The United States and their allies took a bold step in 2003 amidst strong international opposition to free a country from decades of tyranny and a dictator that was the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, to build the foundations of a new Iraq that most Iraqis never thought they would see.
The legacy of former US President George W. Bush on Iraq is in stark contrast to that of Barrack Obama. For all his critics, Bush was highly determined to “last the course” in Iraq and oversaw an Iraq that had a series of historic elections, a new constitution and a new dawn of liberation that could not have been better symbolised than in veteran Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani’s appointment as Saddam Hussein’s successor.
Talabani’s instalment as president was poetic justice as it represented the ironic twist of the oppressed replacing the oppressor, Kurds who were long denied equal rights were now at the forefront of the new Iraq. The US adventure in Iraq was often plagued for everything it didn’t fulfil, not for all the historic opportunities that it unravelled.
The US invasion of Iraq had many success stories for Washington, non-more illustrious than the Kurdistan Region. From impoverishment, oppression and suffering, the Kurds have built a secular democracy with increasing economic and strategic clout in Iraq that most US politicians in 2003 dreamed about.
When Iraq’s was descending into all out civil war, Bush took the bold move to call upon thousands more troops, when the budget was blown billions more dollars were approved and when Iraq was falling apart, the determination of the US only grew further. Iraq was simply at the centre of US foreign policy and a project that it could ill-afford to abandon. US intervention on many occasions allowed Iraqi politicians to reach compromise and democratic progress to continue, whenever the Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites were on the negotiating table, the fourth would be a keen and willing US.
The Iraqi baton was passed to Barrack Obama in 2009, and the contrast in approach could not be greater. Iraq is hardly in the media, in the US public eye or a priority of Obama as Washington has distanced itself from the role of the foster parents of the new Iraq.
Of course, it was somewhat inevitable as Obama’s election campaign was always centred on Iraqi withdrawal and anti-meddling in Iraqi affairs and due to changes in the global political climate. It has tried to play a supportive and neutral role in Iraq, whilst stating its support for a plural and democratic Iraqi that adheres to its constitution.
It is no coincidence that shortly after US withdrawal in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s stance toughened with a consolidation of power, the fallout over Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi began, already fragile political agreements weakened and relations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad plummeted.
A little over a year after US forces departed, the immense sacrifices and efforts of the US are in great danger of been wasted. The delicate and often tenuous balance that the US managed to achieve over the years is fast evaporating. Bush warned in one of his last speeches that the Iraq “war was not over”.
In a recent interview with Time magazine, Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, emphasising the moral responsibility of the US, underlined Kurdish disappointment on the current US position “…America came to this country, spent huge amounts of money and have sacrificed lives. But they handed over the keys to others…”
Whether the current administration likes it or not, they have a level of responsibility to the Kurds and the new Iraq they helped to create.
Washington cannot simply send thousands of troops like before or throw billions more dollars that it doesn’t have, but it cannot be a bystander in Iraq either. A Baghdad that is increasingly distancing itself from US influence has a man at the helm that holds the position of acting interior minister, acting defense minister and acting national security minister as well as the role of Prime Minister.
The US always referred to potential conflict between the Kurds and Arabs as the greatest danger in Iraq. The very reason that tense stand-offs were averted in the past was due to US intervention and the advent of join patrols in disputed territories.
Now that very danger is perilously close to reality, with both Kurdish and Iraqi troops amassed in a stiff showdown that not only threatens to put Iraq back to square, but whose ramifications will serve to shake an already edgy Middle East.
The Obama administration has repeated its support for an Iraq that abides by the Iraqi constitution many times. However, what happens when the same constitution is violated or constitutional principles such as article 140, hydrocarbon law or power sharing are neglected?
It is not to say that the US has a magic wand, but its influence could and should still go a long way in Iraq. The US cannot wash a hand that was deeply tainted in the Iraqi struggle for so long.
The oil dispute typifies the new US stance of sitting on the wall. While the rest of Iraq has lingered behind, Kurdistan is developing and raring to go. Yet the US has repeatedly warned Turkish companies against direct deals with the Kurds claiming it threatens the “integrity of Iraq”. It is Baghdad’s lack of commitment to the constitution and not the Kurds who threaten the integrity of Iraq.
Ironically, the biggest coup for Kurds was to get US oil giant Exxon-Mobil onboard and who are ready to drill in highly-contested areas in 2013, amidst a backdrop of familiar warning by Baghdad.
The Kurds remain reliant on Baghdad for exportation of oil and oil revenues and this has been somewhat of a stop-start tap in recent years and has become the source of Iraq’s carrot and stick approach against the Kurds.
The Kurds are by far the biggest pro-American group in Iraq and their flourishing economy, secularist nature and pro-western ideals is exactly what the US should have embraced. Yet Kurds feel let down, dejected and to a large extent weary of what the US will do if Iraqi forces turn their guns and arsenal on the Kurds once more.
Not only has the US supplied Baghdad with F16’s, modern tanks and weaponry, the Kurds fear a passive US stance should Kurdistan come under attack once more.
The increasing self-sufficiency drive of the Kurds, with an independent oil infrastructure at its heart, is the key to its long-term survival and prosperity. It is no wonder that surrounded by hostile forces and with a distant Washington administration in the background that they have increasingly needed to rely and capitalise on growing ties with Turkey. As Kurdistan Prime Minister emphasised in the same interview “we have a door of hope, which is Turkey. And if that door, that hope is closed, it will be impossible for us to surrender to Baghdad. We will do something that will put in danger the interests of all those concerned.”
The US needs no reminding that the Kurds helped keep Iraq together at key times when security situation descended into chaos. The Kurds were often the factor for compromise on the negotiating table, supplied thousands of troops to protect southern areas and adopted a patient game while Iraq stabilised.
The Kurds cannot simply wait for Iraq to determine when it will implement a democratic constitution, oil laws and power sharing agreements.
The US is against Kurdish independence yet it also acknowledges the importance of a plural Iraq that abides by its constitution. Kurds cannot remain stuck in this paradox indefinitely. Either it is independence or full implementation of the constitution. Barzani reiterated this position in recent warnings, “…there is no doubt if and when we lose hope that the constitution is not adhered to, certainly there are other options.”