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UK delegation visits Iraq at pivotal time for its future

BGIPU Vice-Chair and Chair of the Iraq APPG, the Rt Hon Ann Clwyd MP, led an interparliamentary delegation to Iraq from 13-16 February 2018 comprising Fabian Hamilton MP, Matthew Offord MP, Rt Hon Baroness Blackstone and the Lord Hayward OBE. The delegation also included BGIPU Director, Rick Nimmo, and Deputy Director, Dominique Rees.

We were accompanied throughout by Lottie Burrows of the Political Section of the UK Embassy in Baghdad who delivered an excellent and extensive programme of calls for the visit. In the absence of the UK Ambassador, HE Jon Wilks, who was participating in the landmark Iraq Reconstruction Conference in Kuwait, the delegation was given excellent support and guidance by the Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, John Tucknott, and the Head of the Political Section, Victoria Dunne, along with many other dedicated UK and local staff team working at the British Embassy in Baghdad.

Arriving in Baghdad, the delegation was met by the Chair of the UK-Iraq Friendship Parliamentary Committee, Dr Hanan Saeed Mohsen al-Fatlawi, who had led the delegation visit to the UK from the Parliament of Iraq in late 2016. Following helpful briefings from section heads in the Embassy, the delegation attended a welcome dinner at the Rasheed Hotel with Dr Al-Fatlawi and other members of the UK-Iraq Friendship Committee. A wide-ranging discussion recognised the importance of the bilateral relationship and the timely nature of the visit so soon after the defeat of Daesh, which had been the key issue at the time of their 2016 visit to the UK. The UK delegation acknowledged this achievement was a key factor in the delegation wanting to visit Baghdad.

Nevertheless, UK members recognised that significant challenges remained, including regarding Kurdish aspirations and the upcoming national elections on 12 May 2018. Indeed, it was clear from our discussions that the elections would be keenly contested, and the outcome pivotal in shaping the short to medium term fortunes of Iraq. With some party allegiances splintering and alliances very fluid, the political climate in Iraq remained volatile. Despite the significant success of the government in defeating Daesh, the outcome of the election was by no means certain given the wide range of other security, economic and social challenges facing the country. All interlocutors noted that the integrity and credibility of the elections was crucial and international observation and assistance was being welcomed to ensure confidence in the process. Iraqi counterparts also noted the particular challenges posed by the elections taking place at a time when Iraq was one of the countries with the most internally displaced people in the world, with an estimate of around 3 million IDPs (though reliable statistics were hard to come by). Ensuring, for example, that all IDPs were registered to vote would be difficult.

A subsequent roundtable meeting with the UK-Iraq Friendship Committee chaired by Dr Al-Fatlawi focused on issues of specific interest to UK members. In themes repeated through many of our exchanges, the UK delegation sought views on peace and security, rule of law and human rights, access to basic services and education, and measures to consolidate Iraq’s future economic prospects. Everyone agreed the defeat of Daesh was a huge victory for the country and provided an opportunity to move forward, so long as unmet expectations, corruption and political unrest did not give rise to new vulnerabilities or further extremist militant opposition to government authorities. In this regard, the delegation called on the head of Iraq’s Integrity Commission to hear about its efforts to investigate corruption and bring to justice the perpetrators, even when they had relocated overseas.

In meetings with a range of parliamentary counterparts, including the Civil Society Committee, the Human Rights Committee and the Culture and Media Committee, the interparliamentary relationship was welcomed as an important component of the wider UK-Iraq partnership, mirroring the close people to people, cultural and educational links between both countries. Parliamentary committees met by the delegation were certainly very busy with active members but, in comparison to UK counterparts, they did not produce comprehensive reports nor seem to hold government to full account due to limited resources, political traditions and internal differences.

In the discussion with the Foreign Relations Committee Ms Clwyd noted that the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, of which she is Vice-Chair, had recently released a report on “Kurdish aspirations and the interest of the UK” which highlighted the importance of Iraq’s national unity and a negotiated solution to recent tensions within the framework of the Iraqi constitution. Indeed, the risks and challenges to Iraqi political cohesion and national unity posed by the independence referendum held by Kurdish elements in September 2017 was a recurring point of discussion during the visit.

We saw that appropriate attention to the rule of law and human rights remained a priority for Iraqis, particularly in addressing the needs of the victims of Daesh but also regarding the treatment of Daesh fighters and their families given the importance of due process and reconciliation. Exploration of human rights issues featured throughout the programme in very constructive meetings with human rights activists, non-government organisation (NGO) representatives, the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, the Chief Justice of Iraq and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. Though security forces/police and the judiciary found it challenging at times to uphold human rights standards, which could lead to abuses and miscarriages of justice, efforts to improve appeared sincere and had yielded positive results. It was widely acknowledged, however, that treatment of Daesh fighters and affiliates remained a challenge, particularly given the large number of cases which needed to be processed, and was being closely watched by the international community, fearful that a failure to reintegrate family members of Daesh fighters, particularly children, could ultimately result in another wave of extremism.

In addition, the case of former Iraqi Parliamentarian Mr. Al-Alwani, which had been under examination by the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians since 2014 because of possible human rights violations and concerns about his welfare, was raised at some meetings, with a view to getting the Iraqi Parliament and relevant officials to engage directly with the IPU Committee on the case.

There were also wide-ranging discussions on social issues, including the importance of access to education for all and protection of Iraq’s unique and precious cultural heritage in which the UK had been an active partner. The difficulties which continue to face women and girls were also raised by a number of interlocutors, though progress had been made. The threat of significant environmental challenges was also discussed, including impacts on Iraq’s natural water supplies caused by dam projects in neighbouring countries. There were also exchanges on how best to achieve economic diversification given Iraq remains heavily dependent on oil which still accounts for about 95 percent of foreign exchange earnings, although there was no plan to achieve this quickly and it was recognised that on-going concerns about corruption could deter private sector investment.

The delegation met a range of representatives of the international community in Iraq, and was particularly impressed by the efforts of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) to rebuild infrastructure and restore access to services in areas recently won back from Daesh control (some 40 cities in two and a half years), to ensure that IDPS could return home, and gratified to hear about the significant support being given by the UN and others to Iraq in connection with upcoming national elections. Equally impressive were the NGO representatives from many different organisations, working on the ground in often difficult and dangerous conditions to help improve conditions and deliver vital services in partnership with the government and other Iraqi agencies. One particularly notable example was the activities of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which was working closely with Iraqi counterparts to investigate mass grave sites and achieve justice for the victims of Iraq’s recent conflicts.

The highlight of the visit was the warm welcome we received from the President of Iraq, HE Fuad Massoum, who was generous with his time by not only meeting with the delegation but also hosting a very enjoyable and informative lunch for delegates on their final day in Baghdad. Our key exchanges with the President concerned Iraq’s hopes for successfully addressing its main challenges: reconciling its diverse communities, rebuilding its towns and cities, and capitalising on its significant national wealth, both in natural resource and human capital terms. Like the President, many contacts noted that as a middle-income country, these challenges were not beyond Iraq’s ability to solve, with appropriate international support as required.

Indeed, as the visit progressed, the very positive outcome of the Iraq Reconstruction Conference was announced with some $30 billion in pledges of support, much of which was forthcoming from Gulf states. This was clearly welcomed by our Iraqi contacts as a strong vote of confidence by the international community in its future, and very timely in terms of bolstering stability ahead of the forthcoming elections. The challenge now would be to ensure that pledges turned into meaningful support, and concrete improvements on the ground – including the provision of water and electricity to communities, particularly in liberated areas. The delegation was impressed by the clear recognition by Iraqi parliamentarians and officials of the difficult challenges across the spectrum, and their obvious commitment to addressing these with determination and resolve.

In conclusion, the delegation left Iraq with a sense that the country is poised at a crossroads in which the upcoming elections will be crucial. The policy approaches and political stability of any government resulting from these elections will be a key determinant of whether the largely positive trajectory we saw will be maintained on the back of the victory over Daesh. Such political stability, success in the fight on corruption and economic/social progress will, in turn, be key preconditions for the full delivery of the $30 billion pledged in Kuwait. The UK has significant interests at stake in Iraq and the UK Government and Parliament’s continuing attention is welcomed by Iraqi leaders as a positive contribution to its future. BGIPU will be working closely with the Iraq APPG to ensure we remain engaged to support Iraq in strengthening its democratic institutions.

Rt Hon Ann Clwyd MP