Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Betting on Washington

As Iraq plunges deeper into chaos, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani is seeking to market Kurdistan’s independence in Washington, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

With an administration struggling with political fracture and financial collapse, the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, has taken his campaign for sovereignty to the United States and is seeking support from politicians and legislators for breaking away from Iraq.

Barzani’s new strategy to drum up support for Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq is intended to convince the US establishment that Iraq is breaking up into chaos driven by the Islamic State (IS) terror group and that Washington should prepare itself for an independent Kurdistan in the Middle East.

Last week a KRG delegation spent several days in Washington to lobby the administration and congress for legislation that would allow the US to arm the Kurdish troups, the Peshmergas, directly rather than through the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Such a move would undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty and embolden the autonomous region to cut down its ties with Baghdad.

American lobbyists, including businessmen, former diplomats and army generals who fought in the war in Iraq, hired by the KRG have been pushing legislators to back such a bill in congress.

Despite the KRG’s financial crunch, high-powered public-relations firms have also been hired to promote Barzani’s Kurdish independence project in the US media and to “educate” policy-makers. 

In a series of public meetings and media interviews, members of the KRG delegation had one key message to get through in the US: Iraq cannot defeat IS, but the Kurds can.

However, in order to destroy IS, the Kurds need more help, more weapons, more military assistance and more money from the Americans, the delegation said, pleading with the audience in Washington.

In some cases, lobbyists working on behalf of the KRG have taken the unusual step of coming out from the shadows to influence decision-makers on the need to support the Kurds instead of operating from behind closed doors.

“The US and its allies should be attentive to the serious economic crisis in Kurdistan and Iraq,” tweeted Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador in Iraq from 2005-2007 and one of the KRG lobbyists in Washington. He copied US President Barack Obama in his post, which was re-tweeted by many sympathisers.

It can be clearly seen that the Kurdish PR campaign has been faring quite well.

“Iraq and the Kurds are going broke,” wrote the New York Times in an editorial on 13 January. “The Kurds are ready to retake Mosul. Now they just need the Iraqi army,” a headline said in the Washington Post on 14 January.

But the references to Iraq in the headlines seems to be just a smokescreen. With the pleas for assistance and warnings of a financial crisis comes a hidden goal.

“The balance of power and the political landscape have changed in Iraq. We cannot go back,” Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG department of foreign relations who headed the delegation was quoted as saying in an interview.

Back home, Barzani and top members of his family, many of them holding senior posts in his administration, have been waging a simultaneous campaign to steer public discussion towards the cause of an independent Kurdistan.

Here again, the trick is to highlight the impotence of the Baghdad government vis-à-vis IS and the contrasting competence of the Kurdistan region.

Barzani told a visiting Dutch government delegation that a new agreement was required on the administration of the “liberated areas” after retaking Mosul from IS.

Barzani had repeatedly said that the KRG would not return what Kurdish officials used to call “disputed territories” and are now terming “liberated areas” to Iraq’s sovereignty.

Following IS advances in summer 2014, Kurdish Peshmergas overran Iraqi army positions and captured large swathes of territory, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and declared them part of their self-ruled region.

Meanwhile, Barzani’s eldest son Masrour, who holds the post of chief of KRG security, said IS was not Iraq’s main problem. “Iraq suffers from profound historical problems which need to be radically tackled,” Masrour was quoted as saying when receiving a British delegation last week.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said the Kurdish region had so far succeeded in the campaign against IS but that it needed more military and financial support to destroy the group.

“Now we have regained all the Kurdish territory, and there are areas in which we are not interested but we are holding [them] on behalf of the Iraqi army,” said Nechirvan Barzani, a nephew and son-in-law of the KRG leader in an interview with CNN on Tuesday.

The underlying message in these statements is crystal clear: the climate for Kurdish secession from Iraq might never be as favourable again as it is now.

Late last month, Barzani instructed his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to organise a referendum on independence. According to Iraqi lawmakers, the KRG has finished building a 1,200 km trench separating the Kurdish autonomous region from the rest of Iraq.  

Critics, however, accuse Barzani of stirring up nationalism and mounting the independence drive in order to distract attention from a seven-month regional political crisis over his refusal to step down after his term in office came to an end in August.

Both the KRG parliament and the government have stopped functioning since then. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani removed four opposition ministers from his cabinet, and the speaker of the region’s parliament was barred from entering the capital, a move that brought the legislative council to a halt.

Opposition groups described the move as a “political coup” and accused Barzani’s KDP of trying to instigate “a civil war” in the region.

Barzani has also used the fight against the IS terror group as a justification for staying in power, stoking a constitutional debate about the legality of his remaining in his post after his term in office came to an end.

There are indications that Barzani’s popularity as a national Kurdish hero has dived as a result of the government crisis, his increasing autocratic tendencies, and fears that he is grooming his son Masrour to assume power after him. 

A poll conducted by the US National Democratic Institute in partnership with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner has shown for the first time that many Kurds (49 per cent, up 29 points since December) feel Kurdistan under Barzani has been heading in the wrong direction.

The scepticism seems to be driven by concerns about government mismanagement, corruption and the lack of basic services.

Significant partisan divisions on a number of issues have laid bare growing polarisation within Kurdistan, the poll has shown.

Kurdistan has also been hit by a harsh economic crisis. In recent months, the government has had to cut pay to civil servants and shut down development projects. The World Bank recently announced that the KRG needs at least $1.4 billion in aid to stabilise the economy after growth plummeted to 3 per cent in 2014, from 8 per cent in 2013.

Last month, anti-government demonstrations turned violent as thousands of people protested against the dire economic situation in Kurdistan, with many demanding that Barzani step down as regional president.

It is unclear, however, if Barzani’s campaign for independence in Washington has fallen on sympathetic ears. The United States has formally opposed breaking up the Iraqi state after the toppling of former president Saddam Hussein in 2003, under what has been termed, but not declared, as a “one-Iraq policy.”

Barzani’s new strategy is to exploit the threats of IS and the pitfalls of the Iraqi security forces by drumming up the role of the Kurdish Peshmergas in the fight against the terror group. 

This strategy is meant to target American policy-makers who are disgruntled with the central government in Baghdad over its failure to embrace national reconciliation and a reconstruction programme that Washington deems necessary for post-IS Iraq.

Should Washington support Barazni’s secessionist tendencies amidst the political and economic turmoil in Kurdistan and opposition by Baghdad?  

The answer to this question will have serious implications for the peace and stability of the region.

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