ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Belgium’s Defense Minister Steven Vandeput revealed that the Iraqi federal government blocked him from visiting Belgian troops in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region and asked Brussels to respond diplomatically.
During a Christmas tour to the Middle East over the past few weeks, Vandeput visited the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar where Belgian troops are stationed.
“It was also the intention to visit our soldiers in Iraq out of respect for their work far from home. But we only get permission from Iraq to visit our people in Baghdad while our troops are mostly in the north of Iraq, in Erbil. It’s sad,” Vandeput told Het Belang van Limburg Newspaper a few weeks ago.
“It is the Belgians who assist the security forces and thus also help the Iraqi government against [the Islamic State] IS. Now, Iraq does not welcome us there. We would then rather not go to Iraq at all. We will make sure that our people get their Christmas present from us.”
The European Minister stated that Belgium would not sit idly, vowing “respond diplomatically.”
He revealed this was the first time a Belgian Minister of Defense was prevented from visiting troops on the ground.
“A sustainable solution for Iraq should be an inclusive government in which every population group has its say,” he added.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative to the EU, Delavar Ajgeiy, confirmed the report with local Iraqi media and stated that the Belgium government summoned the country’s Ambassador in Brussels.
General Marc Compernol, Chief of Defense for Belgium, also expressed his concerns about the block. “We cannot thank [our people who have worked hard and are working against IS in Iraq] right now for the holidays for everything they do. Sad."
Belgium intends to increase the number of troops in Iraq in 2018. There are roughly 100 Belgian military advisers and soldiers in Iraq, mostly in the Kurdistan Region. They provide assistance and advice to the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces in the fight against IS.
The Peshmerga have been one labeled as one of the most effective ground forces against the jihadist, notably after the Iraq Army collapsed and retreated from northern Iraq after the emergence of the group in 2014.
Ties between Erbil and Baghdad have considerably deteriorated following the Kurdistan Region’s Sep. 25 independence referendum, which saw an overwhelming majority vote in favor of statehood.
The Iraqi government has imposed a series of collective punitive measures on the Kurdistan Region, including banning international flights to the Region’s airports. Additionally, on Oct. 16, Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias attacked and took over disputed territories, most notably the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Political analysts have repeatedly criticized Baghdad for trying to isolate the Kurdistan Region.
In November, Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel canceled a trip to Baghdad after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi refused to meet with him if he also visited Erbil.
The Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has repeatedly called for dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad to resolve their differences peacefully, but the talks yet to begin.
Editing by Nadia Riva