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The Kurdish regional Government (KRG) was formalised in the present constitution of Iraq in 2005.

In the 1990s a civil conflict broke out in Iraqi Kurdistan, largely between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), although outside forces including Turkey and Iran intervened. These two traditional parties are regionally- and clan-based.

The peace deal that ended that conflict, brokered in Washington, was the basis of stability and prosperity in the following years. Widespread corruption, clientelism and factionalism remained a problem, however.

Democratic politics ground to a halt after 2013, however, as the threat from ISIS/Daesh combined with factional infighting caused the parliament to suspend sitting for years and elections, including the presidential election, to be postponed. Relations with the Baghdad government also deteriorated sharply around this time.

2014 saw the ISIS/Daesh ‘surge’, when the terrorist group took control of large parts of Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq’s second city. Kurdish Peshmerga troops were crucial in driving back ISIS from Iraqi territory. (Syrian Kurdish-led forces were also the most important local forces working with the international coalition against ISIS in Syria, spearheading the move to drive ISIS from its ‘capital’, al-Raqqah.)

In 2017 Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq in a referendum, but the vote provoked the Iraqi federal government to attack Kurdish forces, re-taking control of disputed areas with Iranian backing and with the co-operation of some Kurdish factions. The US and the UK had advised against the referendum.

The Kurds did not unify around a single coalition for the 2018 Iraqi parliamentary election. The independence referendum and declaration in 2017, followed by the loss of the disputed city of Kirkuk, caused splits in the traditional ruling duopoly of the KDP and the PUK.

In September 2018 elections were held to the Kurdistan parliament. The KDP, traditionally the strongest Kurdish party, came first, increasing its dominance of the parliament. The growing hostility between the KDP and the PUK, particularly after the loss of Kirkuk to Iraq, has been a concern but a new joint policy agreement for the KRG, signed in February 2019, should help alleviate that.

UK relations

As pointed out by Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the UK has had a chequered relationship with the Kurds: “The then Colonial Secretary, one Winston Churchill, was the first person to use chemical weapons against the Kurds.”

More recently, the UK has had better relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan, especially since the establishment of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the 1992 Gulf War. UK warplanes contributed to patrolling the no-fly zone, allowing de facto autonomy from the government of Saddam Hussein to develop in part of the area that now constitutes the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq. One analyst very familiar with the region argues that the UK remains “widely admired”.

Since October 2014, the UK has been providing training to Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces. As well as training, the UK has donated machine guns, ammunition and counter-IED equipment.

The UK did not support the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum. In April 2018 the government responded to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK, setting out its support for a united federal Iraq:

The UK Government supports a strong Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) within a strong and unified Iraq. We underline consistently to the Federal Government of Iraq and to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) the importance of upholding the rights of the Kurdish population in Iraq, as set out in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution.

The Foreign Affairs Committee recommended providing and encouraging capacity-building support to KRG institutions, especially in the light of corruption fears:

The Government agreed but said that the UK’s focus was on the Peshmerga at present:

We agree with the need to support reform and capacity building of the KRG’s institutions. We assess opportunities for UK support on the basis of need, the KRG’s appetite for reform, and whether the UK is best placed to provide that assistance. When others are better placed to assist, we encourage them to do so. Our current technical advice to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs is an example of UK expertise facilitating reform. We are leading an international effort to reform the Peshmerga so that it is more capable, more affordable, and more accountable to democratic bodies.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the FCO and DFID-supported capacity-building body, has worked with the KRG on its anti-corruption strategy, a draft of which was published in April 2017. It does not have a full programme in the Kurdish Region, however.

Direct flights from the UK

ON 27 February Mary Glindon tabled an Early Day Motion calling for direct flights between the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the EDM, British Airways is considering establishing a direct route soon.

FCO travel advice

The FCO advises against all but essential travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, putting it in the same category as Baghdad and southern Iraq; the FCO advises against all travel to the centre and west of the country. Some MPs have called for the advice on the Kurdish region to be revised.

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