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US should ‘empower’ the Kurds in Baghdad to protect its interests: analyst

US policymakers should help strengthen the political standing of Kurds in Baghdad to bolster the new government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi and to protect Washington’s interests in Iraq, a Brookings Institute analyst said this week.

With a US-Iraq “strategic dialogue” scheduled for mid-June, foreign policy pundits are examining ways the relationship could evolve with time and what role the Kurdistan Region ought to play.

Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, believes the US should help shore up Kadhimi’s political base, giving him the tools to bring pro-Iran militias under control and to stop Iraq circumventing Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.

One means of doing this is to leverage Washington’s strong relationship with the Kurds, “one of the very few cards the US has in Baghdad,” Alaaldin says.

“The longer Kadhimi is able to keep his head above the water over the coming months, the greater his prospects of protecting US interests. But he cannot do it alone,” the analyst said in a Brookings blog post published Friday.

“Washington should work to enhance the political influence of the Kurds in Baghdad and the stability in the Kurdistan Region, where the US has a sizable presence,” he added.

Although Iraq’s Kurds have their own semi-autonomous government in Erbil, they also send MPs to the parliament in Baghdad and hold cabinet posts in the federal government. The Iraqi presidency, a largely ceremonial role, has been held by a Kurd since 2006.

The relationship has not always been smooth, however. Although the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army fought side by side in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), they clashed in October 2017 over oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

Hostilities over unresolved territorial disputes have been compounded by disagreements over the Kurdistan Region’s independent oil sales. Baghdad insists Erbil must deliver a quota of its oil in exchange for a share of the Iraqi federal budget.

The collapse of world oil prices, coupled with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Baghdad’s cancellation of Erbil’s budget share, have brought the Kurdistan Region to the brink of financial ruin.

The political and economic isolation of the Kurds could harm US interests in Iraq, Alaaldin warns.

“The US should empower the Kurds on the assumption that it may have to one day withdraw from Iraq before it has secured key US interests, after which it would need to turn to the Kurds to either relocate its forces to the Kurdistan Region or use it as a conduit through which to secure vital US interests in other parts of Iraq,” he said.

“In the nearer term, the US can ensure the Kurdistan Regional Government does not succumb to its financial crisis and disputes with Baghdad. That will preserve and reinforce one of the very few cards the US has in Baghdad.”

Although the US has long been a staunch Kurdish ally, providing the Peshmerga with weapons and training, investing in the economy, and donating generously to meet humanitarian needs, Washington refused to support Kurdistan’s referendum for independence in September 2017 and did not stop Iran-backed Iraqi militias forcing the Peshmerga out of Kirkuk the following month.

Alaaldin says the US must not ignore the needs and interests of its friends.

“The US and its allies do not have to agree on everything, but Washington should avoid steps that significantly weaken the standing of its allies or enable pathways for expanded influence of its rivals,” he said.

“Iran’s partners prosper because Tehran treats attacks on its allies as attacks on Iran, and mediates disputes between them. The US should do the same for its own allies.”

On Saturday, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani met with US Maj. Gen. Eric T. Hill, commander of Special Operations Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria to discuss the upcoming US-Iraq strategic dialogue.

Barzani told Hill the Kurdistan Region must be included in the dialogue to help set out a new “roadmap” for US-Iraq strategic relations.

Announcing the planned strategic dialogue at a Washington press briefing on April 7, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “it’s important that our two governments work together to stop any reversal of the gains we’ve made in our efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the country.”

“All strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq,” Pompeo said.

The strategic shift will reflect growing Iranian and Iraqi militia pressure on the US troop presence in Iraq and the lack of any clear political unity in Iraq, the State Department said at the time.

The US will support any Iraqi regime that moves “away from the old sectarian model that ended up with terror and corruption,” it added.

US and coalition forces have consolidated their presence in Iraq in recent months, handing over control of several bases to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

Although the coalition says the drawdown was a pre-planned move to reflect recent successes in the war against ISIS remnants, the outbreak of coronavirus and a spate of militia rocket attacks targeting foreign forces likely played a part in the decision.

Iraqi MPs passed a non-binding motion in parliament in January demanding the expulsion of US forces just days after Washington ordered a drone strike near Baghdad airport, killing Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

Notably, Kurdish MPs in the Iraqi parliament voted against the motion.

Kadhimi has a difficult task ahead, balancing his country’s delicate relationship with both Washington and Tehran while combatting a renewed ISIS insurgency and pulling the economy back from the abyss. Source