Hoshyar Zebari: Iraq is in crisis and the US must be more engaged

“They are using every tool at their disposal in Baghdad to undermine the prosperity, the economy of the KRG.”
KDP Politburo member Hoshyar Zebari (Photo: AFP)
KDP Politburo member Hoshyar Zebari (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) –  Following the 2003 US-led war that overthrew Saddam Hussein, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Hoshyar Zebari became Iraq’s first post-Saddam foreign minister. He held that position for over a decade—from 2003 to 2014. Subsequently, he was Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and then Finance Minister.

An extraordinarily experienced figure, Zebari’s involvement in Kurdish politics goes back to the1970s, when he was a graduate student in Britain. Currently, he is a senior figure in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and he returned last month to Washington.

Zebari’s Message to Washington

Zebari came to the US capital, where he spent three weeks, to convey a message: Iraq is in political crisis, and the US must become more engaged. A year has passed since the Oct. 10, 2021, elections. There is still no government—and no prospect for one in sight.

Iranian interference in Iraqi politics is the primary reason for this stalemate. The secondary reason has been US passivity in the face of such interference. Zebari’s aim in Washington was to change that—or at least spark such a change, as he warned of the consequences: for Iraq, the Kurdistan Region, and the US in the Middle East more broadly.

Zebari’s diplomacy included meetings with Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, as well as senior officials in the White House, Pentagon, and Congress. He also addressed audiences at think-tanks and met their scholars.

Kurdistan 24 spoke with Zebari, as his visit ended. There was one positive point, which he hailed: the recent conclusion of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the US Defense Department and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

That MOU was concluded last month, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Celeste Wallander, paid her first visit to Baghdad, before proceeding onto Erbil.

In Baghdad, Wallander met on Sept. 20 with the Minister of Defense and the National Security Advisor and affirmed the US commitment “to build the operational capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, including the Peshmerga forces, to continue counter-terrorism operations to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” according to a statement from the US embassy in Baghdad.

The next day, Wallander proceeded onto Erbil, where she met with KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and other senior officials, before signing the new MOU. The agreement extends US support for the Peshmerga for another four years.

But aside from his welcome of the new MOU, Zebari had an alarming message: a wake-up call for Washington!

“My mission” in Washington, Zebari told Kurdistan 24, was “to raise awareness about Iraq, about the gravity of the situation in Iraq, the political impasse,” and the dangers of this “slippery slope.”

Those dangers include “the vulnerability of Kurdistan vis-a-vis all the pressure from our neighbors and from inside Iraq,” Zebari said. “They are using every tool at their disposal in Baghdad to undermine the prosperity, the economy of the KRG.”

“Our oil and gas sector is the main target,” he explained. “They are using the oil ministry to issue threats against the CEOs of international companies, against service companies, against oil buyers to deter them from dealing directly with the KRG.”

But “constitutionally” it is “our right,” Zebari affirmed, as the post-Saddam constitution stipulates a federal system for Iraq.

“So I think the KRG has the power, the authorities to have their own oil,” he continued. “Of course, there should be some coordination with the Oil Ministry in Baghdad,” but we are only seeking “some fiscal federalism to secure our revenues.”

That was Zebari’s central message, and those with whom he dealt “received it well.” But this is “not a one-time job,” he continued, stressing that it needs regular reiteration.

Zebari also explained that Iraq’s political crisis was about more than oil and includes the failed efforts to form a government—the consequences of which can spill over into the Kurdistan Region, the safest and most stable part of Iraq.

It is important for the US, the Kurds, and Iraq to preserve the stability of the Kurdistan Region.

Indeed, as Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told Kurdistan 24 in Dec. 2019, after testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “The Kurdistan Region could serve as a model for the rest of Iraq.”

Read More: US: Kurdistan Region can be model for rest of Iraq

Some two years later, as Zebari spoke to Kurdistan 24 and reflected on his just-completed visit to Washington, he concluded, “I’m very satisfied. I’m very happy about those days that I have spent here in Washington among friends.”

The Iranian-Backed “Judicial Coup” in Iraq: Political Paralysis

Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently wrote a stunning analysis of the Iraqi political scene, entitled, “Iraq’s Two Coups—And How the U.S. Should Respond” (published in both English and Arabic.)

Knights explained how the formation of a new Iraqi government has been thwarted through “the subversion of [Iraq’s] judiciary by the losers” of the last vote, who sought “to negate the result of the elections.”

“This judicial coup—achieved by gaining control over the supposedly independent Federal Supreme Court—saw one arm of Iraq’s government subordinated to a foreign power,” Knights wrote.

In 2014, as ISIS burst out of Syria to threaten Baghdad and Erbil, Nouri al-Maliki was Iraqi prime minister. A sectarian figure, Maliki’s favoritism toward his fellow Shi’ites had helped trigger ISIS’s rise. After the Obama administration concluded, reluctantly, that US forces had to return to Iraq to stop ISIS from overrunning the country, it had one demand: Maliki must resign.

He did so, but he has remained an influential figure. In Jan. 2022, Esmail Qaani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), met with the head of Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council, Judge Faiq Zaydan, at Maliki’s house, as Knights explained.

The two men directed Zaydan “to facilitate a flurry of rulings in his subordinate Supreme Federal Court (SFC), which rolled out in quick succession in early 2022,” Knights wrote. US intelligence was fully aware of this, he claimed, implying it had the product of some electronic surveillance.

“If the United States wants, it could release evidence of these efforts, either openly or discreetly and indirectly,” Knights said.

Three judicial rulings followed the meeting with Zaydan: 1) the new Iraqi president had to be elected by a two-thirds majority, rather than a simple majority; 2) Zebari could not become Iraq’s next president, because of corruption, it claimed without producing any evidence; and 3) energy production in the Kurdistan Region had to be under Baghdad’s control.

Kurdistan 24 asked Zebari about Knights’ remarkable report and his understanding of the “judicial coup” in Iraq.

Zebari readily agreed, describing Knights as “very well-informed” and “one of the best analysts and writers on Iraq.” It was “the arbitrary decisions of the federal court” that created the “gridlock” in Iraq’s government formation, he said.

2021 Elections Produced a Majority—but Thwarted by Iraqi Court, Suborned by IRGC

The 2021 elections did produce an unequivocal outcome, and a new government should have followed.

There were “three clear winners who could form a majority government: the Sadrists, the Sunnis, and the KDP,” Zebari said. It was a “clear path” to forming a government.

“We had the majority of the parliament, and we were successful in electing a speaker and his two deputies,” he continued. “It was clear that we commanded” the votes necessary to form the government.

“And I was the nominee for the post of president, as the candidate of the Tripartite Alliance,” Zebari stated. But the court “did a coup” by “introducing a very weird interpretation of the constitution.”

That “coup” involved raising the percentage of votes required in the Iraqi parliament for choosing a president. After the first vote, it should have been a majority of members—but the SFC increased it to two-thirds. The result has been political paralysis: the lack of a government over the past year.

As Zebari noted, “none of our former presidents,” starting with “the late [Jalal] Talabani until Barham Salih passed the two-thirds threshold.”

“The second decision [of the court] was to disqualify me” on the basis of a “flimsy accusation,” Zebari continued. “There were no cases of corruption against me. There was no indictment. There was no court ruling whatsoever.”

Zebari concluded by citing the SFC’s third dubious decision: “They brought an old case against the KRG that your oil and gas law is unconstitutional.”

“They really tried to rewrite the constitution,” he said, and they are “the cause of this impasse, for this violence, for this chaos.”

Zebari did not expect the political impasse and the ensuing disorder in Iraq to end “any time soon,” because the biggest vote getter, Muqtada al-Sadr, remains alienated from the political process.

“I think this crisis is going to take some time,” Zebari said, and “this was the message I conveyed to our American friends.”

US was Sleeping on Iraq, Despite Biden’s Support for OIF, Kurdistan Region

As a long-time senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Joe Biden supported OIF, the US-led war that overthrew Saddam.

In late 2002, Biden was dispatched to Erbil, along with his Republican colleague, Sen. Chuck Hagel, to prepare the Kurdish leadership for the war coming. In addition to meeting senior figures, the two senators also addressed the Kurdish parliament.

In late 2017, this reporter chanced to see Biden at a local grocery store. He was no longer vice-president and the 2020 presidential campaign had yet to begin, but, perhaps, he already had in mind.

A crowd had gathered around Biden, asking him questions. I joined them and challenged the former vice-president on the Obama administration’s policy toward the Kurds.

He had a signficant, meaningful response. “Masoud Barzani is a good friend of mine,” he said.. “And I wished we could have done more for the Kurds.”

That perspective, however is not reflected in his own administration’s position toward the region, which has focused narrowly on restoring the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA.)

One consequence has been to overlook Iranian aggression in the region, including in Iraq and toward the Kurds. Knights also cited another reason for neglecting Iraq: a preoccupation with “great power competition and domestic issues,” and both may be true.

Yet the administration’s narrow focus on restoring the JCPOA has come under increasing criticism. Some 18 months after those talks began, an agreement remains elusive, while Iran has erupted in widespread protests, triggered by the death, in the custody of Tehran’s morality police, of the young Kurdish woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini.

Read More: US remains committed to JCPOA talks, despite Iran protests and regime crackdown

Like Knights, Zebari agreed that the US was not focused enough on Iraq. “There was a missed opportunity,” he said, when there were “prospects of forming this government, of a majoritarian government.”

Iran’s allies in Iraq are demanding a “consensual (tawafuq) government.” They mean a broad coalition in which every party gets its share of ministries and government resources, regardless of the popular vote!

Americans would not recognize that as democracy. Rather, it is a recipe that enables political elites to fleece the public—which is what Iran’s allies are demanding in Iraq!

A “majoritarian government,” which Zebari said was possible before the SFC ruling, is what Americans call democracy: there are winners, and they go into government, and there are losers, and they sit in the opposition, until the next election gives them another chance.

Senior US officials heard Zebari’s message: you need to be much more active in Iraq. The question now is whether they will translate that into policy.