Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK Contents

2Developments in northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

14.The war against Daesh in Iraq aggravated pre-existing tensions between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), which is administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).36 In 2014, as Iraqi federal forces pulled back in the face of early advances by Daesh, Kurdish forces captured territory in northern Iraq whose control was disputed between the KRI and Baghdad.37 It included the city of Kirkuk. On 25 September 2017—in the face of opposition from Baghdad, regional states, and the international community—the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum that voted in favour of independence, and they applied its terms to these disputed territories. In October 2017, and facing partial resistance from Kurdish forces, military elements under the command of the Iraqi federal government moved into, and re-gained control of, Kirkuk and most of these disputed territories. Baghdad also imposed subsequent restrictions on the KRI. Relations between Baghdad and the KRI are now at an historic low, and the risk of fighting was described to us as being high.38

15.Militarily, the UK has supported both Baghdad and the KRI (whose forces are referred to as ‘Peshmerga’). The Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in London thanked the UK for “training, armament, air strikes and the presence of military advisers” for federal forces.39 In terms of Kurdish forces, the FCO and many other witnesses praised the Peshmerga’s role in fighting Daesh.40 Speaking about the UK military support, the FCO told us that:

As part of the package of assistance provided by the Global Coalition to counter Daesh, we have provided the Peshmerga with military support, channelled through the Coalition and distributed based on requirements: UK training teams have trained over 57,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces, including 9,000 Peshmerga fighters; since September 2014 we have gifted £3 million of arms and ammunition to the Peshmerga; and the UK has given air support to the Peshmerga as part of the Coalition.41

Karwan Jamal Tahir, the UK representative of the KRG, referred to a “permanent commander from Britain [being] stationed at the Ministry of Peshmerga”42 and thanked the UK for its efforts to unify the Peshmerga, which has suffered from factional divides.43 Bill Park, a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London (KCL), said that Peshmerga officers had received training in the UK.44

16.In its statements, there have been areas where the FCO has appeared reluctant to criticise each side. When describing the events that took place after the referendum, for example, the FCO’s account was very different to that of Kurdish witnesses and their supporters. These witnesses expressed their deep disappointment with the UK’s policy,45 which some accused of encouraging Baghdad’s actions.46 The FCO, in turn, appeared reluctant to criticise Baghdad:

a)Kurdish witnesses and their supporters frequently referred to the Iraqi federal government as having ordered its forces to “attack” the “Kurdistan Region”.47 The KRG representative told us that “over 100 Peshmerga were killed and injured”.48 But, in contrast to the Kurdish account, the FCO described this area as “disputed territory”49 and these actions as “largely peaceful”.50 The Foreign Secretary told us that “things could be a lot worse”.51 The Middle East Minister said “we believe that the way in which those difficulties were handled in the short period after the referendum gave rise to a great deal of hope”.52

b)Kurdish witnesses and their supporters frequently referred to the Iraqi federal government as having imposed an “embargo” or “blockade”53 on the KRI, which they described as “punishments”.54 The FCO did not use these terms, and instead said that that Baghdad had “closed Kurdish airspace to inbound and outbound international flights”.55 But Bill Park, from KCL, described “triumphalism [and] a mood for revenge”56 in Baghdad. He warned that this would “only lead to continuing Kurdish resistance, and to wider regional instability”.57

c)Kurdish witnesses and their supporters also frequently emphasised the role of Shi’a militias (particularly those known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, or ‘Hashd al-Shaabi’) in October’s military re-acquisition of territory, and these witnesses spoke in highly condemnatory terms about what they saw as Iran’s role in supporting these militias. They accused these militias of committing sectarian crimes against Kurds.58 The Iraqi Embassy described reports of “non-Iraqi forces or irregular militias or groups backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard” as “completely false”.59 The FCO’s written submission described the PMF as a source of potential conflict,60 but said only that they were “perceived by some in the Kurdistan Region as sectarian”.61 The FCO’s written submission made no mention of Iran’s alleged role in backing these militias. The Middle East Minister did later refer to “the activities of those in PMF and Hashd, who take their orders from outside the country”.62

17.But there are also areas where the FCO has appeared reluctant to criticise the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. This was notable in the case of corrupt and undemocratic practices, which some witnesses alleged were apparent in the KRI. Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, the former speaker of the KRI’s parliament, is a critic of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and his role was at the centre of a bitter political dispute in the KRI that led to the closure of its parliament for two years. But he said that there was “rampant and brazen corruption in the KRI, with billions of dollars of oil revenues stolen”,63 and complained of “the UK Government and its allies’ perceived indifference to the KRG’s financial mismanagement”.64 He also referred to “the deliberate stalling and alarming reversal of the democratic process in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, by the dominant political party and the presidency”.65 Mr Sadiq called the situation a political and economic “crisis”.66 Numerous witnesses made similar accusations.67 Some witnesses appeared particularly to criticise the ruling KDP68 and its leaders. But the FCO made no reference to corruption, or the curtailment of democracy, in its written submission.69 When asked directly about corruption, the Minister for the Middle East the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP did not directly address the issue.70 He instead said that “it would be wrong for the UK Government to idealise any group at all. Our relationship with them is realistic”.71

18.Some witnesses accused the FCO of encouraging malpractices in the KRI by engaging with too narrow and shallow a range of interlocutors. Again, Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, an opponent of the ruling KDP, accused “the FCO and the UK’s diplomatic service in Iraq” of having a “sanitized and romanticized perception of the KRI and its traditional leadership” and “a rather shallow understanding of the real dynamics”.72 He argued that the UK engaged primarily with this leadership, and that this approach had “resulted in emboldening the dominant political party [and] inadvertently and indirectly resulted in seriously destabilizing the KRI”,73 and he called on the FCO to “meaningfully engage with more representative and democratic political institutions and civil society”.74 Dr Goran Zangana also referred to groups in the KRI that “abused the military, moral and diplomatic support of the West to consolidate their monopoly of power”.75 The FCO’s written submission did emphasise engagement with leaders, saying that “[we] maintain close and constant political contact with Iraqi Kurdish leaders from all parties”.76 But the Middle East Minister Mr Burt strongly denied that the FCO was too narrow in its approach, saying that “it is the hallmark of our diplomatic staff abroad that they gain their information by being engaged throughout a community”.77 He later described in a letter the wide array of individuals and organisations that the FCO said it had engaged with in the KRI.78

19.Despite the acrimony between them, both sides appeared to share the same view of how their dispute should be resolved. The Iraqi Embassy called for “dialogue […] on the basis of the Iraqi constitution”.79 The KRG’s representation called for “dialogue […] based on the principles of the constitution”.80 Representatives of the Iraqi Turkmen, a distinctive ethnic group in northern Iraq, also said that “any decision must be taken within the framework of the federal constitution”.81 That was also the FCO’s view.82 And, while the FCO was clear that the UK’s great preference was for the Kurdistan Region to remain within a united Iraq,83 it also said that it could potentially accept any outcome—including independence—that was negotiated consensually with the government of Iraq.84 “Unilateral” steps, the FCO said, would not be supported or recognised by the UK.85

20.But while the 2005 constitution was repeatedly referred to as the path to a solution, it was also consistently cited as the problem. Both sides accused the other of violating the constitution in numerous ways, with the Kurds focusing on the failure to implement Article 140 (about resolving the status of the disputed territories),86 and on disputes over the allocation of the federal budget, while the Iraqi Embassy accused the Kurds of violating Articles that described the powers of the federal government and its role in preserving national unity.87 Given these differences in interpretation of the constitution, Nick Hills—a lawyer with knowledge of Iraq—argued that

merely encouraging the Federal Government and the KRG to settle their differences “in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution” will, in present circumstances, achieve no more than exacerbate what is, and has almost since the Iraq Constitution was adopted in 2005 been, an impasse.88

21.In terms of how these differences between two sides could be overcome, numerous witnesses called for the UK to facilitate a dialogue. Some Kurdish witnesses and their supporters specifically called for the UK to “mediate”. They included Dr Nazand Begikhani,89 the London Kurdish Institute,90 and Zana Gulmohamad.91 Other Kurdish witnesses used a different word, but still called on the UK to play a role in encouraging dialogue. They included Professor Mohammed Ihsan (a Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London, and a former minister in the KRG),92 the KRG representation to the UK,93 and the KDP.94 Nick Hills described “informal mediation or external direction” as “essential”.95 Speaking from a perspective that had much in common with that of the federal government, Integrity UK argued that “the FCO should encourage communication between Baghdad and Erbil, and help foster dialogue”.96 The submission of the Iraqi Embassy97 itself did not, however, specifically call for the UK to play such a role.

22.Asked whether the UK had offered to “mediate”, the Middle East Minister Mr Burt said “I cannot recall—I do not think we have formally put mediation in this dispute to Baghdad”. He nevertheless emphasised that “I’m not sure that mediation is the right word”,98 and “I do not think it is for the United Kingdom to mediate”.99 Mr Burt explained his view that “this is something that must be settled by Iraqis themselves […]. There is no suggestion that an outside state or body should be given the responsibility to produce a deal, which, then, each party would agree to. This is a sovereign matter for Iraq”,100 and that “it is not for the United Kingdom to determine what that ultimate future is”.101 The Minister also said that “I am not aware of any invitation from Baghdad […] that the United Kingdom should act as mediator”,102 and that he “[did] not think it is appropriate for the British Government to approach Baghdad and say “We demand to be the mediator in this dispute””.103

23.But the FCO agreed that the UK could and should play a diplomatic role in helping to resolve the dispute. Prior to the referendum, the FCO said in both written and oral evidence that it had worked along with international partners “on a dialogue”104 in order “to try and get an agreement between the parties that would mean the referendum was not necessary and some of the long-standing issues between Baghdad and Erbil could be dealt with”.105 The FCO provided us with a list of the numerous meetings it had undertaken in Iraq with this intent.106 In the aftermath of the referendum, the Minister said that the UK was “encouraging […] a better dialogue between the two”,107 adding that “various messages can be passed”.108 Asked by the Committee whether the UK could play a bigger role in facilitating an agreement, the Foreign Secretary said:

I totally agree that we could. When we talk to our friends in the region they say, “Please convene a summit, get everybody around the table, knock heads together.” Let’s see how we go.109

The Middle East Minister, Mr Burt, referred to:

the United Kingdom using its diplomatic influence, as we have been trying to in the region for some time, to point to those areas where conflict might arise, and to offer advice about how conflict might be scaled back and about institution building, non-sectarianism and things that can be done to prevent communities feeling excluded or being pushed towards an area of conflict […]. In future, I think that that will be a more important role in the region for the United Kingdom than anything else.110

24.There is a serious risk that tensions between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), which have been worsened by the independence referendum and its aftermath, will result in conflict. This violence and instability would be detrimental to the interests of the UK. But it can still be averted. Our evidence showed that both sides are committed to resolving their differences through negotiation. But negotiations are being impeded by profound differences, not least that each side accuses the other of violating the constitution and both emphasise different aspects of that document.

25.The FCO has played a diplomatic role in trying to prevent or resolve conflict between the federal government and the KRI, and it wants to continue to play such a role in the future. The Minister rejected the word “mediate”, saying that that this is a sovereign matter for Iraqis to resolve. We agree. But the two sides would clearly benefit from any assistance that the UK, in cooperation with international partners, can offer. The FCO should write to the Government of Iraq, formally offering itself in an enhanced role of facilitating dialogue if that is desired. This would be an offer from a sincere and concerned ally that has a long history of close ties and cooperation with both sides and a shared interest in preventing conflict. The FCO should also secure the backing and support of the wider international community to play such a role.

26.The Iraqi Kurds held an independence referendum in the face of overwhelming opposition from the Iraqi government and the international community. They unilaterally included the disputed territories that Kurdish forces had occupied, and failed to disaggregate the results. We praise the FCO’s efforts to find an alternative way of meeting Kurdish aspirations. But the overwhelming vote in favour of independence was a manifestation of deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the KRI’s place in Iraq. The restrictions imposed by Baghdad after the referendum will inevitably be seen as punitive, and collectively so, in the KRI. They, along with the role played in subsequent events by Iraqi Shi’a militias connected with Iran, are only likely to encourage the Kurds on a path to departure rather than integration.

27.As the FCO offers its support to the Iraqi government and the KRI when possible, it should also be prepared to criticise them when necessary. This should be part of an effort to achieve not only a dialogue between leaders, but a positive interaction between people on both sides to turn—as far as possible—mutual suspicion into a shared belief that they can all benefit from being diverse regions of a united country. The FCO told us that, while it could potentially accept any outcome—including independence—that was negotiated consensually with the government of Iraq, its preference would be for the Kurdistan Region to remain in a united Iraq. But many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country that they see as not implementing its commitments of equality to them. The FCO must therefore press for these commitments to be fulfilled. The FCO should:

i)press the government of Iraq to lift the restrictions placed on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the referendum.

ii)set out its assessment of the role of Shi’a militias in the re-acquisition of the disputed territories, and whether reports of crimes being committed by them are credible.

iii)set out its assessment of the extent to which Iran supports, or controls, these militias.

iv)explain the extent to which it recognises problems of a) corruption and b) the monopolisation of power or curtailment of democracy in the Kurdistan Region, and what steps the FCO is taking in response. Corruption is a serious problem in Iraq in general, and it risks impeding the reconstruction of that country.

v)supply and encourage others to provide capacity-building courses and training that equip KRI policy-makers and others with the greater ability to promote political reform and economic reform and diversification.


36 The KRI was legally established in 2005 by the Iraqi constitution as an autonomous area in the predominantly-Kurdish north of the country, which is administered by the KRG.

37 For accounts of these events from different perspectives, see the submissions by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 10, the KRG representation in the UK (KUR0003) paras 17 and 18, and Iraqi Embassy (KUR0025).

38 For examples of warnings about the risk of renewed war in Iraq, see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 25, or the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 37 and 38, or Bill Park Q104 and (KUR0013) para 26.

39 Embassy of the Republic of Iraq (KUR0025). The Embassy did also complain about “training for the Peshmerga forces in isolation from the federal forces”

40 The Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, told us that “we owe a great debt to the Peshmerga for their bravery and sacrifice. What they are doing is on behalf of all of us. That is why instinctively we are so supportive of the Kurds and their aspirations—the KRG” (Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538, Q96). The Middle East Minister, Mr Burt, also praised the role of the Iraqi Kurds (Q124) and the FCO’s written submission said that “the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq have been a critical ally in the campaign to defeat Daesh” (KUR0015) para 8. Other witnesses referring to the role of the Iraqi Kurds in the fight against Daesh included the KDP (KUR0014) ‘Emerge of Daesh and filling the gap by Peshmarga’, Dr Massood Al-Mufti (KUR0007) para 5, Gary Kent (KUR0018) paras 16 and 56) and the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) paras 17 and 18.

41 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 8

42 Q63

43 Q62

44 Bill Park (KUR0013) para 13

45 See, for example, criticism by Professor Mohammed Ihsan (Q13), Dr Nazand Begikhani (Q13), the London Kurdish Institute (KUR0009) para 5, the KRG representative to the UK (Q55 and KUR0003 para 26), Zana Gulmohamad (KUR0011) para 12, Dr Massood Al-Mufti (KUR0007) para 5 and, reporting Kurdish sentiments, Bill Park (KUR0013) para 17.

46 See, for example, London Kurdish Institute (KUR0009) para 5, the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 25, and Gary Kent (KUR0018) para 60

47 See, for example, references to an “attack” on the “Kurdistan Region” by Dr Nazand Begikhani in Q10 and Q13, and the KRG representative to the UK in Q56 and (KUR0003) paras 3 and 28.

48 KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 32

49 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 13

50 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 10

51 Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538Q98

52 Q158

53 See, for example, the use of these words by Professor Mohammed Ihsan (Q11), Dr Nazand Begikhani (Q18), the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 27 and Gary Kent (KUR0018) para 31.

54 See, for example, the submission from the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) paras 25, 40 and 41), Gary Kent (KUR0018) paras 33 and 48, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KUR0014) ‘Conclusion’.

55 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 13

56 Q104

57 Bill Park (KUR0013) para 30

58 Witnesses often named the town of Tuz Khurmatu as an example of where this had happened. See, for example, evidence from Zana Gulmohamad (KUR0011) para 4, Thomas Hardie-Forsyth, an adviser to the KRG representation in the UK, (KUR0028) paras 2 and 3, Karwan Jamal Tahir (the KRG representative to the UK) in Q57, and Professor Mohammed Ihsan in Q4.

59 Embassy of the Republic of Iraq (KUR0025)

60 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) paras 14 and 25

61 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) paras 14

62 Q151

63 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) ‘Executive Summary’ VI

64 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) para 3.3

65 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) para 4.1, I

66 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) paras 3.1, 3.3, 4.1 II, 4.1 III, and 4.1 V

67 For example, the Gorran Movement described corruption as “widespread” and “an enormous challenge and problem in Kurdistan and Iraq” (KUR0026), while BBC Monitoring described “accusations of corruption and nepotism” as “common” (KUR0022) ‘The ruling KDP and PUK’. Referring to the KRG’s President at the time of the September 2017 referendum, Masoud Barzani, Bill Park spoke of an “unconstitutional extension of his presidency in 2015, and his suspension of parliament in October of the same year” (KUR0013) para 15. Mr Park also described, more generally, the strength of “patronage networks” in the KRI (Q99). Dr Goran Zangana described “the empowerment of tribal, undemocratic, authoritarian and corrupt parties and groups in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)” (KUR0012). The Embassy of Iraq also referred to “corruption” in the KRI, to “violations of the principles of the democratic system in the KRI, especially halting the parliament of the KRI for two years, and through the concentration of power and senior positions by one party”, and to “the insistence of the Kurdistan Democratic Party to dominate the power despite the opposition of the other Kurdish parties” (KUR0025). Integrity UK argued that “the KDP has attempted to further strengthen its hegemony over the Kurdistan Region’s political system” (KUR0017).

68 The party provided a written submission to this inquiry, KUR0014.

69 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015)

70 Q125

71 Q125

72 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) para 3.5

73 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) para 1.1

74 Dr Yousif Mohammed Sadiq (KUR0021) para 3.5

75 Dr Goran Zangana (KUR0012)

76 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 8

77 Q157

78 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q157–158: UK engagement with civil society in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)’

79 Embassy of the Republic of Iraq (KUR0025)

80 KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 41. The ruling KDP called for “negotiation […] in the line with the Iraqi constitution” (Kurdistan Democratic Party (KUR0014) ‘Conclusion’). Both sides also acknowledged that the Kurdish public had supported the current Iraqi constitution when it was approved by a referendum in 2005. See for example evidence from the KRG’s representative in the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir (Q52) and the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq (KUR0025).

81 European Turkmen Association League (KUR0004) para 1

82 Amy Clemitshaw, the Head of Eastern Mediterranean Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told us that “we were urging the Baghdad authorities and the KRG to have a dialogue, and to resolve any differences of view within the framework of the Iraqi constitution” (Q140).

83 The FCO said in its written submission that “we believe that a strong Kurdistan Region within a strong and successful Iraq is the best way to ensure stability and an economy that works for all of Iraq’s people, including the Kurds” (KUR0015) para 13. A subsequent letter from the FCO said that “the UK has always supported the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Iraq” (Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q135–139: When the UK adopted its position on the Kurdish referendum’). The support for unity was referred to by both the Foreign Secretary (Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538, Q92 and Q96) and the Middle East Minister (Q130).

84 The Middle East Minister, Mr Burt, told us that “we said consistently that any process that was to lead to a referendum and possible independence had to be part of an agreement with Iraq” (Q130), and that “if there is ultimate agreement by the Government of Iraq about an independent Kurdish region, that is a matter for Iraq and the Kurdish and Iraqi people” (Q131).

85 See the use of the word “unilateral” by the FCO in Q130 and KUR0015 para 12. The Middle East Minister, Mr Burt, wrote to us that the UK “cannot support any move towards independence which has not been agreed with the Government of Iraq” (Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q135–139: When the UK adopted its position on the Kurdish referendum’).

86 Three Kurdish witnesses said that Baghdad had violated 55 articles of the constitution: The London Kurdish Institute (KUR0009) para 4, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KUR0014) ‘Executive Summary’ and the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) para 5. Among these, and other evidence from Kurdish witnesses and their supporters, are numerous references to Article 140. See, for example, Karwan Jamal Tahir, the KRG representative to the UK (Q54), and Nick Hills (KUR0029) para 7.

87 The Iraqi Embassy said that the actions Baghdad took after the referendum were “to maintain the unity, safety and security of Iraq according in the light of its duties in the constitutional provisions” (KUR0025). The Embassy also accused the KRG of exceeding its authority in numerous ways, and seeking powers that were preserved for the federal government. Among the articles that the Embassy accused the Kurds of violating were Articles 93, 94, 109, 110, 111 and 112 (see KUR0025).

88 Nick Hills (KUR0029) para 24

89 Q15 [Dr Nazand Begikhani]

90 London Kurdish Institute (KUR0009) para 6

91 Zana Gulmohamad (KUR0011) ‘Executive summary’ and ‘Recommendations’

92 Q18 [Professor Mohammed Ihsan]

93 Q65, and the KRG representation to the UK (KUR0003) paras 9, 37, and 41

94 Kurdistan Democratic Party (KUR0014) Executive Summary

95 Nick Hills (KUR0029) para 24

96 Integrity UK (KUR0017)

97 Embassy of the Republic of Iraq (KUR0025)

98 Q198

99 Q142

100 Q145

101 Q151

102 Q144

103 Q145

104 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 13

105 Q145

106 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q135–139: When the UK adopted its position on the Kurdish referendum’

107 Q142

108 Q142

109 Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538, Q99

110 Q198




9 February 2018