US urges Baghdad to reach budget deal with KRG

In their disputes with Baghdad, Kurdish officials often appeal to the rights stipulated to the Kurdistan Region in the Iraqi constitution.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Senior officials at both the State Department and the White House made clear that a US priority in the visit to Washington of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is to promote improved relations between Baghdad and Erbil, and, above all, to see the two parties reach a budget agreement.

“I urged Baghdad to clinch a budget deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a joint press briefing on Wednesday morning with Iraqi Foreign Minister, Dr. Fuad Hussein, a Kurd who was previously Chief of Staff to Masoud Barzani, long time president of the Kurdistan Region, until stepping down in 2017.

Following a meeting between Pompeo and Kadhimi later that day, State Department Spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, stated that Pompeo had stressed “the urgent need for a budget agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government.”

Similarly, a senior administration official speaking to journalists on Wednesday afternoon, explained in introductory remarks to journalists, that an important topic of discussion would be Iraq’s “relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to ensure that that contract remains viable.”

Kurdistan 24 subsequently asked, if he could be more specific, and he began his response by citing Iraq’s constitution—adopted in 2005, two years after the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

US: Iraqi Constitution is Crucial

“In the end, you know, the constitution is the basis and the contract between Iraq’s people and its government,” this senior administration official stated. “There are a number of provisions regarding the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, and we’re keen to see those fulfilled.”

“We understand they’re not easy,” he continued. “We are, and we have been willing and able to assist in the process to do that.”

Iraq’s constitution is a very liberal document, guaranteeing the equality and rights of all citizens. It embodies concepts that are alien to Iraq’s long history of authoritarianism. In their disputes with Baghdad, Kurdish officials often appeal to the rights stipulated to the Kurdistan Region in the constitution.

Read More: Kurdistan Region never compromises on its constitutional rights: PM Barzani

Thus, a publicly stated US determination to insist on adherence to the Iraqi constitution will certainly be welcome in Erbil.

Under the Obama administration, Washington tended to defer to Baghdad on such matters, even as Iran’s influence in Iraq was growing. That was easier than standing up to Baghdad’s abuse of the Kurds, and it was consistent with the Obama administration’s desire to reach a broader understanding with Tehran.

That policy essentially continued for the first year of the Trump administration, while Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State. Under Pompeo, it has been evolving, until it has reached this point: the Iraqi constitution—and its protections for Kurds and other minorities—must be respected.

“Our most acute conversation point in this visit is to make sure that the resources available to the Baghdad central government also find their way to the KRG,” the senior administration official continued, as he responded to the question from Kurdistan 24.

“So there is an agreed-upon distribution of resources, and the KRG is part of that equation,” even as “we understand that the budget crisis,” driven by the coronavirus pandemic and the drop in oil prices, “is significant,” he added.

“Nonetheless, it is important, from our view, that Iraq continues to provide the support and assistance that the KRG needs, as it does to other regions within Iraq. So that is our primary concern,” he concluded, as he also noted that such funding was crucial for another administration priority: the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes.

On Saturday, just before the Iraqi delegation left for Washington, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani announced that a partial budget agreement had been reached between Baghdad and Erbil.

Read More: Iraq agrees to send Kurdistan part of its budget: KRG

Stopping Aggression from Iraq’s Neighbors

Tehran’s modus operandi for extending its influence is generally less outright assault than subversion: promoting one or more elements within a population and then using them to create institutions parallel to the state—as it has done in Lebanon and seems to be trying to do in Iraq.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are one such instrument of Iranian policy in Iraq, and their presence in northern Iraq has blocked the return to their homes of Yezidis, Christians, and other religious minorities that were terrorized by the so-called Islamic State.

“Armed groups not under the control of the [Iraqi] president” have impeded US efforts to aid those groups, Pompeo told journalists.

“Those groups need to be replaced by local police, as soon as possible,” he continued. “I assured Dr. Fuad that we could help, and we would help.”

The senior administration official who spoke later in the day expanded on that point, as he explained that the forces in northern Iraq might grow to include not only the police but “broader security force arrangements” with the ministries of defense and interior.

The key, as he stressed, is that such forces are “under the sovereign control of the government of Iraq.”

Asked about Turkish attacks in the north of the country, the senior official indicated it was an issue that would be discussed with the Iraqi delegation.

“We have watched this with interest and with concern,” he said, as he stressed the importance of a “sovereign, stable Iraq.”

Just how the US intended to deal with the problem remained unclear, however. He noted that Washington had relations with both Iraq and Turkey, so “our goal,” is to “mitigate the effects” and, “hopefully, remove the condition by which one country—in this case, Turkey—feels the necessity to do so.”

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany