Jack Lopresti is the Conservative MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke and the Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The report of the last delegation to Kurdistan and Mosul is online here.
This afternoon, MPs will debate the Kurdistan Region for the first time in three years. So much has changed in that short time. Iraq all but collapsed when Daesh took Mosul and came close to seizing Kurdistan. The defeat of Daesh in Mosul will necessitate discussions about preventing any repeat performances and how a ‘yes’ vote in the September referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region fits into this changing mosaic.
When the all-party group on the Kurdistan Region was formed, ten years ago, its focus was on supporting the newly agreed Iraqi federalism, the failure of which to curb centralisation and sectarianism drove Sunnis into the arms of Daesh, which was seen as less worse than Baghdad.
That failure also alienated the Kurds, who had tried hard to stabilise Iraq. The mechanism to resolve the status of disputed territories, such as Kirkuk, was ignored a decade ago, an arbitrating federal council never met, and the Kurds never received their full budget entitlements. ‘The Beloved North,’ as many Arab Iraqis see Kurdistan because of its gentler clime, beautiful mountains and resorts, suffered a complete cut in its budget entitlements in February 2014.
In June 2014, Iraq failed in its primary duty to protect the nation when its soldiers fled from an inferior force of Daesh fighters. The Iraqi Army left behind billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated American military kit including artillery and hundreds of Humvees, while Kurdistan was left to defend a 650-mile border with Daesh. The group used the American equipment when it attacked Kurdistan in August 2014 and Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, was only saved by American airstrikes.
The collapse of Iraqi authority left the Kurds facing an existential crisis as their economy and public services were battered by a perfect storm of war and the influx of nearly two million displaced people from Mosul, a one-third increase in their population. And then oil prices, on which they were over-dependent, slumped.
All that exposed and exacerbated the underlying weakness of an economy based on heavy state employment, a miniscule private sector and little diversification despite potentially plentiful revenues to be made out of industry, agriculture and tourism. Just before Daesh emerged, Erbil won the Arab Tourism Capital award. The external crises also amplified internal differences which led to the suspension of its parliament, which should be reactivated urgently
Given the failure of federalism and the need for new forms of governance in order to prevent Daesh 2.0, it is hardly surprising that the long-term Kurdistani aspiration for independence has taken off. However, the Kurds are pragmatic. They are landlocked and see their referendum as giving the leadership a mandate to reset relations based on statehood and stronger co-operation rather than failed and futile attempts to subordinate the Kurds to centralisation.
The Kurds have much to contribute to Iraqi and international security. The story of how they eventually found common cause with the Iraqi Army against Daesh is instructive. When I visited the Kirkuk frontline in November 2015, I was told there was no co-ordination between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. A year later, with Western support, they concluded a deal to drive Daesh out of Mosul, which I saw for myself on the road to Mosul and in the suburban village of Bartell. This unprecedented military partnership came despite decades of fighting each other, and the Kurds having endured chemical weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein’s army on hundreds of villages and the extermination of nearly 200,000 people.
It provides a powerful example of how independent military forces can work together to rid the world of fascism. It shows the political potential for separate nations to sink their differences for mutual benefit. All this matters very much to the West, which has been preoccupied with Iraq as a pivotal power in the Middle East since the late 1970s. Iraq needs to change, and the Kurds can demonstrate that responsible statehood can make the peoples in the current Iraq stronger and more prosperous.
In today’s debate, I and others who have visited Kurdistan will air reasons for being sympathetic to the Kurdistani aspiration for independence so that Kurdistan can protect itself, and us. It could also more easily heal its divisions and reform its economy and political system with international assistance that is denied to sub-sovereign actors.
As a former soldier, I praise the Peshmerga for their bravery in resisting Daesh and I have visited wounded Peshmerga and Iraqi Army soldiers in an Erbil hospital. I acknowledge their heavy sacrifice by asking the UK to provide beds for the most seriously wounded Peshmerga who cannot be treated at home.
British MPs should officially observe the referendum, but no-one can predict its result. The quest for Kurdistani independence is honourable and they deserve support in forming a less fractious and more fruitful relationship with Iraq. I am convinced, whichever way it goes, that the Kurds are solid allies who have upheld religious tolerance and could make the Middle East a much better place.