US shores up waning influence in Iraq by bolstering Kurdish superiority

Iraq, on the first anniversary of US withdrawal, is struggling to cope, not merely with a raging sectarian crisis between the Shia-led Central Government (CG) and an increasingly resentful Sunni-minority, but more alarmingly an ethnic crisis with a heavily armed and increasingly defiant Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Iraq, on the first anniversary of US withdrawal, is struggling to cope, not merely with a raging sectarian crisis between the Shia-led Central Government (CG) and an increasingly resentful Sunni-minority, but more alarmingly an ethnic crisis with a heavily armed and increasingly defiant Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Obama, US president for a second term, strove to put a positive spin on US withdrawal from Iraq by explicitly emphasising that it was nothing more than fulfilling his pledge. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Obama’s administration tried its utmost to convince the Iraqi government to grant its forces immunity from prosecution. More importantly, the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi people were fiercely against the continued occupation, which persuaded the US that it had overstayed its welcome. Ever since the end of the US occupation of Iraq in 2011, it has been steadfastly determined to shore up its waning influence by explicitly endorsing a highly ineffective CG, while at the same time bolstering the military superiority of the KRG.

Certainly, the US played a major if not pivotal role after the 2010 Iraqi election, in pressing all the major political blocs to forge a national partnership government, which is unquestionably a carbon copy of the former utterly impotent national unity government. The ostensible reason for the US emphatic support for such a government is that it ensures the full representation of the Iraqi society.

The real reasons, nonetheless, are the following:

  • Firstly, it guarantees that such a government is constantly in desperate need of US mediation – even if the US withdraws - to hold it together.

  • Secondly, ensuring that it would spectacularly fail in delivering essential services also renders it completely reliant on US backing.

  • Thirdly, this in turn enables the US to pull the plug on the entire government or simply replace the prime minister, as was undoubtedly the case in 2006, when the Kurdish alliance, spurred on by the US, pushed the Iraqi National Coalition, a Shia-dominated bloc, to remove Al Jaffari, who was replaced by the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.

Finally, all this appeases the authoritarian dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, which has not only fiercely rejected democratic change in Iraq, but has been strenuously attempting to hold it at bay, if not, reverse it.

In 1991, following Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait, the Shia and the Kurds revolted against the regime. But, unlike the Kurds, the Shia were not granted a safe haven by the US. Consequently, the two principal Kurdish leaders, namely, Masoud Barzani head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), became unarguably the unrivalled leaders of the Iraqi opposition. Even when Barzani, in Aug 1996, openly urged Saddam, who had used chemical weapons against the Kurds, to send his tanks into Erbil to dislodge Talabani’s forces, none of the Arab leaders of the then opposition groups had the nerve to criticise him. In 2003, when the US toppled Saddam, It was abundantly clear that the regime had successfully decimated the internal Shia-dominated opposition and the external Shia-dominated opposition was inexcusably heavily divided.

Just as ominous, however, was the US decision to dismantle the entire Iraqi army. And, even more significant, was and still is the deep Sunni-Shia division. All of these factors have created a huge power vacuum that has had a detrimental impact on the Iraqi Arabs, while at the same time dramatically strengthening the Kurdish leadership, already better placed, since it had the most well organised militia, known as the Peshmerga.

The US claims that it is making concerted efforts to defuse the tense stand-off between the CG and the KRG. However, its actions since 2003 leave little doubt that its sympathies lie with the KRG. These actions have ranged from signing a memorandum in May 2003 with the Kurdish leadership, allowing the Peshmerga to redeploy beyond the line clearly indicating the border of the Kurdish Region (KR) after 1991, and into the so-called 'disputed areas', under the pretext of fighting terrorism (this undoubtedly constituted the principal source of the dispute) -  to turning a blind eye to the KRG not merely seizing the old Iraqi Army’s heavy weapons, but even turning them on the new army, and condoning moves by the Peshmerga to seize more of these disputed territories. The US has also condoned if not encouraged Exxon Mobil to strike an oil deal with the KRG in defiance of the CG. Apparently, this deal created a precedent which paved the way for other major oil companies to follow suit.  

What must be deeply worrying for the Kurdish leadership is the dramatically growing body of Iraqi-Arab public opinion – initially prevalent amongst the Sunni-Arabs, but now becoming increasingly wide-spread even amongst the Shia-Arabs - that is scathing in its criticism of the KRG and particularly, Barzani. The main reasons behind this seismic change of heart revolve around what Iraqi-Arabs perceive as increasingly major violations, if not, utter disregard by Barzani to the constitution, which in Arab eyes went over the top in addressing Kurdish concerns.

These alleged violations include the following:

  • Firstly, on the military front: although, it is incontestable that the armed conflict between the CG and KRG has been brewing ever since 2008, and even before the formation by Maliki, in Sept 2012, of the Tigris Operation Command, in 2008, confrontation reached the level of armed conflict as the Peshmerga moved into Khanaqin and Jalula. In 2009, a similar situation was narrowly averted after the Peshmerga seized the north part of the Kirkuk oil field. More recently, in August 2012, in the Nineveh province, the Peshmerga prevented the Iraqi army from policing the border with Syria and in November 2012, a standoff in Tuz Khurmatu erupted into a gunfight. On December 18, 2012, the Peshmerga shot at two Iraqi helicopters near Kirkuk. All these military confrontations took place well outside the KR borders. Another major violation is the Peshmerga’s unshakable determination to import its own weapons.

  • Secondly, on the foreign policy front: even while the Kurds have prominent positions within the CG, like the president for the second term, Talabani, and the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, since 2003, the KRG, nonetheless, has actively been pursuing policies that are not only in stark contrast to the CG, but increasingly hostile. A vivid example was the unannounced visit by Turkey’s foreign minister, Davutoglu, to the flashpoint city of Kirkuk.

  • Thirdly, on the economic front: the KRG has actively been pursuing an increasingly independent economic strategy by directly selling its oil and gas.

  • Fourthly, on the judicial front: the case of the convicted vice-president, Tareq Al Hashmi, has underlined that the central judiciary authorities in Baghdad have absolutely no jurisdiction in the KR.

Talabani’s, frantic efforts to bridge the widening gap between the CG and the KRG were thwarted by Barzani’s highly provocative unannounced visit to the bitterly contested city of Kirkuk and, more ominously, by his assertion that all the disputed areas are essentially Kurdish cities. With Talabani critically ill, Barzani is scrambling to tighten his grip on the entire KR.  And, amid the mounting sectarian tensions that erupted after the arrest of 9 bodyguards of Iraq’s Sunni Finance Minister, Rafe Al Essawi and his accusations to the CG of marginalising the Sunni population, all this was music to Brazani’s ears, who has been increasingly alarmed by Al Maliki’s growing popularity among the Sunni-Arabs in the disputed areas.

Both, the sectarian conflict and the ethnic conflict are an integral part of a modified strategy spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to achieve their overarching goal of destabilising and ultimately dismantling the fledgling democracy in Iraq. This strategy relies heavily on utilising the dramatic surge in Al Qaeda’s power and influence,(called Jabhat Al Nusra in Syria, which is an extremist Wahabi Salafi group) which is largely due to Saudi and Qatari funding as they arm and even pay salaries to foreign fighters. It also relies on Turkey’s open-border policy with Syria.

The Kurdish leadership, particularly Barzani, has made no secret that their ultimate objective is independence and that the insurmountable obstacle has so far been the US. Yet, ironically the CG has continued to pay the KRG an over-inflated 17% share of the overall Iraqi budget, which has been utilised to ramp up the viability of an already existing Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. As the KR’s independence becomes an inescapable reality in all but name, it is imperative that the CG halts all payments to the KRG. Indeed, such a decisive move would, almost certainly, convince the US that the CG is seriously paving the way to recognising the KR an independent state.

Such a move would inevitably cause the following:

  • First, it would destabilise Turkey by aggravating its indigenous Kurdish crisis.

  • Second, it might severely undermine Saudi and Qatari attempts to topple Al Maliki’s CG. As such a move is bound to spark a Sunni-Arab confrontation with the Kurds, given that the overwhelming majority of Arabs in the disputed areas are Sunnis, rather than ratcheting up the sectarian strife between the Sunni-Shia Arabs that the two countries have been working tirelessly to achieve.

  • Third, it could turn the Arab world’s opinion against Saudi and Qatari arming and funding of the insurgents in Syria, fearing a similar break- up of the country.

  • Fourth, it would throw the US’s already stumbling Middle East policy into further disarray.      

These grave implications are bound to jolt the US into exerting intense pressure on Barzani to make major concessions to the CG, thereby preserving Iraq’s unity. Otherwise, if all that fails, the CG must unilaterally declare the KRG an independent state.

About the author

Zayd Alisa is a Middle East expert, writer, human rights activist and democracy advocate. Find him on Twitter

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