Split in Abadi’s list prompts calls from US Secretary of State, strengthens Kurdish position

The US and Iran are now locked in an intense rivalry over the formation of the next Iraqi government.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The split between Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his National Security Adviser Falih al-Fayyadh, which erupted on Thursday, has compromised US efforts to secure a friendly government in Baghdad.

The split has also strengthened the Kurdish position, most specifically, that of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its head, Masoud Barzani, also President of the Kurdistan Region, until stepping down in November, when his term expired, following the Kurdistan independence referendum, which the US had opposed.

The US and Iran are now locked in an intense rivalry over the formation of the next Iraqi government. Until earlier this week, it looked like the US would prevail.

However, on Thursday, Abadi sacked Fayyadh, who also heads, at least formally, the Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF.) Fayyadh responded by joining the pro-Iranian list that is headed by Hadi al-Ameri, threatening to bring a significant number of other members of Abadi’s list with him.

Even before Fayyadh’s defection, the US-backed Shi’ite parties lacked the votes to secure a majority without the support of the Kurds and the Sunnis. The split within Abadi’s list has only exacerbated the problem.

The KDP came in fifth in the elections and commands a bloc of 25 seats, more than any other Kurdish party and more than any Sunni party. Consequently, various individuals and entities—including the US government—are turning to Barzani for support.

Pompeo spoke with Barzani on Wednesday about the formation of the next Iraqi government. The discussion was not entirely satisfactory from a Kurdish perspective. However, it occurred before the dispute between Abadi and Fayyadh emerged.

Fayyadh’s defection then prompted a flurry of phone calls on Saturday from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including to Iraqi Vice-President Ayad Allawi, Abadi, and Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition against the Islamic State (IS), who assumed responsibility for the Iraq portfolio in the absence of a key appointment, namely Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, notoriously left important positions unfilled.)

Fayyadh’s defection has also prompted more visits to Erbil.

McGurk was there on Friday to see Barzani—his fifth such meeting with the KDP leader since the Iraqi elections, while a delegation, led by Allawi, which included senior Sunni figures from his al-Wataniya list, like Salim al-Jabouri, former Speaker of Parliament, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the al-Arabiya party, met with Barzani on Saturday.

According to the State Department read-out of Pompeo’s call with Allawi, the two men discussed “political developments in Iraq and Baghdad-Erbil relations.”

Perhaps, Allawi conveyed a message from Pompeo to Barzani, or perhaps, the communication went in the opposite direction.

Whatever the case, the KDP position differs significantly from that of the US, as an informed source with close ties to the KDP explained to Kurdistan 24.

“Kurds are open to all candidates for prime minister in Baghdad,” he said. But the Americans “want Abadi and no-one else.”

Abadi “is okay,” the source continued, but the KDP “doesn't particularly care about him and won't go out of its way to get him re-appointed.”

“The Kirkuk events are still fresh in their minds,” and Abadi won’t provide them any written guarantees.

Barzani has his own demands, oriented toward promoting the interests of the Kurdistan Region. With Friday’s events, he is better-positioned to promote them.

They include that the Kurdistan Regional Government receive 17% of the budget, as provided for in Iraq’s constitution; the Peshmerga return to the disputed areas, which have seen an increase in IS’ attacks since Iraqi forces took control; and Article 140 of the constitution actually be implemented.

Reflecting on the past few days’ events, an advisor to Allawi remarked to Kurdistan 24, “You can’t ignore Masoud.”

Or as Paul Davis, who worked on Kurdish affairs at the Pentagon and is now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, put it, Abadi and McGurk “should have been a lot more careful,” before “riding roughshod” over vital Kurdish concerns.

Editing by Laurie Mylroie