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Kurds put Canada in difficult spot as they plan for independence

Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government's foreign relations department, answers a reporter's question during a Newsmaker interview with The Associated Press in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Mr. Bakir is calling on the Trudeau government to boost military assistance and help the ethnically distinct group build up its democratic institutions even as it makes plans to start negotiating independence from Baghdad.

J. David Ake/AP Photo

The senior envoy for northern Iraq's Kurds is calling on the Trudeau government to boost military assistance and help the ethnically distinct group build up its democratic institutions even as it makes plans to start negotiating independence from Baghdad.

These requests put Canada in an awkward position. It has spent two years providing military assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga fighters – training and advice that have helped sharpen fighting skills that could one day be turned against Baghdad if an amicable separation cannot be reached.

The head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Regional Government told the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual defence and security forum in part sponsored by Canada, that his people plan to start talks on a separate state as soon as the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul is retaken.

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Falah Mustafa Bakir said the Kurds envision a new country in what is now northern Iraq that would cover as much as 85,000 square kilometres.

"It is a marriage that has failed. We need to have an amicable divorce in order to bring about stability, security and prosperity," Mr. Bakir said of the Kurdish relationship with Bagdhad.

Canada recently sent a delivery of small arms to the Kurds but, according to Mr. Bakir, these weapons are being held up by Iraqi customs in Baghdad.

"This has been part of our problem with Baghdad. There is no trust. It is illogical and not reasonable really for all flights to have to land in Baghdad first, to be inspected, and then to go to the Kurdistan region," the envoy said.

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"The point is, if we cannot trust each other, how could we live together for the future?"

Asked whether Canada isn't right to be leery of further requests for aid given that the Kurds are pursuing a bid for independence, Mr. Bakir said his people deserve military assistance and humanitarian aid solely because they have been a bulwark against Islamic State.

It was the Kurds, after all, who managed to hold the line alone against Islamic State in 2014 when the group was swarming across Iraq.

They prevented the jihadists from taking their unofficial capital of Erbil with the battle coming as close as 40 kilometres.

"The international community has a moral responsibility to support the peshmerga because when the front lines were collapsing, the peshmerga stood … If we didn't fight them, [the Islamic State] would come back."

The Canadian government, however, is unwilling to discuss Kurdish independence.

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"Our position hasn't changed. Canada is committed to a unified Iraq and to helping the Iraqi security forces in their fight against [the Islamic State]," said Jordan Owens, press secretary for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

She referred questions about the delayed arms shipment to the Iraqi government.

"We are providing the aid we promised but I cannot speak to the Iraqi government's internal processes."

For all the goodwill the Kurds have gained among Western allies fighting the Islamic State, it appears there is little enthusiasm for countries such as Canada to be seen endorsing an independent Kurdish state.

Elite Canadian special-forces troops have been providing training and military advice to the peshmerga fighters since the fall of 2014.

The Trudeau government hiked this contribution significantly earlier this year and now as many as about 210 Canadian special-operations troops are advising the Kurds on how to direct military operations.

The Kurds in northern Iraq have substantial autonomy in their region but far short of what they would require to conduct themselves as a sovereign state.

Mr. Bakir said the Kurdistan Regional Government needs arms and humanitarian aid: weapons to keep fighting and help coping with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis as well as refugees.

The envoy thanked Canadians for "the magnificent support they have provided" but added "we need that to continue" because "the war is not over."

The Kurds also want economic and governing advice to help them attract more private investment and strengthen their democratic institutions.

Mr. Bakir insisted the economic and administrative advice was not requested with an eye to building an independent state but rather merely to enhance the democracy and economy of Kurdistan.

"We need it even today; these [reforms] are good for today, tomorrow and the day after," the envoy said.

"Building strong democratic institutions. Ensuring rule of law. Ensuring good governance. Ensuring economic reform. Ensuring empowerment of women … so we can be the democratic experience that could be a beacon in the region."

He said Iraq has never given the Kurds what they need. "We are treated as guests in Baghdad. We do not want to be guests. We want to establish our own state."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


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