Not such a trusted friend
A row over the naming of Iraq’s Kurdish parties on a US terrorist list indicates hidden conflicts, writes Salah Nasrawi
In yet another twist in the on-and-off relationship between the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has cancelled a trip to Washington, apparently in anger over Washington’s reluctance to support his rush for a fully independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
The hidden crisis was made visible by an unexpected return to a hush-hush detail in the US-Kurdish relationship when it transpired that Barzani and his comrade-in-arms the President of Iraq Jalal Talabani were on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists.
The refusal of Barzani to travel to Washington to meet US President Barack Obama until his administration had removed his Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) from its terrorist blacklist came tantalisingly close to showing that relations between the United States and one of its staunchest Middle East allies were at low ebb at best.
Kurdish officials say that efforts to remove the names of their leaders and their parties from the list of groups deemed to have provided material support for terrorism have come to no avail despite the strategic alliance the Iraqi Kurds have built up with Washington.
Eleven years after the US army invaded Iraq to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003 and helped to empower the nation’s Kurdish minority in a self-ruled region, Iraq’s Kurds are again feeling betrayed by Washington.
Kurdistan’s main ruling parties were added to the terrorist groups list after 2001 under the US Patriot Act, allegedly for supporting the resistance to Saddam’s regime prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Under the law, members of the PDK and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (KDP) are classified as terrorists and thus are prohibited from obtaining visas to enter the United States.
Washington’s refusal, or reluctance, to rescind the sanction has drawn the wrath of the Kurdistan Regional Government whose spokesman Falah Mustafa accused the Obama administration of ignoring the Kurdish people’s sacrifices in the US-led war against Iraq.
“We are the only people throughout Iraq to have told America thank you,” he told the British newspaper the Guardian last week. “America did not receive a single casualty here in this region dominated by the PUK and KDP,” he said.
The controversy also triggered uproar in Kurdistan, with many commentators lambasting the inclusion of the Kurdish parties in the US blacklist of suspected organisations for carrying arms against Saddam as absurd.
The episode seems partly just a matter of history repeating itself. America’s betrayal of its long-time allies earlier taught the Iraqi Kurds the lessons of their reliance on the world’s biggest superpower.
US relations with the Kurdish groups in Iraq can be traced back to the 1960s, when it started supporting the Kurdish revolt in Iraq as part of its foreign policy drive to oust the anti-Western regime of former Iraqi leader Abdul-Karim Qassim.
Again during the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, Washington encouraged an insurgency by Iraq’s Kurds to weaken the then Baath Party regime in Iraq through supplying them with millions of dollars worth of arms and logistical support in collaboration of the Shah of Iran.
In 1975, the United States, however, abandoned the Kurds after its friend the Shah signed the Algiers Treaty with Saddam under which Iraq agreed to share control over the strategic waterway of Shatt Al-Arab and solve other border disputes.
The result was that Iran cut all supply lines to the Kurds prompting the collapse of the Kurdish rebellion. The story goes that Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, orchestrated the Iraq-Iran deal in an attempt to woo Baghdad away from Soviet influence.
Another blow to the Kurds came in 1991 when the United States failed to support the Kurdish uprising against Saddam following his defeat in the second Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, leaving millions of Kurds seeking refuge in neighbouring countries to avoid Saddam’s revenge.
Later the United States supported a UN no-fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic asset to keep Saddam in check, though it had celebrated the measure as humanitarian assistance and a way to protect the Kurds against Saddam’s onslaughts.
Yet, even after the Kurds joined the US-led war against Saddam, Washington was reluctant to respond to Kurdish requests to create an even-tighter relationship with the US through an agreement to ensure American support for independence.
It is likely that the present crisis over the terrorists list could damage the US-Kurdish relationship at a critical moment in the Middle East as the United States is trying to readjust its Middle East policies to accommodate its rapprochement with Iran and its efforts to resolve the war in Syria.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the Iraqi Kurds have set out on a quest to secede from Iraq, and they would have hoped that Washington would help them achieve their long-time national dream to form a sovereign Kurdish state.
The Kurds in Iraq have long enjoyed self-rule from the government in Baghdad, and over the past decade the Kurdish Regional Government has secured increasing autonomy from the south, turning the region into a largely peaceful and flourishing hub in an otherwise chaotic Iraq.
In recent months sentiments have been rising in Kurdistan over disputes with Baghdad over territories, oil revenues and the region’s budget.
“Why shouldn’t Kurdish leaders separate Kurdistan from Iraq in a popular referendum at this time of freedom and the liberation of nations,” asked Kurdish writer Ako Mohamed in an article published in Rudaw, a pro-Barzani media outlet.
“The Kurds have a limited presence in the Iraqi government. Therefore, it is time Kurdish leaders examined their being in the capital. Their current presence in Baghdad is almost equal to them not being there at all,” he wrote.
Barzani has repeatedly warned that the Kurds will seek independence if the region’s disputes with Baghdad remain unresolved. He apparently planned to discuss his plans for Kurdish independence with the Obama administration during his botched trip to Washington.
Last month, a Kurdish news outlet close to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party reported that the autonomous Kurdistan Region would declare its independence within five years.
Rudaw quoted energy adviser to the Kurdistan Government Ali Balu as saying that Kurdistan “is going to be rid of its status as a region within Iraq.” Balu said Kurdistan’s independence would be driven by the region’s geostrategic position and its rich energy reserves.
He said Barzani’s participation in the World Economic Forum in Davos in January had been to pave the way for international recognition of Kurdistan as an independent state.
Indeed, there are increasing signs that Kurdistan is taking concrete steps towards independence.
Oil extracted from wells in Kurdistan is now flowing to Turkey through a pipeline independently from Baghdad, which is challenging the operation. The plans to increase exports of oil and gas could be a major step to put Kurdistan on the world stage.
Earlier this month, a senior official at the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga, an equivalent of the ministry of defence, disclosed that the Kurdish Government was planning to turn the peshmerga into a national army.
“We are getting closer and closer to that every day,” Jabar Yawar was quoted as saying. He said the ministry had 13 brigades with some 42,000 peshmergas.
Oil experts and a national army will add to the signs that Iraqi Kurds are working hard to turn their autonomous region into an entity ready for independence.
Kurdistan has its own president, prime minister and parliament. It also has its own security forces and intelligence services, and it operates its own airports and the region’s border points. It also has foreign-relations offices abroad and issues visas for foreign visitors.
But life has never been easy for the Kurds. The war against Saddam bound them closer to the United States, but they have now been pitted once again against the complex geopolitics of the Middle East.
Gone are the days when the Kurds were looking to the United States with warm feelings of gratitude and friendship for having liberated them from Saddam. The present dispute has been a reminder to the Kurds that even after they became semi-independent, they remain with no friends but their mountains.
The United States, which is believed to have stakes in Kurdistan that form a crucial part of its geopolitical regional strategy and its oil, has refused to support independent Kurdish oil exports and rejected requests to train the peshmergas or station US troops in Kurdistan.
The cancellation of Barzani’s visit to Washington seems to be linked more to Washington’s unwillingness to listen to his request to support Kurdish plans for independence than his complaints about his party being on the terrorist list.
The Obama administration, which faces accusations of abandoning Iraq and leaving the war-weary country to fall apart, is in no position to share responsibility for the Iraqi Kurds’ move towards independence. This would almost certainly have detrimental effects on its Middle East strategies, possibly involving conflicts with Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
As part of its declared policy, the United States supports Kurdish federalism within Iraq and has never, at least publicly, validated the notion of Kurdish self-determination to justify an inherent right to independence.
But the Iraqi Kurds’ national aspirations, and their willingness to take risks in achieving them, are expected to grow despite the action or inaction of foreign actors, including the United States.
Anger about what the Iraqi Kurds perceive as US betrayal is, therefore, bound to grow. “Without Kurdish support America will find itself embarrassed about its vision for Iraq,” wrote Ako Mohamed in Rudaw.
“The Kurds in fact feel it is often America and not Baghdad that is acting against them,” wrote another columnist, Ayub Nuri.
This leaves the question open of how Kurdish politicians will find ways to address problem with their much-needed and old but not so trustworthy friend.