IRAQ: BACK TO THE FU­TURE

AS IRAQI AND KUR­DISH FORCES RE­MAIN LOCKED IN A PERILOUS STAND-OFF AND IRAN’S IN­FLU­ENCE GROWS, US FOR­EIGN POL­ICY BLUN­DERS SUG­GEST WASH­ING­TON HAS LEARNED NOTH­ING FROM ITS MIS­TAKES IN THE PAST. FOR­EIGN EDI­TOR DAVID PRATT RE­PORTS

Sunday Herald - - THE WORLD -

IDON’T want to use the word ‘be­trayal’ but we def­i­nitely feel the United States has been neg­li­gent.”

Th­ese were the words of Va­hal Ali, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Kur­dish pres­i­dent Ma­soud Barzani, as he re­sponded last week to the cri­sis that has seen Iraqi forces bat­tle Kur­dish fight­ers over the city of Kirkuk.

It was a re­strained diplo­matic re­mark, but the bit­ter­ness be­hind it was barely con­cealed and cer­tainly shared by many Iraqi Kurds who feel that Wash­ing­ton has turned its back on them of late.

The Kurds are not alone in their dis­dain to­wards the Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion’s han­dling of Iraq right now. In var­i­ous quar­ters press­ing ques­tions are now be­ing asked as to how a sit­u­a­tion de­vel­oped al­low­ing USarmed and trained Iraqi forces to find them­selves in a volatile stand­off with US-armed and trained Kur­dish Pesh­merga fight­ers.

It was barely a few months ago that both sides were ef­fec­tive al­lies, fight­ing to­gether to re­move Is­lamic State (IS) ji­hadists from their strongholds in Iraqi cities like Mo­sul, Tal Afar and Haw­ija.

Now times have changed dra­mat­i­cally, leav­ing Iraqi Kurds, Arabs and Shias all but at each other’s throats.

On Fri­day, Iraqi forces took con­trol of the last district in the oil-rich prov­ince of Kirkuk that was still in the hands of Kur­dish Pesh­merga fight­ers fol­low­ing a three­hour bat­tle.

The district of Al­tun Kupri, or Perde in Kur­dish, lies on the road be­tween Kirkuk city – which fell to Iraqi forces last Mon­day – and Er­bil, cap­i­tal of the semi-au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Kur­dis­tan in north­ern Iraq that voted in a ref­er­en­dum last month to secede from Iraq against Bagh­dad’s wishes.

Many Kurds see Kirkuk as the fu­ture cap­i­tal of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state. In­clud­ing it in the ref­er­en­dum last month was widely seen as a uni­lat­eral move to con­sol­i­date Kur­dish con­trol. For now, though, those hopes have been dashed, with many Kurds in Kirkuk left feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated by Bagh­dad and be­trayed by their own po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and erst­while sup­porter Amer­ica.

On the high­way that links Kirkuk with Er­bil, Pesh­merga fight­ers were busy on Fri­day build­ing em­bank­ments and road blocks to slow traf­fic into the small town of Al­tun Kupri, where the lat­est clashes against com­bined Iraqi army and Shi’ite mili­tias took place.

“Now we only have or­ders to de­fend. But if they try and come to Er­bil, we will at­tack them fe­ro­ciously. We have to pro­tect our peo­ple,” Bakr Raz­gai, a lo­cal Pesh­merga com­man­der, said be­fore clashes in the area on Fri­day morn­ing.

THE stand­off be­tween Iraqi and Kur­dish forces comes even be­fore the last pock­ets of IS fight­ers are routed across the coun­try. IS acted as a com­mon en­emy, but as their pres­ence dis­si­pates Iraq’s sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions have man­i­fested them­selves in the worst pos­si­ble way as Iraqi and Kur­dish forces go head to head.

That this has been able to hap­pen is in great part a consequence of the US fail­ing to have any co­he­sive po­lit­i­cal strat­egy in Iraq. A fail­ing that by now Wash­ing­ton might have been ex­pected to avoid had it learned from past les­sons in the coun­try.

“We are near­ing a mil­i­tary suc­cess against the Is­lamic State but have failed to de­fine the peace that fol­lows, be­cause no se­ri­ous at­tempt has been made to even de­fine what that peace should look like in ad­vance,” ob­served Emile Simpson, a re­search fel­low at the Har­vard So­ci­ety of Fel­lows in For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine last week.

“This is what hap­pens when you fix­ate on defeating an en­emy mil­i­tar­ily but don’t bother with po­lit­i­cal strat­egy.”

Some though be­lieve that US cul­pa­bil­ity in the cur­rent cri­sis goes much fur­ther. At the core of this be­lief lies the role Iran has played in the on­go­ing cri­sis be­tween Iraqi and Kur­dish forces.

When the mil­i­tary ac­tion in Kirkuk be­gan last week it was car­ried out un­der the ban­ner of the Iraqi mil­i­tary, but the ground forces also in­cluded Ira­nian-backed Shi’ite mili­tias. While Wash­ing­ton in­sisted it was not tak­ing sides in the con­fronta­tion, some an­a­lysts say that the US ap­proved the Iraqi plan to en­ter Kur­dish-held ar­eas and that Iran helped bro­ker the agree­ment with a Kur­dish fac­tion to with­draw its fight­ers from Kirkuk, al­low­ing the Iraqi forces to take over largely un­op­posed.

It is be­lieved that Iran’s shad­owy chief spy­mas­ter Qassem Suleimani bro­kered the deal, and that he trav­elled to the Iraqi Kur­dish city of Su­laimaniya just be­fore the Kirkuk of­fen­sive be­gan.

There he met with the lead­ers of the Pa­tri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan (PUK), one of the two main Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the other be­ing the Demo­cratic Party of Kur­dis­tan (KDP). While pre­cise de­tails of what Suleimani told the PUK lead­ers are un­known, within hours some PUK fight­ers be­gan aban­don­ing their posts, ef­fec­tively open­ing the gate for Iraqi mil­i­tary units just across the front lines. Not long af­ter, Iraqi forces took over the for­mer Kur­dish po­si­tions and a stretch of oil fields near the city

of Kirkuk. On the PUK side, the ne­go­tia­tors said to be in­volved in the Ira­nian deal in­cluded fam­ily mem­bers of Jalal Tal­a­bani, the group’s long-time chief and a for­mer Iraqi pres­i­dent, who died ear­lier this month. His widow, Hero, his son Bafil, and his nephew Lahur were said to be in­cluded in the talks with Suleimani.

All three PUK of­fi­cials rep­re­sented a fac­tion within the party which had been pretty much op­posed to the Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum held last month and only came on board at an 11th-hour agree­ment with the KDP and Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG).

While it is also not clear ex­actly what Suleimani in­cluded in the deal, spec­u­la­tion is that the Ira­nian spy chief of­fered a mix of threats and in­duce­ments, in­clud­ing money and ac­cess to oil-smug­gling routes.

“Every­one is call­ing it the PUK ‘drug deal’,” a for­mer se­nior US of­fi­cial who works in the re­gion was re­ported as say­ing.

It is worth not­ing that many PUK units re­fused to ac­cept the terms of the deal or the or­der to stand down, and fought the on­com­ing Iraqi and Shi’ite mili­tia units ad­vanc­ing on Kirkuk, in ef­fect split­ting the PUK’s po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion­ing on the cri­sis.

What is as­ton­ish­ing in all of this is that the US not only gave the green light to the Iraqi of­fen­sive on Kirkuk, but stood back while Iran helped make the di­vi­sive ar­range­ments, leav­ing the main Kur­dish force vul­ner­a­ble and al­low­ing Iraqi forces to take over the city.

In one fell swoop, the US not only turned its back on the Kurds, but was also ac­tively in­volved in a process that di­vided them, while help­ing con­sol­i­date Ira­nian in­flu­ence over the Iraqi gov­ern­ment.

“The United States gave a green light, and that was es­sen­tial,” says Maria Fan­tap­pie, a se­nior an­a­lyst for Iraq at the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group.

Iran’s goal, Fan­tap­pie says, was to in­sert Shi’ite mili­tias into con­tested ar­eas, and to di­vide the Kurds while so­lid­i­fy­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence over the Iraqi gov­ern­ment.

As for Wash­ing­ton, it is al­most cer­tain that it knew an at­tack was im­mi­nent and the plan­ning that Iraqi prime min­is­ter Haider Al-Abadi and his gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad had put into it.

“Abadi would not have at­tacked without in­form­ing the US,” said David L Phillips, a for­mer State De­part­ment ad­viser who worked on Iraq for 30 years.

“At a min­i­mum, the US knew that the at­tack was com­ing.”

IRON­I­CALLY, all this of course came at pre­cisely the same mo­ment that Pres­i­dent Trump was threat­en­ing to with­draw from the Iran nu­clear agree­ment, ac­cus­ing Iran of “desta­bil­is­ing ac­tiv­i­ties” and spon­sor­ing ter­ror­ism in the re­gion. “It seems like we just got out of the way as Bagh­dad rolled over the Kurds, and that doesn’t feel right,” said Joshua A Geltzer, the for­mer se­nior di­rec­tor for counter-ter­ror­ism at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

As many an­a­lysts crit­i­cal of the US han­dling of the cri­sis in Iraq have pointed out, the ab­sur­dity of this is that the net re­sult was an Iraqi force that in­cluded Ira­nian-backed Shi’ite mili­tia us­ing US-is­sued mil­i­tary equip­ment to drive the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment’s Pesh­merga from Kirkuk.

The worry in all of this is ob­vi­ous and lim­ited not only to the fact that two of the West’s al­lies, the Kur­dish Pesh­merga and Iraqi forces have turned their guns on each other. The other con­cern is that Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion did lit­tle to stop them, leav­ing a new layer of in­sta­bil­ity that both the rem­nants of IS and Iran are sure to cap­i­talise on.

In ef­fect, the ab­sence of any thought­through US pol­icy on Iraq has set the scene for a new con­flict in the coun­try be­tween Shias, Arabs and Kurds.

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion must present a po­lit­i­cal strat­egy, right now, be­cause the win­dow to avoid very ob­vi­ously re­peat­ing the mis­takes of the past is rapidly clos­ing,” warned Emile Simpson writ­ing in For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine last week.

As he points out too, it’s not un­rea­son­able to think that the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment, hav­ing been so badly let down by Wash­ing­ton over its push for in­de­pend- ence and in ap­peals for help dur­ing Bagh­dad’s Kirkuk of­fen­sive, might in­creas­ingly look to­wards Moscow in the fu­ture.

As for Kur­dish co-op­er­a­tion with the US over IS, most likely that too will now take a back seat, which will doubt­less suit the last cadres of ji­hadists as they look to re­group and con­duct a new ter­ror­ist cam­paign.

This week­end Iraqi forces and Kur­dish Pesh­merga re­main locked in a perilous stand­off. Trump’s pref­er­ence re­mains for blus­ter over com­plex diplo­macy.

Wash­ing­ton’s for­eign pol­icy blun­ders in the Mid­dle East are be­gin­ning to have dan­ger­ous con­se­quences not just in Iraq but also in the wider world.

Left: Kur­dish Pesh­merga fight­ers at the Al­tun Kupri check­point be­tween Er­bil and Kirkuk on Fri­day af­ter fed­eral Iraqi forces, above, had gath­ered on the out­skirts of the city the day be­fore Pho­tographs: Rex, AFP

Ira­nian spy chief Qassem Suleimani

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