[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
Mr Davies, it is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I begin by declaring an interest. I travelled to Kurdistan in November 2016 as a guest of the Kurdistan Regional Government and I am now chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
It is three years since the last debate here on the Kurdistan region, and everything has fundamentally changed in that time. The Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), earned much respect in his first stint as the Middle East Minister, and his wisdom, experience and expertise, not least with the Kurds, will be major assets in his second stint.
I have visited Kurdistan twice with the all-party group, which has done much in its 10 years of service to improve and increase understanding of Kurdistani issues. I use the term “Kurdistani” because Kurdistan contains non-Kurds as well; however, I refer only to the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I will start by testing key points and end with the measures that I believe require our Government’s help.
My basic points are that Iraqi federalism has sadly failed and cannot be revived, because the Shi’a majority has no appetite for federalism or minority rights. The Kurds voluntarily re-joined Iraq in 2003, on the basis of western and Iraqi promises that Iraq would be federal and democratic. This exercise of their right to self-determination did not expire on its first use. They cannot be forced into subordination by leaders in Baghdad. In effect, Iraq has severed itself from Kurdistan—it pays no budget contributions and does not help Arabs sheltering there—but recent co-operation between their separate militaries have been very successful indeed.
The Kurds have rejected the option of making a unilateral declaration of independence and wisely seek a reset of relations with Iraq, which could be much stronger without the constant internal disputes between Baghdad and Irbil. Sectarianism and centralisation caused the rise of Daesh and could do so again. A yes vote in September’s independence referendum in the Kurdistan region will lead to negotiations. The west should help, not least over the disputed territories, and the UK should send observers to the region during the referendum. In any case, the west should continue to nurture relations with the Kurds, as they are a beacon of moderation and pluralism and support for western values.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that the Kurdish people have helped to fight Daesh and have been a key ally to the western world?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I absolutely agree. I will return to the peshmerga and the fight against Daesh later, but we owe the Kurds a huge debt of gratitude for what they are doing on a daily basis, including as we are here today.
I will briefly give some history. The treaty of Lausanne in 1923 led to the Turks formally ceding all earlier claims on Syria and Iraq and, along with the treaty of Ankara, settled the boundaries of the two nations. The earlier post-world war one discussions about a Kurdish state being formed after the break-up of the Ottoman empire, which had been nominally supported by the British, including Sir Winston Churchill, were absent from the treaty of Lausanne.
The Kurds have a long history of suffering second-class citizenship, and in the late 1980s they experienced genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein—a genocide that was formally recognised by this House in 2013. From 1991 onwards, Sir John Major’s no-fly zone and safe haven protected the Iraqi Kurds from further attack by Saddam Hussein, and Tony Blair and George Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein was welcomed by the Kurds as a liberation. Indeed, on my visits to the region I have personally been thanked for the British contribution to the liberation of Iraq.
The Kurds re-joined Iraq in 2003 and they have tried to make that arrangement work. They brokered a federal constitution, which was agreed by 80% of people in the Iraqi referendum in 2005. It enshrined a binational country of equals and, for instance, agreed a mechanism for resolving the status of the disputed territories. The deadline for that resolution was supposed to have been 2007, but it has still not been carried out. The end to federalism was demonstrated in February 2014 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, who unconstitutionally cut all federal budget transfers to Kurdistan.
In June 2014, Daesh captured Mosul, took a third of the country and seized sophisticated American military kit, including lots of vehicles and heavy weapons. A Kurdistani offer of help before the attack was spurned. Maliki failed in the most vital duty of any leader, which is to uphold the security of the state and protect its people. So the Kurds suddenly acquired a 650-mile border with Daesh and there was an overnight influx of Iraqi Arabs from Mosul, who increased the population by a third, straining all public services to breaking point. Daesh attacked Kurdistan in August 2014 and came within 20 miles of the capital, Irbil, which was only saved by immediate American air strikes and other assistance.
Then, a massive slump in the price of oil exposed the inefficient nature of the Kurdistani economy—massive state employment, little productivity, a miniscule private sector and an almost complete reliance on energy revenues, which now came through independent exports via Turkey. The Kurds faced a perfect storm of crises and came through, not unscathed but in one piece. This highlights their great resilience.
The story of how the Kurds eventually united with the Iraqi army against Daesh is instructive. When I visited the Kirkuk frontline in November 2015, I was told that there was no co-ordination, or indeed any communication, between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army. A year later, with western support the two forces concluded a deal to continue to drive Daesh out of Mosul, and I saw for myself the result of that deal last November, both on the road to Mosul and inside Mosul. This unprecedented military partnership came despite the historic bad blood and bad feeling between the Kurds and the Iraqis, which largely exist because of the Iraqi army’s chemical weapons attacks on hundreds of villages and the extermination of nearly 200,000 people in the 1980s.
I will not focus on the moral reasons for airing arguments for Kurdish independence; instead, I will address the strategic gains for the west. Once Daesh is defeated in Mosul and later in Raqqa, the key question is how to prevent any such force re-emerging and how to undermine the ideological and political appeal of such “vile fascism”, as the KRG’s High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, has put it.
We have to understand why many Sunnis came to believe that Daesh was less awful than Baghdad. Many could not accept the loss of the privileges they had enjoyed under Saddam. Thanks to the Kurds, however, Sunnis joined power-sharing Governments in Baghdad, and their militias and tribes helped to defeat the al-Qaeda insurgency in 2007-08.
However, the immediate consequence of the disastrous American decision to withdraw all its forces, a decision favoured by Maliki, was that Maliki brutally repressed Sunni civil rights protests. Sunnis had seen how badly Shi’a politicians had treated the Kurds and concluded that they themselves could face worse.
The central task now is to eradicate the drivers of Sunni radicalism and protect minorities, who have suffered rape, murder and dispossession by Sunni neighbours, as well as facing the massive cost of reconstruction and the need for a “Marshall plan of the mind” to tackle the deep traumas of those who were raped in their thousands and saw their menfolk slaughtered. The Kurdistanis also need devolved governance.
Already, we see that the old centralising is in contention; and it would be odd—bizarre, even—if the status of Kurdistan was not part of the conversation after Daesh. There are those who say that this is the wrong time, citing internal division in Kurdistan, the starkest symbol of which is the paralysis of its Parliament. I hope that the continuing negotiations, which have involved our diplomats, will resolve the dispute. As candid friends, we must continue to put pressure on the Kurds, so that their Parliament sits again and there is a functioning democracy as quickly as possible.
The state of the economy is another reason why some people say that now is the wrong time for the Kurds to consider, ask for and seek their own independence. However, I take the point made by the Kurdistani leader and former Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, that
“if we wait for all the problems to be resolved, we will have to wait forever”.
I commend the reforms of Prime Minister Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Talabani: aligning revenues with state spending and introducing better forms of identification of the work force, to eliminate double-jobbing and ghost workers. They have much further to go, but statehood could end excuses for neglecting reform and allow access to development funds that are conditional on such reform.
The Kurds reckon that old foes are weaker or amenable to a potential independence deal, agreed with Baghdad. Turkey, Kurdistan’s major trading partner, could see Kurdistan as a major source of secure energy supplies, an interlocutor with the Kurds in Turkey, and a buffer between Turkey, Sunnis and Shi’as. Iran, of course, is resolutely opposed, but it is, thankfully, under intense pressure from America and the Gulf states and has absolutely no right to veto Kurdish independence. Arab-Iraqis adore Kurdistan, as Shimal Habib—the beloved north—thanks to the holidays they have there, enjoying the temperate climate and the hospitality. But Bagdad has refused to treat the Kurdish region fairly or with any good will. As for the bilateral relationship, the Kurds see us as a partner of choice, and the APPG supports a bigger British footprint in Kurdistan.
There are three specific issues I would like the Minister to address in his remarks. The first is the peshmerga. The gallant, brave, wonderful peshmerga are fighting Daesh on the ground, and that helps to secure our own security, freedoms and way of life. One of my most moving visits was when I went to see wounded peshmerga soldiers in Irbil. Many seriously injured soldiers are beyond the capacity of the medical facilities and the health system there, and I have asked two Prime Minister’s questions urging the British Government to supply a small number of beds at Queen Elizabeth hospital Birmingham because, as I am sure we agree, we owe the peshmerga a huge debt of honour and gratitude.
The second matter is visas. The visa application system is a vexed issue and the rejection rate has increased from 55% to 66%. We need up-to-date figures, and I ask the Minister to help with that. Entry clearance officers have perhaps three minutes to examine an application, and any small query means a no. One application was rejected due to a small discrepancy over claimed income, even though exchange rates had moved in the intervening days. Such issues are not clarified because we no longer interview and our diplomats and Ministers can no longer intervene to assert a national interest. We should, of course, police and secure our borders, but we must, looking forward to a post-Brexit world, encourage people to do business and holiday here, and not make it excessively difficult for them to do so.
Thirdly, on bilateral relations, the KRG’s Prime Minister visited the UK in May 2014, and we established a joint committee, which was obviously then overtaken by events. When will the committee begin to function or a new committee be set up? I urge the Government to invite the Prime Minister or the new President of Kurdistan to meet our Prime Minister.
Today’s debate coincides with independence day in the United States. The Kurdish people will decide in their referendum in September whether they, too, want to be an independent state.
I think I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s speech carefully. Is he really saying that a vote for independence by the Kurds in Iraq would be welcomed in Ankara?
What I am saying is that the moods have shifted. I am not saying it would be welcomed, but I hope that, looking towards perhaps more co-operation and trade, we might get a better response than we had anticipated.
We can be optimistic and helpful in whatever discussions and negotiations follow on from the referendum, but whatever the people decide, the UK and the KRG have a lot in common, and our special relationship must be nurtured and developed.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. It might help new colleagues if I just let everyone know the format. I plan to give the Scottish National party spokesman, the shadow Minister and the Minister 10 minutes each at the end of the debate, so I will want to get to them just before 3.30 pm in order to allow the proposer of the motion to wind up for a couple of minutes at the end. I say that so that people can realise what timescales we are working to.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate, on his excellent and passionate speech and on being elected chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
Unlike many Members here, I have not yet visited the Kurdistan region, but I have attended many all-party group meetings with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s High Representative, Karwan Jamal Tahir, and others, to gain insight into the region. I, too, would like to thank the peshmerga for their bravery in resisting so-called Islamic State, and I am relieved that Mosul is near to full liberation from a ghastly organisation whose brutality is beyond reasonable comprehension.
Through the all-party group I have heard disturbing direct testimony about girls who were enslaved and raped multiple times but managed to escape. Sadly, I am sure that their psychological traumas will last forever, but at the very least they can be treated. I understand there is just one university department of clinical psychology in Kurdistan. I fear that the department will be overwhelmed by the anguish that will become ever clearer and more in need of urgent attention over the coming weeks. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to play any role they can in increasing the number of clinical psychologists in Iraq and Kurdistan. Those young women—those victims—deserve nothing less than being able to look forward to a future when they can at least manage their traumas, and so manage their lives.
We know that there are more than 1 million internally displaced persons—IDPs—currently accommodated in the Kurdistan region, as well as more than 200,000 Syrian refugees. Resettlement is limited because of poor security and the lack of basic services. However, the Catholic Church, working in the region, has played a significant role in helping IDPs and refugees since the beginning of the crisis. The diocese of Irbil currently supports about 70,000 people with accommodation, subsistence, education and employment. Many of those people are from religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has welcomed the Government’s recent decision to extend the vulnerable person resettlement scheme to non-Syrian refugees in the region. I hope that the Minister can say what support the Government plan to provide, during this Parliament, for Churches and religious communities that are helping IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan.
I join colleagues in supporting the right of the Kurds to express their self-determination through the referendum in September. I commend the Kurdistan leadership’s decision to ask the people for a mandate to negotiate full independence and new relations with Iraq. I also understand the position of the British Government, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, who visited Kurdistan in January 2015 as the then Mayor of London. He visited British troops training the peshmerga and was even pictured alongside one of them with an AK47. He wrote that he had previously met
“a dynamic and forward-looking young politician”—
“the prime minister of the fledgling state of Kurdistan.”
He further stated:
“Then we should help because we have a moral duty to that part of the world. It was the British who took the decision in the early Twenties to ignore the obvious ethnic divisions, and not to create a Kurdistan”,
which he described as
“one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.”
I accept that such solidarity and the right hon. Gentleman’s recent statement as Foreign Secretary are not incompatible, but I also recognise that the referendum will proceed. We will see whether the long negotiations achieve independence or a firm guarantee of equality in a new Iraq. It is not for me to say what is best for the Kurds, but I suggest that the UK and its diplomats use their experience and expertise to facilitate progress.
I want to highlight how the struggle of the Kurds has captured the hearts and minds of many ordinary British people who are practising their own version of diplomacy, and I am proud to speak about an example from the north-east. The Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers have held charity fundraising events in both Gateshead and Newcastle. Its founder, Kurdistan-born Professor Deiary Kader, mobilises health professionals from the north-east to visit Kurdistan two or three times a year, to provide free orthopaedic care. He and his colleagues are literally putting Kurds back on their own two feet through many free hip and knee operations, which are beyond the capacity of the health system there, or for which people would have to wait many years. The charity undertakes formal educational events to raise the standard of surgical care, as well as providing blankets and winter clothing to the Yazidi refugee camps in Duhok. The charity is also building a connection between Kurdistani doctors and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon, to transfer war-injured casualties to the committee’s war-wounded trauma reconstruction centre there.
Although I have yet to visit Kurdistan, I am an enthusiastic advocate of deep and broad links with our friends in the Kurdistan region, which is inclined to friendship with us and describes us as a partner of choice. The Minister has travelled to Kurdistan in his former official capacity and on an all-party group delegation. He was prepared to put aside Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefings to meet the passionate pleas of many Members here when the Commons discussed and agreed to formally recognise the genocide by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. I hope his wisdom will enable him to understand that the Iraqi Kurds have a special place in British hearts and do his best to help ensure their freedom, equality and justice.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and, in particular, my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who introduced this debate and knows a huge amount about the region. Without sounding too sycophantic, I could not be more pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Minister back in his rightful position as the Minister for the Middle East.
I have been privileged to join all-party group delegations to Kurdistan—I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—five times since becoming an MP. Kurdistan has its problems, but it successfully has the essential ingredients for a flourishing society. It is an extraordinary place run by a progressive Muslim Kurdish Government dedicated to improving property rights, boosting private enterprise and encouraging inward investment. Unusually for that part of the world, the Kurdistan Government have determined that the rule of law must prevail. There are the beginnings of a vibrant civil society. I have met the trade unions several times on my visits, and I wish them well in developing sharp elbows to ensure that working people get a fair slice of the cake, although I would not recommend they follow the example of Len McCluskey and others. I have spoken to women’s organisations that have put domestic violence on the agenda and helped reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation. I salute the religious pluralism, and commend Prime Minister Barzani who said:
“What differentiates [us] from most of the countries around us is religious and ethnic tolerance. Accepting and defending each other’s rights strengthens the principle of humanity in this country, particularly in difficult times.”
It is astonishing to see religions from all over the region—Turkmen, Christians and others—literally fleeing to Kurdistan, because they know that it is the one place where they will receive protection.
I note that the KRG has appointed an official in charge of Jewish affairs. Jews once made up 17% of the population in Slemani before they were expelled in the bad old days, and there is a large Kurdish Jewish community in Israel. I remember driving past a Jewish area synagogue that was being preserved. Not many other nations in the middle east would preserve synagogues; they are usually knocking them down or demolishing them. I was very pleased when President Barzani told me that if Iraq recognised Israel, there would be a consulate-general in Irbil the next day. The relationship with Israel could be a major asset for both countries in future. Just imagine, Mr Davies, a progressive Muslim nation building relations with Israel, working together to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would set an example across the middle east.
There is one place, however, that I will never visit again: the Red House in Slemani. It was a horrific Ba’athist torture centre where thousands were murdered, tortured and raped. It is now a museum. More than anything, it shows the devastating inhumanity of Saddam’s regime. I remember going into a room inside the prison that was called the “party room”. In that room, women were raped by the guards and the subsequent foetuses were thrown into furnaces, in echoes of the holocaust. I remember going into the rooms of the prison, which were bugged. That was not for the prisoners, but to bug the guards in case they were giving anything to the prisoners, which has echoes of Stalin and Nazism. When we visited the Red House the second time, I refused to go in; I just sat outside.
The visits encouraged me to lead the Kurdistan Genocide Task Force, which united the KRG in the UK with MPs, academics and legal practitioners. In 2013 it helped persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide. We wanted to encourage the UK Government to do the same, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister will remember very well, the Government did not agree on the grounds that the decision should be legal and not political. I suspect we will still disagree, but I ask him to rethink. I give my real thanks to him for agreeing that the British Government should formally mark Anfal Day every April. I passionately believe that given the suffering of the people of Kurdistan, it is vital that we recognise the genocide, because it was the demonisation, marginalisation and annihilation of the Kurdish people.
Some people at the time asked why we focused on the past, but the history of genocide remains relevant to the Kurdistan story. Let us remember that they lost nearly 200,000 people, most notoriously in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. Let us also remember that Saddam bombed the area before he used chemical weapons, so that the windows of all the Kurdish people’s houses were broken. That meant that when the chemical weapons were dropped, the people could not protect themselves by shutting themselves in their houses and shutting their doors and windows. More than 4,000 villages were razed to the ground. That was the beginning of forcible urbanisation, which makes it difficult nowadays to persuade people to leave the cities and make their money from agriculture. It could be a major source of income and help Kurdistan diversify away from a reliance on oil.
The past is never far from the surface. Just a few months after the Commons recognised Halabja and Anfal, the Syrian Ba’athist regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta. It is no coincidence that that was done by a Ba’athist party. In 2014, ISIL attacked Iraq and later Kurdistan. I am sure I have no need to persuade the Minister that ISIL undertook a genocide against the Yazidis and the Christians. I would welcome his update on the measures the UK is taking to help preserve evidence to mount criminal prosecutions. I remember being in Kurdistan and being warned by Kurdistan Ministers that, “In some months, we will have al-Qaeda in Mosul.” I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), was at that meeting. They called it al-Qaeda, not ISIL, but they said that that would happen. All the awful things they predicted would happen tragically did happen.
The genocide against the Kurds ended when they rose up against Saddam in 1991 and evicted him from most of Kurdistan under our armed protection. For that the Kurds will always thank the then British Prime Minister, John Major, and British public opinion, which was appalled at the sight of so many people dying in the freezing mountains which had, in the old Kurdish saying, been their only friends. It is a privilege to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who was so involved at that time.
Whenever one thinks of the Iraq war, the thing we must always thank Tony Blair for is the fact that but for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan nation would likely still face an existential threat. Saddam has gone. Leaders that followed may not have been like him, but their actions did much to break the hope of federalism. That is why the Kurds are now seeking their sovereignty. I worry, however, that the mentality that allowed thousands of soldiers to conduct genocide is still obvious in the condescending and high-handed manner in which the Kurds are treated by Baghdad. I am also concerned about the attitude of the Shi’a militia towards the Kurds.
I have much sympathy with the Kurds’ desire for independence so that they can always protect themselves. I certainly believe they have the right to exercise self-determination by holding a referendum in September. I have signed the early-day motion stating that, and would be willing to observe the referendum. I understand that the Government’s position is to ask them to be proactive in seeking to facilitate the negotiations that will follow a successful referendum result, so that the Kurds and Arabs currently in Iraq can negotiate a more productive relationship. The UK must do everything possible to support this remarkable nation, which is at the vanguard of the fight against ISIS and for democracy, rule of law and a free economy in Iraq and the middle east.
It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I declare an interest: I have travelled to the region as the guest of the Regional Government of Kurdistan. I was invited to visit as part of a cross-party group of fact-finding parliamentarians. Aware that the conflict in the region is one of the biggest issues facing our world, I was very keen to go, and having spent a number of years volunteering in London with victims of torture—some from the region—I jumped at the chance to find out more.
On arriving in Irbil, I was shocked by the progressive and sophisticated surroundings. I was expecting a war zone, but the city could be mistaken for Dubai in its high-rise ambition and elegance. Sadly, war was not very far away. Half an hour’s ride out of the city, we were in a Syrian refugee camp near the border with the Kurdistan region.
Chatting to families, surrounded by playful children, I heard so many stories of pain and suffering: loved ones missing believed dead, people injured by mines, children made orphans by war. Most of those I spoke to had been there for more than three years, with no guarantee of when they would return home. They were weary and exhausted; all they wanted was to be reunited with their families and get back to their homes.
Kurdistan is host to not just refugees from Syria, but 1.5 million people displaced by war from other parts of Iraq. Although refugees have special status in international law and are cared for by the UN, internally displaced people are the responsibility of the host Government. Sadly, Baghdad seems to be doing little to help and leaves the task to Kurdistan, which is already suffering an economic tsunami, thanks to a dramatic fall in oil prices, the hostility of Baghdad, which has cut its budget since 2014, and Kurdistan’s own dysfunctional economy, which needs massive reform.
As the Kurds and Iraqis move to liberate Mosul from the brutality of the self-styled Islamic State, more displaced people are heading into Kurdistan—the population has expanded by a third, which is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham moving to Scotland. Understandably, there are electricity and water shortages, and schools and hospitals are overwhelmed.
Travelling to the frontline in Mosul to talk to peshmerga fighters and Iraqi special forces, we saw clearly the sacrifices made by those men and women. Over the border, in Mosul province, we visited the Christian village of Bartella, which had been seized by the Iraqis after a brief firefight. ISIS did not have time to destroy houses or set booby traps, but many houses were pockmarked by bullets, while some were entirely destroyed by airstrikes. Later, visiting a local hospital, we saw soldiers suffering life-changing injuries. I was humbled to witness a female peshmerga fighter passing away. We and the rest of the world owe them so much.
Another poignant visit was to a camp that is home to Yazidis, who practise a pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religion. Many have been murdered as apostates, sold into sexual slavery between one IS emir and another across Iraq or Syria, or killed because they were deemed too old to sell. Women survivors saw their men slaughtered before their eyes and their babies killed for fun. Of the 5,000 Yazidi women abducted as spoils of war, 2,000 have escaped, but they must still endure daily nightmares and flashbacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) alluded to.
At the SEED project, which operates from a schoolhouse building, assiduous professionals were working carefully to help victims overcome such traumas. A couple of therapists had studied clinical psychology at Koya University, but that is the only such course in the whole of Kurdistan: the country is in desperate need of people who understand post-traumatic stress. It must be our priority, and the Government’s, to offer that support, alongside physical reconstruction and the political reform the country so desperately needs.
Another way to heal psychological wounds can be through culture, which can be a force for rebellion and resistance, as well as for rebuilding empathy and tolerance in communities. The Kurds’ love of poetry and music attest to that. The legendary Iranian-Kurdish folk singer Mazhar Khaleghi, who now runs the Kurdish Heritage Institute in Sulaymaniyah, says:
“We have lost our lands and we’re probably never going to get them back. But we have to fight to save what is left of our culture. If we lose that, we have lost everything.”
As 150,000 peshmerga fighters push back against IS, Khaleghi’s team of a dozen ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and historians are fighting to preserve the Kurdish identity.
Kurdistan is an exceptionally beautiful country and I was privileged to meet a number of film makers and producers, who were anxious to use the beautiful location to create greater creative links with the rest of the world. I was shown around a disused cigarette factory by a local producer who had some of the finance in place to create a film studio to rival Shepperton or Pinewood. Nearby Turkey has a vibrant film industry and I am sure the same could be true of Kurdistan. It is younger film makers such as Syrian-Kurdish director Lauand Omar, making films such as “Curse Of Mesopotamia”—a low budget horror that can be screened anywhere in the world—who are leading the way.
We can help by supporting Kurdistan’s ambition for inward investment, domestic production and private-sector employment within the Kurdistan region and working with the UK film industry to secure an efficient unified film industry organisation, merging the cinema directorates within the KRG. Kurdistan has huge potential to be a film-making centre in the middle east, bringing economic, social and cultural benefits to the region and its people. I hope there are people listening to this debate who could make that happen.
To visit Iraqi-Kurdistan was an absolutely fascinating opportunity. Yes, there are grave challenges in that part of the world—but where terror has done untold damage, a rose is growing through the cracks in the cement. Beauty and creativity is growing. I think we can all agree that that is testament to the Kurdish people. Over the coming years, they will look to us for support, and sometimes guidance. I hope that, in years to come, such support will be more forthcoming from our Government.
It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. From the outset, I declare a significant interest in the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As I have so often said in my parliamentary contributions since being elected for the first time in 2010, I am very proud to be the first British Member of Parliament of Kurdish descent. I therefore feel, perhaps more strongly than most, that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have an inalienable right to self-determination, as do all peoples. That is why it is my belief that September’s referendum should be welcomed by our Government, without the need for the Minister to express a desire or opinion for or against independence.
There are many who say that Kurdistan could not survive as an independent state, that it is not ready for such an important vote, or that now is not the time for it. Whatever the outcome of September’s vote, I believe Kurdistan can and will prosper.
Although the most recent delays to holding September’s long-awaited and long-overdue referendum are understandable given the conflict in the region, I cannot help but draw attention to the deficiencies of previous Iraqi Governments in helping to facilitate the vote. In so doing, I am sympathetic to arguments that claim previous Iraqi Governments have effectively contributed to the mood for separation in Iraqi Kurdistan. The so-called Iraqi Barnett formula works in the opposite way to ours. I say that slightly in jest: since 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan has been almost totally cut off in terms of central Government funding. The region questioning its independence is shouldering a greater financial burden than other regions of the country, rather than the other way round.
In 2005 Iraq approved its new federalist constitution, with 79% in favour and 21% against. However, significant parts of the constitution are, sadly, yet to be implemented by Baghdad, denying regional Governments the autonomy for which an overwhelming majority of Iraqis had voted. Perhaps the most significant part of the constitution for Iraqi Kurdistan that is yet to be implemented is article 140. It has long been the expectation that the disputed Kurdish regions within particular governorates would be dealt with as Kirkuk was: they would have a referendum on whether they should become part of the Kurdistan Regional Government or remain within the greater Iraq. Article 140 makes it imperative that significant and sufficient measures to reverse Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation process in the disputed regions are undertaken so that the referendum is seen to be fair.
Thousands of Kurds returned following the events of 2003, and those regions are now under the control of the KRG after it claimed them from Daesh, but a formal referendum has not taken place. We now face a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence while the status of the disputed regions remains unresolved.
President Barzani has confirmed that residents of the disputed regions, which Baghdad still considers not to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan, will be allowed to partake in September’s referendum. My fear, however, is that whatever the outcome of September’s vote, without the prior resolution of the regions’ statuses, Baghdad or Irbil will use the treatment or inclusion of those regions as a means to negate the result or make the referendum illegitimate. If it is a no to independence, Irbil may say that the result would have been different had disenfranchised Kurds been formally reunified with Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the referendum. If it is a yes, Baghdad may say that the result would have been different had the disputed regions not been included in the plebiscite as, they would argue, should have been the case all along.
I realise that I may be painting a rather bleak picture of a post-referendum Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the concerns I have raised, I am still on balance far more optimistic than pessimistic. Although we may see a minor war of words between Irbil and Baghdad in the wake of September’s result, whatever it is I think the wider and longer-term result will be greater stability in the whole region. We will almost certainly see greater devolution to the KRG as a result of the vote: either total devolution in the case of independence or more devolution in order to placate the unsuccessful side in the case of a no vote. It is this devolution, the autonomy and power to control its own economic affairs, to manage its public services and to raise its own army, that has made Iraqi Kurdistan such a powerful force for regional stability.
The peshmerga have enjoyed immense success in combating Daesh-Isil, as many of my colleagues have mentioned, and in bringing stable and lasting liberation to large parts of Iraq and the adjoining parts of Syria. They have played an instrumental role in the liberation of Sinjar, and are continuing to do so as we speak on the eastern front in the battle to liberate Mosul. The leaders of western forces, our great military leaders, are all too ready to praise the peshmerga as the most effective military operators in the region. It is precisely their status as a regional army that has led to their effectiveness. I see a clear causal link between greater devolution to Irbil and the liberation and eventual political stability of Kurdistan and the country of Iraq as a whole. For that reason, I welcome the prospect of any further devolution, whatever the degree.
I would also like to make reference to the very strong relationship that the KRG has with Turkey—another critically important power in the conflict taking place in Iraq and Syria and one on which regional stability also depends. I further welcome more devolution to Irbil in the hope of closer and more unified co-operation with Turkey in the campaign against Daesh.
My overall point is that rather than seeing a fully independent or more powerful Kurdistan as indicative of an increasingly divided and chaotic Iraq, one should see it as an opportunity to bring greater stability to the region. I urge the Government, represented here so ably by the Minister, whom I thank for giving up his time, to look closely at the opportunities that an Iraqi Kurdistan with more devolved power could bring.
I know from conversations with leading politicians in the KRG, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that the Iraqi Kurds would never resort to any violence of any kind against the Iraqi Government to make their case for more control over their own affairs. The KRG, and indeed the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, see Baghdad as their closest and most important strategic ally. My message to my Government is this: let us learn the lessons from our invasion of Iraq in 2003; let us recognise that we may have won the war but we certainly did not win the peace; and let us be open-minded about the role we can now play in restoring stability to Iraq by being positive about a more autonomous Kurdistan, whatever path it chooses for itself in September.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak, Mr Davies. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for securing this important and timely debate, which is testament to his long-standing interest in Kurdistan.
I will be brief and restrict myself to two main points. First, Iraqi Kurdistan is and should continue to be an important strategic ally of the United Kingdom. I have had the privilege of making several visits to the Kurdistan region of Iraq—most recently in June 2014 when I visited Kirkuk, where I was very pleased to meet, among many others, members of that city’s Christian community. They were extremely relieved that the peshmerga had prevented Daesh from capturing the city because, for the Christians, that would have meant certain death.
At that time, Daesh were sweeping across Iraq. The Iraqi national army had collapsed and had abandoned Mosul, leaving a great deal of equipment behind when they fled south. The Kurdish peshmerga were a bastion against Daesh and managed to contain the tide of that murderous death cult. I am glad that the British Government recognised that.
We should acknowledge that since August 2014 the UK has supported the peshmerga with significant material and other support, such as training for peshmerga fighters, counter-IED detectors, heavy machine guns, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Most importantly, there has been the support of Typhoon and Reaper strikes and air reconnaissance. We should be very proud of that support. Does the Minister think we should build on that and support the peshmerga further?
We in the United Kingdom have helped the Kurdistan Regional Government defend not only themselves but the interests of Iraq as a whole and also our interests. Their position is now a strong one and the impending liberation of Mosul is a testament to the sacrifices that they and their allies have made. It is the current disposition in Iraq today that leads to my second point.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene; I am enjoying his speech. On the military support we have given the peshmerga, some have said it has been inadequate and some have said we could do a bit more, but, importantly, there has been a shortage of body armour, helmets and respirators. Does he agree that we have a responsibility to make sure not only that they are properly equipped and armed, but that they have access to medical care and treatment as well?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The issue is not only about arming, but about protecting and providing facilities.
We are still living with the legacy of the unintended consequences of the 2003 liberation of Iraq and the end of Saddam’s tyranny. One of the most important unintended consequences is the fact that Iran is strategically dominant: the presence of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias across Iraq indicates a new-found political dominance of the Shi’a crescent by Iran. When Mosul falls, an Iran-controlled land corridor will link the Islamic Republic to its ally Hezbollah on the Mediterranean. That is likely to have increasingly serious regional implications. We must plan accordingly, with our allies.
Furthermore, today the viability of the state of Iraq is called into question, as it has been on a number of occasions since 2003. I want to be clear that I hope that the state of Iraq as a federal state is indeed still viable. However, the Kurdish hold on Kirkuk, the impending referendum, which hon. Members have mentioned, and the likely antipathy, when Mosul is liberated, from among the Sunni population towards the Baghdad Government, are factors that will shape the future of Iraq and they are beyond our control.
My experience as a soldier in Iraq has taught me that British direct involvement in its politics rarely meets with success. However, we are doing what we must continue to do and what we do best: engaging in full-throttle defence diplomacy to help the Kurds to defend their interests, and ours at the same time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his speech. His knowledge of and passion for the Kurdistan area came through strongly, and his work for the all-party group is impressive.
The imminent recapture of Mosul from Daesh control by Iraqi security forces is a welcome development, and it will bring multiple complex challenges. The transition from offensive combat operations to a post-conflict stabilisation phase—notably the performance of constabulary police—has not always been well handled by the Iraqi Government forces. Above all, it is critical that there should be no repeat of the stories and allegations that emerged, for example, from the recapture of Fallujah when Iraqi Government forces were accused of reprisals against suspected Daesh fighters and the civilian population alike. Of equal importance are humanitarian aid, stabilisation and the restoration of functioning state institutions. As things stand, there are 820,000 Iraqis currently displaced from Mosul and the surrounding areas since military operations to retake the city began in October 2016. Their needs must become an immediate priority.
Although it is not part of Kurdistan proper, Mosul’s position within the disputed territories of northern Iraq, its multi-ethnic demography and its overall importance for the economy and governance of northern Iraq make it imperative that the authorities in Baghdad and Irbil should collaborate effectively in the aftermath of its recapture. We urge the UK and the other members of the international coalition to exert their influence to make sure that the collaboration works. I believe that yesterday the Foreign Secretary met Iraqi Foreign Minister Jaafari, and we expect to hear how that message might be communicated to him at a later time.
As many hon. Members have said, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have the right to decide their own future, and we urge all parties to work together to ensure that Kurdish self-determination is supported. My hon. Friends and I support the right to self-determination for all, provided it is expressed through peaceful democratic processes. We welcome the fact that the Government in Irbil intend to pursue their legitimate aspirations by means of a popular vote, but we would stress the importance of dialogue with Baghdad and with all regional actors to ensure that it passes off peacefully and contributes to regional stability.
I was taken by an article by President Barzani who, writing in The Washington Post, made a compelling case for Kurdistan to be an independent country. He wrote:
“On Sept. 25, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will decide in a binding referendum if they want independence or to remain part of Iraq. The vote will resolve a conflict as old as the Iraqi state itself between the aspirations of the Kurdish people and a government in Baghdad that has long treated Kurds as less than full citizens of the country.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s exercise of its right to self-determination threatens no one and may make a volatile region more stable. It will not alter the borders of any neighboring state and, if done right, will make for a much stronger relationship between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. We are determined to do everything possible to accommodate Iraqi concerns in the likely event that the vote is for independence.”
The President argues that Kurdistan’s case for independence is compelling and he points out that 100 years ago, in the peace negotiations that followed world war one, the Kurds were promised their own state. Instead they were divided against their will, and their lands were carved up among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The newly-established state of Iraq was supposed to be an equal partnership between Arabs and Kurds, but that hopeful dream gave way to a grim reality. All Iraqi Governments suppressed the Kurds, and the resulting atrocities culminated in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein used poison gas extensively on Kurdish towns and villages, levelled more than 5,000 Kurdish villages and deported Kurds to the south, where they were murdered and buried in mass graves; 182,000 Iraqi Kurds—nearly 5% of the population—including members of the President’s family, perished in that period.
The article continues:
“With the overthrow of Hussein’s Baath regime, the Kurds worked hard to build a new Iraq, including drafting a constitution that guaranteed Kurdistan’s autonomy and protected the rights of all Iraqis. Fourteen years later, Baghdad has failed to implement key provisions of that constitution, and we have good reason to believe that it never will. This failure of the political system is also responsible for the drastic deterioration of relations between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the rise of the Islamic State, with disastrous consequences for all Iraqis, including the Kurds.”
The President notes that the principal argument that is made for Iraqi unity is that a single Iraq is better able to protect its citizens, but that that claim is not supported by evidence and experience. When the Islamic State attacked Kurdistan in 2014, using advanced US weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul, the Iraqi Government refused to give Kurdistan its constitutionally mandated share of the federal budget, and it certainly did not provide soldiers—known as the peshmerga, as other hon. Members have noted—with weapons. As an independent country, Kurdistan would have been able to finance and equip its own troops and to bring the fight to a much swifter conclusion.
The article states:
“The war on the Islamic State since then provides a model for how Kurds and Arabs might cooperate in the future. In the battle to drive the Islamic State from Iraq, the peshmerga and the Iraqi army have been in an alliance of equals. Each army has its own chain of command. The peshmerga’s joint operations with the Iraqi military support each other in ways that never occurred in an Iraq where Baghdad sought to dominate and control Kurdistan. Regardless of the referendum, we will continue our close cooperation with Iraqi and Western forces until the final victory over the Islamic State.”
That statement tells us a lot about how Kurdistan would be a stabilising force in the region, should it be able to move to independent status and not have to rely on Baghdad for its orders.
The President argues that an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad and would be a great neighbour, co-operating against terrorism and sharing resources, including water, petroleum and many kinds of infrastructure, in ways that would benefit both countries:
“Without the sanctions that Iraq has applied to our imports and exports, we could jointly develop our human and natural resources in a common market to the benefit of both Kurdistan and Iraq.
While the results of the referendum will bind future Kurdistan governments, the timing and modalities of our independence will be subject to negotiation with Baghdad and consultation with our neighbors and the wider international community.”
That is not the view of an aggressive state trying to have things all its own way. There is room for negotiation, and I am sure that the way the President has phrased his article means that his approach would be very peaceful and reasonable.
The article goes on to say:
“In our negotiations with Baghdad, we will be practical. The issue of what territory joins Kurdistan will be the most contentious issue in the separation. Despite a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline, the Iraqi government refused to implement a key constitutional provision…that would have the people of the disputed areas decide their future democratically. Nearly ten years later, we propose to give them that opportunity.”
That is a fantastic step in the right direction.
“We wish to incorporate into Kurdistan only those territories where the people overwhelmingly want to be part of Kurdistan as expressed in a free vote. The last thing we want is a long-lasting territorial dispute with Iraq that could poison our future relations.”
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) talked about Kurdistan’s culture and diversity, which it values. It is home to Christians, Yazidis, Turks, Shabaks and Arabs, all of whose separate identities are recognised by its laws. Since 2003, many Iraqi Christians have moved to Kurdistan to escape the violence and persecution elsewhere in Iraq. Since Islamic State seized part of Iraq in 2014, Kurdistan has also provided support for more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, with only minimal help from Baghdad and the international community.
I appreciate the input from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who talked about having a vibrant civil society within a progressive Muslim nation. He referred to the disgraceful Red House—I was not aware of it, and I think most Members would look on it with disgust.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) talked about having respect for the peshmerga, which has support in the north-east. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen talked about the people of Birmingham all moving to Scotland—I am not sure that is a very good idea at the moment, although they would be very welcome—which indicates the scale of what has happened in that country.
Finally, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) said that the people of Kurdistan have the inalienable right to decide their own future. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s position, and that they will reconsider their attitude to Kurdistan and the referendum that is about to take place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), the chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, on securing the debate. He has taken over a very important position in a group that has had a profound effect on this Parliament over the 10 years of its existence. I was involved in the group in its early days, and I was privileged to travel under its auspices to Irbil on two separate occasions. It helped to inform me and ensured that Labour Members—many of my colleagues also visited—are well informed about Kurdistan and what it has to offer the world.
Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have many Kurdish constituents—now naturalised British citizens—who bring with them the history of their nation and region. They are mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan, but some are from Syria, Turkey and, of course, Iran. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said that Kurdistan cannot be subjugated, and he talked of a resetting of relationships with Baghdad—not through a universal declaration of independence, like former Rhodesia, but through the referendum that will take place on 25 September. He urged the United Kingdom to send official observers to the region for the referendum.
The hon. Gentleman and others also alluded to the bravery of the peshmerga. When we see their operations, the work they have been doing, their fighting and the bravery they have exhibited, we cannot but admire them. He also mentioned the issue of the unfair assessment of visas for Kurdish people—especially those injured in war—who hope to come to the United Kingdom. I hope the Minister will address that issue in his winding-up speech. The hon. Gentleman also said that the United Kingdom and the Kurdistan Regional Government have a lot in common. That is something that struck me when I was there on my two visits.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) said she was delighted by the liberation of Mosul, and appealed to the Government to provide clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to help with the trauma of Daesh’s rape victims in the city. I hope the Minister will tell us a little more about that.
The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—I hope he does not mind my addressing him as my right hon. Friend—with whom I visited the region in 2011, I think it was, talked about the thriving civil society, the religious pluralism, the tolerance and the defence of each other’s rights, which he, I and many other Members found on our visits to Kurdistan. He said something that I was not aware of: Jews once made up 17% of the city of Sulaymaniyah. It would be nice to see Jewish people returning to that city and other parts of Kurdistan. Like the hon. Gentleman, I remember being told that if Iraq recognised the state of Israel today, tomorrow we would have a consulate in Irbil—such is the Kurdish people’s admiration for the Jewish people.
We were told at the time that the Anfal brought the Kurdish people closer to the suffering that the Jewish people underwent during the second world war with the holocaust. They understood what that meant, because they had suffered a genocide themselves. My right hon. Friend ably led the Kurdistan genocide taskforce in 2013, which resulted in the United Kingdom Parliament’s recognition of the Anfal genocide. I recall speaking at that conference myself. We heard from a young man—he is still a young man—who as a child witnessed the genocide in Halabja. He was there hiding in a basement, watching his family, friends and neighbours dying from the poison gas attack. It is one of the most moving things I have ever heard since my election to this House 20 years ago. It was absolutely extraordinary—I hope we never have to hear such testimony again. That is another reason why the people of Kurdistan deserve and need our support.
My dear hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), who has done so much good work since her election to this House in the by-election nearly a year ago, talked about the 1.5 million people internally displaced by war in Kurdistan, and said that the Kurdistan Regional Government receive very little help from the Government of Iraq. The fall in oil prices has affected the Kurdish economy, as many hon. Members said. She said that we must try to offer post-traumatic stress counselling to those who have been affected.
My hon. Friend also made an important point about something that those of us who have been to the region also noticed very strongly, especially in comparison with other countries in the same region: the Kurdish people’s very strong culture. I remember visiting a school in Sulaymaniyah and watching young people dancing the most joyous dance to the most extraordinary music in the most wonderful costumes—something that would not go amiss in one of the films she mentioned. Why not? Kurdistan bills Sulaymaniyah and its other cities as a hub for film-making in the region. Turkey has a vibrant film industry, as she rightly pointed out, so why not Kurdistan too? It would be lovely to see that. It is a most extraordinary culture.
The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who, as he pointed out, is the first British MP of Kurdish descent, talked about the referendum. He said that since 2014 Kurdistan has been almost completely cut off from central Government funding in Iraq. He rightly mentioned the problems relating to holding the referendum, but he was optimistic that there will be greater stability in the region, not the reverse. I certainly agree.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who is welcome in this debate—I welcome him to the House—is a former director of the Conservative Middle East Council, and therefore has considerable knowledge of the region. He was also an Army officer and fought in Iraq. He brought his wisdom and experience to us. He said, very importantly, that the viability of the state of Iraq has already been called into question. He mentioned the political significance of Iran’s Shi’a dominance in the region, against which Kurdistan is a bulwark. He also said—I definitely agree with him, having voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003—that UK interference in Iraq has not been entirely successful.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the United Kingdom’s role in Iraq and interference. Does he agree with me about what happened post-2006? The Government of Mr Maliki came in with the backing of the Shi’a blocking vote and conducted the persecution in Anbar province. The United Kingdom Government should have disassociated themselves much earlier from support of the Maliki Government, rather than doing so many years later. That persecution of the Sunnis led to the havoc we see in Iraq now.
That is entirely why I voted against this country’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Yes, it resulted in the deposing of the dictator Saddam Hussein, but it also resulted in some of the appalling things to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.
As we have heard, the Kurdish minority in Iraq numbers more than 6 million, which is about 20% of the population of Iraq. Mutual suspicion and acrimony between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous Government have led to the Kurdish Regional Government’s announcing the independence referendum that is to take place on 25 September. No outside Governments are in favour of the referendum, which it is widely believed will create more instability in the region. I beg to differ.
The UK Government assist the Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in fighting ISIS and helping with refugees, for which we are all profoundly grateful. Iraqi Kurdistan and its army, the peshmerga, have been very beneficial and helpful, and extremely brave in fighting ISIS in Iraq over the past three years. A January 2015 report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee—the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon was a member of the Committee at the time—stated:
“It is for the Iraqi people to decide their future, but it appears to us that a looser federal model, permitting greater self-governance by its diverse mosaic of communities, offers best hope for Iraq remaining united and sovereign. Highly centralised rule under a ‘strongman’ in Baghdad will never work.”
I certainly agree.
Iraq’s neighbours—Turkey, Iran and Syria—all oppose secession, fearing that separatism will spread to their own ethnic Kurdish populations. We can understand that, but none the less should all believe in the right of peoples to self-determination. European Union Foreign Ministers have acknowledged the right to nationalist aspirations for Iraqi Kurdistan, but cautioned against “unilateral steps” that threaten the unified state of Iraq. The United Nations will not involve itself in debates concerning independence, and the only country that seems to be warming to the idea of independence is the state of Israel.
Human Rights Watch estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed or disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaigns between 1987 and 1989, with 2,000 villages destroyed by Saddam’s regime by 1993. So, finally, I want to state the Labour party’s position on the referendum. We believe, as I am sure all in the House do, in the right of self-determination for peoples living under oppression. The Kurdistan Regional Government, it could be argued, are not a group of people living under oppression, but they are in an invidious and difficult position and have been for many years, especially in the light of that history.
The Labour party will recognise the result of the referendum if we are convinced that it is conducted openly and honestly, and freely and fairly—that, of course, will require international observers—and if the borders of Kurdistan are agreed and recognised internationally. Perhaps the Minister will comment on whether the United Kingdom Government, of whom he is a well-respected Minister, would consider doing the same in such circumstances.
In common with everyone else, it is a great pleasure for me to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank you for relaxing the jacket rule, which is welcome and much appreciated by a number of us.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate and on his recent election as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I will return to some of his remarks, but he set his case out ably and firmly, as I had had no doubt that he would, and I listened extremely carefully.
A number of colleagues have made some kind remarks about my return to this ministerial role, which are genuinely appreciated. Although I needed no reminder, having this as a first debate has reminded me of the pain and complexities of a region that I have come to know well, because I have many friends there. The debate illustrates how the politics of the region are rarely simple and how a Government have to tread with great care, because all words have consequences. Appropriately, our Government will treat the situation with extreme care, for we recognise—as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) set out—that what any particular region may do in the middle east has ramifications, and Kurdistan is no exception.
I, too, must make a declaration of interest. As has been referred to, not only did I visit Irbil and the Kurdish region as a Minister, but I visited it as a member of the all-party group. I enjoyed and appreciated both visits very much indeed. I thank my courteous hosts, who told me a great deal about the region. The respect that I have for the civilian Government and for what they were achieving in Irbil, as well as my respect for the extraordinary performance of the peshmerga and all those who have defended our freedoms through their actions, have left a deep impression. Those who are responsible for the Kurdish region know that those are my feelings strongly. It was also nice to be reminded of John Major and his work. He is well thought of for his work to protect people in the region at a crucial time.
I am grateful for the contributions of hon. Members and will do my best to respond to a number of the points made, although I am mindful of how difficult that is in a short time. I could spend five minutes on each and every point made by colleagues during the course of their remarks, but I cannot do so. There will be other opportunities, however—again, only so much can be said in public and on the record, and many things can be discussed in different forums. I tried to do that when I was in this role previously, and I certainly intend to do so again, because colleagues’ interest in the area is profound. Accordingly, appreciation of as many of the complexities that the United Kingdom Government have to deal with as possible is of benefit to Parliament as a whole: Parliament speaks with great wisdom and knowledge on such matters.
The debate has come at an historic moment for Iraq and its people, with the battle to liberate Mosul approaching its conclusion. Iraq’s security forces have shown immense courage, suffered significant losses and demonstrated strong capability in a long and complex operation against a ruthless enemy with no regard for human life. The contribution of Kurdish forces to that process has been remarkable. Even though the fighting is not yet over, Iraq is entering another even more critical phase.
I am grateful to the Minister for paying tribute to the Kurdish forces in their fight against Daesh. Does he share my concern about some of the actions of the Turkish air force, which has targeted Kurdish forces in north Iraq and Syria? What more can the British Government do to bring influence to bear on Turkey, which after all is a NATO ally?
It is indeed. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks again require the House to be aware of the complexities of the region, the different forces operating there, the reactions of different states in the area to such forces and whether everyone is working to the same agenda. I cannot comment specifically on the matter he raises, but I am well aware of the difficulties and of some actions of forces that may be interpreted in more than one manner. However, I take his point.
Once the liberation of Mosul is complete and the fighting is over, the peace must be won. Military success has to be consolidated through building a more stable, inclusive and prosperous country. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) reminded us that the consequences of recapturing a city or an area can be harsh, and the world will be watching to ensure that that is not the case in Mosul. Some of the reprisals visited upon people in the past only laid the foundations of more anger and conflict, but I am sure that the forces in Mosul who are responsible to the coalition understand that well.
Enabling and encouraging Iraq to achieve the goal of a more stable, inclusive and prosperous country is one of this Government’s fundamental objectives. It is certainly true, as several colleagues mentioned, that the failure to include the Sunni community in the future of Iraq was fundamental to the emergence of what became Daesh and the concerns that have been raised since; it is absolutely vital to ensure that it is included in the future. Supporting a more stable, inclusive and prosperous country includes supporting a strong and successful Kurdistan region within a unified Iraq.
The Kurdish people, the Kurdistan Regional Government and their security forces have been pivotal to the military campaign to defeat Daesh. They have been generous providers of humanitarian support, and they will be instrumental to the effort to secure peace. They are a critical partner of the UK and the global coalition, but also a close friend and key ally of the UK.
As part of the global coalition against Daesh, the United Kingdom Government are providing practical support to the Republic of Iraq and its Kurdistan region in their shared fight against Daesh. Alongside the training we provide to the Iraqi security forces, around 150 UK military personnel are based in the Kurdish region to provide the peshmerga with military training, which the Foreign Secretary has seen at close quarters, as is well known. We have trained nearly 8,500 Kurdish peshmerga in light infantry skills, counter-improvised explosive device techniques and military medicine. We have supplied military equipment, including heavy machine guns and ammunition, and delivered military equipment on behalf of our coalition partners. We also give strategic advice to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
I echo the welcome that has already been given to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). Many Government colleagues have benefited greatly from his expertise in this area and his selfless generosity in sharing it. That it is now available to the House as a whole is a good thing for us all, and I welcome that. He mentioned further equipping the peshmerga. I remind the House that, as he knows, all UK military assistance is direct and provided through Centcom, the central command of the military coalition, which assesses the needs of the peshmerga, but colleagues have in the past returned from the area and provided advice about what might be necessary on the ground at a particular time, and that has been taken through by the British Government. I assure him that he will always be listened to with great care.
I pay tribute to the brilliant work that the Minister did before at the Foreign Office, and I am sure that he will do so again. I have huge admiration for what the peshmerga do, but one of my constituents went to the Kurdistan region of his own free will to fight with the peshmerga against Daesh. Does the Minister agree that that kind of action is completely unacceptable, as is that of those individuals who fight with Daesh? There should be stringent measures for people who want to offer their assistance; they should do so through appropriate channels rather than by taking actions of their own will.
My hon. Friend makes his point well. The United Kingdom provides support to those who are imperilled by Daesh and those who fight it through legitimate means. The British military is involved in a coalition—that job is being done. Much though people may feel inspired to go out to the region, the United Kingdom Government does not support that, as we are engaged in other ways.
Will the Minister give way?
Briefly. I am keen to make progress to get on to my hon. Friend’s questions.
Although I recognise, accept and agree with the Minister’s position on British nationals going to fight for the peshmerga, does he agree that there is no moral equivalent between people who go to fight with Daesh and people who volunteer to serve with the peshmerga?
Absolutely. There is no moral equivalent whatever, and I was not making that point; I was merely making the point that the United Kingdom Government are supporting those who are countering the most evil force, and that is the right way to do it. We counsel caution to those who wish to do it any other way.
In addition to the military support that I mentioned, the UK Government have provided £169.5 million in life-saving humanitarian aid to Iraq since June 2014, which has helped to support internally displaced people across Iraq, including those hosted in the Kurdistan region.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) mentioned the women who have been captured and used by Daesh forces. I absolutely take her point about support from clinical psychologists; I will make inquiries about that. Yet another previous role of mine was Minister for mental health, so I am aware of the importance of that work and I will look to see what may be available. I am the United Kingdom’s commissioner for the International Commission on Missing Persons, and at a recent meeting in Stockholm I met a Yazidi woman who had escaped but whose mother and sister were still being held captive. As was mentioned, providing evidence for what may well turn out to be war crimes is of significant importance. Gathering evidence and, in time, using that evidence is as important as ensuring that those who are lost are recovered and missing no longer.
Let me turn to the specific questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked. I will look at the specific item that he mentioned about medical assistance. Such assistance is not disaggregated, so I will look at what specifically goes to the Kurdish region. I take his point about visas, which are a constant issue in the middle east. I will discuss that with the Home Office, which is responsible for visas. We will welcome Kurdish officials meeting the Prime Minister in due course. The Prime Minister has not yet met Prime Minister Abadi, which should come first, but I take my hon. Friend’s point carefully.
I must mention the referendum before I give my hon. Friend the chance to wrap up. We understand the aspirations of the Kurdish people and will continue to support them politically, culturally and economically within Iraq, but we also believe that a referendum on independence risks detracting from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political, social and economic issues that led to Daesh’s rise. That is why we maintain that any referendum or political process towards independence must be agreed with the Government of Iraq in Baghdad and that unilateral moves towards independence would not be in the interests of the Kurdistan region, Iraq or wider regional stability. Our position is shared by many of our key allies. My sense is that those responsible in the Kurdish region understand that well, and we expect this matter to proceed with due care, recognising the sensitivities of disputed areas as well as other parts of Iraq.
Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Mr Davies. I am hugely grateful to every colleague who came along to support it; there have been some very good interventions and great speeches.
The debate has, to a large degree, demonstrated and reinforced the British Parliament’s support, affection and understanding of the Iraqi Kurdish people. I want again to put my thanks and appreciation on the record with respect to the peshmerga. The Minister referred to this, but I remind him that although training, equipment and war-fighting capabilities are important, those things have a cost and we must be mindful of the medical care and support that some of the peshmerga are not getting. Whatever the Kurdish people decide in the referendum in September, the British Government need to get fully behind them and continue to develop our relationships on security, trade, business and democracy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Kurdistan region in Iraq.