Congressmen call for more US support for Kurdistan Region, tougher position toward pro-Iran elements in Iraq

The first six questions in the Congressional letter—nearly half—dealt with the coordinated repression of Iraq’s Kurds by Tehran and Baghdad.
The building of the US House of Representatives. (Photo: The US House of Representatives)
The building of the US House of Representatives. (Photo: The US House of Representatives)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – On Friday, three members of Congress sent President Joe Biden a letter calling on his administration to do more to back the Kurdistan Region in its disputes with Baghdad, while calling for a tougher policy toward Iraq to counter Iran’s strong influence.

The Signatories

The first of the signatories, Rep. Mike Waltz (Florida), serves on three relevant committees: House Armed Services Committee; House Foreign Affairs Committee; and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Rep. Kevin Hern (Oklahoma) serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means—a key committee responsible for taxation policy and raising revenue more generally.

The third signatory, Joe Wilson (South Carolina) co-chairs the bipartisan Kurdish-American caucus and is a long-time supporter of the Kurds. Wilson also holds an important position, as a member of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Congressional Letter

With Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister visiting Washington this week, the Congressmen wrote, “now is the time for the United States to clearly communicate to the Iraqi government the consequences of its alignment with Iran.”

“The US must also refocus its efforts with the Iraqi government,” they said, “so that one of our most reliable partners, the Kurdistan Region, does not continue to bear the costs, while receiving none of the benefits, from an Iraqi federal system that the US was instrumental in designing and implementing.”

Strong Iranian influence in Iraq, the Congressional letter implied, hurts Iraq’s Kurds, because Tehran encourages Baghdad to act against them.

Indeed, the Congressmen posed thirteen questions to Biden and requested a response within two weeks, February 24th.

If the White House really does reply, its answers to those questions will be quite interesting.

Six Questions: Policy toward Kurdistan Region

The first six questions in the Congressional letter—nearly half of the questions—deals with the coordinated repression of Iraq’s Kurds by Tehran and Baghdad, starting with the actions of the President of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, Faiq Zaydan.

Zaydan, and Iraq’s judicial apparatus more broadly, have been suborned by the head of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani.

In early 2022, three months after Iraq’s October 2021 elections, Qaani visited Baghdad. The pro-Iranian parties in Iraq, which called themselves “the Coordination Framework,” did poorly in the polls and a proper count would have tasked Muqtada al-Sadr with forming the next government.

But Qaani, in coordination with Nuri al-Maliki, a former Iraqi prime minister and highly sectarian Shi’ite politician, instructed Zaydan to direct the Supreme Federal Court to issue three rulings, one of which changed the rules for choosing a prime minister, denying that position to Sadr.

A second ruling denied the Iraqi presidency to Hoshyar Zebari, a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Iraq’s first post-Saddam Foreign Minister.

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

The third decision ruled against independent energy exports from the Kurdistan Region.

Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, first detailed Qaani’s move against the independence of the Iraqi legal system last August, calling it “a judicial coup.”

The court’s initial two rulings are now moot. Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani became prime minister in October, and Abdul Latif Rashid became president. Only the third ruling—against an independent energy sector in the Kurdistan Region—remains an issue. And it is being strong rejected by the Kurds.

In their letter, the Congressmen asked Biden, “how will the US protect US-financed energy investments in the Kurdistan Region?”

“Currently the largest US commercial investments in Iraq are in the Kurdistan Region,” they noted. Those investments are “essential for the Region’s self-sustaining revenue,” they continued, but “these investments are under threat by Iran and the Iraqi government.”

The letter also strongly criticized Zaydan himself, as well as Maliki. “Have the State or Treasury Departments determined whether Faiq Zaydan… meets the criteria for sanctions for gross human rights, acting as a foreign agent, corruption, and material support as defined by the Global Magnitsky Act and [Executive Order] 13818,” which blocks the US property of individuals involved in gross human rights abuses or corruption, they asked.

A similar question about Maliki followed. “What is the status of sanction packages for terrorism and/or corruption against former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” the Congressmen asked.

Another Congressional question dealt more broadly with the machinations of Zaydan and Maliki. “How will the US ensure Iraq’s government protects the constitutional rights of the Kurdistan Region, particularly in the face of an Iran-aligned and unconstitutionally formed Federal Supreme Court that reportedly takes direction from the IRGC-QF? How will the US government demand an Iraqi budget that affords Constitutional protections to the Kurdistan Region?”

Friday’s Congressional letter resembled that written the week before to Secretary of State Antony Blinken by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R, Texas), who focused on Iran’s subordination of the Federal Supreme Court.

Read More: Key Congressman backs KRG in dispute with Iraqi court

Friday’s Congressional letter also complained about Baghdad’s failure to provide proper weapons to the Peshmerga—including those approved by the US Congress.

“How will the US ensure Iraq’s government supports all of its military forces to include the Kurdish Peshmerga and stops funding designated terrorist groups,” they asked, referring, in the second part of the question, to extreme Shi’a elements within the Popular Mobilization Forces, which have been designated as terrorist groups by Washington.

The Congressional letter also complained that “the US has provided funding for reconnaissance drones and military equipment for the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs forces, but the Iraqi Ministry of Defense continues to block its delivery.”

“How will the US ensure the Kurdistan Region receives Congressionally appropriated equipment and capabilities,” the letter asked.

Iran’s Uses Iraq’s Banking System to Circumvent Sanctions

One of the biggest issues between Washington and Baghdad involves Iran’s exploitation of Iraq’s banking system to circumvent sanctions. The US has clamped down on that, precipitating a fall in the value of Iraq’s currency.

Indeed, the Congressional letter expressed serious concern about this issue. As noted, Iraq’s new Prime Minister has “reinstalled the former Governor of the Central Bank who previously oversaw Iraq’s banking system, which, with the benefit of US banknote transfers, served as a money laundering front for Iran.”

John Hannah, who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Security Advisor, along with Joel Rayburn, formerly US Special Envoy to Syria, have provided the most comprehensive public explanation of the unique arrangement that now facilitates Iranian money laundering.

In 2004, one year after Saddam Hussein and his regime were overthrown, Hannah and Rayburn explained, the US established a process “to allow Iraqi banks to access dollars at preferred rates to finance badly needed imports,” as they wrote Wednesday in the Washington Examiner.

The process was known as the “dollar auction,” but it was soon corrupted by “Iraqi politicians, Iran, and other bad actors,” they said. “Using their control of Iraqi banks and border authorities, a network of front companies, and forged documents, they quickly made massive fake dollar transactions the norm. Import costs were outrageously inflated. Often, transactions existed only on paper—no goods ever arrived in Iraq, while millions of dollars were wired to shadowy foreign accounts.”

The US government has long known of this abuse, Hannah and Rayburn stated, and in 2015, the Obama administration “temporarily restricted the flow of dollars to stop the diversions, but relented when Baghdad protested and agreed to cosmetic reforms.”

“Worried about Iraq’s stability, US officials generally looked the other way rather than risk throwing Iraq into crisis by limiting access to its enormous dollar reserves,” Hannah and Rayburn explained, before adding, “but the price has been high.”

”Iraq is today one of the world’s most corrupt countries, its people impoverished,” they said. “and tens of billions of dollars have flowed to Iran,” financing its “malign behaviors.”

The extent to which this matter can be rectified and addressed remains to be seen.