Analysis of Iraq should include Kurdistan

The Guardian recently published an article by Rachel Shabi (Iraq needs leadership worthy of its people, 25 October).

The following response from the APPG Co-Chairs, Meg Munn MP and Nadhim Zahawi MP has been sent.

An article on Iraq that fails to mention its Kurdistan Region just won’t do. This region of the country has been harnessing its resources and providing for its population almost continuous power, including supplying to neighbouring provinces. It ensures superlative public safety and enjoys a booming economy built on developing its oil and gas industry. Crucially, old enmities with Turkey are being overcome.

It has been able to do this and work positively within Iraq as a whole. Its leaders have played a decisive role in brokering political solutions in Baghdad in order that the central government could function. There has been a protracted dispute with some in the national capital about the region’s quest for economic independence – devo max. This is part of the debate with Iraq as a whole about the role and reach of a federal structure, and how to ensure reliable revenue-sharing mechanisms.

But any reasonable picture of Iraq should include the possibility that the Kurdistan Region could provide a model to the rest of the country as it seeks to escape from its tragic past.

Meg Munn MP (Lab) and Nadhim Zahawi MP (Con)
Co-Chairs, All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

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Time to recognise Kurds are victims of genocide, too

The Jewish Chronicle – Fri, 11 Oct 2013

In August, the Prime Minister gave an interesting response to a question from the campaigning Harlow MP, Robert Halfon, about intervention in Syria.
Among other things, Mr Halfon is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and he asked the Prime Minister about the Halabja massacre in March 1988, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish people with horrific consequences.

“Does he not agree,” said Mr Halfon, “that there is a humanitarian case for intervention, especially given what happened in recent history in Halabja in 1988, when 5,000 Kurds were killed with mustard gas?”

David Cameron replied: “I applaud my honourable friend for always standing up against genocide, wherever it takes place in the world. It may well be that the fact that no action was taken over Halabja was one of the things that convinced President Assad that it was OK to build up an arsenal of chemical weapons.”

The response was interesting not just because the Prime Minister was prepared to make the link between international inaction over Halabja and the events in Syria, but because he used the G-word to describe what happened 25 years ago in Iraq.

In February, Parliament voted to recognise the Kurdish genocide and survivors have been campaigning for the UK government to issue a formal recognition.
The UK High Representative of the Kurdish regional government, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, has now written to Mr Cameron to ask him to clarify whether he now recognises the Halbja massacre as genocide.

“If that is the case,” she wrote, “it will be warmly welcomed by the people of Kurdistan and all those who believe in the protection of human rights.”

I believe the Jewish community, like Robert Halfon, should fully support this campaign (not least because Saddam’s murderous “Anfal” operation also targeted Jews).

I understand the importance of recognising the unique horror of the Shoah and do not agree with those who believe a Genocide Day should replace the annual Holocaust Memorial event.

But I do not see how a recognition of the Saddam’s genocidal attack on his own people detracts from the suffering of the Jewish people under Hitler.

I have long thought that schoolchildren should study Halabja alongside the atrocities of the Nazi era in order to understand that this is something that can always happen again if good people do not remain vigilant. I hope Ms Rahman receives the response she and her people deserve.

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UK Shadow Middle East Minister: ‎Kurdistan an emerging player with massive potential for UK

Brighton, UK ( – The Kurdistan Region is emerging as a player in its neighbourhood and offers massive potential to the UK, according to Ian Lucas, the UK Opposition Labour party’s Shadow Middle East Minister.

Mr Lucas was speaking recently at the Labour party’s annual conference in Brighton. He was part of a panel discussing the Kurdistan Region and energy security at a fringe meeting organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government UK Representation and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region.

Other speakers were Lord Glasman and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG High Representative to the UK. The meeting was chaired by Gary Kent, director of the APPG on Kurdistan.

Shadow Middle East Minister, Ian Lucas

Speech, fringe meeting, Labour Party Conference

Brighton, September 2013

In many parts of the Middle East, the UK is handicapped by its history: from Iran to Israel, there are those who are suspicious of the UK because of past UK ME policy.

In the region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the position is entirely different. There is a huge well of goodwill towards the UK borne of UK policy towards the Kurds in the last 20 years.

It is in this context that Kurdistan region is developing.

Politically, it is in a tough neighbourhood, next to Syria, to Iran and its traditional foe, Turkey. last June, however, I saw for myself how Iraqi Kurdistan is thriving in that locality. Politically, it has a working relationship with Iran and is redefining its traditional relationship with Turkey.

It is also offering huge support to Syria, support I saw for myself at the Domiz Refugee Camp near the Syrian Border.

It is helped in this process by Kurds returning from across the world to what they see as the new born Kurdistan. I met Kurds returning from Canada, Australia and the United States. They want to be part of building a new country within Iraq.

As English speakers, they are beneficiaries of the Kurds’ thirst for the language – in its media, its universities and its economy. I met with Erbil University’s Vice- Chancellor who had already met with representatives of Glyndwr University in my own town of Wrexham.

What is driving relationships forward is Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and gas wealth, resources that are at the root of the region’s new bond with Turkey. I saw the road near Duhok, packed with tankers delivering oil. It will shortly be superseded by a new pipeline, a physical expression of the new link between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey.

This emerging player offers massive potential for the UK. Our language and reputation are enormous benefits to the UK : together they offer us a new gateway to the region, a gateway that has not existed before

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Christianity in Kurdistan Today

Event at the Royal Geographical Society sheds light on the culture, history and day to day life of this overlooked minority.

Kurdistan is home to many ancient churches, including the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syrian Catholic Church. It is a region rich in religious and cultural history. Its diversity today is a reflection of over 2000 years of changing empires, commerce and the exchange of ideas from East to West.Isolated from Byzantine and Roman Christianity under the Sassanid Empire, Assyrian Christians developed and safeguarded a unique and ancient tradition.

How important are the Christians of Kurdistan for the Middle East today? What role have they played in the past?

The UK-registered charity Gulan has invited two speakers to give exclusive insight into the history and day-to-day life of Christians in Kurdistan.

Held at the Royal Geographical Society, the evening will include the first public exhibition of Anthony Kersting’s photographs of Christians in Kurdistan in the 1940s, from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Complimenting these, are images from the archive of the Dominican Community in Erbil, which show the local dress and customs of Christians in the region.

There will be a display of costumes from the Museum of Syriac Heritage, Ankaw, and calligraphy by Bihnam Al Agzeer, depicting verses from the Bible and the Qur’an. There will also be a performance of Syriac music.

The Speakers

Najeeb Michaeel, a Christian of the Chaldean church from Mosul, joined the Dominican Order in France in the 1980s. Returning to Mosul as an ordained priest, he founded the Digital Center of Eastern Manuscripts. He has a particular interest in the study and preservation of ancient manuscripts.

Novelist, publisher and translator Dr. Saadi Al Malih studied philology in Moscow. He then moved to Canada and founded Al-Miraat, a weekly Arabic newspaper. Now based in Ankaw, he acts as General Director of Syriac Culture and Art in the Ministry of Culture and Youth of the Kurdistan Regional government.

Event details
Thursday 31 October 2013
Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 2AR
Tickets £10, to book please visit:

About Gulan

Gulan is a UK-registered charity which aims to highlight and celebrate the diversity of Kurdistan. Gulan began by hosting the Runaki Festivals in London, which presented the work of Kurdish artists, poets, dancers and filmmakers.

In 2012, Gulan hosted an event on the Jews of Kurdistan at the Royal Geographical Society, as part of a series of events exploring the diversity of faith in Kurdistan.
In June 2013, Gulan supported the acclaimed artist Jamal Penjweny, sponsoring part of his stay in Venice, when his work was exhibited at the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Eleanor Robson, Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, has described the Gulan team as “dynamic and imaginative”.
Gulan has no political or religious agenda, and does not accept funds from sources wishing to advance a particular political of religious aim through their gift.
For more information about Gulan please visit:

Follow Gulan on Twitter: @GulanUK
Follow Gulan on Facebook:

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Oil export pipeline near completion, KRG minister tells meeting at Conservative Party conference

THU, 3 OCT 2013 09:08 |

Manchester, UK ( – A pipeline to export oil from the Kurdistan Region will be operational within a few months, Ashti Hawrami, the Kurdistan Regional Government Minister of Natural Resources, told a meeting at the Conservative Party conference yesterday.

‘The new oil export pipeline from the Kurdistan Region is almost complete and is expected to be operational by the end of the year,’ Dr Hawrami said. He added that he expects exports to reach 1m barrels per day by 2015 and 2m by 2019. ‘ We are helping the security and continuity of energy supply to the world,’ he said.

He added, ‘Sharing all oil revenues according to the federal constitution, and the economic independence of Kurdistan are the recipe for the unity of Iraq.’

The minister was speaking at a meeting addressing energy security, hosted by the KRG UK Representation. Other speakers were Nadhim Zahawi MP, Jane Kinninmont of the think tank Chatham House, analyst and consultant Shwan Zulal, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG’s High Representative to the UK. The meeting was chaired by Robert Halfon MP, vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region.

Dr Hawrami told an audience of Conservative Party members, diplomats, journalists, business representatives and analysts that Kurdistan Region’s energy riches had been ignored or used against the Kurdish people under previous Iraqi governments. ‘With the liberation of Iraq, a new era, an opportunity for sharing power and wealth, opened up in Iraq. The Iraqi constitution facilitates that but so far it hasn’t been implemented,’ he said.

The minister also noted that the KRG sees Turkey not just as a conduit for Kurdistan’s oil and gas to Western markets, but also as a consumer and partner. Dr Hawrami highlighted the role of British companies in the energy sector as well as in Kurdistan’s growing economy generally. He encouraged British companies to continue to look at Kurdistan as a destination for their investment. ‘We have a good relationship with Britain and there are lots of opportunities for British companies. It’s a win-win situation.’

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman spoke about the KRG’s strategy of prioritising tourism, agriculture and industry in order to avoid over-reliance on the energy sector. She said that the Kurds were now a factor in the shaping of the Middle East, both in terms of energy security and political settlements.

Nadhim Zahawi, the first British member of parliament to be of Kurdish origin, told the meeting that groups like the Kurds could no longer be ignored by those wishing to establish peace in the Middle East. Jane Kinninmont said that the KRG would need to diversify its economy. ‘I visited Kurdistan this year and spoke to young students who were keen that oil and gas is not wasted and that the economy doesn’t over-rely on it. Economic diversification will be a very important aspect of Kurdistan’s future,’ she said.

Shwan Zulal described the Kurdistan Region as a viable source of energy to Europe and pointed out that the KRG hoped to have a minerals law in place in the near future, opening a new sector of the Kurdish economy.

While at the conference, which was held in Manchester, Minister Hawrami and Ms Abdul Rahman met several British ministers and MPs, including Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East, Energy Minister Michael Fallon, Sajid Javid, Minister at the Treasury, and Lord Marland, the British Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy who recently led a trade delegation to Kurdistan. They also met the Turkish ambassador in Britain, Ünal Çeviköz, who welcomed them to the Conservative Friends of Turkey reception at the party conference.

The KRG UK Representation also attended the annual conferences of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in September. The Representation hosted a discussion on Kurdistan at the Labour Party conference with Ian Lucas, Shadow Middle East Minister, the Labour peer Lord Glasman, Faik Nerwayi, the Iraqi Ambassador to the UK, and Gary Kent, director of the APPG on Kurdistan.

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The Kurds then and now

Twenty two years ago, many thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to the mountains to escape the wrath of Saddam Hussein. Some of the stories of survival take your breath away. One father and his two daughters climbed a high mountain where their dilemma was simple: stay and freeze or return and die. The only way out was down the other side, not a sheer drop but a long fall, and escape into Iran.

The father tied himself to his daughters – they jumped and survived. Others hadn’t been so lucky. One dead woman at the bottom of the mountain was still standing and the father had to tell his young daughter that the lady would catch them up later.

The plight of the Kurds found a warm public reaction here. The MP I then worked for was asked for help by a British woman collecting blankets and food. Many others did similar things. We were able to persuade the Iranians to send a 747 to collect the material.

The public outrage led to Prime Minister John Major taking the lead in establishing a no-fly zone over the safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was a triumph for humanitarian intervention which was not, as it happened, sanctioned by the UN. It saved the Kurds.

After Saddam was overthrown, Iraqi Kurdistan became a recognised and largely autonomous region of Iraq. It has always been resource rich but its oil, gas and minerals were completely neglected by Saddam who conducted genocide against the Kurds. It was only from 2007 that the Kurdistan Region managed to create an energy sector from scratch.

It is now the oil exploration capital of the world. Its huge wealth could fund massive economic growth which has long been running at about ten percent a year. Its plentiful oil and gas reserves are the basis of a new economic and political partnership with an old foe, Turkey, which needs secure supplies from its neighbour.

The speed of the rapprochement between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey has been astonishing and has allowed Kurdish leaders to help facilitate the peace process between Turkey and the PKK. Their war has exacted a huge toll in Turkey over the last 30 years – up to 40,000 killed on both sides and a cost of many billions of dollars. Peace could substantially improve the position of the Kurds in Turkey.

Some are now asking the wrong question of this Kurdish renaissance. They wonder whether a new country encompassing the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria is possible.

It may be desirable but it is probably not feasible to think that Iran and Turkey would contemplate their own dismemberment without bloodshed. Kurdish leaders in Turkey, Iran and Syria all say that they seek autonomy, cultural rights or something similar to the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The borders will probably stay, although not if Syria splits. And it is not impossible to envisage that Iraqi Kurdistan could achieve independence from Baghdad, which may not have the means or the will to resist.

Having discussed this with Kurdish leaders, I don’t detect an active plan to seek independence. In my opinion, independence would only be possible with the support of Turkey and the USA, given that Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked. My best guess is that they will settle for a functioning federalism and economic independence so that they are no longer held back by bureaucrats in Baghdad.

However, a virtual Greater Kurdistan is on the cards, thanks to the Internet and satellite television and despite different dialects and differences based on a century of varied experiences in four countries.

Next month, several hundred Kurdish leaders from forty parties in all four countries will assemble in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for an historic Kurdish national conference.

It aims to advance political, economic and cultural visions for Kurds in those countries, including the pressing position of the Syrian Kurds, whose large numbers have recently been swollen by a river of refugees to the safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan.

History is repeating itself. This time, the Kurds have much more power to change things for themselves but these are still limited. This time, few people in the UK know or are moved by what is happening to the Kurds, and indeed others, in Syria. A united Kurdish voice can help change that but the international community should not leave the Kurds, and all Syrians, high and dry this time.

Gary Kent is Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity

* The Barzani school project is raising funds to build cabins in association with the Phoenix Resource Centre, a British environmental charity. Funds can be sent to the Syrian Refugees Account: sort code 55-70-37; account number 811 978 53.

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Some thoughts on domestic reform in Iraqi Kurdistan

The external environment for the Iraqi Kurds is better than for decades. My main fear is that if anyone can defeat the Kurds, it will be the Kurds. They could be their own worst enemies.

They could, despite their intentions, slump into being just another rentier state without a thriving civil society that can harness the creative energies of the 70% of Kurds under 30. This could encourage destructive disaffection and directionlessness, albeit one cosseted by high public spending.

Or they could build community cohesion and purpose, using their new wealth to the maximum, and deepening their democracy. To their credit, Kurdish leaders have voluntarily embarked on what the Foreign Minister says is “the journey from revolutionary to constitutional legitimacy.” They decided to establish a Parliament in 1992 and to reform the unviable command economy.

If they are a quasi-state they are also what one senior figure calls “a quasi-democracy,” which is unsurprising after such a short time. Parliamentary democracies, with all their checks and balances including a vibrant media, take time. Understanding that Kurdish democracy is in its infancy sounds like an excuse but remains true.

Many Kurdish leaders are urbane sophisticates with substantial experience of the outside world but others retain the old mindset of hoarding power, fearful of taking decisions that could rebound, and conflating private and public interest.

The state is obese and employs the vast majority of the workforce. Many with comfortable jobs in government offices – the main aspiration for young people – don’t work much, as candid ministers concede. A small elite of dedicated public servants carries these employees and makes strategic judgements and decisions.

A dynamic patriotism requires a strong work ethic. But a lax tax system and labour market obstruct this. Workers pay no income tax although they make a small contribution to pensions. Low or non-existent charges for utilities encourage irresponsible use of scarce resources such as water and electricity.

A tax base, contributory welfare state and reasonable utility charges would alter the relationship between the state and the people. They would move from supplicants to citizens willing to hold the state to account for its decisions about how to align tax and spending decisions.

It would encourage a more sustainable economy rather than relying on Baghdad or Erbil handing down a budget from on high. It would encourage greater public sector efficiency and encourage a growing private sector to introduce new disciplines.

The Kurds are, however, part of the wider Middle East where top-down decision-making and dependency are the norm. The Foreign Minister remembers a group briefing him about plans to boost volunteering but asking for state salaries.

Changing that mindset could prepare them for the day when their energy reserves earn less or expire. It also illustrates the need to expand other money-making sectors such as agriculture and tourism.

Furthermore, the Kurdistan Region is largely secular and profoundly pro-western. Former Prime Minister Barham Salih said: “if it plays its cards wisely, Kurdistan could be a catalyst for the Middle East. It may be Muslim and at the heart of the Middle East but it is not shy about saying ‘thank you’ for the liberation.”

The Catholic Bishop of Erbil recently showed me his new, KRG funded church near Duhok. Many Christians have fled to the sanctuary of the Kurdistan Region and receive exemplary treatment.

On women’s rights, Kurdistan is still part of the Middle East which is a man’s world. I remember the shock among Kurdish leaders when it became clear that FGM was more widespread than previously thought although it is difficult to specify its scale. The incidence of self-immolation by women seeking to escape their husbands is also deeply disturbing, if exaggerated by some.

But there have been great efforts to change all this, with some success. I met Pakshan Zangana, the Secretary General of the KRG’s High Council on Women’s Affairs whose job is to influence all ministries. I first met her when she was a Communist MP. She is a former Peshmerga – the Kurdish name for a fighter which means “those who face death” and which is unusual for a woman. She is fiercely independent and no nonsense.

She acknowledges that women tend to follow their husband and their tribe in how they vote. She agrees that there are too few women in public life – only one woman is in the Cabinet and for the typically female social affairs brief. She feels that her organisation is under-funded and wants women’s rights to be a bigger issue.

But she is proud of successes so far. The KRG has all but outlawed polygamy. They couldn’t ban it outright but have put so many conditions on it that it is virtually impossible. The KRG leadership has criminalised FGM and been working with Imams to undermine it culturally. Pakshan cites one area in which its incidence has been reduced from 86 to 5%. She praises improved police training on domestic violence.

The good news is she and many Kurdish leaders are completely open to external criticism, co-operation and expertise and that they have a small cadre of officials who worry hard and long about how they could learn from best practice elsewhere. There is a hunger for contact with the outside world after decades of isolation. Some hard-headed and candid thinking is taking place.

Increased commercial and cultural connections can boost such strategic thinking and wider workforce capacity. British companies should examine prospects in the Region, which boasts an enviably generous foreign investment regime but which needs to do more to improve its commercial infrastructure, including banking and the rule of law.

Its leaders always encourage visitors to describe Kurdistan as it is. But we should avoid condescension because their basic problems are common. Dialogue should be respectful and based on mutual interests.
Immense progress since 2006 justifies the contention that the Kurds of Iraq can overcome the manana syndrome, as they have in important aspects already, and build a better tomorrow.

Gary Kent

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Reflections on the political stalemate in the Kurdistan Region

News that the Kurdish Parliament has postponed the planned presidential election and extended the term of the current presidency for up to two years will understandably prompt concerns about democracy. If this were a power grab to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to another political force, it would reverse everything that Kurdish leaders have voluntarily embraced since they first escaped from Saddam’s genocidal fascism.

Kurdish leaders then decided to make a journey from revolutionary to constitutional legitimacy. They established a Parliament in 1992 and an elected Presidency in 2005. President Barzani was first elected by the parliament in 2005 and then by a popular vote in 2009.

My concern is that this latest news will be misunderstood and undermine political and economic confidence in the Kurdistan Region. There is, I think, more to this story than meets the eye at a glance. This is my understanding of the issues.

A draft constitution was agreed by the Kurdish parliament earlier this year and was due for ratification by a popular referendum. The constitution was based on widespread consultations over many years to maximise the consensus for its provisions among parties – 36 to be precise – and ethnic groups such as Christians and Turkomen. The draft limits any individual to two presidential terms and codifies direct elections.

However, since those consultation began, there has been a split in one of the two main governing parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This led to the emergence of a new opposition party, Gorran (Change) – a healthy development in itself. Gorran has about 25% of the parliamentary seats and has decided to challenge the decision to elect the president by a popular rather than parliamentary vote. Some in Gorran, who had previously endorsed direct presidential elections when they were in the PUK, have changed their minds and oppose the draft constitution, as is their right.

Whether a president is elected indirectly or directly and the best balance between the powers of the presidency, ministers and the parliament are a matter of choice. There are good arguments for different arrangements and it’s not for me to take sides but I can add that such constitutional decisions should command widespread support – typically two-thirds in many countries and voluntary clubs.

It would have been normal for the majority which endorsed the draft to proceed to a referendum on without the support of the opposition parties whose supporters number fewer than a third in the Parliament. In one vote in 2009, 96 out of 97 members present voted for it. The Parliament comprises 111 members.

Proceeding on this basis was the majority’s initial preference but they have changed tack because the issue has exploded into a major controversy. I understand that the temperature of the debate has recently soared significantly with major rallies for and against the draft constitution.

Some say that the bitterness of the debate reminds them of the period before the civil war between the PUK and the other major party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the mid-90s. The fracture lines of the civil war are not far beneath the surface and help explain caution. The general experience of civil wars is that their fraternal passions take many years to subside.

Representatives of the majority view have decided to cool the temperature by giving the new parliament to be elected in September the chance the debate the constitution again and decide whether it includes direct or indirect elections before it goes to the people.

This delay is not ideal. Majorities with an electoral mandate are entitled to implement decisions, while they must also protect minority rights, but minorities cannot veto decisions based on the will of the majority. But if the price of adhering to due process were to further deepen divisions then it was probably better to take time out and start again. Discretion is the better part of valour, perhaps. The absence of a decision on whether the presidential election should be direct or indirect obviously means that the election should not proceed until that issue is resolved.

It wouldn’t normally arise in a place with longer and deeper democratic traditions and practices. But the Kurdistan Region is a young democracy and it’s probably the least worse solution in the circumstances, although it gives a field day to cynics some of whom are accused of helping create the stalemate.

Friends of the Kurdistan Region should acknowledge that the current President Masoud Barzani seems to have very reluctantly accepted that the search for a new consensus requires pausing the presidential elections. It has pretty much been forced on him.

It’s also welcome that the current President has made it clear that he is not seeking a further term and will hand over power to whoever replaces him. He writes that “No one should remain in power forever and we should never allow for the notion of an eternal president.” The alternation of power from Massoud Barzani to his successor will test the solidity of the democratic process in the next two years.

Opposition parties have often told me and others of their accusations of electoral fraud although previous elections have been validated by the EU, UN and several diplomatic posts. The constitutional controversy makes it more necessary that the parliamentary elections in September, the subsequent referendum and then any direct presidential election are independently monitored.

There is much mud being flung about. Dispassionate analysis and international monitoring of elections can help ensure that the only mud that sticks flows from any clear infringements of democratic norms. It can help ensure that this stalemate is overcome in a statesmanlike manner and deepens democratic norms in the Kurdistan Region.

Gary Kent. These are my personal thoughts about this issue and don’t necessarily represent those of the APPG.

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From objects to subjects of history

It sometimes seems that Iraqi Kurds have no word with the urgency of manana but it hasn’t stopped Iraqi Kurdistan making tremendous strides in a few short years. The best start date for their renaissance is 2006, the first full year of the new Iraqi constitution, agreed by the people and which recognised Kurdistan as a largely autonomous region.

The constant of the Kurdish story is geography. The Iraqi Kurds are surrounded by what a senior diplomat calls a “ring of fire.” It underpins the oldest Kurdish saying that they have “no friends but the mountains,” where they have repeatedly sought refuge not least from Saddam’s genocidal campaign.

Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara used to co-ordinate their anti-Kurdish policies but are no longer united against the Kurds. Looking west, Damascus is consumed by war. Looking east, Tehran is a major trade partner though the position of its ten million Kurds is dire. Looking south, Baghdad has yet to accept the end of centralised rule.

Looking north to Ankara, reveals brighter prospects. The relationship with Turkey has been totally transformed and could be a game-changer for the Turks, more than 20 million Kurds within Turkey, nearly 6 million in Iraqi Kurdistan, and possibly those within Syria.

Geology and hard-headed commercial imperatives have reshaped the Kurdo-Turkish link. In 2006, there was much talk but little evidence of plentiful supplies of oil and gas. Since then, the Kurds have created an energy sector from scratch with proven reserves of 45 billion barrels of oil and an estimated century’s worth of gas. All next door to an energy-hungry Turkey with few such resources and a great demand for them. The road to and from the Turkish border is crammed with trucks. Turkey is the biggest investor and trader in Iraqi Kurdistan.

This also underpins the peace process between Turkey and the PKK. Greater trade could overcome poverty in the Kurdish areas of south eastern Turkey and undermine militarism.

The relationship need not be like that between the Elephant and the Flea because it is based on self-interest.

It is even driving a debate about whether Turkey could guarantee an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. The official line in Iraqi Kurdistan is that the Kurds exercised their right to national self-determination by opting to stay within Iraq in 2003 but have the right to change their mind if Baghdad becomes a centralised dictatorship again.

It is certainly best for Iraq if Kurdistan remains in the fold. Without the Kurds, Iraq would be even more sharply polarised by the Sunni-Shia split. But it’s impossible to visit Iraqi Kurdistan without hearing how many despair of Baghdad’s incompetence, violence and crises and yearn to be free of, or have as little to do with Baghdad as possible. The Kurds highlight the greater success of their economic model which delivers continuous power in Kurdistan compared to paltry levels in the south.

Emotionally, many don’t consider that they are part of Iraq at all. One Minister says that he does not feel any loyalty to Iraq, which “should beg Kurdistan to stay.” It is very easy to forget that you are in Iraq when you are in Erbil, just 200 miles from Baghdad but a world apart.

Some senior British figures believe that Iraqi Kurdish independence is near. I would urge caution rather than advocacy or opposition. Leaving Iraq could be pragmatically difficult at the very least. Without immediate recognition by America and Turkey and then others, Iraqi Kurds could be left high and dry in a landlocked country.

Baghdad could forcibly resist secession or cut its losses and say “good riddance.” Whether a violent or velvet divorce is possible, the big question is “what about the children?” The vexed issue of the disputed territories and the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region remains unresolved. The border was unilaterally imposed by Saddam when he was forced to quit Kurdistan in 1991 and excludes half of historic Kurdistan.

I don’t detect a grand plan to seek political independence but their clear priority is economic independence. The Natural Resources Minister, Ashti Hawrami says that “nowhere in the world does one million barrels of oil remain stranded.” The Kurds are taking the logical step of building an independent export capacity through pipelines that carry oil and gas to Turkey and beyond.

The Kurds should receive 17% of all Iraqi revenues and, however energy is explored, produced and exported, it remains the property of all Iraqis. The Kurds could soon become a net contributor to Iraq. The Kurds hope that this will bring Bagdad to its senses and end the cat and mouse game. One seasoned Kurdish journalist, Hiwa Osman even suggests that the Kurdish President Barzani could become the President of Iraq but others discount the idea.

The wider geopolitical context seems kinder to the Iraqi Kurds, whose prosperity, energy resources and confidence have turned them from an object of history to a subject that can make the weather.

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Iraqi Kurdistan – the hidden jewel of the Middle East?

Somewhere near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk and also the 4,000 year old town of Amadiya, where the three wise men possibly began their journey to Bethlehem, is a Christian monastery set high on a mountain with commanding views of tremendous scenery. Sadly, our Kurdish driver had no idea where it was and I only managed to get directions by e mailing an American friend in Hawaii.

Most westerners don’t even know where Kurdistan is. And they run a mile when they hear the word Iraq. That perception of risk is being reduced by many years of safety. Visitors telling friends about the good times they enjoyed helps. Glowing reports in the Times and the FT also help.

This week’s conference on developing tourism infrastructure, organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UK Trade and Investment body, brought together nearly 200 business people and hospitality experts to discuss what Kurdistan offers the tourist and what tourism can do for Kurdistan.

Visitors enthuse about what one called its “extreme hospitality.” Take the case of two young men, Tom and Jasper, who decided to hike along the historic Hamilton Road from the capital, Erbil to the Iranian border. Their first night was shaping up to be an uncomfortable one in a damp tent with just muesli bars to munch. But they happened on a restaurant where they were treated royally with bubbly and kebabs and given beds for the night. No payment was expected. The two lads are now making a documentary but insist that it is about the land and its people, not just their unique journey.

Tourists cannot assume such generosity but will always find that Kurds are well-disposed to them. A female tour guide also told the conference that women would encounter no harassment or worse. A Kurdish minister once told me that a woman could easily travel in a mini – the skirt not the car – from the Turkish to the Iranian border.

As for the sites, sights and scenery, all those I have accompanied on my twelve visits since 2006, including a holiday with my wife and son, say that they expected a sandy and dusty desert but were bowled over by the natural beauty of the countryside and vibrant urban cosmopolitanism, especially in Erbil.

The UK High Representative, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, rightly says “Kurdistan is blessed with breathtaking landscapes, ranging from gullies and mountains to meadows and desert-like plains,” which APPG Co-Chair Nadhim Zahawi MP said is “a landscape that has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature.”

Awe-inspiring canyons, Iraq’s highest and all year-round snow-capped mountain, the Erbil plains in the summer-heat the golden yellow of a Van Gogh painting, waterfalls, rivers, the Shanidar Cave, with Neanderthal skeletons dating back perhaps 80,000 years, and more.

My own favourite city, Duhok, nestled in a spacious valley, does a roaring trade thanks to meadows, waterfalls and historic sites including a recently discovered Zoroastrian temple.

Kurdistan is rich in heritage with 3,000 known archaeological sites. Erbil is the longest continuously inhabited city, dating back maybe 8,000 years. The citadel was the site of the Temple of the Goddess Ishtar and where Darius III fled after his defeat by Alexander the Great on the nearby plains of Gaugemela. Erbil itself is the 2014 tourism capital of the Middle East.

The 2000 year old city of Koya, has over 60 historic sites. The approach to the fortress city of Amadiya, once an important Jewish city and a centre of Chaldean astrology and astronomy, could rival the Italian Riviera. The Region’s second city and city of culture, Slemani is much newer, dating from 1784. It could soon boast the largest park in the Middle East.

The weather helps. For me it’s far too hot in the summer but its dry heat is very comfortable in the Spring. For many Arabs it’s relatively cooler.

Many already visit the Kurdistan Region. Some 2.2 million people in fact last year. But most are from the rest of Iraq. The Region has built many hotels but demand still outstrips supply. The Government has recently offered loans for rural tourism projects.

It’s no good having so many wonderful things to savour and sample if no one knows where they are or how to get and stay there. Guidebooks, maps, leaflets, road signs, accommodation for all wallets, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, hospitality training, branding and marketing are all essential.

One delicate note: I always encourage my companions to eat lentil soup for breakfast before hitting the road as certain facilities are not what they could be away from hotels.

The KRG and the UKTI held this conference to encourage investment by British businesses, which are known for expertise in design, training, developing language skills, public relations and general knowhow.
Putting Kurdistan on the map helps win friends, is a key driver of economic growth and can overcome the past. Paul Crowe from the Titanic Museum in Belfast explained how it made a global brand of the largest man-made object, catalysed the economy through a million visitors, most from abroad, and generated £5 for every pound invested.

Kurdistan also has sites for “dark tourism” to where torture, murder and genocide were conducted. This is a major enterprise. More people visit Auschwitz each year than were murdered there. The Kurdish genocide should be explained and remembered forever.

We also heard of the linked power of film. An organiser of the annual UK Film Festival in Erbil emphasised how film crosses borders easily. Kurdistan has many locations for film-makers but film-making facilities need to be near. A film industry enables the Kurds to tell their own stories.

Kurdistan’s oil and gas will run out one day. Reliance on one major source of income is unhealthy while a diversified economy is more sustainable and encourages pluralism.

Tourism has a huge contribution to make in a two-way process of exploration and enjoyment. It would help if flights from Britain weren’t two stop ones but direct and cheaper. That will come in time and Kurdistan’s time as a major tourist destination is becoming ever more possible.

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