US Proud of “long-standing and historic partnership” with Kurds of Iraq
WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Last week, Jennifer Gavito, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, Iraq, and Public Diplomacy, gave an important interview to “Kurdistan in America,” the podcast of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representation in Washington.
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Gavito’s extended remarks come shortly before an Iraqi delegation visits Washington. Arriving next week, it will be led by the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, and will mark the first such visit since Iraq’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, assumed office three months ago.
Gavito’s comments, thus, provide significant insights into the issues that will be discussed between the US and Iraq next week.
As Gavito told Delovan Barwari, Director of Public and Academic Affairs at Washington’s KRG Representation and host of “Kurdistan in America,” “we’re really proud of our long-standing and historic partnership with Iraq’s Kurdish people.”
“That relationship was really forged in shared sacrifice” in combatting ISIS, Gavito said. “So our relationship with the KRG today is, we believe, on very good terms, due in large part to that historic bond, but also to current and enduring shared interests.”
She also noted, significantly, “the KRG enjoys strong bipartisan support, both within Congress, but also from the American public.”
Strategic Relationship Developed After 1991 Gulf War
“Over the past, I guess, three decades,” Gavito said, “our strategic relationship has really matured in our view into what we would consider to be a balanced partnership, including cooperation on counterterrorism, economic development, cultural heritage issues, and human rights.”
The “three decades” to which Gavito referred go back to the 1991 Gulf War, which drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, but also left Saddam Hussein in power. Five years later, President George H. W. Bush speaking, with the British journalist, David Frost, explained his miscalculation.
Bush had expected that after such an overwhelming defeat, the Iraqi army would overthrow Saddam. “I miscalculated. I thought he’d be gone,” Bush acknowledged to Frost.
Although it was not Bush’s intent that Saddam survive that war, survive he did. And that created a twelve year interlude between the first and second wars against Iraq.
As it would turn out, that hiatus proved invaluable. Those twelve years provided “a golden opportunity for the people of Kurdistan,” Masoud Barzani stated in April 2021, on the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort, in a webinar hosted by the KRG Representation in Washington.
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Protected against Saddam’s ravages by a US-enforced no-fly zone, “the people of Kurdistan were able to manage their own affairs,” Barzani explained, “to establish institutions, hold elections, and establish a parliament and a regional government.”
Those developments included the consolidation of a very capable fighting force: the Peshmerga, who would prove invaluable to the US in the second Iraq war, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which precipitated George W. Bush’s decision to oust Saddam, a CIA team was sent to the Kurdistan Region. It arrived in the summer of 2002 and began to prepare for the upcoming war. That included developing a good, personal relationship with the Kurdish leadership and working with the Peshmerga.
Thus, as the US prepared to fight OIF, it found a ready-made, capable partner in the Kurdistan Region, an area which also served as a secure base of operations in the north.
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Joe Biden: “Masoud Barzani is a Good Friend of Mine”
Gavito’s warm words about the Kurds echo what President Joe Biden, himself, has said. Indeed, in late 2017, at a chance encounter at a local grocery store, the then-former vice-president responded to this reporter's question about the Obama administration’s policy toward the Kurds.
He said “Masoud Barzani is a good friend of mine, and I wish we could have done more for the Kurds.” When asked why he didn’t, he responded, “Turkey.”
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US-Iraq Relations Based on 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement
In the KRG podcast, Gavito explained that the Biden administration saw its ties with Iraq as “encapsulated by the US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement.” That agreement was concluded in 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
“The US and Iraq, including the Kurdistan Regional Government, reaffirmed that cooperation during a July 2021 Strategic Dialogue,” Gavito continued, “and strengthened our commitment to broadening and deepening the long-term strategic partnership in key areas.”
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“The Biden administration and the State Department really view that agreement as the strong foundation of what we hope to be a long-term strategic, deep partnership and relationship,” she added. “Part of that, of course, is the very important relationship that we have with the Kurdistan Region.”
The US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue was initiated during the Trump administration. In this respect, Biden’s policy is a continuation of Trump’s—and contrasts with that of Barack Obama, who had opposed OIF and who then left Iraq as soon as he could.
And that decision—to withdraw all US forces from Iraq—soon proved premature, as the sudden appearance of ISIS in 2014 obliged Obama to send US forces back into Iraq, just three years after they had left.
Biden Administration Welcomes Sudani Government
“We welcomed the appointment, publicly and privately, of Prime Minister Sudani and his cabinet,” Gavito told the KRG podcast. ”We also conveyed” our “strong desire for an inclusive government that can address the needs of the Iraqi people,” and we are “ready to work with the new Iraqi government on a whole range of shared interests from improving services for Iraq’s people to ensuring a safe, stable Iraq.”
“Sudani has voiced his support for improving respect for human rights, for increasing economic opportunity, for combating climate change and fighting corruption,” Gavito noted. “We welcome all of these comments and are very eager to see him put those words into action.”
Three years ago, large-scale protests in Iraq brought down the government of Haider al-Abadi. Gavito summarized the protestors’ demands as “economic opportunity,” along with “an end to endemic corruption” and “improved public services.”
”Unfortunately, in our view, the demands of these Iraqis remain largely unmet,” she said. “So the onus now really will be on the new government” to “enact bold policies” that help resolve these problems.
US Supports Strong KRG within Unified Federal Iraq
The US has long supported and promoted the concept of one, unified Iraq. That is so, although legitimate criticism can be leveled against “Sykes-Picot”—the secret agreement, concluded during World War I, between Britain and France that laid out the division of that part of the Ottoman Empire, creating the states of Iraq (Britain’s) and Syria and Lebanon (France’s.)
Support for a unified Iraq has been a rigid US position, adhered to, even when an alternative approach might have made more sense.
In the years after the 1991 Gulf War, for example, the US sought to deal with the threat from Saddam by maintaining sanctions on Iraq. Even though Baghdad did not control the Kurdistan Region, which functioned independently, the US applied the same sanctions to the Kurdistan Region, as it did to the areas of Iraq under the regime’s control. But why not let the Kurdistan Region prosper and flourish? Perhaps, that would have encouraged rebellion within Iraq against Saddam?
Another example is after Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, Amb. Paul Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), sought to strengthen the new Iraqi army by eliminating militias.
Bremer saw the Peshmerga as just one more militia and wanted to disband it as well. But Masoud Barzani utterly refused. He fiercely opposed Bremer, and he prevailed. The Peshmerga remained an independent fighting force, under Kurdish control.
If Bremer had had his way, the US would have had no local partner when ISIS emerged a decade later—and the shared struggle between US and Kurdish forces against ISIS, so eloquently described by Gavito—would have been impossible.
Indeed, some 13 years after his service in Iraq, in 2017, Bremer spoke with Kurdistan 24. Bremer had high praise for the Peshmerga, describing them as “the most consistent ally of the US,” while he gave no indication that he had ever sought to disband them.
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In speaking with Gavito, Barwari explored the current US position, which he summarized as support for “a strong KRG within a unified Iraq.”
“What exactly does that mean?,” he asked. “That means that we support the KRG continuing to be a part of federal Iraq, continuing to have a role to play in Iraq’s future,” Gavito replied, “but also that preserves the autonomous nature of the relationship that has been negotiated with Baghdad.”
Iran’s Judicial Coup in Iraq
The most urgent issue concerns rulings by the Federal Supreme Court (FSC) blocking payments from Baghdad to Erbil for the KRG’s share of Iraq’s national budget.
The Court’s latest ruling—such payments violate the constitution—reflects what Dr. Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has called a “judicial coup,” carried out by Iran.
Knights’ impressive analysis of Tehran’s maneuver is entitled, “Iraq’s Two Coups—And How the U.S. Should Respond” (published in both English and Arabic.)
Already, in early 2022, Iran succeeded in suborning the FSC, Knights argues, and when called upon, the FSC will produce rulings in accord with Tehran’s interests.
That began with an effort to promote pro-Iranian candidates, although they had not fared well in the Oct. 10, 2021 elections.
But in January 2022, as Knights wrote, the head of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, met with the head of Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council, Faiq Zaydan, who then directed the court “to facilitate a flurry of rulings” which promoted the pro-Iranian candidates.
The result was a political stalemate that ended only nine months later, when Sudani emerged as prime minister, following a meeting that he, and the speaker of parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, had in Erbil, with Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP.)
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s first post-Saddam Foreign Minister and later Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, spoke with Kurdistan 24 last October. He explained that the Kurdistan Region faced serious pressures from Iran, as well as from pro-Iranian elements in Iraq.
The main target in their effort to undermine the Kurdistan Region, Zebari explained, was the economy. “They are using every tool at their disposal in Baghdad to undermine the prosperity, and the economy of the KRG,” he stated. “Our oil and gas sector is the main target.”
Read More: Hoshyar Zebari: Iraq is in crisis and the US must be more engaged
That issue has arisen again with the FSC ruling that Baghdad’s payments to Erbil as the KRG’s share of the national budget are unconstitutional.
Thus, as KRG Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, told the Kurdish Council of Ministers at a weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday, “the Federal Supreme Court is being used to jeopardize the deals struck with the federal government to resolve issues.”
Read More: Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court ‘used’ to jeopardize Erbil-Baghdad agreements, says PM Barzani
Barzani did not say who or what was using the FSC to undermine the agreement on revenue sharing between Baghdad and Erbil, but it was evident that he was pointing a finger at Iran and pro-Iranian elements in Iraq.
Gavito explained that since the FSC’s hydrocarbons ruling, on Feb. 15, 2022, which held that KRG oil exports were illegal, the US has worked with energy companies, as well as “the highest levels of the Iraqi government” in order “to mitigate the negative impacts of that decision.”
But “an essential factor,” she continued, is that “there has to be a strong, healthy relationship between Erbil and Baghdad, in accordance with Iraq’s constitution.”
At the same time, she suggested the best way to deal with the issue was for Erbil and Baghdad to “come to an agreement on a new hydrocarbons law as soon as possible.”
That said, Gavito seemed to share Barzani’s understanding of the root of the problem. “There are other actors, like Iran,” she stated, “that are really adept at exploiting divisions between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and federal Iraq and have it in their interest to exacerbate the Baghdad-Erbil tensions and prevent those misunderstandings from being resolved—whether it’s disputed territories, oil and gas, or budget allocations.”
US Strongly Urges Kurdish Unity
Gavito suggested that the cordial ties between Washington and Erbil facilitated a friendly “give-and-take” between them. And so “right now,” she continued, “we’re a bit focused on concerns about how our Kurdish friends in Iraq are putting their hard fought achievements at risk by internal divisions.”
“These divisions not only hurt the IKR’s semi-autonomous position within a united and federal Iraq, but also the overall prospects for security and stability in Iraq and the broader region itself,” she stated.
Gavito pointed out that Iran regularly exploits such divisions, and she urged the Iraqi Kurdish parties “to engage as a United Front” in their dealings with Baghdad.