Jack Lopresti is MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke, and Chairman of the defence committee of the 1922 Committee.
We face a generational struggle with Islamist jihadism but have strong allies in the Muslim world. Foremost are the Kurds whose Peshmerga are fighting and dying to wrest back territory from the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) and crucial to liberating its “capital” of Mosul.
Last year, I joined MPs on all-party parliamentary group visit to the frontline in Kirkuk. The Peshmerga commander showed us Daesh positions two miles away and told us two British Tornado jets had prevented Daesh advances.
The commander explained how Daesh threw heavily armoured Humvees at a strategic bridge when air cover was impossible. This time, the Peshmerga killed the driver with small arms fire but they have not always been so lucky. Such attacks must be stopped at a distance or huge suicide bombs obliterate the frontline.
Two years ago, Britain supplied just forty heavy calibre machine guns that can do that. Other countries supplied more such kit but the Peshmerga need more to defend a 650-mile front. The armour piercing ammunition for our guns ran out a year ago and it took a huge effort by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and MPs to persuade the Government to send fresh supplies, without which the guns are merely decorative.
Given the superior firepower of Daesh and their prowess in seeding villages with booby traps before leaving, the casualty rate has been very high for the Peshmerga. Nine thousand have been injured and nearly two thousand have been killed.
Britain has provided training in demining and in battlefield medical treatment but Peshmerga continue to die of injuries that afflicted British soldiers in the Second World War but which are less likely to become fatal thanks to treatment in the first ‘golden hour’ in field hospitals and surgical teams on the frontline. But my fellow MPs, Colonel Bob Stewart and Ian Austin were told that there were no such plans to provide this for the Peshmerga.
Furthermore, the KRG, itself facing a huge economic crisis as a result of the war, cannot cope with the scale of battlefield injuries. Their health service is limited but they have spent precious revenues in sending 800 injured Peshmerga to hospitals in various countries. India has also provided 50 of the 126 free hospital beds.
In June Colonel Stewart, himself a former commander of British forces in Bosnia, asked the Defence Minister to give a small number of the most seriously wounded Peshmerga soldiers free specialist beds at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. The minister brushed this off by saying ministers would support such cases on merit and that in the past limited treatment in the UK to foreign nationals has only been offered in “very exceptional circumstances.”
These ministerial answers were needlessly ungenerous to our allies and I devoted my question at David Cameron’s final PMQs to the issue. I told him his “lasting legacy will include supporting the Kurds whose Peshmerga are bravely fighting Daesh in all our interests. Having visited the Peshmerga on the frontline, I know that our airstrikes, weapons and training are crucial, but Peshmerga injuries could be reduced with additional equipment such as body armour, respirators and front-line medical facilities, and we possibly could provide some beds in our specialist hospital in Birmingham to the most seriously injured.”
The Prime Minister absolutely agreed “that the Kurds are incredibly brave fighters and are doing valuable work against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I will look carefully at his suggestion of using the Birmingham hospital. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital has excellent facilities for battlefield casualties. Our Army is already providing medical instruction to the Peshmerga to help them deal with the situation, but we will look to see whether more can be done.”
David Cameron added that our strategy is working because “Daesh is on the back foot: it has lost 45 per cent of the territory that it once held in Iraq; its finances have been hit; more than 25,000 Daesh fighters have now been killed; desertion has increased; and the flow of foreign fighters has fallen by 90 per cent. I have always said that this will take a long time to work in Iraq and Syria, but we must stick at it and we must stay the course.”
The Peshmerga will certainly be sticking at it and will stay the course but warm words of solidarity should become specific commitments. I am urging the new Prime Mminister and the Secretary of State for Defence to urgently accept the requests for field hospitals, surgical teams and ten beds in Birmingham. As I said in the House last week during PMQs, this is a relatively small investment that would make a huge difference to our allies in a common fight to defeat the evil of terrorism.