In September 2017, the Iraqi Region of Kurdistan went to the polls for independence. The result was hardly surprising, but the reaction far from it. Over 98 percent voted to leave Iraq and form a separate country, a cry that has been echoing in the war-torn country since the 1980s.
The international committee was, however, not for it.
Neighboring rivals, Iran and Turkey, each housing a significant Kurdish populace, denounced the referendum. An Iranian advisor to the Supreme Leader labeled the democratic vote a tool for the Zionists “who seeks to implement their plans for the division of Muslim states.” Turkey’s foreign minister called it a “grave mistake.” The United States, supported by the Peshmerga, the official army of the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] more than any other domestic force, referred to the referendum as a ‘distraction.’
Iraq closed down Iraqi Kurdistan’s international airport and seized control of disputed territories including Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider their Jerusalem.
Needless to say, the Kurds hoped for a better outcome, at least from western powers. Yet another cry for independence was turned down. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani stepped down, and the focus shifted to Syrian Kurds faced with Turkish onslaught.
Iraq’s Kurds were old news again.
More than two years after the referendum, the United States and the Kurdish Regional Government have been brought together by an unlikely unifier, Iran.
On January 3, the United States, through a coordinated drone strike, took out Iranian military commander, Qasam Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran retaliated, a few days later, with a missile strike on a US base in Iraq, with no casualties reported. Though the tensions between Washington and Tehran have turned sour [yet again] the tensions between the former and Erbil [the designated capital of Iraqi Kurdistan] have sweetened.
Iran’s influence in Iraq cannot be understated. Given Iraq’s Shiite dominance, in population and government, the anti-Sunni [owing to the Islamic state in the east] and the anti-Ba’athist [owing to the pre-invasion Saddam Hussein regime] sentiments, Iran has a firm grip on Iraqi domestic affairs. Several parties within Iraq’s Council of Representatives follow Iran’s brand of extremist Shia Islam, have their roots in the Islamic Republic, and aim to turn Iraq into the same.
It comes as no surprise that, following Soleimani’s death on Iraqi soil, Iraq’s Council of Representatives called for foreign troops to withdraw. The fervor against US troops, stationed in the country to fight off the Islamic State which occupied large swaths of land in western Iraq, was palpable. Less than five years ago, Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city was under the control of ISIS.
Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said Iraq has two options, end the presence and expel foreign troops, or reconsider a resolution that will allow Iraqi security forces to be trained by the Americans to fight the Islamic State.
This is still a zero-sum game.
Either the US troops stay or leave. Either Mahdi pleases the Iranians or angers them. Not picking a side, he said,
“It is in the interests of both Iraq and US to end foreign troop presence in country.”
Mahadi statements are a result of the pressure from Tehran and pro-Iranian groups in Iraqi, said Tareq Harb, an analyst, to Al Jazeera. Hence, the prime minister shifted the onus to the parliament.
Kurdish member of the Iraqi Parliament Sarkwat Shams added that Abdel Mahdi relinquished responsibility by passing such a “sensitive issue” to the parliament. He along with other Iraqis, are in support of the US troops. In his opinion, such a decision should have been taken through “government negotiations, not through parliament.’
“This event triggered a flood of emotions in Iraq and the United States,” said Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani, in an interview to Al-Monitor, referring to the Iraqi reaction to the Soleimani killing. Nechirvan Barzani, the nephew of Masoud Barzani, said that the US response that troops will remain in Iraq was said in the “heat of the moment.”
Nechirvan Barzani stated that the decision to remove the US troops was taken by the “Shia bloc” without the approval of the Kurds and the Sunnis. He stated,
“ It was a very critical step that was taken without seeking consensus and as such violates the spirit of the Iraqi Constitution. This is not good for Iraq, either now or for the future.”
In 2014, two years after the last soldier left Iraq, US troops returned to the war-torn country to train domestic forces to fight the Islamic State. Barzani stated that the US forces are here on Iraq’s “invitation.”
Despite the pushback of the Islamic State and the death of their calif Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October last year, Barzani is of the view that the “current situation in Iraqi” does not justify an American exit.
He was unequivocal in the KRG’s opposition to US withdrawal.
On the question of the US troops, there is an obvious difference of opinion between Baghdad and Erbil.
Barzani maintained that he does not wish Kurdistan to become a “battleground” between Iran and the United States. He played it safe, stating that Iraq’s relationship with the US is “very important” while Iran is a “longstanding neighbor.”
A week after the interview, Nechirvan Barzani formally sat down with US President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This meeting was the first between the heads of state since Barack Obama met with Masoud Barzani in 2015.
Trump mainly spoke about the situation along the Turkey-Syria border. Turkey launched an offensive against the Syrian Kurds in late-2017 under the guise of Operation Olive Branch. While Turkey maintains this was done to clear Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] members from the Afrin region, some labeled this as the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds at the hands of Erdogan’s Turkey.
Iraqi Kurdistan has long maintained a pro-western stance, distancing itself from the fanatics both in Iraq and on its eastern border. With Iraq a Shiite majority, in populace and parliament, becoming a proxy of Shiite Iran, Kurds can’t help but look away towards an independent future.
The tensions between the United States and Iran are only going to heat-up. Baghdad being firmly in the pocket of Tehran will force the US to look to their only real ally in the region, the Iraqi Kurds. And with every general killed, missile launched and bullet shot, the ties between Washington and Erbil will only grow stronger, and the cry for independence will rekindle.