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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Commons question and answer on British links with Kurdistan Region

Ian Lucas: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what information he holds on British Government projects in the Kurdistan region of Iraq; and if he will make a statement.

Alistair Burt: The UK has funded a number of projects in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These include training programmes for the police and women’s shelter staff, and work with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to improve the protection of women’s rights in legislation. We have also funded media training sessions for MPs in Erbil, and contribute to the European Union Integrated Rule of Law Mission—which aims to strengthen the rule of law and improve the justice system in Iraq. We will continue to work closely with the KRG through our Consulate General in Erbil.

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MP Nadhim Zahawi’s address to the KRG/UKTI conference on tourism

On my way here today I was struck by the number and variety of countries advertising themselves as holiday destinations around London. One thing really stood out, that Kurdistan was nowhere to be seen among them. That is why I am so happy to have been invited here today. To discuss what can be done to make sure that Kurdistan lives up to its potential as a leading tourist destination.

I want to talk about three key areas that should be focused on to make this a reality. What Kurdistan can already offer a potential tourist, how the tourist industry could be expanded and the infrastructure needed to facilitate such a change. Most of us here already know just how much Kurdistan has to offer the world. But this is knowledge that Kurdistan has to share.

Whenever I return I am struck by the region’s natural beauty, its mountains, ravines, waterfalls and water springs. Indeed, it’s a landscape that has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature for just these things.

Now Kurdistan has to ensure this landscape is what people think of when they hear about the region. We need to change the perceptions held by many based on images of Southern Iraq.

But even this is not the best-selling point for the area. It is Kurdistan’s history that will be the real draw. For example, Erbil is not only a vibrant and metropolitan capital but is a historical site in itself. It is a contender for the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, dating back around 8000 years. At its heart the Hawler Citadel: an iconic image of historic Kurdistan.

Less than two hours drive away, close to Jerwana and Mar Matti is the sight of the famous battle of Gaugamela. Fought between Alexander the Great and King Darius and leading to the fall of Persian Empire.

Elsewhere in the region a tourist could explore Parastaga Zardashtm the recently discovered ancient temple in Duhok Province. They could visit Amadiya, a 4000 year old town perched on a mountain’s peak, to see its Assryian ruins and the rumoured home of the Biblical three wise men.

Then there are the ancient caves of Shanidar and Gondik. The first of which is the earliest ceremonial burial site ever discovered, the later has cave carvings dating from 3000 BC that would rival any in Europe.

With this history Kurdistan should already be a tourist hub in the region. It should be competing with some of the World’s most visited sites. Let me give you some comparisons: Jordan’s ancient City of Petra is 4000 years younger than Erbil’s Citadel but saw 500,000 people visit it in the last recorded year 2007.

The religious sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and around the Middle East are some of the most visited places on earth, and yet Amadiya is largely unknown.

While in France the famous cave paintings at Lascaux saw over 1000 visitors a day before restrictions were put in place to protect them, numbers that could be emulated in Gondik.
With these sites and with its landscape Kurdistan already has more than most countries to attract tourists. The important thing is to expand public knowledge of them.

Attracting people to see its wonderful history is important but Kurdistan can offer more. That is why I believe Kurdistan should also be focusing on making itself a high end and adventure holiday destination as well.

A quick look at a travel brochure of the region shows how well other states have done in attracting high end holiday makers. Kurdistan should be doing the same.

In neighbouring Kuwait tourists now flock to the capital. The famous Kuwait Towers are the centre point of a modern city which advertises itself as a luxury destination. The city has attracted high end international hotel chains, including Hilton, Intercontinental and a Four Seasons. New malls have also been built and this has led to booming tourism and business.

Similar scenes are being repeated in Oman, with Muscat recently voted the Second Best City to visit in the world in 2012 by Lonely Planet. Tourism in Oman has grown considerably recently, and it is expected to become one of the largest industries in the nation. This is due to a focus on high end hotels, shopping malls and high end activities. Of course Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two other obvious examples of success in this area of tourism.

I firmly believe that by looking at these examples Kurdistan could compete in this area as well.

With the recent success in the Oil and Gas sector, the opening of the new International Airport in Erbil and the ever improving security in the country the time is right for investment in this area.

The same applies for adventure holidays. Kurdistan’s mountains and rivers have the potential to offer skiing, river rafting and other adventurous sports. While the landscape itself lends itself to hiking, biking and running.

Again Jordan shows how this can be a success. The Deserts of Wadi Rum have become one of Jordan’s important tourist destinations. They attract climbers, trekkers, camel and horse riders and other tourists.
By focusing on these two tourist areas in addition to the history and culture of the region I believe Kurdistan could become a regional leader in tourism. To do so investment will be needed but Kurdistan is well placed to gain this.

The third and perhaps most important area that needs to be addressed is the infrastructure needed for the tourist sector to grow.

Much of this is obvious and I am pleased to see some infrastructure is already under way. The international airports recently opened will be the gateway to the region. However it is important that Kurdistan works hard to attract international airlines and direct links with key nations.

I am currently helping to try and achieve just this with the Department for Transport and Airlines here in the UK and hope we will soon be successful.

Obviously my earlier suggestions would require international hotels to be attracted to the region, but it would also be important to ensure a mix of accommodation for tourists and a way to rate them. Telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that would also need to be invested in.

On a basic level everyday things such as signs for tourists would need to be erected. Tour guides trained and information easily accessible at major transport hubs and cities.

All of this would be necessary to ensure that Kurdistan’s beauty and heritage is accessible to the international tourist whether they are from Seattle, Seville or Stratford-upon-Avon.
This would take time and energy but it is these areas that would lead to tourists visiting the region.

I know from my own constituency that to attract tourists takes time and energy. For example even a historic town and home of Shakespeare such as Stratford requires change. A new Theatre building and railway station are just two projects completed in the last three years, and more will come.

But this form of investment is needed to become a success. And I believe Kurdistan would be a success. Kurdistan’s natural beauty, history and ability to change with the times are all huge assets in the competitive arena of international tourism. That is why the next time I come to speak to this conference I hope that on my way it will be posters of Kurdistan that greet me throughout London.

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Plea for help for the Syrian refugees at the Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan

The vast and sprawling refugee camp at Domiz near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Duhok is a stark reminder of the human interests at stake in the increasingly fraught debate about how to stop the slaughter in Syria. The camp is 40 miles from the Syrian border but a world apart from the daily nightmare of indiscriminate shelling and death squads that has killed 100,000 people in just two years. Domiz comprises about 50,000 people – mainly Kurds, who have been brutally wrenched from their homes, networks, possessions and who have lost family and friends. –

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Plea to help the Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Shadow Minister for the Middle East, Ian Lucas, yesterday raised this in Commons Questions.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Last week, I visited the Domiz camp in Iraq, where 150,000 fleeing Syrians have been given refuge and are being well looked after by the Kurdistan regional government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees working together. Unfortunately, however, only 28% of Syrian aid is currently funded, and there is a shortfall this year of £3.8 billion as a result of people not meeting their obligations. Will the Foreign Secretary press the G8 at least for the members of the G8 to meet their obligations, so that lives and individuals on the ground can be helped?

Mr Hague: The G8 is going on now, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the priorities of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to agree at the G8 that the G8 together will supply a large share, a large slice of the new UN appeal for $5.2 billion. On my many visits to the middle east region, including the Gulf, of which there will be more shortly, I strongly encourage other nations to take part. The new appeal is several times bigger than the $1.5 billion appeal for the last six months, which shows that we are now dealing with the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far.

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From Mountain People to Partner?

By James Denselow.

Speaking at a recent Chatham House event former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked her predictions for the Middle East. Ignoring the continued flux of both the Arab Spring the bloody civil war in Syria Albright responded that the modern relationship between Turkey and the Kurds is evidence of how “things you think will never change – change”.

Against the backdrop of the current round of bloodletting that is wracking the region, the Kurdish success story continues to establish itself. In Turkey before the headlines became dominated by the street protests one of the biggest story’s of the year was the deal made in the decades old conflict between Ankara and the PKK. The negotiated agreement that saw hundreds of PKK fighters moving into the borderland of Iraqi Kurdistan followed a sustained improvement in relations between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraqi Kurdistan. The landlocked KRG have steadily looked to connect their two greatest assets, energy supplies and stability, through to Turkey. Albright would never have predicted that Turkey, previously so opposed to Kurdish autonomy, would develop such close economic relations with the nearest thing to a state-like entity that the World’s largest stateless people have ever had. As Iraq endures its most violent period in five years, with over 1,000 people killed in May according to the UN, those media that visit the north of the country run out of superlatives to describe the contrast. The standard headlines involves variant around the word ‘boom’ or ‘booming’.

This month the Guardian’s Ian Black made the pilgrimage to Iraqi Kurdistan to witness the final steps towards the completion of an oil pipeline that will snake into Turkey carrying with it 300,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Back in the UK industrialists, entrepreneurs, analysts and journalists alike receive a regular stream of invitations from the Middle East Association, the KRG’s office in London or the well connected All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan to tourism conferences (In 2012, over 2.2 million tourists visited Kurdistan), business talks or trade delegations to the region. The invitations often tease with introductions outlining how with 45 billion barrels of oil reserves and 3-6 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is “one of the last remaining conventional oil and gas frontiers on earth”.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s geography, landlocked with conflict-ravaged Syria to the West and quasi-Pariah Iran to the East, may have been a blessing in pushing the KRG towards finding a modus vivendi with Turkey but it limits their long term supply of international investors. I travelled to the region in March and saw their newfound wealth translated into five star hotels, conference centres and infrastructure. It can come as no surprise to see the KRG look to Europe for high-tech investment. Against this frenzy of opportunity and activity you’d think that a government in Westminster that has put commercial diplomacy at the heart of its foreign policy would be at the vanguard of international relations with the nascent Kurdish entity. There are flickers of the potential for a far stronger relationship in the making; this February the UK Parliament recognised Saddam Hussein’s murderous ANFAL campaigns as genocide against the Kurds. This important political recognition is backed by steadily increasing economic links – in July the KRG is holding a one-day tourism infrastructure development, investment and business match-making conference in London, with the support of UK Trade and Investment. However an Iraq-phobia felt by British politicians has combined with an innate wariness as to the region’s long term stability by economic investors.

The Director of the APPG, Gary Kent, who has visited the Kurdistan Region 12 times since 2006 with fact-finding delegations, told me: “People were initially confused as to where Kurdistan was, literally. When Iraq was mentioned, they became wary. The APPG and others have made the case that increasing cultural and commercial connections with the Kurdistan Region are of mutual benefit to the UK and the Kurdistan Region. The message has got through. Kurdistan is now on the map…..the export of oil and gas to Turkey will also benefit the UK and Europe. Turkey can become an important energy hub, fuel its growing economy and become a critical cog in the secure and reliable energy resources to Europe”.

Indeed the pipeline is both a moment of high opportunity and risk. Relations between Erbil and Baghdad have been poor for some time and in the absence of a constitutional agreement around the hydrocarbons law some fear that a cold war between the centres of Iraqi power could turn hot. Black wrote in the Guardian that the Kurds were “improving their bargaining position to try to force a reluctant Baghdad to comply with the federal constitution”. This tension has manifest in fire fights across the internal border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq. In May three suicide bombers attacked Kurdish security forces and the local headquarters of a Kurdish political party in the disputed area around Kirkuk. Only this week AFP reported that more than 1,000 Kurdish career soldiers in the Iraqi army have deserted and want to be integrated into forces loyal to the KRG.

A stronger relationship with a UN Security Council permanent member like the UK could prevent the completion of independent exporting capacity to Turkey becoming an issue of systemic division, as has happened between Sudan and South Sudan. The UK government commitment to the KRG does not have to come with an implicit acceptance of Kurdish independence as paradoxically enough that appears to be that last thing on the KRG’s mind. Independence brings a host of unpredictable consequences in a region whose only stability lies in the seeming permanence of the borders lovingly drawn by Britain and France nearly 100-years ago. Far better, it would seem, to embrace the pragmatisms of trade than the explosive redlines of separatism. Iraq descent into violence is of course a worry to Erbil but their security forces and internal borders buffer themselves against the aftershocks of surrounding regional conflicts.

Downing Street should not underestimate the warmth of feeling generated by the House of Commons debate recognising the Kurdish Genocide. A formal government acceptance of this history and real commitment to economic partnership would appear to be a politically and economically sensible step forward. Such a surge in relations could be launched with the hugely symbolic agreement of direct flights, an issue apparently sitting in a technical no-man’s land but surely one that a little bit of political leadership can cure. As Gary Kent explained “we need improved visa issuing facilities in Erbil and direct flights”. The Kurds famous phrase that they have ‘no friends except the mountains’ could be one for the history books as the UK and other European powers discover that amongst the bloodshed of the region there is an emerging gem in the Kurdish north of Iraq.

June 2013

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Analysis of the latest debate on Iraq in the Commons

MPs last week secured a Commons debate on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Although there wasn’t a vote, it provided a useful barometer of how Iraq is seen in British politics and how it influences responses to new humanitarian crises.

I could amuse you by mocking the melodramatic and even conspiracist invective of some MPs. In a nutshell, Iraq was an immoral and illegal war in which a vastly exaggerated number of people died thanks to the perverse deceits of those bogeymen, Blair and Bush. One MP opined that there is nothing to be celebrated. Let’s calmly mention that the overthrow of genocidal fascism should weigh in the balance.

But what made the debate more interesting was that some MPs, often those who have taken the time and trouble to visit Iraq and including those who opposed intervention, were much more nuanced.

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said that “life across much of Iraq, particularly in the south and the Kurdistan region, is peaceful for most people most of the time.” He welcomed the recent Iraqi Cabinet meeting in Erbil as “a signal of serious intent to improve relations” between Baghdad and the KRG. Time will tell.

Another Conservative MP, Jason McCartney, who had just returned from the Kurdistan Region with me and others, opposed the war but acknowledged that regime change made a huge difference to Kurdistan which is peaceful, increasingly prosperous and fairly secular.

McCartney, a Royal Air Force officer in the no-fly zone over Kurdistan in the 1990s, said that the no-fly zone “prevented Saddam Hussein from waging his war against Iraq’s 5 million Kurds.”

He added that “having been helped themselves, the Iraqi Kurds are now helping others” and described our “emotional day” at the Domiz refugee camp near the Syrian border, (which UNHCR Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited last year), adding that the KRG “deserves praise for funding and arranging” the camp.

He urged an end to bitter disputes about revenue sharing between Erbil and Baghdad and expressed hope that Kurdistan’s relative stability could be a model for Iraq.

Another Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who also opposed the war and has also visited Kurdistan with me and others, said that Kurdistan had moved forward from Saddam’s atrocities and hoped that “such success can be emulated in the rest of the country.”

Ten years on, the heat of the debate has not abated and it is clear that many agonised hard and long over the decision to invade Iraq. A brief personal note. In 2003, I enthusiastically endorsed intervention but there has rarely been a day since that I haven’t questioned this.

The continuing pain of that decision was laid bare by the Shadow Minister for the Middle East and Africa, Ian Lucas, who had just returned from the Kurdistan Region, again with me.

One could see the deep emotions that attended his decision to defy Tony Blair and reject war in 2003. He honestly acknowledged that the vote profoundly impacted on British politics, including a fundamental loss of trust in the Labour Party.

Lucas was clearly deeply moved by his trip to Kurdistan. He referred to our visit to Barzan village where we met widows at the graveyard, “their faces still etched with grief 30 years on.” Our visit to Domiz was equally emotional. Those who opposed intervention usually reflect when Kurds praise the long overdue liberation and they see Kurdish achievements first hand.

But Iraq’s long and still poisonous shadow sets the context for increasingly fraught British debates about how to deal with Syria and Iran. Iraq has soured the case for liberal interventionism for which there is little popular appetite.

Earlier intervention in Syria could arguably have isolated Assad and boosted the democratic opposition, including persuading them to recognise the rights of minorities such as the Kurds. Russia and China have now become stubborn in their resistance to intervention against Assad and the UN seems impotent. Few remember that the no-fly zone that saved the Kurds in the 1990s was imposed without UN authority.

100,000 Syrians have now lost their lives, the moderate opposition has been shredded and Al Qaeda is in poll position. Chemical weapons have been used, one incident at Utaybah was nearly 25 years to the day after Halabja.

But inaction and the changed balance of forces make stopping the war in Syria much more difficult and will place pressure on regional powers to do more themselves but in the context of the simmering Sunni-Shia split that could turn very bloody and impact on the whole region.

Sadly, the refugees at Domiz won’t be going home soon and their numbers in Kurdistan could soar from 150,000 to maybe more than twice that number within months. The ring of fire around Kurdistan could also get much hotter.

We will all have to have our wits about us to help prevent a rapidly deteriorating crisis becoming much worse. As Ian Lucas rightly said, the lessons of Iraq should inform but not paralyse policy.

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A holiday in the Iraqi sun

When commentators were vociferously claiming that Iraq had gone to hell in a handcart following the invasion of ten years ago, I took my wife and son to Iraq for a holiday. I know that most people would think it eccentric to put ‘holiday’ and ‘Iraq’ in the same sentence but they are missing out.

We spent a few days in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It’s too soon for most travellers to visit Baghdad, where I spent two weekend political breaks in 2008 and 2009, but Iraqi Kurdistan rid itself of Saddam in 1991 and has had more time to recover from decades of fascism and isolation than the rest of the country. It is safe and stable. I have often walked about there without any fear whatsoever. There’s no reason why, in time, the rest of Iraq could become more like Kurdistan.

We flew into Erbil airport, once a small airfield but now a spanking new 16 terminal and British-designed modern building that also boasts the fifth longest runway in the world. MPs were once driven down the runway before the airport opened. One bright spark suggested that Jeremy Clarkson should use it in Top Gear. The programme later visited Kurdistan and praised its safety and beauty.

The weather in early March was hot but comfortable. It’s a dry heat that seeps gently through your body rather than sweats you out. Spring is probably the best time. It’s a subjective judgement but I wouldn’t go there in July or August when it’s like a furnace.

We explored the capital Erbil, which has been transformed from what some used to see as a dusty little town to a thrusting and cosmopolitan city. Its three large parks, one of them complete with a cable car, are oases of greenery and solitude except when they are packed at the weekend.

We were lucky enough to stay one night in the five star Rotana which sports several swanky restaurants and famed for its Wednesday Fish Buffet – crab, prawns, mussels, lobster. We popped into the Empire Speed Centre where expats down lagers and burgers, with some using the go karts – before the beer, hopefully.

We also visited the Dawa restaurant in the main Sami Abdul Rahman Park for a lavish banquet of lamb, goat, turkey and chicken with their very special bread. The kebabs are served from a huge ceremonial sword.

When we later hit the road we stopped at small roadside cafes for the statutory and generous portions of kebabs and bread, although I would recommend avoiding toilets in such places.
We failed to visit the famous Citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world which stretches back 8,000 years. I had seen it before and have seen it being lovingly restored with the help of Unesco. I’d also recommend a visit to its Textile Museum where you can buy rugs, mirrors, hats, ornate backgammon sets and bags.

Erbil has much to offer but to get the full flavour of the Kurdistan Region you need to escape from Erbil. Some years back, I was with a party of four MPs. Two had been to Kurdistan before and the other two were new. We were discussing the Kurdistan Regional Government’s policy of reviving agriculture. The new people formed an anti-agrarian faction scoffing at the idea that Kurdistan should sink billions into a drive for self-sufficiency. It was a vanity project.

They quickly changed their minds when we left the city and saw the breathtaking beauty of the countryside and its so far untapped agricultural potential. The Kurdistan Region is about the same size as Scotland but seems so much larger when you are on the road. The sky goes on forever and any expectations of a desert environment are knocked for six by a vast and verdant plain of fields and meadows ringed by mountains with waterfalls and springs. You can lose yourself in its solitude.

We took the road north from Erbil towards the Iranian border. It was the Hamilton Road built to help service the silk road. We saw the Pank tourist resort with its chalets and conference centre. The gorges at Gali Ali Beg were next and are the deepest in the Middle East. They are stunningly beautiful.

We later took the road towards Slemani and stopped at Lake Dukan, which provides much of the freshwater fish lovingly prepared in Kurdish restaurants. We found a way down to the waterside and saw a few boats breezing up and down but, possibly through our lack of knowledge, we didn’t see any great facilities for tourists.

The FT and the Times have recently devoted space to extolling the virtues of tourism in the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan’s rich offering is largely untouched by tourists, particularly from the West, as the region is only just beginning to build the infrastructure needed to open itself to tourism. Hotels, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that are ripe for development.

The KRG UK is organising a Tourism Infrastructure Development conference entitled Kurdistan Region: the hidden jewel of the Middle East. It is on Tuesday 2 July 2013 from 9am to 5pm at the BIS Conference Centre, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET

The organisers point out that over two billion US Dollars worth of private investment has already gone into tourism infrastructure development and that the KRG wants to enable some of Kurdistan’s largest companies and senior officials to meet and potentially partner with British producers of goods, services, expertise and consulting companies.

Participants can meet KRG ministers and government officials, leading Kurdish companies and Kurdistan’s chambers of commerce and trade associations.

To secure a place at this conference, send an email with your full name and a brief description of your company to Ms Nawal Karim, Director of Trade and Investment Relations at the KRG UK Representation,

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