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Online meeting with Mr Safeen Dizayee, Head of KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations

The meeting took place on 4 December 2020 via Zoom. Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP (Labour) chaired the meeting.

Mr Russell-Moyle welcomed Mr Dizayee and mentioned the concerns generated by the inter-Kurdish tensions, which is why they wanted to hear from Mr Dizayee and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in the UK.

Mr Simon Dubbins, Director of International and Research at Unite the Union, briefly outlined some of the issues that have come to his attention to help set the scene. Mr Dubbins mentioned how his organisation with many other trade unions have been very engaged with Kurdish solidarity throughout Kurdistan and that they were very concerned about the current situation and what they have been hearing. The dangerous spike in tensions particularly in areas around Mount Gare, where there has been some clashes and standoffs were particularly worrying especially at a time when significant changes are taking place. He stressed that the absolute last thing people from outside want to see is inter-Kurdish tensions exploding.

Mr Dizayee began the meeting by providing an overview of the developments in Kurdistan in Iraq. The Kurds have endured many calamities and problems since Iraq’s establishment because they were disregarded in the state of Iraq. The Kurds pushed for a federal Iraq and democracy and felt that a new system was needed. The 2005 referendum seemed like a good beginning, but things didn’t go as they had hoped. The Kurds felt that they were disregarded, and the Sunni Arabs were side-lined. The subsequent developments, especially Iraq’s turn toward authoritarianism under Nouri al-Maliki, made things worse.

In 2014 without any reason, Maliki cut the budget of the KRG. This was at a time when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) attack took place, and ISIS reached within 25 km of Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). At that moment, the international community intervened to support the KRI, and its Peshmerga forces. As a result of the ISIS attacks in Iraq, almost 2 million people found refuge in the KRI, which increased the KRI’s population by 29 per cent in six months. The KRG’s cost of caring for the internally displaced people was 1.4 billion US$ annually, and their arrival worsened the economic situation. The military support the KRI received from the international community was essential for the defeat of ISIS.

Mr Dizayee emphasised that in Iraq, the Sunnis were side-lined, and the Kurds felt that they were no longer seen as partners, which culminated in the decision in June 2017 to hold the independence referendum. In September 2017, attempts were made by the international community to persuade the Kurds not to have the independence referendum, but it was too late to change the decision. Ninety-three per cent voted yes, and embargos were imposed on the KRI by Iraq and Iran. Only Turkey kept the border open.

Mr Dizayee mentioned how the KRG ‘made-up’ with Baghdad and last year in July 2019 it reached a new agreement on revenue sharing and other issues with the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, but the government collapsed without the deal being implemented. Mr Mustafa al-Kadhimi formed a new government, and a fresh start to find a new agreement was made.

Mr Dizayee highlighted that a security agreement was reached for cooperating in the disputed territories where there is a gap and ISIS take advantage of the situation. In early October 2020, a new agreement was also reached on Sinjar (Shengal) for the establishment of a local security force and rebuilding to begin. Mr Dizayee said that some people were not happy with the agreement, and they voiced their opposition. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) linked groups in Sinjar were among those that were not happy. The deal hasn’t been implemented yet.

Mr Dizayee then discussed the tensions between the PKK and the KRG, which he described as a spill over effect of the PKK’s conflict with Turkey. He stressed that the KRI is geographically, politically and legally part of Iraq and the Kurds of Iraq have been pragmatic when dealing with this reality. The Iraqi Kurds have always had an affinity for their brethren in all parts of Kurdistan and supported them to achieve their democratic rights.

The Peshmerga withdrew from some areas of the KRI to fight ISIS, and the PKK moved into these areas. In some cases, Mr Dizayee claimed that the PKK come very close to places where people live, and because of that, the villages can’t work on their land. Turkey was pressuring Iraq and the regional government to control the PKK. The KRI represents the people of Kurdistan of Iraq, and the PKK challenging the KRI’s authority is unacceptable. The KRG does not want a confrontation and the tensions to continue, but if threats continue then naturally, tensions will rise. The pressures need to be removed, and the answer lies in Qandil.

Following Mr Dizayee’s comments, Mr Russell-Moyle asked how can peace and stability in the KRG as well as the wider region be supported? He asked: ‘How can we help support you to make sure this doesn’t escalate, and Turkey doesn’t do an operation but also doesn’t draw a wedge between Kurdish people?’

Then the KRG High Representative to the United Kingdom, Mr Karwan Jamal Tahir contributed to the discussion and highlighted how 2020 begun with a deterioration of the political situation in Iraq. He referred to the tensions between Iran and the USA on Iraqi soil and emphasised how the protests have been creating disorder in Iraq. He emphasised how the deficit law was unjust as it exempted the civil servants’ salaries in the KRG from state borrowing. He stressed that Iraq has a problem of uniting the different components of its population based on equality and power-sharing. He praised the success of the Kurdistan Economic Forum and expressed his satisfaction that two UK ministerial delegations have visited the KRI in recent days.

The meeting continued with questions from MPs and other attendees. Chris Stephens MP (SNP) asked about the protests in Sulaymaniyah and what is the strategy for supporting the public financially so that those tensions are reduced?

Angus MacNeil MP (SNP) emphasised the level of support for Kurdistan in Scotland and mentioned the SNP’s young Kurdish women activist. Mr MacNeil asked if independence was the only solution for Kurdistan and whether it was still the objective despite the difficulties created by realpolitik.

Mr Simon Dubbins mentioned the complexity of the region and with regards to the Shengal situation, referred to the Yezidi genocide of 2014 and how hundreds of thousands were displaced, thousands were killed and taken as slaves. The Yezidi self defence units played a significant role in defending their community and it was also widely publicised that the PKK contributed to the protection of the Yezidis. It was understandable that the Yezidis wanted to have a say in what happens in their area because of the past failures of Iraqi and KRG’s forces.

Mr Dubbins stressed that to the broader world, Turkey was becoming a pariah state and referred to its tensions with France, the deep concerns about its role in Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey supported jihadis to carry out ethnic cleansing in Syria and he urged the KRG to resist the Turkish pressure. The new US administration was likely to see Turkish actions as a real problem and the Kurds should settle their differences amongst themselves and not allow outside powers with different agendas.

Former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell MP (Labour) also stressed in a written comment that everything must be done to prevent Kurd-on-Kurd violence and asked what could be done to help de-escalate the tensions.

The meeting was attended by Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, Feryal Clark MP, Khalid Mahmood MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, Angus B MacNeil MP, Chris Stephens MP, Steve Reed MP, Mary Foy MP, Karl Turner MP, Bambos Charalambous MP, John McDonnell MP, Mary Kelly Foy MP, Lord Glasman, Lord David Watts, Baron Watts, Simon Dubbins, Director of international & research at the Unite the Union, Gary Kent , Secretary APPG Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Khasro Ajgayi, the Director of political Affairs and Media at the KRG UK Representation.