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No Longer Best Friends:
Is The US Ignoring Iraqi Kurdistan Because Their Democracy Is Broken?

Honar Hama Rasheed
Iraq’s Kurdish have come to think of their US allies as good friends. However when the US Secretary of State visited Iraq recently, he only went to Baghdad. This caused all sorts of concern up north.
21.04.2016  |  Sulaymaniyah
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, meets the Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani. (photo: حساب قوباد طالباني على تويتر)
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, meets the Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani. (photo: حساب قوباد طالباني على تويتر)

When US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made an unannounced visit to Baghdad in early April, the US’ allies further north in Iraqi Kurdistan were perturbed.

During the one-day visit on April 8, Kerry met with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other officials. He also met with an Iraqi Kurdish delegation, headed by the semi-autonomous region’s Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, who came to Baghdad especially to meet him at the US Embassy. Kerry’s visit was focused on Iraq’s political and economic future and on the ongoing fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

Analysts and commentators in Iraqi Kurdistan were worried about the choice of venue for Kerry’s visit. It was interpreted as the US preferring to deal with Baghdad rather than the Kurdish politicians in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Would US aid now come to Iraqi Kurdistan only via Baghdad?, they asked. Does the US prefer a centralist approach in Iraq? Is the US ignoring Erbil because they do not want to deal with the Iraqi Kurdish President, Massoud Barzani, whom many say is now holding the job illegitimately? Does the US want to distance itself from the apparent breakdown of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?, they fretted. 

“Although Kerry’s schedule was hectic, his reluctance to come to Erbil is a diplomatic signal,” suggests Sardar Aziz, an advisor to Iraqi Kurdish politicians, who aligns with the opposition Change movement; the latter is opposed to Barzani hanging onto the Iraqi Kurdish presidency. “More than ever before, the [Iraqi Kurdish] region needed a visit from Kerry. He needed to come here to discuss the fight against the Islamic State, the battle for Mosul, the reforms in Baghdad and the economic crisis. But he did not.”

Did John Kerry ignore Erbil because of repeated calls to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence? locals asked. 

Instead messages from the US were delivered to Iraqi Kurdish politicians and Massoud Barzani via US Special Envoy, Brett McGurk.

“Kerry sent clear messages to Iraqi Kurdistan and he made sure that the delegation that came to see him understood these,” says Hoshyar Abdullah, an Iraqi Kurdish MP in Baghdad and senior member of the Change movement. Abdullah was privy to what happened at the meeting and says that this included the US indicating that they wished that Baghdad and Erbil would resolve their differences and normalize relations between the northern region, which has its own borders, legal system and military, and the rest of the country.

“The US administration has placed conditions on financial and military aid,” Abdullah told NIQASH. “Those conditions are related to political and financial reforms in both Baghdad and Erbil, as well as better relations between the two.”

Iraqi Kurdish delegations have approached their US allies several times to ask for financial assistance during the current economic crisis in Iraq, as has Baghdad. Delegations that have gone to Washington have all returned empty handed, politicians say, and they have also heard that the US only wants to assist Iraqi Kurdistan financially, through Baghdad.

“US officials heard our requests about financial aid for Iraqi Kurdistan. They said they wanted to help and they expressed their readiness to help, but via Baghdad,” Hayman Hawrami, a politician from one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, told NIQASH; Hawrami is responsible for the KDP’s foreign affairs file. “Up until now there’s been no direct financial support to Erbil, from Washington.”

Some observers also suspect that Kerry’s visit to Baghdad only indicates the US’ displeasure with Barzani’s repeated calls to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. The US has made it clear that it supports a united Iraq.

However as Hawrami is also quick to note, while the US has never come out in open support of an Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence, they have not come out as opposed to it either.

“The aim of Kerry’s visit to Baghdad was to show that Baghdad is Iraq’s decision-making centre,” suggests  Arez Abdullah, a leading member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. “The US has decided that if Baghdad is weak, then that will affect the future of the country, particularly in terms of security.”

“Kerry urged officials from Iraq and from Iraqi Kurdistan to resolve their issues and he warned that things cannot go on as they are,” says Abdullah, who is an MP in Baghdad.   

While in Baghdad to meet Kerry, the Iraqi Kurdish delegation also met with a delegation from the Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister al-Abadi.

Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH that the two parties began to move toward some sort of reconciliation.

“During our visit to Baghdad and in meetings with both Kerry and the Iraqi delegation we discussed these problems and confirmed the need to resolve them,” Dizayee said. “There will be an on-going dialogue and there are more meetings scheduled in the near future.”

Despite all of the Iraqi Kurdish concern over what Kerry’s visit to Baghdad did, or did not, mean to their region, the US State Department did try and prevent too much over-analysis.

During the State Department’s daily press briefing in Washington on April 12, Department spokesperson, Mark C. Toner, was asked whether Kerry’s exclusion of Erbil from his visit had anything to do with ongoing problems around the Barzani presidency.

Toner replied with a firm no, adding that Kerry’s visit had more to do with scheduling than any attempt to send a coded diplomatic message. It was not supposed to “send any signal to the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. We’ve been very supportive of their efforts to combat [the Islamic State group]. They have played an absolutely vital role,” Toner said, adding that Special Envoy McGurk remained in Iraq and did meet with Iraqi Kurdish officials. “We’re fully focused on the Kurdistan Region,” Toner concluded. “We’re committed to helping them as much as we can.”

Additionally, after the various visits and delegations, the US announced this week that they will give hundreds of millions in financial aid to pay the Iraqi Kurdish military as they fight the Islamic State group. However those funds, they say, will be distributed via Baghdad.

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