A big win for Kurds at the White House
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.