Minutes of the AGM of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Monday 6 June 2016.

Present. Jason McCartney MP, Bob Stewart MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP, Lord Clement-Jones, Stephen Hepburn MP, Mary Glindon MP.

Also in attendance, Karwan Jamal Tahir and Khasro Ajgayi (KRG), Gary Kent, and Nicole Piche.

Apologies: Lord Bew, Mike Gapes MP, Henry Smith MP, Lord Glasman, Nadhim Zahawi MP, Dave Anderson MP, John Woodcock MP, Lady Hodgson, Jack Lopresti MP, and Ian Austin MP.
Election of officers. All officers were re-elected.

The KRG High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir and the Director, Gary Kent briefed the meeting on the current situation in the Kurdistan Region.

It was agreed to use parliamentary avenues to urge the British Government to increase medical facilities for the Peshmerga.

It was agreed we should aim to send a delegation to the Kurdistan Region in the November recess, perhaps with Canadian and American parliamentarians.

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Impact of new US visa rules on the Kurdistan Region

Orthopaedic and trauma surgeon Professor Deiary Kader has recruited many scrubs, nurses, physiotherapists, and surgeons into the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers.

They use a week of their own holidays to do back-to-back operations for Kurds who have often waited decades for new knees and hips. They have put scores of Kurds back on their own two feet.

Dozens of NHS professionals from Newcastle have visited the Kurdistan Region over many years to perform life-changing operations but that may be unintentionally jeopardised by new American visa rules.

The American authorities have this year introduced a new rule that foreign citizens who have visited Iraq since 2011 are no longer automatically eligible for visa free travel stateside. The rule also applies to Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

Those who have visited these countries can seek exemption if they show their visits were for governments, humanitarian bodies, the media, and legitimate business purposes. Some will probably buy a ten year visa but both require an interview. The cost of the visa and travelling to London and back counts for low paid workers.

The new rule was passed by Congress, although the measure troubles the US Administration, which seems to have decided not to veto it during election year.

Professor Kader said: “The problem is not only inconvenience but that it could also discourage people from going to Kurdistan. Let’s say you’re a nurse who wants to lend a hand but you don’t have to go to Kurdistan. You work out that going will make it harder to holiday or honeymoon in America and it could chill the desire to go to Kurdistan.”

But, he added, “Kurdistan is a solid ally of America and the West and doing us a massive service in fighting the so-called Islamic State – Daesh. The Kurds want Westerners to take holidays there (small numbers for now), and play many vital useful roles from boosting health care, teaching in one of their many universities, or winning business contracts.”

British parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have tabled a Commons motion pointing out these pitfalls and appealing to Washington to review and repeal the new rule.

The Kurdistan Region has, with Western airstrikes and military assistance, secured its borders against Daesh. It also seems to be turning the corner on the huge economic crisis caused by the Daesh assault and an influx of nearly two million refugees and displaced people. It is also seeking to live within its revenues, which have been reduced by plunging oil prices.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is increasing human capacity in its universities and governance as well as unlocking the potential in the private sector but this requires an influx of external expertise and investment.

Professor Kader comments: “Anything that blocks or complicates foreign involvement will make that Kurdish and Western goal harder. It seems as if the American left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Friends of the Kurdistan Region say that America scrapping the new visa rule would indicate a new understanding and urgency in helping the Kurds stand on their own two feet without one hand needlessly tied behind their backs.

Gary Kent

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The AGM of the group is at 5pm on Monday 6 June in W2 at the Commons.

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Early day motion 99

Session: 2016-17
Date tabled: 25.05.2016
Primary sponsor: Glindon, Mary

Total number of signatures: 10

Bottomley, Peter
Durkan, Mark
Gapes, Mike
Glindon, Mary
Kinahan, Danny
McGarry, Natalie
Meale, Alan
Ritchie, Margaret
Shannon, Jim
Stephens, Christopher

That this House entirely accepts that the US has good reason to protect its borders; believes, however, that a recently enacted measure has the unintended consequence of making travel to the US
harder for those seeking to build relationships with crucial and joint allies, such as the Kurdistan region in Iraq; notes that those who have visited Iraq, and several other countries, since 2011 are no longer eligible for the visa waiver scheme and have to apply for a visa; further notes that there are case-by-case exemptions for those who have visited the Kurdistan region and Iraq for governments, humanitarian bodies, the media and for legitimate business purposes; regrets the inconvenience caused to UK parliamentarians who have visited the Kurdistan region, an ideological and military bulwark against Daesh, or those who have, for instance, voluntarily provided vital medical operations; is concerned that the new rule could discourage people, whose choice of visiting Kurdistan is discretionary, from participating in a wide variety of mutually beneficial commercial and cultural activities; and urges the US authorities to carefully monitor the implementation of this rule and review it as soon as possible with a view to repealing it.

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Make a date for 19 June at the Barbican

Please book a ticket, indeed several, for this Save the Children benefit for the child refugees in Kurdistan. They need your support.

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How the Kurds might win their independence

On the day of the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement this week, the Kurdish Rudaw media network (for which I write a weekly column) asked me if David Cameron would advance the independence of Kurdistan. I suggested this was the wrong approach.

Britain and other great powers will not create a new Kurdish state. It may be seen as making up for imposing borders nearly a century back but Britain should not do that, even if it seems the better thing to do. Great powers value order and won’t proactively set precedents that could be emulated in places where volatility and violence would result. The President of the Catalonian Region was recently in London but emphatically not to canvass for independence which he considers to be an internal matter with Madrid.

Great powers are more likely to react to fait accomplis as in Kosovo and Croatia. The Kurds currently in Iraq (just) would find it easier to win eventual support for independence by continuing to resist and combat the common enemy of Daesh, and by pursuing thorough reform to ready their society for all possible futures – revived Iraqi federalism (improbable), independence, or confederation.

Kurdish success in driving Daesh out of Kurdistani lands speaks for itself as do comparisons with the failures of the Iraqi security forces, and the bloodthirstiness of the Shia militia. There has been a real effort spearheaded by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to reform the economy and a wider belief that the slump in oil prices has been a blessing in disguise. Oil prices above $100 would prevent creative moves to diversify the economy and further democratise Kurdistan. It would not be fit for purpose, let alone independence.

It is self-evident to me that after a century of misery and a decade of failed federalism in Iraq Kurds in Iraq need sovereignty. It is seen as fundamental to their survival in allowing them to borrow on international markets, buy arms, and attract assistance for rejuvenating their economy and turning quantity into quality in everything from education to governance. It will be instructive to see if the Kurdistan Region gets its fair share of the recently announced $5 billion loan from the IMF to Iraq.

But it’s also clear that Baghdad and Erbil must boost security co-operation in the immediate fight against Daesh as well as agree a raft of longer term agreements on the economy and natural resources such as water, as well as auditing and fairly dividing assets accrued commonly over decades.

The Kurds have to make their own pitch to those who matter most – leaders and people in Baghdad. Turkey and Iran also count considerably for a landlocked country. If that is achieved then external recognition will follow. America and Britain would stay their hand and not be the first in the field to recognise the new state. Turkey might be in the first few to do so.

And there are signs that leaders in Baghdad can also see that an amicable divorce is best. The Iraqi Oil Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi told a Kurdistan Independence Conference in Slemani this week that “People of Kurdistan have faced oppression and have been forced to confront others. I personally support aspirations of the Kurdish nation but its steps have to be pre-planned and they should know how they are taking the steps.”

Such words should be built upon. The KRG Prime Minister wishes to open up direct talks with Baghdad about how to manage the transition to break-up. There is much to discuss. One of the most vexed questions is the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk. The southern borders need to be agreed, excluding potential revanchist hot spots if necessary, or they will be bloody borders for generations to come.

Talk of a referendum this Autumn on independence has faded. Domestic politics are in a holding pattern with a greater priority being given to defending Kurdistan and assisting, probably next year, in the drive to expel Daesh from Mosul.

It also seems likely that the process of overcoming internal divisions will pick up after the scheduled parliamentary elections in 2017. My guess is that an independence referendum, following referenda in disputed territories on whether they join the Kurdistan Region, will take place then or in 2018, both after the defeat of Daesh and the reconfiguration of domestic political structures and coalitions.

In the meantime, Baghdad needs to be won over to acceptance that an independent Kurdistan Region could be a better ally outside the boundaries of Iraq. It will not be easy to disentangle and manage popular and sectarian passions.

It would be wise if countries like the UK are open to the possibility and prepared to help broker complex agreements if and when the people of Kurdistan decide to take their destiny into their own hands.

Suppressing it is unthinkable given the Kurds’ new confidence, popularity and strategic importance. But expecting Cameron to cut through the work that should be done on the ground is a dangerous illusion that obstructs winning Iraqi consent for a necessary change.

Gary Kent is the Director of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and a columnist for Rudaw who has visited Kurdistan and Iraq many times since 2006. He writes in a personal capacity @garykent

This article originally appeared in the Independent

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KRG High Representative on Sykes-Picot centenary

You’ll be hearing a lot this week about Sykes-Picot, a secret agreement signed by British and French diplomats a hundred years ago. It aimed to carve up the collapsing Ottoman Empire between France and Britain but was overtaken by events. For us Kurds it has come to symbolise the decision to deny Kurds nationhood and to force us to be part of Iraq.

It was a different age and one that has gone. But our involuntary incorporation into what became Iraq has been a source of great misery for the Kurds. It may have looked like a good idea from afar for the Kurds to balance Shia and Sunni communities and for our more mountainous, water-rich and verdant geography to complement the hotter deserts of the south.

But the Kurds, who are not Arabs, were never really welcome as equals in the new Iraq. We were either neglected or repressed. That repression led to Saddam Hussein’s genocide at the end of the 20th century and our successful eviction of the genocidal dictatorship from most of the Kurdistan Region in 1991.

We only survived the Baathist backlash because Britain and other great powers set up a no-fly zone under which we managed to begin building a new autonomous region. Yet when Iraq was liberated, as we see it, from Saddam Hussein we decided to throw in our lot with Iraq and seek to make it work.

We helped put together functioning governments in Baghdad and Kurds supplied people for key posts such as Foreign Minister and President, as is still the case for a largely ceremonial position. We achieved a decent democratic and federal constitution in 2005 and it was endorsed by 80% of the people in a referendum. But it has been more like Stalin’s Soviet constitution of 1936 – great in theory and ignored in practice. Time and time again, we have been denied our rights. We never received our share of the budget and arms and training were denied to our Peshmerga, although officially recognised as part of the Iraqi defence forces.

All our budget entitlements were halted in 2014 at the whim of the then Iraqi Prime Minister, who even denied Turkish ministers the right to visit our capital, Erbil on one occasion. We tried to get a revenue-sharing agreement back and the deal worked for a few weeks. We now rely on our own independent oil exports and are trying to diversify the economy so we are not so reliant on oil whose prices have plummeted.

A decade of broken promises by Baghdad has now been added to nearly a century of repression. It is also clear that Iraq fell apart in 2014 when Daesh suddenly captured a third of Iraq. We had been warning for many months of the rise of the extremist organisation in Mosul. We specifically warned the Iraqi Prime Minister that it was about to be taken but he told us to mind our own business.

We will help take back Mosul but how that is done will be very important in reassuring Sunnis that they will not once again be ignored or repressed by a Shia dominated government in Baghdad – the cause of disaffection which drove many Sunnis into thinking that Daesh was the least worse option than Baghdad.

We must be candid and realistic. We tried to make Iraq work but were spurned. We certainly want to be independent not just to fly a flag but because sovereignty will give us more ability to solve our basic problems. But we will still share a space with the rest of Iraq and insist that the divorce is amicable. It is time for Kurdistan Region and Federal Government to honestly start negotiating this issue, and we will need to enter into agreements with Baghdad on water, economics, security and much more.

We may even end up in some sort of confederation. We may well find that we get on better as neighbours rather than reluctant subjects. Anniversaries have a neatness in history but the reality is bound to be more complex. It will take time and we will ask our friends in Britain, Europe, America, Turkey and Iran to help us. But the game is up for the old Iraq as much as the days when diplomats could decide the fates of other peoples at the stroke of a pen.

Karwan Jamal Tahir
Kurdistan Regional Government High Representative to the UK

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Kurdistan’s continuing journey to independence?

Twenty miles from Mosul, my driver hit the brakes but only because he had spotted a speed camera. Mundane here maybe but proof of a new determination to root out the reckless driving I have seen in a decade of criss-crossing Kurdistan.

We were travelling to the Kurdistani city of Duhok where you can see the lights of Iraq’s second city Mosul, occupied for two years by the jihadists of Daesh – the so-called Islamic State. As Kurdistani cops curb speeding, a few miles but light years away Daesh extorts locals to fuel a war machine based on systematic sexual slavery. The war with Daesh intrudes, of course. As we queued at the checkpoint a car pushed past us carrying a wounded Peshmerga to hospital.

Duhok is a colourful place whose dam reduces temperatures and which could become an even more popular tourist destination in time. I was there to present the all-party parliamentary group’s recent report at the new American University of Kurdistan.

The attractive university currently caters for 300 students but will grow. Eight years ago, I visited the American University of Iraq in the Kurdistani city of Slemani, on the other side of the country near Iran. It comprised several portacabins and 35 students but now has 1500 students on a gleaming campus. It nurtures new leaders and hosts vibrant political discussions to boost civil society. This is a place where politics once endangered people’s health until Saddam Hussein was evicted in 1991.

That year is the starting point of the new Kurdistan. The Kurds had been unhappily hitched to a unitary Iraqi state and endured decades of discrimination and genocide. They rose up, were beaten back but then saved by the British-initiated no fly zone. This allowed them to embrace democracy and expand education – from one to 28 universities today for five million people in normal times.

But their parliament is now in a state of suspended animation following street violence last year, the ejection of Gorran, the Change Movement, from government, and the expulsion from the capital, Erbil of one of its MPs as the Speaker. I’m told differences between the parties can be overcome but the calm, even as most state workers are not paid and have taken wage cuts, should not delay urgency in tackling political divisions. Kurdistani democracy is young, it is true, but cannot afford to stand still.

I visited Parliament to meet the Chair of the Health Committee, herself from Gorran. She wants to work with MPs here to increase British frontline medical facilities for the Peshmerga and send soldiers who have lost limbs and need specialist treatment in Britain.

I also saw evidence of the economic crisis – half-finished roads and buildings awaiting an upturn. The crisis was sparked by the war, a massive increase in refugees and displaced people that added a third to the population, and falling oil prices on which the statist economy is dangerously dependent. But I also saw signs of people setting up new businesses – car washes and chop shops, for instance.

A new Academy for Enterprise and Management at the European Technology and Training Centre (of which I am a Director) in Erbil could help incubate small businesses and diversify the economy. The government must take radical action to match revenue and spending, stop ballooning debt, and charge for power and water. It has already halved spending on salaries but the fiscal gap continues to add to debt while oil prices are low.

The splendid Middle East Research Institute (Meri) think-tank also brought together ministers and intellectuals to honestly debate economic reform, and tackling waste and corruption. Unemployment stands at 600,000 but 70,000 people graduate every year and this requires a dramatic increase in jobs in new sectors such as agriculture, tourism and light industry so that Kurdistan transforms itself from a passive rentier economy. British expertise in restructuring ministries is also vital.

As is immediate assistance. The Americans gave the Kurds nearly a billion dollars in weapons and wages for the Peshmerga while I was there. And Britain finally agreed to supply new ammunition for heavy machine guns it gifted in 2014, together with training. But the Kurds receive little or no funding from the federal government in Baghdad, despite facing a common enemy. Baghdad recently descended into farce when demonstrators briefly occupied the parliament. Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, who I visited there in 2009, cuts a lonely figure. Baghdad is losing its grip.

The chasm between Iraq and Kurdistan is widening but they must co-operate to expel Daesh from Mosul and work out how they coexist. The days of foreign powers insisting they stay as one country are fading. I met many diplomats and business people who privately concede Iraq is nearly over. Senior Turks say they could accept an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, which must prove they can run their own show, and demonstrate independence is benign. Western countries could help broker an amicable divorce.

British MPs once toured the airport as it was being built in Erbil. As we sped along its runway – the fifth largest in the world – we agreed to ask Top Gear to visit. The petrolheads popped over and pronounced it one of the safest and most beautiful places they had seen. It seems increasingly likely that Kurdistan is hastening its own journey towards independence.

Gary Kent is the Director of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region, has visited Kurdistan and Iraq 25 times in ten years and writes in a personal capacity. He is writing a book on the coming Kurdistani Republic. @garykent

This article originally appeared at

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KRG High Representative responds to the APPG report

Remarks by Karwan Jamal Tahir at the launch on 19 April 2016 in the Commons of the APPG Report on its delegation to the Kurdistan Region

The title of the report is most appropriate. The Kurdistan Region is indeed “The Land Between Two Anniversaries”

In the 100 years since the Sykes Picot agreement, we spent most of it living under suppression, denial, genocide and ethnic cleansing through the Anfal campaign but we have only enjoyed 25 years of freedom and democracy.

Thanks to Britain, which initiated the no-fly-zone in 1991, we had the opportunity to establish our democratic institutions and build prosperity in our Region.

I arrived in the UK to assume the position of KRG High Representative in June 2015 which coincided with reforming the APPG for the Kurdistan Region after the general election and the arrival of a new Parliament.

I had good relations with the previous APPG, its co-Chairs and members during my time as Deputy Head of the DFR. I have always valued and appreciated their support for the Kurdistan Region and its people. Since the new APPG was established, I have been working with them closely and I had an honour and privilege to accompany them to Kurdistan in November last year. They saw how the Kurdistan Region faces many tough and difficult challenges:

• War with Isis terrorism
• Humanitarian crisis
• Financial crisis

However, I am glad to say that Britain is among the few countries who have responded to the KRG’s urgent needs, thanks to the APPG, and British airstrikes in supporting Peshmerga, which saved the Kurdistan Region and its people one more time after 1991 and 2003.

Humanitarian issues

Again Britain is one of the significant donors in supporting the KRG in confronting the crisis. We are grateful but need more to save the Kurdistan Region. The APPG delegation to the Kurdistan Region in November last year witnessed our military, humanitarian and economic needs.

• It is important for us that the International Community to realise and appreciate that we are holding a massive frontline with ISIS, and we continue to hold this line.
• We are hosting 1.8 million refugee and IDPs
• At the same time we facing fiscal and economic challenges.

The report published by APPG recognises all these facts. We welcome the report and its recommendations, including:

• Supplying rounds for the gifted heavy machine guns.
• Providing mobile medical units.
• To continue and increase expertise in demining and IED.
• Urgent financial support to Peshmerga to sustain the fight with ISIS.
• The KRG to be seen as an essential part of the international coalition in fighting ISIS, and to be part of the international talks in counter-terror conferences and meetings.

The members of APPG delegation have witnessed the scale of the humanitarian crisis, met with the IDPs and heard their stories. The KRG is under huge pressure and needs to be rescued by providing more especially economically as we see it as a real threat to the KRG today.

There are clear fears that a prolonged crisis would undermine the KRG’s capacities.

In the end, I would like to say something about the referendum. There might be referendum at the end of this year or the next year, we need your support and understanding in this regard.
We accept the fact that stated at Foreign Affairs Committee report of January 2015: “If the Kurdistan Region is become independent, it should be with the consent of the rest of Iraq.”

That is what we are doing, seeking consent with the Federal Government, and creating mutual understanding.

In fact, we have opened this discussion with the Federal Government at the last visit took place two weeks ago led by the PM. We all desire the unity of Iraq, but if that doesn’t work, we have to find another way of living together peacefully.

It is in all our interests that Kurdistan Region defeat ISIS and overcome the financial challenges, so help us more and more.

Thank you.

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A domain of one’s own?

Kurdistan achieved its independence last week but you may not yet have noticed it. They now have a separate domain in cyberspace – Krd. The next question is whether or when that can become a two letter suffix with an independent Kurdistan flying its flag at the UN.

In the last decade I have been lucky enough to visit the Kurdistan Region in Iraq several times a year. The focus was helping federalism to flourish in Iraq as a whole but the prospect of that has faded to insignificance thanks to a resurgence of chauvinism in Baghdad and also the hammer blows of Daesh, which controls one third of Iraq.

We are nearing the centenary of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 in which the dominant imperialist powers of Britain and France began a process that led to the denial of a Kurdish nation and imprisoning the Kurds in Iraq, who endured discrimination and eventually genocide in the 1980s.

In 1991 they won relative freedom from Saddam Hussein for twelve years and when Iraq was liberated in 2003 they achieved a democratic and federal settlement which worked for a few years.

But increasingly sectarian Shia leaders in Baghdad have ratted on the deal and the Kurdistan Region is now on the glide path to independence in the next few years. The continued participation of the Kurds may make Iraq better, though few leaders in Baghdad seem to make that case. But the clear failure of federalism has almost certainly made unity impossible.

Many Sunnis had also been alienated by a Shia dominated government in Baghdad which used barrel bombs against them and sold out on promises that Sunnis who played a major role in defeating Al Qaeda would be incorporated into the armed forces and paid.

Common sense would indicate that Iraq should stay together to overcome Daesh but the jihadist advance has divided Iraq which only really exists now in name. Sunnis who have collaborated or acquiesced in Daesh rule will not be convinced to turn on the new and even more barbaric version of Al Qaeda if all they have to look forward to is renewed rule by Shias from Baghdad. It’s sad but that, I suggest, is the new reality of what John Woodcock MP called the fundamental fiction of a unitary Iraq.

John joined an all-party parliamentary group delegation that visited Kurdistan in November and visited the frontline in Kirkuk where we were just four kilometres from Daesh positions. The delegation included Labour parliamentarians Mike Gapes, Liam Byrne and Maurice Glasman, along with Conservative MPs Jack Lopresti and Henry Smith as well as UUP MP Danny Kinahan and ConHome columnist, Garvan Walshe.

Their report details the economic heart attack facing the Kurdistan Region, which has been brought on by external factors and their own and now redundant model of relying on one commodity, oil, and a massive state sector. The report urges the UK and its allies to bolster reform and rush in aid to help the Kurds overcome their problems.

A decade back, no one knew anything about the Kurds. They are now flavour of the month as their Peshmerga are doing so much to resist Daesh. But they are in a hole and are asking for the Brits and others to step up to the plate for their sakes and for our own.

Gary Kent, who writes in a personal capacity, is the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region. @garykent

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