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
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