Buckingham Palace may be just over the road from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representation in the UK, but the KRG’s representation is somewhat more discreet. There’s no flag outside the office. It’s an embassy that’s not an embassy.
The KRG holds executive power over the Kurdistan region in Iraq. It’s sort-of-an-independent nation with its own parliament, plans for economic development in the region, military forces (the Peshmerga are heavily involved in fighting with the Islamic State), and an agenda for developing the country.
For the moment, the KRG aspires to be an autonomous region within Iraq. ‘The problem is that the Iraqis do not understand federalism,’ says Karawn Tahir, the KRG High Representative to the UK. ‘We want to work within the constitution, but the central authority takes credit for our achievements without representing us.’
Tahir points to recent international meetings about the fight against the Islamic State as an example. The KRG has a long border exposed to confrontation with IS, but ‘the Iraqi government exclude us from the conferences,’ he says.
Iraq’s constitution theoretically establishes a federal structure for the country, and although it was approved by almost 80 per cent of the electorate, it is often ignored. This means there are problems for Kurdistan, especially in developing oil resources in the region. ‘The central government want the oil laws passed first, and then to deal with the constitutional issues, but we see the need for the constitution to be functioning before oil laws are passed,’ says Tahir.
Despite the ambiguous relationship with Iraq’s central government, the KRG continues to do business with the world, including a substantial amount with UK companies, according to Tahir.
For Tahir, everything changed for the KRG after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which removed Saddam Hussein from power. ‘For us this was a liberation,’ he says. Under Hussein, the Kurdistan region had been subject to several vicious attempts to ethnically cleanse the population, including the notorious Anfal campaign. ‘We have lived with the Arabs for many, many years and they understand much of our culture, not everything. We still need our autonomy.’
After Hussein’s government fell from power, the KRG enjoyed more freedom to operate, but finding a place in the disorder of modern Iraq remains difficult. ‘We always talk about Kurdistan, not about Kurds. We mean to represent all the people who live here. The Kurds, the Sunni, the Arabs, the Christians, the Yazidis,’ says Tahir as he lists the groups that make up the region. ‘It is a mosaic, and it is this mosaic that the Islamic State wants to smash.’
The KRG also keeps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office up-to-date with events in the region, concentrates on high-level representation with various governments, and helps politicians and policy makers understand the area better. In the long term, the KRG might become the nucleus for an independent state, but for now the focus is on building discreet, high-level links.