Jack Lopresti is Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke.
The last six months have been terrible for the Kurds in Iraq but, sadly, few people know that our allies, who did so much to repel Daesh, are being penalised for democratically seeking a mandate to take control of their own destiny.
Their airports were closed for six months. Kurdish budget payments are being slashed, and their economy is tanking as people are not paid, are paid in arrears or have had to take a pay cut – or all of these. Their Peshmerga soldiers were killed in attacks by Baghdad on the disputed territories. Baghdad is clearly reverting to its default position of treating the Kurds as naughty children, yet expect the Kurds to want to remain in Iraq.
All this is a far cry from the much more optimistic moments I have seen for myself in my three visits to Kurdistan in recent years. On the frontline in Kirkuk in 2015, I saw a complete lack of co-operation between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga against the common enemy of Daesh. A year later, in Kirkuk and on the outskirts of Mosul, the Kurds had brokered a unique deal that allowed Iraqi soldiers to cross Kurdish territory, the Peshmerga clearing villages on the road to Mosul. I recall the scenes of joy in Kirkuk and two other cities as people cast their votes for eventual independence by a massive 93 per cent on a 72 per cent turnout.
We had asked Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish Prime Minister, if military co-operation could lead to political unity. He hoped so – but it wasn’t to be. The Iraqis were once reliant on the Peshmerga to defeat Daesh but, once that need expired, and following the peaceful referendum, Baghdad violently turned on the Kurds. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Prime Minister, was twice unwilling to even thank the Peshmerga.
It’s reasonable to ask if Iraq is becoming a failed state. It was always going to be a long haul to recover from decades of dictatorship that repressed a political culture able to overcome old habits of winner-take-all governance, corruption, and inefficiency. There were encouraging signs after liberation in 2003 that a decent, democratic, federal and pluralist constitution could bear fruit. The Kurds, long seen by Iraqi leaders as a treacherous and child-like nuisance, became equals and prospered to the benefit of the country as a whole.
Before the rise of Daesh, Baghdad had increasingly reneged on federalism by spurning the constitutional commitment to settle the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk, and severing all federal funding to the Kurds.
The long-signalled Kurdish response was a referendum to attain a mandate for potentially negotiating independence and improved co-operation with Baghdad. There was no inevitability about Baghdad’s harsh reaction. It could have disagreed with the referendum, but decided that keeping the Kurds meant negotiating a deal to carry out the agreed federalism, or perhaps some form of confederalism. The Kurds were not rushing to leave, and many who backed the principle of independence could have settled for less than complete sovereignty.
I backed their right to self-determination, but was broadly neutral about the outcome. The nature of the Iraqi response has convinced me that independence is now the best eventual outcome because, as the recent Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report on Kurdish aspirations observed: “Many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them.”
I also understand why the UK and its allies encouraged the Kurds to defer the referendum in the hope that they could encourage Baghdad and Erbil to resolve all outstanding disputes with the possibility of an internationally supported referendum after a couple of years. Let’s remember that the Kurds bravely fought extremism for themselves, and to help keep our streets safe too.
I also understand worries that if Abadi is defeated in the May elections, he could be succeeded by someone who would tip Iraq ever more into the Iranian orbit. But Iran already has substantial influence in Iraq, whose unreasonable reaction was supported and encouraged by Iran, which is keen to contain Kurdistan and not block its strategic goal, now secured, of a military corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Having seen Kurdistan advance towards democracy and prosperity as well as a generally secular and female-friendly governance, despite continuing problems and regressive steps such as suspending the parliament for two years, I am saddened by the subordinate position that has been cruelly imposed on Kurdistan. These dark days will pass if and when Baghdad has a Prime Minister willing to reset relations, or as Daesh or a new form of the fascist virus spreads, and Kurdistan is once more needed to defend pluralism.
During my visits to Kurdistan, I have seen British-backed projects and met a huge number of people who welcome the UK as a friend. I agree with the FAC that the UK should supply and encourage others to provide capacity-building courses and training that equip KRI policy-makers and others with the greater ability to promote political reform and economic reform and diversification. I also support the FAC’s recommendation that the UK should offer itself as a partner in enhanced dialogue to help settle the conflict between Kurdistan and Iraq.
If the Kurds can resolve their internal problems, overcome their needless divisions, and bit by bit regain their rights within Iraq, they can again be a pivotal political and military force and a valuable partner in helping advance reform and be a force for good and democracy in the Middle East.