Throughout his tenure as President of the United States, Barack Obama, stuck to a “one Iraq” policy. It was the continuation of his predecessor’s, George W. Bush, policy who worked hard to promote the idea of a unified and inclusive Baghdad, even as sectarian fires in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq led to a costly experience for Washington.
However, the Kurdistan Region took a very different course from the rest of Iraq, and other than been confounded to the same state borders, their fortunes and ideals could not be more different.
US enjoys strong ties with Kurds, especially as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became a bastion of peace and stability post-2003, but the concept of upholding Iraqi sovereignty meant that Washington would often tip-toe around Baghdad in dealing with the KRG.
As Falah Mustafa, Head of the KRG office of Foreign Relations, pointed out, the US relations with the Kurdistan Region are not new and “the US has had a significant role in the making of today’s Kurdistan since 1991.” However, throughout these times, successive US administrations have been careful not to undermine Baghdad or give encouragement to any Kurdish secession from Iraq.
KRG is not without its own downfalls but is certainly no Baghdad. It has remained stable, inclusive, secular, prosperous and pro-Western.
Clinging to the notion of a one Iraq policy means placing the (KRG) as a subsidiary of Baghdad.
Today, Kurds find themselves at the pinnacle of the war against Islamic State (IS). Therefore, treating Kurds as a sub-party of Baghdad discredits their vital strategic role.
The US has even shown hesitation in by-passing Baghdad when it comes to arming the Peshmerga.
In 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry, was strongly against a US Senate motion to directly arm the Kurds, urging “Iraq’s fragile territorial and political unity would be in jeopardy if the amendment passed.”
Even former US Vice President Joe Biden, who was a long-time advocate of splitting Iraq into three distinct federal regions, insisted on coordination through the “government of Iraq.”
That said, there is much doubt whether Baghdad delivered all the arms shipments intended for Erbil. Hence, Kurds deserve a distinct status of relations from the Donald Trump administration—owed not only to their importance in fighting against IS, but also in achieving greater stability in the Middle East.
Trump has made clear that he deems Islamic militants as the biggest threat to US national security.
Recent comments from Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, indicate the US may directly arm the Peshmerga, which is a welcome step. Moreover, McCain, in a previous interview with Kurdistan24, emphasized that the Peshmerga need sufficient “arming, training, and equipping,” before adding “sometimes, it may mean direct.”
Chief of Staff of the Peshmerga Ministry Jabbar Yawar recently stated that “the US is expected to fully arm two more brigades this year, the same way the first and second brigades were armed.”
An agreement last year between Washington and Erbil saw the first two Peshmerga units directly armed by the US. However, it is unclear whether the new US administration will take a different approach with the KRG by arming the Peshmerga directly.
McCain, like many other US officials, has been actively vocal praising Kurdish forces, yet the one Iraq policy serves to diminish the Kurdish standing.
Many international conferences on security, and the fight against IS have been held where ministers from Baghdad were deemed sufficient in place of representatives from the KRG. Such a policy highlights the contradictory policy towards Kurds: Baghdad will never fairly represent Kurds or their interests.
President Masoud Barzani expressed confidence at the recent Davis World Economic Forum that Trump, who had previously stated that he is “a big fan of the Kurdish forces,” will provide military and political support to Kurds. Barzani said, “Fortunately, many of those who are supposed to take high positions are acquainted and friends with me personally and Kurdistan.”
Trump, in a thinly veiled criticism of Obama but especially Bush, stated the US had wrongly “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
Kurds hope Trump will not overlook the fact that in the Kurdistan Region, the US mostly achieved what they had expected for the rest of Iraq.
Kurds have always yearned for a long-term US military presence in Kurdistan and will hope that the plan to build one of the largest US consulates in the world in Erbil, is a prelude to a more active cooperation.
First Published: Kurdistan 24