Iraqi Kurdistan

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 25th October 2005.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 12:30 pm, 25th October 2005

Just this morning, there were two explosions in Sulaymaniyah. According to first reports, nine people were killed. Our condolences and our hearts go to their families. This terrible disaster—this terrorist atrocity—was the first such incident in Kurdistan for about a year.

Let me start by making two things clear. The people of the Kurdistan region of Iraq supported the war to remove Saddam Hussein, and they see us as a liberating, not an occupying, force. I was in Iraq during the run-up to the war in February 2003, and I went again in September this year. Therefore, I feel well placed to report on the progress achieved since the war, and I do so humbly in the hope that I can inform the debate.

I pay tribute to the many MPs who have been involved with the area. Hon. Members must often base their decisions on Government briefings. I trust Ministers to act honourably and to give briefings in good faith—they always do. However, we also speak and vote according to what we hear, read or see in sometimes sensational media coverage. If we go to war for a people, it is right, if we can, to learn what those people actually feel and think. That is why I have been to Iraq and why I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing this debate so that I can help, in my small way, better to inform the House and the international community.

The bare facts are stark. Ninety-seven members of our armed forces have been killed. Our spending approaches £6 billion, and our longer term plans remain relatively undeveloped, although I accept that we now have an honourable exit strategy. This is one of the more important debates of recent years, and addressing the facts at first hand is self-evidently the right approach. Michael Connarty has just entered the Chamber; he missed my paying tribute to him.

The UK forces are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government and operate as part of a multinational force under resolution 1546 of the UN Security Council. They are providing the necessary support, training and security for the Iraqi Government to build a democratic, safe and prosperous future for their people. Any MP who does not believe that it is an essential part of our job to make the world a safer place, and to tackle human rights abuses wherever there is genuine need, is not following the time-honoured and honourable traditions of this mother of Parliaments.

I pay tribute to our armed forces. I am proud to have served in them myself, if only briefly. They are one of the best disciplined, most professional and most effective forces in the world, particularly in difficult peacekeeping roles. We must do all that we can to protect them, and we must bring them home safely as soon as we possibly can.

I pay tribute to the media who, although they sometimes sensationalise, work with dignity, bravery and professionalism. They do an excellent and necessary job. The 100 British policemen in Iraq have trained almost 15,000 Iraqi police and will end up training about 25,000, and there are many unsung British heroes who are helping in specialist areas. We can be proud of them all.

I gave the Prime Minister a message from Kurdish President Barzani, in which he thanked the British people for

"all you have done to liberate his people and help them to secure a safe and democratic future" and asked the Prime Minister to

"continue to keep sufficient troops in Iraq to enable the country to reform as a stable democracy".

It is worth putting the Prime Minister's response on record. He stated:

"I was pleased you had a good exchange with President Barzani. We will continue to work with him and other leaders to help Iraq develop as a stable democracy. I believe we have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to see through this commitment. We will stay in Iraq for as long as we are needed and not a day longer."

The Prime Minister, like all MPs, must have the courage to make tough personal judgments and stand by them. It is called leadership. I am grateful to him for his responsible and honourable leadership during the post-war period in Iraq. As for the decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place, history will show that it was justified, because on balance it saved lives and suffering.

The Prime Minister said that Saddam Hussein slaughtered more than 1.5 million people. He certainly slaughtered 500,000 Kurds. Thus, on average, 1,000 people were killed every week of his evil regime, and the war stopped that slaughter. That gives moral justification for the war. If the war eventually delivers stability to Iraq and the middle east and enables human rights to progress and democracy to become established, they will represent additional reasons why Britain was right to go to war in Iraq. Whatever one feels about the decision to go to war, we are there and there we must stay until the job is done.

The attempted destabilisation of Iraq, which we saw in the bombs this morning, is driven by various motives. The mindless terrorism of al-Qaeda is a key factor, but perversely the insurgency and terrorism will prolong our stay. Remnants of the Ba'ath party and some Sunnis remain unable to accept the new order. They do not like the majority Shi'a population gaining democratic controls. There are some who want to destroy the progressive political development and disrupt the co-operation of the three main groups, the Shi'as, Sunnis and Kurds, which has the potential to deliver stability and a better life for everyone in Iraq.

Religious fundamentalism is also playing a part in resisting democracy and progress in human rights. There is also an economic obstacle for some who do not wish to see a stable and prosperous Iraq delivering oil to the international market. Some may feel that it is unhelpful to others who supply that oil in the middle east.

Political, fundamentalist and economic pressures, as well as mindless terrorism, stand in the way of progress for the Iraqi people. Neighbouring countries may not wish to see the Iraqis and in particular Kurdistan achieve sustainable self-determination, but in reality and in the end, self-determination is what the constitution will deliver. That is why millions of Iraqis risked death to vote for it on 15 October.

An hour or so ago, the result came through, with 78 per cent. voting for the constitution, and 21 per cent. against it. Only two districts voted against it. The constitution has been carried with a massive democratic mandate.

Iraq's constitution may eventually fulfil the Kurdish dream and set right the historic injustice to those people. The international community must bring tougher pressures and better rewards to neighbouring countries to ensure that the Iraqi democratic process is not disrupted. The international community must be more relaxed and magnanimous about Kurdistan's development. Help on Iran is needed from Russia and other nations. We need a positive attitude towards Turkey from the European Union. I call on the Security Council to be uncompromising with Syria, and for Russia and other countries to support it.

Kurdistan has made great progress politically, socially and economically and in developing sound human rights for all its people, including the various ethnic groups and others who live in its administered areas. That is why Kurdistan is planning an advert on CNN International in early November to promote Kurdistan and to thank Britain for the liberation of Iraq.

In planning my September expedition to Iraq, I determined the people whom I would meet and the places and institutions that I would visit. I was accompanied by Ms Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan regional government high representative to the United Kingdom. My trip was facilitated by the KRG and the Kurdistan Development Corporation. That interest has been declared in the Register of Members' Interests.

I aimed to revisit the people and the institutions that I met with the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk in 2003. I focused on issues such as the validity of the war and our exit strategy, insurgency and terrorism, and the international community's action needed to stop it. I sought to review the Christian situation and to give a balanced and true perspective based on my findings. I considered the important economic progress made in Kurdistan, which is now accepted as the commercial gateway to Iraq. It is very much open for business and supports business-friendly and sustainable commercial laws and policies. I know that well, because I gave a 15-minute speech on it in Iraq while I was there.

I met NGOs and reviewed progress in hospitals and health care. I saw the startling growth of Salahaddin university from 15,000 students, when the hon. Gentleman and I were there, to 22,000 students at present. Massive progress has been made during those 13 months. The university now has 21 faculties. I visited Sami's park in Erbil, where the remarkably successful and peaceful DBX trade show took place, illustrating that normality is returning to Kurdistan.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to our visit in straitened, stressful times before the war. I respect his view about the invasion of Iraq, although I do not share it. We visited internally displaced person's camps on our first trip. Are many of the internally displaced persons who were driven out of the two areas of Iraq still there? As for Salahaddin university, did the hon. Gentleman find out whether there was any response to my correspondence with certain faculty members who are being denied the right to come to the United Kingdom because they say they are not members of the Kurdistan Democratic party or the other Kurdish political parties, but are independent academics?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman raises two interesting points. The IDP camps have mainly been disbanded, thank God. There are remnants, but they are being cleaned up quickly. Hopefully, within the constitution by 2007, the position of Kirkuk will be clarified and its remaining refugees can return to their communities and rebuild their lives. I did not deal with the university issue; it was not addressed to me, but I think that we should take it up together with the high representative for the United Kingdom, Bayan Rahman, who will find the answer.

It was moving to see ordinary Iraqis, Kurds and Christians working and playing together in Sami's park. That was named after its creator, Mr. Sami Abdul Rahman, who was tragically killed by terrorists. His dignity and selfless contribution to his country and his people will not be forgotten, and I pay tribute to him. I met about 20 politicians at all levels who represented various political and ethnic groups. President Barzani's message to the Prime Minister, calling for our forces to see the job through, was echoed throughout all sections of his people.

Kurdistan is a model for developing democracy in Iraq and throughout the middle east. It is in much better shape than the rest of Iraq, hence it is now known as "the other Iraq"—as we shall see in early November from the CNN international advertisement. The Kurds are building a decent democracy. Of course, they have had a 10-year start under the no-fly zone. They have the great advantage of the peshmerga. It is a formidable organisation and was one of the targets of the two bombs this morning.

Rebuilding has been remarkable in all sectors—political, social and economic—and in terms of infrastructure.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

I believe that the peshmerga, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is a force of 75,000 troops. There are concerns that it sees itself as an independent Kurdish force, and as yet there is no proposal or move to mix it in with the rest of the Iraqi forces. Were there any indications that it would become part of an Iraqi force or does it still see itself—as it did when we were there—as a defence force for the Kurdish area?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

It is my understanding that the peshmerga still sees itself as being quite independent. It is a formidable force and that is one of the many issues with which the politicians in Kurdistan and Iraq will have to grapple. I know that President Barzani is carefully examining how he can move to a more democratic and normal arrangement in that country. We are talking about a country that has been oppressed for many years and is in transition. It is making great progress and we must support it so that the progress continues, and that includes the peshmerga.

Human rights have improved fast in Kurdistan and there is increasing optimism among the people. The students at Salahaddin university represent an important sector of Iraq; in many ways, they are its future. They spoke passionately from their hearts, both privately and in an open vote, after a detailed and sometimes critical debate. They felt safe to exercise free speech in private and in public. They spoke forcefully and gratefully of liberation and of being given a safer and better future by the removal of Saddam. They are like any other students around the world: challenging, questioning, hungry for information and freely giving of their views and ideas. Iraq has a great future in them. They are superb kids.

I was keen to get the views of the Christian community. I spoke to Christian MPs, including the Speaker, Mr. Adnan Mufti, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu. I met the Christian Bishop and Father William Jacob, a Kurdish Christian church leader in Sweden who may soon return to Kurdistan, and Christian community leaders. I also visited the Christian community of Ankawa and spoke with ordinary Christian people, both Iraqis and expats from this country and from America, who have lived there for years.

Such people are supportive of the KRG and are pleased with progress. They are concerned at what they see as propaganda by people largely from outside their communities in Iraq who call for an autonomous administrative region for the Christian communities. That is being sold as a safe haven, but from what I saw and heard first hand from the Christian people in Iraq, and from their democratically elected representatives and community leaders, the concept of a safe haven is wholly inappropriate.

Let me set out just a sample of the recent progress that Christian MPs told me about. The KRG has returned Feesh Khabur village to the Christians and is trying to return other villages, many of them places that the Christians lost decades ago. It has reconstructed 1,200 houses in the past two difficult years and much more work is in progress. It has provided new water supplies for 26 Christian villages. It has built or rebuilt nearly 40 churches since 1991. I visited one being built; there were Christian crosses in the main road leading to it.

There are, pro rata, more Christian MPs than Kurdish ones. There are five Christian MPs. Strictly, proportional representation would dictate that they deserve only two. They were awarded three important ministerial seats in Government, including Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. Thousands of Christians are employed by the KRG, and there are two new Christian radio stations. We could do with some of them in this country. The KRG region has more than 30 Assyrian language schools, which have almost 10,000 students and 500 teachers, and 90 Christian schools and cultural centres have been opened. Those are not acts of oppression but of enlightenment.

Christian MP Romio Acarie said that they were not allowed to use Assyrian names under Saddam Hussein but now, of course, they can. He said:

"Comparing life under Saddam with life under the KRG is like comparing Earth with Heaven".

As a result of all this progress, and much more I have not had time to mention, some 5,000 Christians have in recent years left other areas of Iraq to settle in Kurdistan, and they are still moving there—voting with their feet. For context, the Christian population is about 38,000, within a Kurdistan population of 4 million—that is the figure from the last United Nations census, although it is now probably nearer 5 million.

Of course, Kurds lost much under Saddam; they are waiting for their new roads and schools, and for their Kurdish villages to be rebuilt, yet the KRG is positively discriminating to help the Christians. In any event, the Iraqi people's new constitution recognises the cosmopolitan religious and ethnic make-up of Iraq; the Kurds argued for that. It prohibits discrimination on racist, ethnic, religious or other grounds, and it protects minority languages. I feel that the KRG is genuinely trying to help the Chaldo-Assyrians, the Armenians and other Christian groups.

I challenge those outside Iraq who make adverse claims to come to Iraq with me, and to meet and talk to the people themselves. They could question Mr. Shlemon, the Christian deputy governor of Duhok, who said:

"Our Community in the Kurdish region in Iraq works successfully with the KRG and with all the peoples of the region. In this peaceful and progressive way, in tandem with those around us, we are developing our homelands, improving our livelihoods and protecting our rich heritage."

I found no evidence of institutionalised discrimination against Christians; quite the contrary—although there are, of course, individual incidents.

Kurdistan still has much to do for all its communities, such as to repair Saddam's evil slaughter of 182,000 Kurds in his Anfal campaign, in which he razed 4,000 Kurdish villages to the ground, seeking to ethnically cleanse them in an act of brutal genocide. I call again on the international community to accept that that was genocide.

Some people think that we should pull our troops out now; I disagree. I will not succumb to the terrorists. Like all MPs, I have a duty to give leadership on difficult issues, to be honest and to speak the truth as I see it. I hope that people will respect that.

The Iraqi people are risking death by voting. In doing so, they are demonstrating their commitment to the new order. It is in the interests of the middle east—and even, possibly, of world stability—that we see through to the end the job that we have started. I welcome the excellent progress made in the Kurdish region of Iraq since the war.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I hope that eight minutes is long enough for the Minister to respond to the debate.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Europe) 12:52 pm, 25th October 2005

Thank you, Mr. Hancock; I will give it my best shot.

I thank Bob Spink for raising this important subject, and for the update he gave on the situation of the Chaldo-Assyrians in northern Iraq. Such first-hand, objective accounts help us to assess progress in our commitment to stand by the Iraqi people as they work towards securing a democratic and stable future.

There is still an enormous amount of work to be done by the international community and Iraqi leaders to ensure that Iraq makes a successful transition from being a country blighted by over 35 years of Ba'athist oppression to one which can regain its rightful place in the international community. A founding member of the United Nations, Iraq needs the help of its neighbours, the region and the donor community to get back on its feet.

Northern Iraq is no exception. Saddam Hussein and his regime inflicted immense hardship and suffering on all the peoples of the north—the Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Christians and others. However, as the hon. Gentleman generously recognised, the protection afforded by the no-fly zone enabled northern Iraq to move forward. Since the fall of Saddam's regime, that progress has accelerated.

In security terms, the northern provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah are among the quietest in the country. Incidents in the north are, in general, less severe and far fewer than in other parts of the country. That is not to say that those areas have been spared terrorist attacks. We have received reports today of a car bomb in Sulaymaniyah, which has caused casualties. That is just the latest example of terrorists attempting to derail the political process. Through the multinational forces, we will continue to support the Iraqi security forces in their courageous efforts to defeat all forms of terrorism in their country.

The north's economy continues to develop, as the KRG gradually builds critical infrastructure. There are signs of progress everywhere, the most obvious being the recent opening of airports in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. The KRG is keen to draw on external expertise to lay solid foundations for the region's future economic growth. Its immediate priority is to develop the agriculture, tourism and manufacturing sectors using local skills, and to expand internal markets so that the economy is less dependent on external markets.

The people of northern Iraq are equally committed to strengthening the political process in the region. They turned out in huge numbers for the January elections, and did so again for the referendum on Iraq's draft constitution. Our consul in Kirkuk had the opportunity to observe voting at a polling station on 15 October. He reported that the voting process took place peacefully.

The fact that nearly 10 million Iraqis nationwide took part in the referendum is eloquent testimony to their determination to exercise their democratic right and to decide the political future of their country. Whatever the result turns out to be—there have been indications of the result this morning—that is a major achievement. It is democracy in action. As Prime Minister Jaafari said, whether Iraqis

"vote yes or no is not the point. The victory for Iraq is that they are voting."

What is important now is that all Iraqis participate fully in the political process to ensure that Iraq's Parliament and Government are genuinely representative of all the peoples of Iraq. The UK has provided funds for outreach programmes that set out the political options available, help to explain to the Iraqi electorate the importance of the draft constitution, and broaden understanding of the content. The programmes will focus on explaining the electoral system for the December elections.

Unlike last January's elections, in which Iraq was treated as a single constituency, the December elections will be conducted on a province-by-province basis. The Department for International Development is supporting the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq's public outreach programme to encourage civil society organisations, particularly at province level, to get involved in the electoral process.

Kirkuk is a good example of why political participation, dialogue, compromise and consensus are critical if Iraq's transition is to succeed. The city brings together several communities within its boundaries. The majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims, but Kirkuk also has a sizeable community of Christians and a small Yezidi community. Iraq's leaders will therefore need commitment and determination to find a solution to the legacy of Saddam's policy of forced Arabisation of Kirkuk. They have agreed to set up a committee that will work towards finding a permanent solution on that difficult and sensitive issue. We will continue to encourage them in their endeavours, and we will continue to encourage and urge all minority groups in Iraq to take part in the political process. The UK Government maintain a close, open dialogue with leaders and representatives of such groups.

The hon. Gentleman made specific reference to the situation facing the Chaldo-Assyrians. Foreign Office officials in London met Mr. Yonadam Kanna, secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, during his visit to the UK last week. His primary concern is that the rights of Chaldo-Assyrians be protected. He recognises that the Chaldo-Assyrian community must participate fully in the December elections if it is to be represented in the next Iraqi Parliament. Equally, Chaldo-Assyrian leaders will need to agree a common approach and to identify like-minded political allies in the next Parliament if they are to advance and to protect the rights of all Chaldo-Assyrians. Making such alliances is a key part of parliamentary politics and, of course, would have been unthinkable under Saddam's regime.

Our aim is to help all Iraqis to create a nation where all Iraq's citizens are safe throughout the country, irrespective of race or religious belief. National unity is key to securing long-term stability and prosperity in Iraq. In the transitional process so far, we have seen important symbols of that unity at work. The appointment of an Iraqi Kurd as President of Iraq is a powerful and eloquent signal that the political process can, and does, support the appointment of a non-Arab to high office. President Talabani has used his position to send out a consistent message that Iraqis should come together to support the transitional process. There may be deep disagreement about the way forward; that is too often what politics is about. However, for the vast majority of Iraqis, the only way forward is through peaceful, participative politics.

We have been encouraging the Iraqi Transitional Government to include all Iraq's communities in the political process. Chaldo-Assyrians, Turkomans, Yezidis and Mandaeans all had representatives on the Constitutional Commission. Those representatives were tasked with ensuring that the views of their communities were included in the draft.

I commend the draft constitution to the House. It reflects the multifaceted religious and ethnic make-up of Iraq and offers guarantees of full freedom of religious belief and practice to all individuals. It prohibits discrimination on racist, ethnic, religious or any other grounds, and it protects minority languages. The draft constitution strives to strike a balance between a wide range of views. The final draft text illustrates the extent to which, in the end, all parties were prepared to compromise.

Should the constitution pass at referendum—it seems to be emerging today that it will be passed—that, of course, will not be the end of the process. The text will not be set in stone. A review mechanism has been included in the draft. That will see the establishment of a constitution committee, which the constitutional draft stated will be made up from

"the principal groups in Iraqi society and members of the Council of Representatives"— that is, the next Parliament. That committee will be tasked with presenting a report to that Parliament within four months with any proposed amendments to the constitution. That shows the value of sustained and intense engagement in the political process by all Iraq's communities, and that means contesting and voting in the coming elections.

Preparations are well under way for December's elections and the United Nations is working closely with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to ensure that those elections are conducted openly and transparently.