Jack Lopresti is MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke, and Chairman of the defence committee of the 1922 Committee.
Fifteen miles from the city of Mosul, Peshmerga General Talabani escorted me and fellow British MPs round a bleak new camp for people fleeing the fighting. Some families were friendly but surly gaggles of ISIS fighters who had shaved their beards and dumped their uniforms eyed us with suspicion.
Just down the road over the Kurdistan border Iraqi generals showed us a Christian village which they took back from ISIS in a bloody but brief battle which prevented ISIS from booby-trapping it, as they have everywhere else. The bullet holes, bomb craters and smashed buildings highlighted the massive reconstruction needed.
Physical rebuilding is relatively easy but trust will take longer. We heard how some Sunni Arabs informed on their Christian, Shia or Yezidi neighbours to ISIS or murdered and raped them to seize their properties. We met women who escaped ISIS or were “repurchased.” Their ghastly experiences of being gang-raped or knowing this has been inflicted on their girls and boys, and the massacres of their men folk before their eyes give them nightmares and flashbacks. Their deep traumas need careful healing but there is only one Clinical Psychology department in Kurdistan.
Even before the onslaught on Mosul, nearly two million people fled to the Kurdistan Region where we visited five other well-organised camps for internal and Syrian refugees. The children smiled and shook our hands while their parents proffered sweet tea as a token of hospitality. One mother told us in floods of tears all she wants is to return to her home and her family, but that it will take some time.
The Kurds have often been refugees and their key saying is they have no friends but the mountains where they have fled so many times. This drives their extraordinary generosity to their guests, despite an economic tsunami caused by war, plunging oil prices, Baghdad’s foolish sabotage of Kurdish economic and political aspirations, and a staggering increase in mouths to feed – their population has soared by a third in two years and more are coming from Mosul.
Iraqi Kurds are making them as comfortable as possible while ensuring ISIS sleeper cells do not smuggle themselves in and cause trouble later. Their internal security has been commendable since ISIS came within 20 miles of their capital, Erbil, which was saved by Western airstrikes. We need feel no guilt whatsoever about this. If we had not acted, a wonderfully pluralist and progressive country could have been crushed by the ISIS genocide machine.
And the Kurds scorn the indulgent view that we are to blame by liberating Iraqi in 2003. Yes, of course there were some mistakes made after Saddam was ousted but Kurdish leaders say Iraqi troubles go back hundreds of years. The jihadist virus was home-grown and worsened by America leaving Iraq before the job was done.
They thanked us for training the Peshmerga to be a better and more unified army but they need more heavy weapons and basic infantry kit such as gas masks. One leader said they thank us for breakfast but are not sure when lunch is coming, let alone dinner. Britain should provide more kit to prevent deaths and specialist beds here for the most seriously wounded. But the key request is we stay the course politically for the complex times when ISIS is rooted out of Mosul and then Syria.
A year ago on the frontline in Kirkuk, Peshmerga leaders told me of scant co-operation with the Iraqi Army, which fled from ISIS in 2014 and lost a third of Iraq. The armies have now agreed unprecedented levels of co-ordination with crucial Western support. Iraqi soldiers who once carried out genocide and pulverised thousands of Kurdish villages now work hand in glove against a common enemy.
This could heal massive political differences between the Kurds and the Iraqis but it will take great effort when Mosul is liberated to rebuild towns, and rebuild relations and possibly borders to make sure that Sunnis are not again marginalised and open to a new form of ISIS.
The Kurds eventually want an amicable divorce with Baghdad and to prosper as a moderately Muslim sovereign nation and a good neighbour. Their fertile and stunning countryside could once again be the breadbasket of Iraq and also coin in tourist revenues so they are not reliant on energy sales alone. The Kurds have begun major economic reform to eliminate waste and corruption, and unleash small businesses They have ambitious plans for tourism, a film industry and more but all this needs sustained Western engagement and trade as we saw in the shiny Jaguar/Rover showroom in Erbil. But they also need to overcome internal political tensions as they return to deepening the Western-style democracy they opted for in the 1990s.
The Peshmerga powerfully symbolise the unity they need. We visited wounded Peshmerga to thank them for defending their homeland and being our frontline against a force that will turn on us even more if undefeated. Today we remember our war dead but we should also remember the fallen Peshmerga. The Kurds are our friends, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.