Tony Baldry MP is Conservative MP for Banbury and became chairman of
the Conservative Human Rights Commission in July. He has formerly
served as both a Foreign Office minister and chairman of the
International Development Select Committee. Here he writes in his capacity as chairman of the recently-formed Conservative Friends of Iraq.
There has been for a number of years a Labour Party organisation called the Labour Friends of Iraq. My understanding is that it grew out of the campaign against Saddam Hussein in support of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.
With the strengthening prospect of a Conservative Government, the Iraqi politicians, and the Iraqi diaspora in the UK were becoming increasingly worried that the absence of any equivalent organisation within the Conservative Party implied that the Conservatives were uninterested in Iraq.
To remove the slightest suspicion of any uninterest in the Conservative Party in a new emerging democratic Iraq, the Conservative Friends of Iraq has been set up with the encouragement and support of William Hague and David Lidington.
Conservative Friends of Iraq is chaired by myself and is intended to be a grouping of Conservative Members of Parliament, Parliamentary candidates, and members of the Conservative Party who wish to take a close and sustained interest in Iraq. It is intended to have a website up and running hopefully in the not too distant future, and in due course to try and arrange further visits to Iraq.
Whilst at present it is relatively straightforward travelling to Kurdistan, travel anywhere else in Iraq is not easy, and travel in Baghdad still requires considerable security resources, such as reinforced vehicles and close protection. All too tragically evidenced by the recent bombings in Baghdad near the Ministry of Justice and the Provincial Government headquarters which left 136 dead and well over 500 wounded – terrorist attacks clearly designed to try and undermine confidence in the Government of Nouri al-Maliki, notwithstanding the Iraqis perception of the security situation,
The Iraqis' perception of the security situation is much, much better and much more optimistic than that of foreigners. So Iraqi friends suggested that the easiest way for me to get from Baghdad to Basra would be by train. Such a journey to them seemed a perfectly straightforward, now everyday occurrence. When I tried out this suggestion on the UK Ambassador in Baghdad, I was left in no doubt that so far as the UK embassy was concerned this would not be seen as a sensible move!
The truth is that the security situation is steadily improving in Iraq, but almost certainly faster for Iraqis than foreigners. Whilst of course there are still many tensions, the country hasn’t disintegrated into civil war and my impression is that most people are preparing for elections next year that they want to have some integrity.
Iraqis find it frustrating that nowadays they seem constantly to be having to go to the international community to request funding support or financial assistance. There is a clear recognition that Iraq has the potential to be a very wealthy country. It has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Their difficulty is that they can’t work out on some sort of risk and reward basis what are appropriate levels of participation by foreign companies in the Iraq oil industry. On the one hand there is a clear recognition that international investment, technology and expertise is needed now to get Iraqis' oil moving. There is a clear wariness that they may be seen as giving away too much and to date no UK oil and gas firm has got firmly established in Iraq.
For other UK companies, although there are clearly considerable amounts of business to be won in Iraq, there is still justifiable concern about the security situate, and the “on costs” of having to provide staff with post protection security, but quite a lot of Iraqis now go to Amman to do business: they recognise it is often a lot easier for foreign companies and potential foreign investors to go to Jordan and I suspect for some time we may have a situation whereby members of the UK business community go to Amman to do the initial negotiation of contracts and then simply go to Iraq for final signing meetings.
Because they have been paying the lion’s share of the cost of reconstruction, to date the United States companies have won many of the larger orders, but with the progressive withdrawal of US troops, it will be interesting to see how long that situation continues.
In addition to contracts for civil engineering, construction and a myriad of different procurement contracts, one of the assets the UK really has going in Iraq is English! A large proportion of educated Iraqis speak English well and younger generations see it as an essential prerequisite to either getting on in Iraq, or in due course leaving Iraq.
The Iraqi Government are making available funds for a significant number of university scholarships for young Iraqis both in the US and the UK. Ironically one of the main hurdles for the UK in getting more Iraqi students coming and paying fees at our universities is simply the visa system. It is not possible to get a visa in Iraq to visit or study or stay in the UK. One has to go and apply at an overseas post such as Amman which of course involves those concerned then having also to get a visa to go to Jordan. At any meeting with Iraqi academics or students, the main cause for concern is the difficulty in obtaining visas.
The UK Government appear to be conscious of this problem and say that they are trying to find a third party contractor to undertake the issuing of visas in Baghdad and there also appears to be an important secondary issue that the Iraqis don’t seem desperately willing or able to take back Iraqi refugees where the Courts in the UK have found as a finding of fact that they don’t have refugee status and they should leave the jurisdiction.
If we can get the student visa issue sorted out, there is considerable potential for significant numbers of Iraqi students coming to study in the UK and being funded for such study by the Government of Iraq and thus good news for universities that recruit them. Of course, not everyone can go abroad to study and in Baghdad there is enormous appetite to learn English or improve one’s English and people are feeling their way to try and redevelop the buildings and site of the former British Council offices in Baghdad.
My impression is that the Foreign Office on its own doesn’t have the money to do up this building but would certainly be willing to enter into some sort of Joint Venture with the Government of Iraq and if that were possible it could make a wonderful English language resource and cultural centre in the heart of Baghdad.
Apart from tensions as to the extent to which Iraqis want foreign direct investment and/or involvement in some of their key industries, there are also some tensions within the country. The parliament supposedly shares powers with devolved regional authorities, but that has led to tensions with Kurdistan and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
The “Line to Take” by the KRG would seem to suggest that Kurdistan is a federal republic and that the constitution very clearly lays out where powers should lie and that Kurdistan is simply acting in accordance with the provisions of the constitution.
That is not an interpretation always necessarily shared by Ministers and politicians alike in Baghdad who I think sometimes feel that some significant “touch on the tiller” is required to ensure that Kurdistan is complying with the constitution. Certainly Baghdad refuses to recognise any oil company that has purportedly bought oil licences in Kurdistan and sooner or later, de jure Iraq, operating from Baghdad, is going to have to sit down and work out a very clear modus vivendi with politicians in Baghdad.
It is going to be very interesting to see whether the international community feel that it is sufficiently safe for next year’s elections to be monitored by independent election monitors, but if that doesn’t happen, there is almost certainly going to be claim and counter claim as to the integrity of the ballot, but one gets the overall impression that Iraqis of whatever background are keen to make a success of the new Iraq.
Conservative Friends of Iraq hope that we can help Parliamentarians understand how we develop party policy and how we strengthen the political party, whether in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq. If you are interested in getting involved with the work of the Conservative Friends of Iraq, please get in touch with me via email.