A big win for Kurds at the White House

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE -

From May 3rd to 8th, Wash­ing­ton DC hosted a high-level del­e­ga­tion from the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment. The KRG Pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani was flanked by Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Qubad Tal­a­bani, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Mas­rour Barzani, Min­is­ter of Pesh­merga Af­fairs Mustapha Sayyid Qadr, to­gether with other min­is­ters and of­fi­cials.

In the three years since Barzani's last White House visit, a lot has changed. Back then, just six months af­ter the with­drawal of the US forces, Iraq was con­sid­ered a quag­mire that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted to get out from. To­day Iraq is the theatre of the war against the self-styled Is­lamic State in the Mid­dle East.

The US-Kur­dish re­la­tions were fray­ing at the edges since Barzani's June 2012 visit. Wash­ing­ton had re­fused to back a cross-sec­tar­ian May 2012 ef­fort, led by Barzani, to oust the Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki.

The Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter then be­gan to send US-equipped fed­eral mil­i­tary forces to the bor­der of Kur­dis­tan and had even told his gen­er­als that they might march on Er­bil one day but only af­ter the US-built F-16 strike air­craft were de­liv­ered to Iraq.

Kur­dish con­cerns over arms trans­fers

Against this back­drop the last nine months have wit­nessed in­ten­si­fied dis­con­tent among the Kur­dish lead­ers over the level of US mil­i­tary sup­port to the Pesh­merga. In par­tic­u­lar, the Kurds have com­plained that Wash­ing­ton has al­lo­cated too small a pro­por­tion of its $1.6bn Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) as­sis­tance to Kur­dis­tan.

Spe­cific com­plaints range from the amounts of equip­ment al­lo­cated to Kur­dis­tan, most ag­gra­vat­ing has been the trans­fer to the Kurds of just 25 Mine-Re­sis­tant Am- bush-Pro­tected ( MRAP) ve­hi­cles out of 250 given to Iraq.

Slow and in­di­rect de­liv­ery of US weapons sys­tems is a con­nected con­cern. Wash­ing­ton has cho­sen to fun­nel most weapon ship­ments via the fed­eral Iraqi Min­istry of De­fence, the only en­tity en­ti­tled by the US law to sign end-user cer­tifi­cates (EUCs) for the weapons.

The Kurds be­lieve that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­lib­er­ately slows the trans­fer of such life-sav­ing ve­hi­cles from Bagh­dad to Er­bil, and the Kur­dish of­fi­cials even pri­vately com­plain that MRAPs sent to the KRG had been sab­o­taged while in tran­sit.

In re­ac­tion to th­ese views, the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee of the US Congress in­tro­duced clauses into the an­nual Na­tional De­fence Au­tho­riza­tion Act (NDAA), the Pen­tagon's bud­get, in an at­tempt to pro­tect the Kurds' fair share of the US weapons.

The draft NDAA for Fis­cal Year 2016, an early and un­rat­i­fied ver­sion of the fi­nal leg­is­la­tion, was amended by the Congress to in­clude a clause (Sec­tion 1223) that named the Pesh­merga as one of a num­ber of se­cu­rity forces col­lec­tively en­ti­tled to "not less than 25 per­cent" of the an­nual $715m of the US sup­port.

Most con­tro­ver­sially, the amend­ment would al­low the KRG "as a coun­try" to "di­rectly re­ceive as­sis­tance from the United States" if Bagh­dad failed to meet the afore­men­tioned con­di­tion, a clause that sparked se­cu­rity threats from Shiia mili­tia lead­ers against the US train­ers in Iraq.

Kurds step back from the brink

The early May visit to Wash­ing­ton DC might have be­come just an­other battle in the deep­en­ing strug­gle be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Er­bil but the Kurds chose a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Cor­rectly read- ing the tea leaves of the US cap­i­tal, Er­bil smartly stepped back from the brink of a dam­ag­ing foray into the US do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.

Bagh­dad protested the lan­guage, and US Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den sig­nalled one day be­fore the Kur­dish del­e­ga­tion landed that "all US mil­i­tary as­sis­tance in the fight against IS comes at the re­quest of the Gov­ern­ment of Iraq and must be co­or­di­nated through the Gov­ern­ment of Iraq".

Faced with a US ad­min­is­tra­tion that would have fiercely de­fended its pre­rog­a­tives over op­er­a­tional mil­i­tary mat­ters, Sec­tion 1223 of the NDAA was prob­a­bly des­tined to be fought over and ul­ti­mately deleted be­fore the draft bill faced rat­i­fi­ca­tion in the US Se­nate.

In­stead of try­ing to force the White House to do Kur­dis­tan's bid­ding through pres­sure pol­i­tics, Barzani seems to have adopted a long-term view in his deal­ings with the US on de­fence.

This is unar­guably smart be­cause Sec­tion 1223 did not give the Kurds a great deal - shar­ing a quar­ter of US ma­te­rial col­lec­tively with Sunni Arab para­mil­i­tary re­cip­i­ents - but it would have soured re­la­tions with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion at a crit­i­cal time.

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