An Interview With the UK Consul General in Erbil

The United Kingdom Consul General in Erbil says that political unity in the Kurdistan Region and wider Iraq is essential for “both winning the war…and also for winning the peace that will follow.”

Angus McKee believes that Iraq can, with international support, build on the successes against Islamic State (IS) over the last year, and look beyond the war to address the economic crisis, reconcile communities and resolve political disputes.

“In the last few days the world has yet again seen the horror of terrorism in Paris, in Beirut, here again in Iraq, which is a reminder of the threat that Daesh poses to us all,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “Of course the atrocity in Paris is a reminder of the threat of terrorism, its a reminder of the poison of this extremist ideology, but its also a reminder that we have to beat Daesh.

“Coming so soon after the achievements of the Peshmerga and the Yazidi forces in Sinjar, those events remind us that Daesh is losing. Daesh will lose and the effort, the determination, the sacrifice of the Peshmerga, Iraqi security forces and the efforts of the international coalition in support of these forces, all of that is making progress, and Daesh is on the back foot.”

McKee insists that unity, on a local and national scale, is vital to seeing IS out of Iraq. “[Recent victories] underline the importance of political unity in the Kurdistan Region, and political unity in wider Iraq. That unity, collective effort and strengthening of forces that comes when political forces are working together, that is important both for winning the war, but also for winning the peace that will follow.”

The recent success in Sinjar should be an example for how future operations, especially the anticipated battle for Mosul, should be conducted, says the British Consul General. “[During] the successful operation in Sinjar, we saw the Iraqi air force provide support, including through medical evacuations. This was an operation led by the Peshmerga, with the support of others – Yazidi fighters, Iraq security forces, international coalition. Likewise as we look forward, towards further operations in Nineveh including Mosul, it will be essential that there is effective military coordination between the Peshmerga and the ISF.”

The required political unity in defeating Islamic State will be tested further by conditions in a post-IS Iraq. With many Yazidis saying they will not welcome Sunnis back into Sinjar and surrounding villages, unity on a community level may be harder to come by. “I wouldn’t say the politics is about planting flags, the politics is about what comes next and the need to reconcile communities that are hugely divided after this conflict and, let’s be honest, previous conflicts. It’s about rebuilding, restoring services, it’s about removing the many mines and unexploded ordanance and ammunition that has been left behind as a result of this conflict,” says McKee, insisting that the UK support is not merely military. “The UK and others in the coalition are providing the support to assist the government authorities in Iraq, including the KRG, to be able to restore services and rebuild after Daesh is pushed out of areas.”

The military role of the UK within the coalition has been significant. “The role of the Royal Air Force over the last year [has seen] over 1,500 combat missions, over 340 strikes. All the training provided, the counter-IED training to the Peshmerga, the gifting of equipment including counter-IED equipment, that is essential,” he points out, reiterating that the achievements of the last year need to be built on with a focus on the economy and reconciliation.

“Compare where we are now to where we were at the same time in 2014. Significant progress has been made with the contributions of the Peshmerga and the ISF and the coalition. Over that last year, some 30% of territory that was held by Daesh has been liberated.

“Daesh is struggling now economically, has been weakened by targeted air strikes on its oil facilities, including in Syria. The effort is making progress, what is important is that alongside that is the political effort, the economic focus, the planning for stabilisation so that as this territory is regained, communities can return and reconcile. The military effort as is will still take time, but the direction is clear, that Daesh will be defeated. Alongside continued military support is this need for a wider approach.”

Looking more closely at the problems facing the KRG, McKee is concerned that internal strife is shifting the focus from the conflict and the need to confront an economy in turmoil. The challenges “boil down to three things”.

“One is the security context. Secondly there are political disputes and differences of opinion between the leading parties, and thirdly, the economy is suffering – a period of low oil price, and expensive conflict. There is a need for the government not only to pay its workers but also to maintain international business confidence in the place at a difficult time.

“As is well known, over the summer there have been disputes [among] the political parties, the result being that I believe there have been times when the parties’ focus has been distracted from the fight against Daesh, and from addressing the pressing economic problems.”

There is hope that the divisions can be resolved soon. “I’ve met many party leaders over the last few weeks, there is a new resolve to overcome their differences,” he says, noting that “this consensus will be stronger if it is based on democratic principles, if it strengthens the political institutions and if it recognises that not only the political institutions matter but the media and media freedoms are important.”

The political distractions are not limited to the KRG however, and McKee is also confident that the ongoing disagreements between Erbil and Baghdad are on the way to being addressed. “The relationship between Baghdad and the KRG is not just about oil, it’s not just about budget, it also underpins the fight against Daesh. Again, if there are differences between Baghdad and Erbil it weakens resolve and distracts attention from the fight.

“Likewise at a time of low oil price, differences between these governments inhibit finding shared practical solutions to the economic challenges. Certainly the UK encourages the federal government and the KRG to come to an understanding on these issues, and again there are indicators that these political leaders are wishing to do so and that is something we welcome.”

But with territory in the Article 140 areas, which both governments lay claim to, seeing clashes between the Peshmerga and Shi’ite Hashd al-Shaabi militia, what does the future hold for Tuz Khurmatu, say?

“It is a reminder that there are many conflicts here that pre-date Daesh. Therefore a reminder that progress against Daesh alone is insufficient. Events such as the clashes in Tuz Khurmatu are a reminder that this a conflict where on occasion there is neglect, if not disregard for, civilians. This is yet another reminder of the need for all involved, and the political leadership collectively, to give attention to the needs of those who are caught in these battle zones, of the need to give sanctuary to those who are fleeing violence, of the importance of getting humanitarian assistance into areas which are difficult, and also the need to reconcile communities.

“It is incumbent on the political leadership here with the support of the international community to put the political effort not just into winning the war, but also winning that peace.”

Finally McKee scotches rumours that he is about to leave the Kurdistan Region. “I’m not leaving any time soon, I don’t know where those rumours come from. My job is a full time job, as are all of those in the British Consulate, whether working on the politics, the economic relationship, the military support or the humanitarian and development side, all of us are working very hard.

“We might be coming towards the end of a year, but we know there is much more work to do in the year ahead. I’m not going anywhere, and I’m relishing the challenges of the coming months.”