Iraq speaker hails ties with Kurds, but will US troops remain in Iraq?

The Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, highly praised Baghdad’s relations with the Kurdistan Region as he spoke at the US Institute of Peace in Washington (USIP) on Friday...

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – The Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, highly praised Baghdad’s relations with the Kurdistan Region as he spoke at the US Institute of Peace in Washington (USIP) on Friday at the end of a week-long visit to Washington.

“The relationship between Baghdad and Kurdistan is much, much better than it was before,” Halbousi said, as he explained that it had been the “intention” of Iraq’s new government to reach an understanding with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” while the same was reciprocally true for the Kurdish attitude toward Baghdad.

“Since 2014, every year we had problems with the federal budget,” Halbousi noted. That year, the Islamic State seized one-third of Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was obliged by the US to step down in favor of Haider al-Abadi.

“But this year,” the budget situation is “much, much better,” he continued. Baghdad made compromises with Erbil, and Erbil made compromises with Baghdad, and the 2019 budget is already law.

The Kurdish leadership has long considered Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi a friendly figure. When Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and former President of the Kurdistan Region, visited Baghdad last November, Abdul Mahdi hailed him as “an old fighter known by the mountains of Kurdistan” and “a leader in Iraq’s conversion and transformation into a democracy after the fall of the dictatorship.”

That stands in sharp contrast to Kurdish relations with Abdul Mahdi’s predecessor. Indeed, last week Abadi gave an interview to Iraqi television, in which he blamed Iran for his loss in the 2018 elections, while criticizing the Kurds, charging they were the ones who, through their “extremism,” had precipitated his attack on Kirkuk and other disputed territories (which he conducted in coordination with Iran!)

Barzani retorted with a statement, “The purpose of those comments are personal and meant to destroy the positive environment that has evolved between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad.”

He also reminded Abadi—who never won an election for the position of prime minister—of the Kurds’ role in fighting the Islamic State.

“If it were not for the Peshmerga, a person like [Abadi] would never have been able to visit Mosul to steal the success over Da’esh [ISIS] and use it to promote himself,” Barzani’s statement continued.

Indeed, Halbousi revealed yet one more negative consequence of Abadi’s October 2017 attack on Kirkuk and the disputed areas. They are now under Iraqi control, but they have had no reconstruction aid from Baghdad.

“These people are suffering,” Halbousi said, “because they have not received anything.” It is in those areas, that the resurgence of the Islamic State has been most pronounced.

Article 140 of Iraq’s 2005 constitution called for determining the status of the disputed territories through a plebiscite to be held by 2007. However, twelve years later, no vote has been held.

Asked about the implementation of Article 140, Halbousi replied that it was first necessary for the next Kurdistan Regional Government to be determined. Then, “hopefully, before 2020,” both sides will deal with the issue. He also noted that according to the constitution, the Iraqi parliament needs to create a committee for that purpose.

Halbousi, the first senior Iraqi official to visit Washington since Iraq’s elections last year, met a number of senior US officials: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Halbousi’s US counterpart, House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

The biggest concern for Washington in Iraq now is the possibility that the parliament will demand that US forces leave, as a knowledgeable Washington source advised Kurdistan 24. That topic must have figured prominently in Halbousi’s official talks, but it scarcely appears in the official US summaries of those discussions.

Nor did it arise in Halbousi’s presentation on Friday. Written questions were solicited from the audience and posed to Halbousi by the USIP President, who moderated the discussion. At least two people asked about the prospects of such a parliamentary vote to force the departure of US troops, but that question “never made it through the filter,” this source noted.