This week, the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region was formally re-established with many old faces and some new ones. The new Chairman of the group is Jason McCartney, a Conservative MP in Yorkshire, who in 1995 served in the Royal Air Force based at Incirlik in Turkey. He also operated out of a British military coordination centre in Zakho, visited all local villages to let them know that the air forces above were friendly and make sure that they had food and medicines and personally delivered electricity generators. He has good links with the local Huddersfield University Kurdish Society and last visited Kurdistan in 2013.
The British-Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi is the group's Vice Chair and is joined by the Labour MP, Mike Gapes - both were members of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last parliament and took an active role in writing its influential report on UK relations with Kurdistan. The other main officer is Liberal Democrat Peer, Tim Clement-Jones who has been visiting Kurdistan since 2004. Other officers include Lord Glasman, Fabian Hamilton, Stephen Metcalfe, John Woodcock, Dave Anderson (who have all visited Kurdistan) and Mary Glindon and Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers. I remain as the Director of the group.
We have set some immediate priorities. We will organise a Commons briefing with the UK's Consul-General in Erbil, Angus McKee and the KRG's new High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir. We aim to send a fact-finding delegation to Kurdistan later in the year, are very keen to encourage the establishment of direct flights between the UK and Erbil as soon as possible and want to encourage an APPG on the UK in the Kurdistan Parliament. We are also going to have a look at how the visa system for Kurds is working.
I think that the biggest achievement over the last eight years of the APPG has been that we have radically increased interest in and understanding of Kurdistan. In the beginning, it was quite difficult to find MPs who were interested as very few people had any idea where Kurdistan was. Since then, we have organised ten parliamentary delegations and many people now want to go to Kurdistan to see things for themselves. Our supporters are respected in their parties and in parliament as a whole. As time went by, we were able to finesse our requests for action and the landmark report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on UK relations with Kurdistan was one of its best fruits, along with us persuading parliament to formally recognise the Anfal.
Our members will have different views on the future of Kurdistan. For my part, it is difficult to avoid the growing possibility of its independence in maybe a few years time as federalism failed and Iraq barely exists as a functioning nation anymore. Whatever the future holds, however, it is essential that parliamentary friends of Kurdistan help build links, exchange information and transfer expertise between us.
Jason McCartney also organised a meeting this week in the Commons to discuss the new Kurdistan Tourist Guide, co-authored by Dr Douglas Layton and Harry Schute, who was present along with the UK High Representative, and me as speakers. The substantial book provides a comprehensive and detailed view of all the major sites and sights of Kurdistan as well as essays on history, security, the religions of Kurdistan, cuisine, cinema, music, horses, culture and nature plus hundreds of new photos. It is a great way of kick-starting interest in travel to Kurdistan.
I told the meeting of the first APPG delegation to Kurdistan in 2008. We had been in Erbil and heard much about the potential of agriculture but this was dismissed by the two new MPs who had not yet left Erbil as a vanity project that was a waste of resources. We asked them to wait until they had travelled to Slemani and had seen the vast plains and mountains. They revised their viewpoint. I also hope for progress on exporting Kurdish pomegranates, not least from Halabja, to the West so Kurdistan can be associated with superfoods rather than a tragic past, and make money too.
I also recalled taking a British MP to Duhok and asking the driver to go to St Matthew's Monastery but had to email a friend in Hawaii to get detailed instructions on how to get there. It illustrated the need to increase and improve the tourism architecture, although more Western tourism clearly must wait for the defeat of Daish. I also hope that we can add our weight to the case for more heavy weapons for the Peshmerga. We have much to do.
* Gary Kent is the director of All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is email@example.com The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.