Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The puzzle of the US-Kurdistan deal

The US military pact with autonomous Kurdistan violates Iraq’s integrity and moves the Iraqi Kurds closer to permanent separation from the rest of the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In a surprise move, the United States last week signed a military agreement with the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) in northern Iraq which would allow Washington to establish close military and security ties with the region which is seeking independence from Iraq.

The pact, signed by Elissa Slotkin, US acting assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs and the KRG’s interior minister, is unprecedented and breaks new ground in US relations with the Iraqi Kurds.

By and large, the little-publicised but critical partnership deal will have far-reaching implications for Iraq’s fragile ties with its self-ruled Kurdish community.

It is the first time the government of Iraq’s northern autonomous enclave has signed a political, military and financial cooperation pact with a foreign country bypassing the central government in Baghdad.

The pact is a clear violation of Iraq’s 2005 Constitution, ironically drafted under the supervision of the US Occupying Authority. The constitution gives the central government the exclusive power to sign agreements with foreign countries. 

The deal is also in breach of the 2008 US-Iraq Agreement which paved the way for the United States to pull its troops out from Iraq and set the terms for future bilateral relations.

Announcing the deal on 12 July, a spokesman for the KRG said the agreement would allow the United States to provide the Iraqi Kurds with further military and financial support in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Omid Sabah said the main purpose of the agreement was to shore up Kurdish Peshmerga capabilities in preparation for the long-awaited offensive to retake Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul from IS militants.

Iraqi security forces have launched an operation against IS in Mosul and succeeded in retaking some villages south of the city. The US expects Kurdish Peshmergas to take part in the assault by opening another front east and north of Mosul.

Neither the KRG nor the Pentagon released details about the military agreement, but Kurdish officials hailed it as a historic breakthrough for the Iraqi Kurds.

It is “a recognition and appreciation of the value of the Peshmergas’ sacrifices and a contribution to stability and the defense of liberty, democracy and humanity,” KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee was quoted as saying by ARA News. 

Fishar News, an outlet close to Masoud Barzani, the de facto leader of the KRG, reported that under the agreement the US army would establish five military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Fishar News reported that one US air base would be built in Harir some 70 km north of Erbil, the KRG provincial capital. The base would be used to host American jet fighters and helicopters as well as military advisers.

Another military base will be established in Alton Kopri south of Erbil and will be used to store light weapons, while two other bases will be built in KRG-controlled areas in Mosul, the media outlet said.

A stunning surprise is that the US will be allowed to build the fifth military base in Halabja on the border with neighbouring Iran, according to the Fishar News report.

The outlet said the deal had a term of 20 years and could be renewed upon agreement by the two parties.

Kurditan24.net, a Kurdish-language television network owned by the KRG, said Kurdistan would receive some $450 million in financial assistance in addition to unspecified military assistance from the US. 

The Iraqi government has remained tight-lipped on the controversial deal which came on the heels of a previously unannounced visit by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to Baghdad.

Baghdad’s silence has prompted speculation about pressure being put on it by Washington, which is helping the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmergas to retake Mosul from IS.

But the deal drew criticism from Iraqi Shia lawmakers who said it violated Iraq’s sovereignty and constitution. “Our government is [functioning like] a scarecrow that is not respected by either Kurdistan or America,” said Shia MP Hanan Al-Fatlawi in a statement.

Another Shia lawmaker, Iskandar Witwit, said an agreement that was not endorsed by the government and the parliament was “in clear breach of the constitution”.

Washington has recently stepped up its efforts to help the Iraqis to take back Mosul from IS. In April, US President Barack Obama approved plans to allow US troops to assist Iraqi forces on the ground. They had previously been limited to advising at the headquarters which are further from the battle.

Following Carter’s visit to Iraq last week, Washington said an additional 560 troops would be deployed to Iraq to help secure an air base 60 km south of Mosul that had recently been captured by Iraqi forces.

The United States says its assistance to Iraq and the Peshmergas is essential in gaining ground in the war against IS terrorists and retaking Mosul before Obama’s presidential term expires in November.

Obama clearly hopes the recapture of Mosul will allow him to hand on a more stable Iraq to his successor, even though the US is expected to maintain substantial military forces in Iraq.

While this could provide a summary of the thinking behind the US mission in Iraq, the question remains of how the US-KRG deal could affect the larger picture, including Kurdish aspirations to leave Iraq.

Ultimately, the move will put Washington’s mark on the struggle between the KRG and the Baghdad government, and it highlights how Washington is siding with the Kurds in a long-simmering dispute.

Thus, a primary reason for concern about Washington’s motives behind the deal is its detrimental effect on the central Iraqi government’s authority and the balance of power between Baghdad and Erbil enshrined in the constitution. 

Iraq’s Constitution makes it clear that “the federal government shall have exclusive authority” in “formulating foreign policy and diplomatic representation; negotiating, signing and ratifying international treaties and agreements; negotiating, signing and ratifying debt policies; and formulating foreign sovereign economic and trade policy.”

The greatest irony is that Washington has infringed on the same document it signed to ensure its respect of Iraq’s integrity and unity following its exit from the country.

Under the 2008 “Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq,” Washington pledged “full respect for the sovereignty of Iraq”.

The United States also undertook that it “shall not use Iraqi land, sea and air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries; nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.”

Washington may argue that the military deal does not translate into backing for Kurdish independence from Iraq, yet it could certainly spell trouble for efforts to keep the country together.

Barzani has been seeking to secede from Iraq, and he has declared his intention to hold a referendum on separation “before the US elections” in November.

The vote on self-determination could be an attempt to put more pressure on his opponents and sceptics and build up a de facto situation making a case for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence.

While the United States has supported Kurdish autonomy within a unified Iraq, it has refrained from expressing public support for Kurdistan’s statehood.

Last month, the US reiterated its support for “a whole [and] unified Iraq”. “We believe that a strong, pluralistic, unified Iraq is good for the region,” State Department Spokesman John Kirby said in response to Barzani’s independence plans.

But Washington’s military agreement with the KRG has cast doubt, if not eliminated, that commitment altogether. With this deal, the political influence of Baghdad in Kurdistan is now expected to wane in favour of increasing Kurdish separatist tendencies.

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