Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
“Why do you have to go to Iraq,” said my friends and family, “isn’t it a bit dangerous?” Others just exclaimed: “Iraq? Why on earth…?’ I replied: “don’t worry – I am travelling with my colleague Jack Lopresti, formerly of the armed forces and who served in Afghanistan”. Jack is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Kurdistan Group and I could not be with a better travelling companion.
Actually, there is another reason not to worry. We are visiting the Autonomous Kurdistan Region (KRG) – a place I have been to five times before.
Kurdistan is a beacon of stability in a troubled region. Surrounded by a semi-hostile rest of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, this nation truly has the neighbours from hell. Whilst Iraq has just ended an air blockade, which meant no international flights, Iran has apparently been behind local destabilisation, including the alleged assassination of two Iranian Pehsmergas, and possible interference in elections. Turkey is treating the KRG, on the one hand, as a chance for economic colonisation and, on the other, as a nuisance that needs to be put in its place. Then there is the flight of thousands of refugees from Syria, and the vast refugee camps on the Syrian-KRG border.
Friday May 25
So here we are at the airport waiting for our luggage at the dead of 3am, after flying first to Amman in Jordan, and then to the KRG capital, Erbil.
Whilst waiting for our luggage, Gary Kent (the distinguished Kurdologist and Secretary of the KRG UK Parliamentary Group), and I sneak outside for a quick cigar.
I look at a whole load of large buildings, unfinished – still. I had seen these same buildings during my last visit in 2013. I imagined that when I arrived this time, they would have finished. But the economic crises – due to falling oil prices, the war against ISIS, and the pressure of dealing with thousands of displaced persons from that war – seemingly has put building on hold.
After a good sleep we all meet for lunch in our hotel. Gary and I enjoy another post-lunch cigar in the hotel— no nanny state here! Jack says we are aggressive smokers, but fortunately he likes the whiff of cigars. We have a short meet with the Deputy British Consul, yet another example of the finest of British diplomacy.
Later, it’s off to see the Christian Quarter, and the main church, filled with worshippers. This is another example of how the KRG is a haven for all religions and none. Wherever you go, you find a nation – unlike most of those in the Middle East – which rejects fundamentalism, and provides a sanctuary for Jews, Christians, Yazidis and many others, persecuted in the name of extremist Islam. Religious tolerance is one of the KRG’s best virtues, and an example of what can be achieved by a progressive Muslim nation.
On the way back, Gary and I stop off at a special shop to stock up on cigars at prices we can only dream of in the UK. This is really the land of the free!
Saturday May 26
Up very early to travel from Erbil to the important province of Slemani. As I am not a great car traveller (car-sick since a child, disguised by my grandmother putting dark brown paper on my lap), I get in the front. The driver kindly moves an AK47 (I think) which was strapped to the seatbelt. We motor on to our destination in seemingly record time— and record speeds, passing beautiful mountains and a lake. The roads to be fair are not too bad.
Our first meeting is with the elected Governor, a member of the ‘anti-establishment’ Gorran Party, which has taken on the two main political movements, the KDP and the PUK. The Governor tells us a few times how proud he was to receive the highest vote. I feel for a moment that I am in the Commons Tea Room, discussing with fellow MPs about our own election results.
I like his phrase: “Freedom is the psychology of the people”. It is also good to hear the Governor expressing a passion for religious diversity, and how the Kurds are an ally of all religions.
He begins to argue that the recent elections to the Iraqi Parliament were not impartial, and that there was some ballot-rigging. This is something we will return to in later meetings and becomes a major theme of our visit; Gorran are the semi-insurgent party, so they have a particular axe to grind on this issue.
Next up, an extraordinary visit to Gorran HQ, an equivalent of CCHQ. I’m pleased to see that a number of the senior party spokespersons are graduates from my old University of Exeter, and there is some immediate bonding. The senior members seem young, and quite liberal in outlook.
We are led into a large room that has clearly seen its share of gunfire; bullet holes are dotted across the walls near to the shattered glass clinging to the window frames.
During the Iraqi Parliament elections, Gorran got into a dispute with the PUK. Their members were out on the street demonstrating against what they thought was ballot-tampering. In the evening, a PUK sponsored Peshmerga senior officer turned up at the Gorran HQ with some soldiers – and some heavy weaponry – and began firing at the HQ. Luckily, only the building was damaged and no injuries were sustained.
Of course, there is more to this than just ‘goodies against baddies’. Nonetheless, Gorran painstakingly explain to us how they believed the ballot was hacked.
It’s hard to know the full truth, but I leave Gorran HQ feeling that Kudish democracy may have taken two steps forward and one step back.
We hear the other side of the story when we go to the PUK Politburo (yes, the main parties are structured like this), a hangover from Soviet/Saddam times. The PUK are keen to tell us that actually they lost seats and votes, so how can the ballot have been rigged? Moreover. the Pehmerga who attacked the Gorran HQ has a distinguished war record and has been taken to task for his behaviour.
We later dine with the PUK in a revolving restaurant at the top of a hotel. Despite feeling a little dizzy, I manage to pack in some delicious Kurdish food. The dinner ends with the PUK officials rushing to watch the Euro finals: for some reason, Real Madrid have a big following in Kurdistan.
Sunday May 27
Jack, his Wikipedia genius researcher Matthew, and Gary travel to a very sunny Baghdad to meet the President. Apparently it is 50 degrees celsius there. I thank my lucky stars I am not going with them.
Instead, I put on my Chair of the Education Select Committee hat – as I am to visit two universities to meet staff and students.
After a good Kurdish breakfast (with large green chilli peppers)…and cigar…I am off to Slemani University, one of the top ten in Iraq. Established in 1968, it was closed by Saddam Hussein in 1981, re-opening in the 1990s.
I meet all the deans and the Chancellor. But the best part is sitting in a lecture hall with students, which is both profoundly uplifting and thoroughly depressing.
They are upset about our Prime Minster, recently using the expression ‘Kurdish Terrorists’. Theresa May was talking about the proscribed terrorist group the PKK, but that does not cut the mustard with the students. They complain that we call ISIS ‘ISIS’ – not ‘Arab Terrorists’.
The students love Britain, learn about Britain, but question after question is: why is the visa system so complicated, and why can they not travel to Britain to study? I promise to raise this with the Home Office and Foreign Office, but I can’t help thinking just how damaging it is having students as part of the migration target. Here is a pro-western, pro-British nation, tolerant of all religions and backgrounds, whose view of our country is being negatively coloured by the behaviour of the visa bureaucracy, alongside a perception of a hostile environment from GB to foreign students.
Very sad indeed.
Back in the car, accompanied by the AK47, we then begin a few hours journey to Erbil University.
The driver, a kind man in a dark suit and dark sunglasses, is highly skilled. He manages to drive at top speeds, on winding roads, holding a walkie-talkie in one hand and a Samsung Galaxy 7 in the other. He does not flinch when a lorry comes towards us at Formula One speed, driving on the wrong side of the Highway.
I say my last prayers and wonder who will fight the Harlow By-Election. I need not have worried: we avoid the lorry and carry on our way as merrily as before. Although I have no brown paper on my lap, I have taken some travel tablets – thank the Lord.
We arrive at Erbil University, only 15 minutes late. This University is the Oxbridge of Kurdistan. I meet some extraordinarily impressive students as well as the Vice-Chancellor, who also loves Britain. I get the same questions from these students as the ones in the Suleymeniyah University. What is wrong with Britain? Why are we not doing more to support the Kurds? Why is it so hard to study at British Universities? I do my best to bat for Britain, but I feel I am on a sticky wicket.
Back to the hotel. Cigars out, and a much needed chicken wrap. I fall asleep for a few hours until Jack and Gary call me downstairs to explain their adventures in Baghad. I am still glad I didn’t go there.
Monday May 28
Today is an exciting one. An ACDC breakfast (anadin, cigar and diet coke), we meet the British Defence Attaché, who explains how the UK is helping and training the Peshmerga. Then there is a session with the Erbil Governor, who shows us proudly how he is transforming the capital with some beautiful infrastructure projects. We also take in a quick visit to the famous ancient citadel, where I buy a traditional Kurdish hat – the colours of the hat indicate the tribal origins.
It is then time to meet the Sajid Javid of Kurdistan, the KRG Interior Minister. A thoughtful politician, he tells us that far from being vanquished, ISIS are on the rise again and are active in many areas. Their current method of warfare is through suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks at the dead of night. We are told that there are some smaller swathes of territory that ISIS have regained control of – fortunately outside the Kurdistan Region. The Iranians are also everywhere. This is another reminder of just how precarious things are, just how big the security threat to the Kurds is, and just how extensive the influence of troublesome neighbours like Iran actually is.
I leave the Interior Ministry alarmed, but also as high as a kite. At almost every meeting, we are served first with strong Kurdish coffee, then with strong Kurdish tea. Of course, because it’s so hot, I am drinking diet cokes at every opportunity. At night, unsurprisingly, it is not always easy to get to sleep.
The afternoon is very special. We are visiting a GB Army Camp ‘Job Zorbash’ in Erbil. Jack is in his element, and I get that wonderful feeling of being so proud to be British. The officers explain to us what they are doing in detail to train and assist the Peshmerga troops. We then meet with a range of officers, who explain what they do specifically, and talk about life in the camp. Unlike Jack, I’d never been to an army camp before.
But the camp is a partial answer to all those Kurdish students who asked what Britain is doing to help the Kurds. This is what part of our overseas aid budget should be used for. It shouldn’t come out of the MoD Budget. Our professional armed forces have trained many thousands of Kurds, not just about the methods of conflict, but about international laws as well.
A completely contrasting visit next to the House of Volunteers, a Kurdish civil society project set up by young successful Kurdish professionals: David Cameron would love this place. These Kurds are attempting to build a Big Society across Kurdistan. Seeing their passion and professionalism, I think they might just do it. They provide a glimpse of what the future of Kurdistan could be like, if this nation can sort out its economy, develop a rule of law, strengthen its democracy and somehow come to a cold peace with their nuisance neighbours. Of course we are given yet more tea and coffee.
In the evening, we meet with the President’s key adviser. He is seriously impressive. We ask him about the attack on the Gorran HQ. I say for the Kurdish Parliamentary elections why not invite international observers for every polling station? He replies: absolutely – why not? I say: why not tell the world this. He replies he will tweet it later. To his credit, he does exactly that. The Kurds will welcome independent international observers to their forthcoming elections.
Tuesday May 29
Our last day in Kurdistan. I change from an an ACDC breakfast to an AOCCC one (Anadin, Omelette, Chilli Peppers, Cigar and Coffee). Gary and I are at the breakfast table ruminating just how wonderful it is to be able to have a cigar and breakfast at the same time.
Our first event is with the Kurdish Assistant Foreign Minister. Amidst more tea and coffee, this remarkable woman takes us through relations with Iran, ISIS and what the Kurds are doing for the internationally displaced people who have fled to KRG. It is a mammoth task and a huge stretch of meagre resources.
Then to the Kurdish Parliament meeting with Parliamentarians from all parties and religions. As a parliamentary anorak, I find this fascinating. We discuss the powers of parliament and the executive, and the role of committees. I explain how my Education Select Committee works. Unlike the British Parliament, the mobile signal and WiFi works just a treat.
Our last meeting is with the Deputy Prime Minister. Smooth, erudite and charismatic he goes through both the Government’s domestic priorities alongside economic reform. He acknowledges the significant number of Kurds employed in the public sector, and sets out a few reform plans.
Again, the subject of the attack on the Gorran HQ comes up. The Deputy Prime Minister, from the PUK Party, notes that this should not have happened. He stresses that it is important for long-standing Peshmerga war veterans to be given dignity in their retirement. He also says that as Deputy Prime Minisyer he had to go on TV to urge his people not to fire bullets in the sky in celebration after the election results: the country needs those bullets in the war against ISIS.
During the evening, there is a reception for our APPG of senior Kurds from politics and civil society, foreign business people, and a few expats. Jack has prepared and delivers a wonderful speech. Drinking a refreshing beer, I am thinking that I am glad that it is Jack giving the speech and not me. That is until he called me to the stand unexpectedly when he had finished, and asks me to give a speech too. I hope I did ok – after all, there is no such thing as a free reception (with apologies to Milton Friedman).
Wednesday May 30
Up at 2am to travel to the airport. I feel so sad to say goodbye to this incredible nation. The Kurds have, despite warts and all, built a country with a developing democracy, a functioning economy, and one which has a passion for religious tolerance and diversity. This nation has been at the frontline against ISIS – and all the free world owes the Kurds a great deal.
It is time that we redoubled our efforts to support Kurdistan, and help the Kurds build a country that is fit for the twenty-first entury. They suffered because of their successful independence referendum last year, and the reaction from Iraq. That now has been put on hold. I hope that, one day, Kurdistan is no longer just an autonomous region in Iraq, but gets the independence it deserves.