by a Sky News embedded reporter reporting whilst under attack from sniper bullets and numerous VBIEDS. Suicide trucks packed with explosives.

The Iraqi Special Forces commander sat in the living room surrounded by SF operatives. He’d lost numerous brave colleagues in the battle to retake Bartella. A town his troops were now clearing of land mines in the fields and of Daesh booby trapped IED’s in the town.

I decided I’d better not flush the toilet – just in case. I also resisted the temptation to lift the lid and check in the water tank too – just in case. This is a dangerous place. Sat in the front room I did not know whether the house had been checked thoroughly or whether Iraqi Special Forces had just moved into it that day or that hour as they moved through the town.

The commander told us about the long tunnels. How some of them were connected through graves. How the enemy can be in front of you and then, suddenly behind you. How life means nothing to Daesh. How barbaric they are and how his soldiers must show patience and discipline in moving forward. That without American military equipment it’s a battle they may not have won. He tells
us Daesh lost 144 fighters in the battle of Bartella.

Our drive through the streets was accompanied by Humvee’s and Peshmerga special forces. Brutal foes for decades, Arab and Kurds now standing alongside each other. We passed beautiful homes long since abandoned. Their owners displaced into camps or murdered? Families separated. Did they get out in time? Did they suffer? Every now and again a single house is nothing but a pile of rubble and twisted metal, household items scattered amongst the debris.

The commander also tells us that without Australian and US GPS airstrikes such as at Bartella, Daesh would have been able to fight on far more effectively. Still able to perpetrate their deprived barbarity. Power tools to torture people, mass graves, summary executions.

He explains passionately like many previously that Daesh is an Iraqi created problem, not a western created problem. The west must stop making that argument. My colleague a former ‘Stop the War’ supporter feels sick. Seeing the raped and pillaged women and children in the camps, seeing the desecration and the barbarity has changed their mind. It’s all too much.

As we leave Bartella we see a remote dry plain of just a few buildings which sprawls out into our distance. A few scattered Daesh hideouts or bomb making factories visibly flattened from the air by coalition forces. This is not an assault on hospitals or humanity but a fight for human rights and decency.

This article originally appeared in the Lancashire Telegraph. Graham Jones MP was a member of the APPG delegation which visited Kurdistan and Mosul in early November 2016.

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British MPs in Mosul and Kurdistan

Groups of dishevelled men eyed us suspiciously at a hastily built and bleak reception camp fifteen miles from Mosul to accommodate thousands fleeing to the Kurdistan Region. The Peshmerga General escorting our cross-party team of British MPs mentioned that most people there supported the so-called Islamic State (IS). We moved nearer our armed protection officers.

We then toured a Christian village recently liberated in a bloody battle nearer Mosul. Iraqi commanders told us over chai how they and the Peshmerga are co-operating in an unprecedented manner. A generation ago they were fighting each other while Iraqi soldiers methodically razed thousands of villages and used chemical weapons in a genocidal campaign against the Kurds.

IS will soon be defeated on the battlefield but in camps across Kurdistan we heard harrowing tales of the huge human cost of this two-year war. One group singled out for extermination was the Yezedis whose religion predates Islam and Christianity. Men were immediately slaughtered along with women IS considered too old to be enslaved. Younger women were gang-raped and then repeatedly sold as chattel – boys and girls were also repeatedly raped. Some horrors are too graphic to describe. Families were thrown to the winds and survivors suffer constant flashbacks.

Rebuilding villages is relatively easy if expensive but rebuilding trust so displaced people can, as one weeping mother told us, go “home, sweet home” is harder. They cannot forget how close neighbours ratted on them or seized their possessions. Daily nightmares will take ages to manage although those caring for them are doing their utmost. The influx of two million people into the normally five million strong Kurdistan Region has also stretched its water and electricity supplies and swamped its hospitals and schools.

IS will fail but the root cause of its rise cannot be ignored or a new and maybe even more violent version will evolve. The minority Sunnis once dominated Iraq but were replaced in Baghdad by leaders from the Shia majority some of whom turned violently on them. Many Sunnis calculated that even IS was better than Baghdad. Long-term solutions that allow peoples to co-exist should be an international priority once Mosul falls. The Kurds insist the overthrow of Saddam was a liberation and tried to make Iraq work but Baghdad failed to honour the federalism agreed by a popular vote of all Iraqis. The Kurds have begun negotiations for an amicable divorce from Iraq.

Having taken many MPs and writers on a dozen trips to Kurdistan in ten years, I know how surprised and impressed they are by its hospitality, and the beauty of its mountains, plains and ancient sites which could underpin more tourism – it’s already a major destination in the Middle East. Energy resources are huge if worth less now but a balanced economy requires diverse revenues and they can make a go of reviving their agriculture – the bread basket of Iraq before Saddam destroyed it.

The Kurds chose democracy when they ejected Saddam in the safe haven afforded by the British-initiated no-fly zone in the 90s and are pro-Western and particularly pro-British. Deep economic crisis has chilled democratic progress in the last year but that must be revived after Mosul. Religious tolerance is another feather in the Kurdish cap and minorities feel safer in this moderate and secular Muslim country.

Kurdish leaders need more help to boost their military heft and care for wounded Peshmerga, and we visited some in hospital to thank them for defending their country and therefore us against a vile fascism. MPs say the government should supply beds for the most seriously injured Peshmerga in our specialist hospital in Birmingham.

Finally, we saw a flashy Jaguar showroom, which sold many cars before the war and can do so again when peace comes. Kurdistan needs assiduous Western political support and investment to prosper and make a positive difference in the troubled Middle East.

Gary Kent is the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and has visited Kurdistan and Iraq 25 times in the last ten years. He writes in a personal capacity. @garykent

This articles appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 19 November 2016.

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Foreign policy debate at the Conservative Party conference

The British Prime Minister Theresa May began her speech at this week’s Conservative conference by gently mocking her new foreign secretary in asking “Can Boris Johnson stay on message for a full four days?” – “Just about” was her own answer but Johnson did more than that by delivering a thoughtful and substantial speech on British foreign policy.

Johnson cited a conversation with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov which ended with Lavrov complaining that the West imposed democracy on Russia at the end of the Cold War in 1990. Johnson said it illustrated the fragility of Francis Fukuyama’s famous and influential “end of history” thesis and what Johnson dubbed “a moment of ideological resolution” for the “conglomerate of Western liberal values and ideals” such as the rule of law, human rights, independent judiciary, and the right of the media to mock politicians.

He also said the notion that the West could endlessly expand the realm of liberal democracy was badly damaged by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and because its model of free-market Anglo-Saxon capitalism was seriously discredited by the crash of 2008. Other leading international conservative figures candidly acknowledged that globalisation has slashed absolute poverty in a generation but many outside the top 1% and the bottom 30% feel excluded from its fruits.

Johnson concluded that the lack of Western political, military, and economic self-confidence means that the world is less safe. The number of deaths in conflict rose from 49,000 in 2010 to 167,000 last year. The global tally of refugees is up by 30% on 2013 to 46 million. The number of free or partly free African countries has fallen.

He rounded on Russian “war crimes” in Aleppo – “bombing hospitals when they know they are hospitals and nothing but hospitals” and which is making it impossible for peace negotiations to begin. The bleak picture he painted included a migration crisis that last year overwhelmed Europe’s ability to cope, and the violent extremism of Daesh erupting across the Middle East and spreading to Europe.

Such threats chill tourism and trade and tempt governments to use instability and insecurity as an excuse to move away from democracy in the belief they can have economic prosperity without political and social freedom.

Turning to the role of Britain today, he reflected that the Foreign Office was once the nerve centre of an empire that was seven times the size of the Roman empire at its greatest extent and had for 200 years directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries but “those days are gone forever and that is a profoundly good thing.”

But he sought to reclaim the UK’s global role and said it would be a fatal mistake now to underestimate what Britain is doing or can do because, in spite of Iraq, it is simply not the case that every military intervention has been a disaster.

He added that Britain thinks an age before wielding hard power, which has been enhanced by “the gentle kindly gunboats of British soft power” – “the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country and now has more speakers than any other language on Earth and up the creeks and inlets of every continent on Earth.” He cited Churchill’s adage that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind.

How much influence the UK will have will depend to a large degree on how successfully Britain reconfigures its links with the European Union and the wider world, a process that is still being defined but which will formally begin next Spring. Much could go wrong and divisions could deepen, while the apparently unassailable dominance of the Conservatives, as they seek to win Labour voters and those on the right, is far from given.

As well as hard and soft power, ministers are proud that the UK is a development superpower and that includes great efforts in helping look after those who have fled to the Kurdistan Region. Yet this is rarely mentioned by ministers and nor is the potential of the KRG, which does not fit classic categories of international relations, and may concern those who hear Iraq and think disaster.

I was at the Conservative conference in Birmingham with the KRG High Representative Karwan Jamal Tahir who actively made the case for the Anglo-Kurdistani relationship with ministers and others. Tangible signs and symbols of British support need to be heard, understood and supported by party members and the wider British public. After all, the Kurdistan Region’s ideological and military rejection of Daesh is vital to the British and indeed global interest.

This is a personal view by Gary Kent

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The foreign policy debate at the Labour Party conference

“And then there’s Iraq” is a phrase often used by critics of the Blair years who have been boosted by the re-election as leader of the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, whose apology for invading Iraq easily won the biggest applause at this week’s conference in Liverpool.

This four word phrase or just the four letter word, Iraq, usually suffices as shorthand for all that angered many party members with Blair and underpins Corbyn’s second and larger victory. But hard questions about security and intervention cannot be shirked by a party that could form a government and whose actions in opposition can set limits on current government action.

We saw the results of this when Labour MPs refused to back a relatively minor military action to punish Syrian President Assad for using chemical weapons in August 2013. This failure to act prolonged the war and enabled Russia to flex its muscles in the Middle East. Corbyn himself opposed airstrikes in Iraq and in Syria, as a backbencher and then leader in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Unpacking and understanding the invasion of Iraq and detailed critiques of how it was done is not an academic exercise but essential to retrieving the principle of using British political, economic, diplomatic, moral, cultural and military power for the good of humanity.

Labour’s divisions on intervention were on display at the conference. Former shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn told supporters that “when people who are fascists – and I use that word deliberately – are committing genocide, as the UN has now said, against Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and elsewhere, I think it is the duty of an internationalist Labour party to say we are prepared to help against the fascists … We have got to be, and remain, an internationalist, outward-looking party that will play its part.’

His successor, Emily Thornberry argued in her conference speech for an ethical foreign policy where war is always the last resort but where “peace is never achieved by dropping bombs from 30,000 feet.”

On the eve of his keynote conference speech Corbyn was asked if he would support bombing against Daesh in Iraq and Syria if he were Prime Minister. His answer focused on Syria but he said he didn’t think the bombing was working although, I would say, it saved the Kurds, continues to protect them, and is essential to liberating Mosul.

He said that conflicts always end in political settlement so why not start there although he excluded Daesh from a place at the negotiating table. This worthy but unworldly aspiration was impossible in this case given that there was no avoiding military force against an aggressive fascism that commits genocide and rape as a theocratic duty.

Corbyn’s pitch on foreign policy principles was that Europe faces the impact of a refugee crisis fuelled by wars across the Middle East, that “we have to face the role that repeated military interventions by British governments have played in that crisis,” and that the catastrophic consequences of western wars “have been the spread of terrorism, sectarianism and violence across an arc of conflict that has displaced millions of people forcing them from their countries.” He urged “a foreign policy based on peace, justice and human rights” and apart from the apology for Blair’s invasion majored on banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

To be fair, the foreign policy section of Corbyn’s speech was brief, and these homilies contain enough caveats to avoid being a simplistic reiteration of the antiwar movement’s line that the west is mostly to blame. But it rejects an anti-fascist narrative and avoids the autonomous agency of Baathism, Al Qaeda and Daesh as well as the needs of their victims.

Conference delegates cheered his apology for Iraq and his hope that lessons will be learnt from the Chilcot report. But if the lesson is taken as never or perhaps rarely accepting the use of British military force, especially when it is allied to baseless scepticism about the efficacy of limited bombing in Iraq and Syria, then those seeking British military intervention in an emergency from a Corbyn government will be disappointed.

The anger over Iraq 2003 clearly continues to feed a popular desire to avoid using British military force and encourages at best a stress on development, diplomacy and deterrence, which are fine as far as they go but they can and do fail. Thornberry is right that war is the last resort but Benn is also right in urging anti-fascism and Britain pulling its weight in helping protect victims.

This is a personal view by Gary Kent

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Minutes of general meeting

Minutes of general meeting of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Tuesday 13 September 2016. W2.

Attendance – Parliamentarians. Mary Glindon, Jack Lopresti, Jason McCartney, Stephen Metcalfe, Bob Stewart, Nadhim Zahawi.

Also in attendance: Gary Kent (Director), Karwan Jamal Tahir and Khasro Ajgayi (KRG), Dlawer Al Al’Aldeen (Middle East Research Institute, Meri) and observer for Jonathan Djanogly MP.
Apologies. Lord Clement Jones, Lady Hodgson

1 Meeting agreed to add Jack Lopresti as a Vice-Chair.

2 Meeting approved the Income and Expenditure statement for the period of the reporting year from 15 June 2015 to 14 June 2016.*

3 Gary Kent updated APPG on plans for delegation in November 2016.

4 KRG High Representative Karwan Jamal Tahir briefed the group on the current situation in the Kurdistan Region. Conclusions included seeking a Westminster Hall debate on British support for the Peshmerga and the KRG, pressing the government to supply free beds for the most seriously injured Peshmerga in Birmingham, and the need for a visit by the KRG President and/or Prime Minister.

5 Dlawer Al Al’Aldeen briefed the APPG on the work of Meri and the current situation including the debate about how to liberate and then govern Mosul.

* This shows nil subscriptions, trading income, interest or other but receipt of monetary benefit and expenditure on employment costs for the Secretariat of £58,000 from Petoil Chia Surkh Ltd, and benefits in kind for the November 2015 delegation to the Kurdistan Region – £18,001-19,500 from Qaiwan Group for travel, and £9,001-10,500 from the Kurdistan Regional Government for hotels and internal travel.

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Jack Lopresti MP advocates support for the Peshmerga in the Commons

!2 September

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

May I ask the Secretary of State why it took a year for us to supply ammunition for the heavy weapons that we supply to the peshmerga in Iraq? Can he assure the House that such delays will never happen again, and that we are doing everything that we possibly can to help the peshmerga in their fight against Daesh?

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon

We have supplied, as my hon. Friend knows, not only heavy machine guns to the peshmerga but ammunition for those heavy machine guns. I announced earlier in the summer a fresh gift from us of ammunition for those heavy machine guns, and I am very pleased to tell him that that ammunition has now arrived and is being used.

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Hilary Benn MP on the Kurdistan Region in the debate on Chilcot

Ectract. The best evidence for the difference that good politics and good governance can make in Iraq is shown by the Kurdish region, which, let us not forget, was as it was partly because of the support we had given it through the no-fly zone. As a result, it is now the most stable and relatively prosperous part of Iraq. I pay tribute, as others have, to the Peshmerga for the role that they have played, and still play, in trying to defeat Daesh.

The Kurds regard the 2003 invasion as a liberation. Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the UK, wrote this week about the Chilcot report that “there was an Iraq before the 2003 invasion, an Iraq that, for millions, was a concentration camp on the surface and a mass grave beneath.”

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Support for Peshmerga raised in David Cameron’s final PMQs

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

Q4. I, too, pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the hard work that he has done leading this great country for the past few years. My right hon. Friend’s lasting legacy will include supporting the Kurds whose peshmerga are bravely fighting Daesh in all our interests. Having visited the peshmerga on the frontline, I know that our airstrikes, weapons and training are crucial, but peshmerga injuries could be reduced with additional equipment such as body armour, respirators and front-line medical facilities, and we possibly could provide some beds in our specialist hospital in Birmingham to the most seriously injured. Does he agree that that is a relatively small investment that would make a huge difference to our allies in our common fight to defeat the evil of terrorism?

The Prime Minister

First, I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He is absolutely right that the Kurds are incredibly brave fighters and are doing valuable work against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I will look carefully at his suggestion of using the Birmingham hospital. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital has excellent facilities for battlefield casualties. Our Army is already providing medical instruction to the peshmerga to help them deal with the situation, but we will look to see whether more can be done. Let us be frank, the strategy is working. Daesh is on the back foot: it has lost 45% of the territory that it once held in Iraq; its finances have been hit; more than 25,000 Daesh fighters have now been killed; desertion has increased; and the flow of foreign fighters has fallen by 90%. I have always said that this will take a long time to work in Iraq and Syria, but we must stick at it and we must stay the course.

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