Nadhim Zahawi calls on the Government to be optimistic about the September referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan

4th July 2017

Nadhim Zahawi calls on the Government to be optimistic about an independent or more autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan following the September referendum as an opportunity to bring greater stability to the region.

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.

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Nadhim holds regular surgeries. To make an appointment  email
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