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In letter to Biden, Barzani warns of Iraqi Kurdistan's collapse, urges mediation

2023-09-12 19:28:49

al-monitor - Amberin Zaman

KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani's letter to Biden is aimed at jolting the administration into action as tensions rise between Erbil and Baghdad.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has appealed to President Joe Biden to intervene in a deepening crisis with the central government in Baghdad, airing fears that the Kurdistan Region might even collapse as an entity if the crisis is left unchecked, Al-Monitor has learned.

In a letter dated Sept. 3 that was addressed to Biden and delivered to the White House last Sunday, Barzani wrote, “I write to you now at another critical juncture in our history, one that I fear we may have difficulty overcoming. …[W]e are bleeding economically and hemorrhaging politically. For the first time in my tenure as prime minister, I hold grave concerns that this dishonorable campaign against us may cause the collapse of … the very model of a Federal Iraq that the United States sponsored in 2003 and purported to stand by since.”

“We believe that your administration retains significant leverage with Baghdad,” Barzani said of Washington’s ability to diffuse the crisis.

The cri de coeur comes amid escalating tensions between Erbil and Baghdad over budgetary allocations, oil sales and territories that both sides claim for their own. Barzani reiterated his calls for further US engagement to help resolve the disputes in a meeting on Monday in Erbil with US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski.

With Washington’s attention focused on China and the conflict in Ukraine, Barzani’s letter is meant to jolt the administration into action before a descent into violence.

That very specter loomed in the contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk last week when Kurds and Arabs allegedly bused in by Iran-backed Shiite militia groups clashed over a court decision preventing Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) from reclaiming its headquarters in the regional capital. Four Kurds died in the protests that were eventually quelled by federal forces deployed to the city.

“We are asking where the hell is the United States,” said a Kurdish official speaking not for attribution to Al-Monitor.

The State Department declined to comment on the letter. A White House official speaking on background said, “We do not comment on private diplomatic engagements.” The White House had not responded to Barzani’s letter as of the time of publication of this article.

Broken promises, broken trust

Since US forces birthed the creation of a putatively democratic Iraq with the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the sides have tussled over what share of Iraq’s budget should go to the Kurds, with successive governments in Baghdad typically failing to hand over the amount of money agreed to at any given time. This, in turn, has left the KRG struggling to pay public sector employees who are due $625 million every month.

In recent years, the refusal has stemmed from Baghdad’s view that the Iraqi Kurds have since 2014 been “illegally” selling Iraqi oil produced in the Kurdistan Region via Turkey without the central government’s consent. Iraq took the matter to an international court of arbitration, and Turkey was slapped with a $1.5 billion fine earlier this year when the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce ruled in Baghdad’s favor. In response, Turkey halted the flow of some 400,000 barrels per day of Kurdish crude and a further 75,000 barrels per day of Iraqi crude from the Kirkuk fields. Ankara is demanding that Baghdad waive the fine and drop another arbitration case pending against it in order to resume exports from the Turkish port of Ceyhan, leaving the Kurds deprived of at least $5 billion in revenue since exports ceased.

The KRG has since agreed with Barzani’s words to make “extraordinary concessions in the negotiations with Baghdad in the hope of securing our future.” However, Barzani told Biden, “I regret to inform you that they have done the opposite. Our goodwill in agreeing to market our oil through the federal government in return for a just share of the federal budget has been blatantly forsaken.”

The figure for oil revenues promised to the Kurdistan Region following talks in April between Barzani and Baghdad was $900 million per month. Yet the federal government has parted with far less, even as the Kurds have sent Baghdad the 85,000 barrels of crude every month pledged under that deal without receiving a penny for it, Kurdish officials say. On Sept. 2, federal authorities informed the KRG they would be willing to disburse $380 million per month in loans.

Iraqi Kurdish officials have long aired frustration at what they say is the United States’ growing indifference to their plight, with letters going unanswered and senior US officials no longer engaging with the same frequency as they did under the previous administration when, for instance, the energy secretary would have monthly telephone calls with Barzani.

“The American mantra is ‘we are not an occupying force anymore,’” the official briefing Al-Monitor said. “The basis of our engagement in the post-2003 order was entirely predicated on the agreement that the United States would act as the guarantor of the federal model. And up until [the full US withdrawal in] 2011, when that line was tested, the Americans would step in. The Americans were the guarantors, the honest brokers.” The official explained, “We are asking the United States to take a principled position on the agreement we had at the beginning [in 2005] on three key issues: oil, the budget and territory."

“Shotgun wedding, amicable divorce”

Ken Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively on Iraq, agrees that the status quo is unsustainable and could lead to renewed civil conflict in Iraq. A weaker Iraq means a stronger Iran, which goes against US interests.

But Washington’s interest in the country has taken a back seat to other pressing files. “Is Iraq a bigger priority for the United States than, say, Saudi-Israeli rapprochement? It’s hard to say that it is,” Pollack told Al-Monitor.

Yet while the Kurds “get it intellectually,” Pollack contended, “emotionally they don’t.” They very much want to believe that the United States is still fully committed. Preserving that impression at the very least will cause Baghdad, Iran and the Kurds’ other large meddlesome neighbor, Turkey, to back off. Either way, Pollack concluded that the best solution for Iraq and the Kurds was an amicable divorce. “It was a shotgun wedding to begin with,” Pollack said.

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to Al-Monitor noted that the KDP and its chief rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), needed to settle their own disputes “before pointing fingers at us.” The two parties went to war in the early 1990s, and the distrust runs so deep that they have yet to unify their respective peshmerga forces under a single command. Rampant corruption — with much of Kurdistan’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the Barzanis and the Talabani family that runs the PUK — is feeding popular disaffection and dampening dreams of independence. At the same time, mounting repression of journalists has dented the Kurdistan Region’s claims that it is “the other” and hence better Iraq.

An Iranian hand

Many see Iran’s hand in the unfolding row between the KRG and Baghdad. With a large restive Kurdish minority of its own, Iran sees neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan and its pro-American leadership as a threat.

Tehran’s attempts to weaken the KRG through its Iraqi Shiite allies have gained vigor since 2017 when the KRG held a referendum on independence that was fiercely opposed by Ankara, Baghdad and Washington. The ensuing volatility allowed federal troops to retake control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories the Kurds seized as Iraqi forces fled the Islamic State onslaught in 2014. The central government has since been doggedly seeking to tighten its grip.

Iran is now threatening to attack the Kurdistan Region once again should it fail to disarm Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in Kurdish territory by Sept. 19. The date coincides with the first anniversary of the mass protests that rocked Iran following the death in police custody of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini. Iran blames the Iranian Kurdish opposition parties and their alleged Western backers — namely America and Israel — for the demonstrations, although the parties themselves admit they are weak and have little if any impact inside the Islamic Republic.

James F. Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq who chairs the Wilson Center’s Middle East program, contended that Iran was clearly using an “all elements of power” strategy to assume effective control of Iraq, following “the Lebanon model” whereby it relies on Shiite militias and their political arms that are loyal to itself rather than Baghdad. The Trump administration, Jeffrey argued, “pushed back on this Iranian strategy by inventorying all the ways the United States and more generally the West and its institutions were important to Iraq and then threatened to start sending them down if the Iraqi government didn’t take specific steps we detailed to push back on specific Iranian or militia tentacles inside government structures.”

The Biden administration, by contrast, “doesn’t seem to be doing anything in this regard,” likely because it doesn’t want to provoke Iran as it seeks to revive the nuclear deal.

Amos Hochstein, special presidential coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security, for example, has not been to Iraqi Kurdistan since January, Jeffrey recalled. “This is the most current and most dramatic result of the US maintaining its hands-off approach.”

“Behind all the specifics, it’s Iran dictating Iraqi government positions to ensure no deal will be realized that would get oil flowing again and that keeps the KRG afloat — exactly what Iran wants to ruin,” Jeffrey added.

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