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British Parliamentary Committee Breaks Historic Taboo on Kurdish Independence

23/01/2015 10:15 GMT | Updated 24/03/2015 09:59 GMT

The stark starting point of the influential and bipartisan Foreign Affairs Committee's long-awaited report on the Kurdistan Region is that the future of Iraq as a nation state is in question as never before. It judges that the clock is ticking on whether Iraq can be stitched back into a functioning whole.

In essence, the 30,000 word blockbuster report says: a centralised Iraq has gone, a looser federation is better, and the Brits can quietly help mend fences but must get their diplomatic act together. The priority for the time being is defeating Daish but Kurdish independence is a medium-term possibility. Britain should work with the Kurds, who are on the same side as the west and ahead of many in the Middle East but who should embrace major internal reform.

The report recognises rational fears of the unpredictable consequences of independence but also that the Kurds, who tried to make Iraq work but got Maliki's disastrous sectarian autocracy, are rational in seeking increased self-governance or even independence.

The report, which praises PM Abadi's promising start, supports a looser Iraqi federation because highly centralised rule under a 'strongman' in Baghdad has not worked and never will. It enters important caveats about independence. Much depends on energy self-sufficiency, which is more difficult given falling oil prices. The internal southern border needs fixing by finalising the status of the disputed territories. It notes the opposition of Turkey and Iran to independence.

Independence is currently paused but if it returns once Daish is defeated or degraded the UK and its partners should stand ready to help ensure that any clear expression of will for independence on reasonable terms is accepted and respected. Independence should be with the consent of the rest of Iraq. In my view, independence requires at least Baghdad's acquiescence to ensure good neighbourly relations and prevent Iraqi revanchism souring relations for decades.

Britain's priority in any case, it stresses, should be deepening an already strong and trusting partnership with what it calls a genuine Kurdish democracy, albeit an imperfect and still developing one, and a beacon of tolerance and moderation in a region of rising extremism and instability.

The report candidly describes Kurdistan's society as often traditional, conservative and patriarchal. Its shortcomings include a tendency to dynastic political rule, regional and tribal voting rather than informed policy choice, new wealth accruing to a politically connected elite, patronage as an instrument of political power, public sector inefficiency, a politicised and divided Peshmerga, party militias, insufficient media freedom, and police violence.

The report says that the Daish crisis has deferred domestic differences but an increasingly sophisticated electorate, including a better educated and more travelled young urban middle class, probably won't allow new politics to be postponed indefinitely. It encourages equitably sharing the harvest of a growing economy. It recognises the historic reasons for a 'Big Tent' of all parties in government but regrets the lack of an Opposition.

But it adds that any shortcomings are of a lesser order of magnitude than other British partners. Furthermore, Kurdistan's values are broadly those of Britain, which is fortunate that the relatively moderate, pragmatic, stable, democratic, secular and reflexively pro-Western KRG wishes to be its ally. Britain should respond positively to the KRG's invitation to be its partner of choice on trade, education, cultural exchange, defence and intelligence matters or the KRG may feel compelled to deepen links with powers who may not share British values.

The report itemises British actions to deepen its diplomatic presence, tackle visa problems, and advance direct flights. It backs the supply of heavy weapons but linked to clear evidence of Peshmerga reform. It stresses UK mentoring in developing public sector reform and a human rights culture.

The report disputes ministerial assertions that the British government's hands are legally tied on recognising the Anfal. Britain could emulate governments that politically recognised other genocides. Kurds are generously helping refugees, it says, but the strain could disastrously destabilise Kurdistan and international bodies must bolster the KRG's humanitarian efforts. It also questions the British government's refusal to recognise the PYD in Syria.

The report is richer in analysis and detail than I convey briefly here. While it says as it finds on controversial internal questions, it is passionate in urging bigger and better connections on the basis of shared values and hard economics. It is a far cry from the days when British policy-makers trotted out tired reasons why Kurds must stay in Iraq, whatever.

Independence is for the Kurds to decide but they may now reasonably expect some slack from a major power, which was the 'midwife of modern Iraq'. The report breaks the British taboo on Kurdish independence and firmly puts Anglo-Kurdish links on the radar. In March, the British government will reply to this landmark report, which should be seized with enthusiasm.

The full report is at www.parliament.uk/facom