We want to see KRG 'more secure, accountable, productive': UK Consul-General Thornton

30-03-2021 08:12
UK Consul-General James Thornton

PEREGRAF- Surkew Mohammed

This month, British officials put out statements marking the 30th anniversary of Prime Minister John Major’s decision to assist in the establishment of the "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq that enabled the creation of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region. Since then, the Kurdistan Region and the United Kingdom have maintained strong ties, with the latter’s consulate-general in Erbil playing an important diplomatic role in the Region.

PEREGRAF recently corresponded with UK Consul-General James Thornton over email to explore a number of topics of importance to the Kurdistan Region, including bilateral relations, the UK’s role in encouraging cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil, and Peshmerga reform. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

 PEREGRAF: What do you see for the future of relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?

UK Consul-General Thornton: The UK sees the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) as an important partner. Its location in the Middle East and wonderful cultural history has been important to the UK and our allies for much of the last century. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson views Iraq and the Kurdistan Region as priorities for the UK. When two British ministers travelled to the KRI last December, they came to the same conclusion.

Our commitment to the country is shown by the size of the Iraq Network - which is one of the largest in the Middle East. The British Consulate General in Erbil is also one of the UK’s largest consulates in the world.

The work my team does touches all elements of Kurdish society. We spend a large amount of time on reform work. Our aim is to help the Kurdistan Regional Government to improve its systems, be more secure, accountable, productive, and less reliant on party politics. We split our reform priorities into three categories: political, defense and security, and economic. Media freedom and women’s empowerment are also important elements of our work. We continue to rely on the expertise and commitment of Kurds inside and outside of the government.

What role does the UK play in strengthening relations between Erbil and Baghdad?

The British Consulate-General in Erbil works every day with the British Embassy in Baghdad. We know that a stable and secure Iraq requires a fair financial settlement between Erbil and Baghdad. We use our position in both cities to encourage dialogue between political actors from different parties. We talk regularly to political leaders in the KRI. Our ambassador in Baghdad does the same with his contacts. We also work closely with other international actors in Iraq such as the UN to help them to enable stability in Iraq.

Can you describe what assistance the UK gives the Peshmerga as a part of the campaign to combat ISIS?

In September 2014, the UK Parliament voted to support military activity in Iraq, joining the US-led Coalition. We work with the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces to defeat Daesh [ISIS].

Over the last six years, the British Royal Air Force has deployed a mixture of aircraft in support of the counter-Daesh Coalition. The UK has been the second-largest contributor to the air campaign, flying thousands of missions and conducting over 1,500 airstrikes against Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria. This week, the UK supported the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces as they launched an assault on Daesh in Makhmour.

The British Army has also supported the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces with training and military advice. Specialist training has been provided to thousands of military personnel.

How can the UK help or assist the Kurdistan Regional Government to improve its reform efforts and combat corruption, especially within the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs?

In 2015, President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani asked the UK Government for support to assist with Peshmerga reform. His vision for reform was ultimately a single and reorganized national Peshmerga force - Mam Jalal had a similar dream. The aim was to bring this force under the control of a modernized, transparent, and reformed Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

Since 2017, the UK and US, now joined by the Dutch and Germans, have provided senior military advisers to the Ministry of Peshmerga to advise both ministers and Peshmerga officers on these reforms. The plan was agreed by the Minister for Peshmerga Affairs and Higher Committee and approved by the President of the Kurdistan Region in 2017.

The UK continues to work on Peshmerga reform, with particular focus on professional military education. We are about to start a large project with the 2nd and 3rd Military Colleges and the Ranya Staff College to review and help to modernize their training. We also currently have a Peshmerga officer going through training at Sandhurst (the UK’s world-leading military college). This year two female Peshmerga officers and one other Peshmerga staff officer will receive training in the UK.

I recently met with my fellow consuls-general and senior military advisers to refocus our reform work. We will continue to encourage unity from senior politicians on all sides. Unity and political support are essential to our ability to make progress. I would like to seize this opportunity to encourage all parties to redouble their efforts at every level to achieve this important goal. Reform will make the Kurdistan Region more secure and stable.