Obama stressed unity in talks with Iraq's prime minister, but GOP presidential candidates are calling for more autonomy for Kurds.
US President Barack Obama boosted aid to Iraq during White House talks with the country’s prime minister on Tuesday and stressed the unity of a fragmented nation that is increasingly being questioned in Washington.
During Haider al-Abadi’s first Washington visit as Iraqi prime minister, Obama pledged $200 million to help victims of the Islamic State (IS) and said all support to Iraq should flow through Baghdad and a central government that has struggled to prove its legitimacy.
“It sends a clear message that ultimately Iraq is in control of its own destiny,” Obama said.
“None of this works unless there is a perception among all the parties involved – Shia, Sunni, Kurd and others – inside of Iraq that this is an inclusive government that is listening to the voices of all the people.”
While Obama stressed unity, Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential race are calling for more autonomy for the self-governing northern Kurds. Ted Cruz has called for directly arming Kurdish forces; Rand Paul says he would “promise them a country” for battling IS.
Talks in the Oval Office came against a backdrop of military setbacks for IS, growing Iranian influence on the battlefields of Western Iraq and competition between Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups that often spills over into bloodshed.
Obama said he and al-Abadi discussed Iran’s key role in the conflict by directing Iraq’s Shia militias against IS, saying: “We expect Iran to have an important relationship with Iraq as a close neighbour.”
IS has lost more than a quarter of its territory in Iraq since the US-led coalition airstrikes began in August, Obama said. The group made blitzkrieg advances against Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in June 2014, taking swathes of Sunni-majority areas straddling the Iraq-Syria border.
Al-Abadi said an increase in US airstrikes, arms deliveries and training has helped roll back IS, but he needed greater support from the international coalition to “finish” them. “We want to see more,” he told reporters this week.
According to Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and US National Security Council expert, US-led airstrikes are necessary for retaking Tikrit. Iraq’s Shia militias and their Iranian advisors, which had led attacks, were unable to rout IS without US airstrikes, he said.
But while Obama and al-Abadi addressed military tactics, money and other short-term issues, sectarian rivalry will continue to make Iraq ungovernable until Sunnis are confident that Shiite influence in Baghdad is constrained, he said.
“The greatest problem with the current US approach to Iraq is its neglect of long-term questions over Iraq’s political future. If it is not addressed properly, it will unravel all of the near-term political and military gains won by Iraqis and Americans,” Pollack told Middle East Eye.
“Every Iraqi wants to know what kind of Iraq will exist after IS is driven from Iraq - something all Iraqis now see as merely a matter of time. If there is not a new power-sharing arrangement among Sunnis and Shia that will make the Sunnis feel comfortable re-joining the government, they will continue to fight, with or without IS.”
General James L. Jones, Obama’s former national security advisor, said forcing IS out of Iraq could leave the country in a better position than when under the Shiite-dominated and sectarian government of former prime minster Nouri al-Maliki.
“The US should be at the forefront of an effort to lead an international economic recovery plan in the region, post-IS,” he told MEE. “That kind of engagement could lead to a period of peace and prosperity and help to restore the US to a position of leadership and influence in the region.”
Elsewhere in the US, views on Iraqi unity are changing. Aside from Kurdish support from two presidential hopefuls, Republican lawmakers have drafted legislation describing Kurds as a “reliable and stable partner” that the US should arm directly, rather than make deliveries via Baghdad.
“Sending arms via Baghdad to the Kurds has been ineffective and Prime Minister al-Abadi needs to unite all the peoples of Iraq to allow them to live in peace,” Hawar Shawki, spokesman for the Kurdish National Congress of North America (KNC), told MEE.
“The Kurdish Peshmerga Forces have proven to be the best fighting force so far.”
Frustrated by political wrangles in Baghdad and rows with the capital over oil sales, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, announced plans last year to hold a referendum on an independent Kurdistan that could see Iraq split apart.
David Phillips, a former advisor to the UN and the US State Department, advocates for Kurdish separatism and is currently on a tour to promote his book, The Kurdish Spring, across North America, Europe and the Middle East.
“These days, in Syria and Iraq, the reality is that the US has no friend but the Kurds,” Phillips told MEE.
“At some point, Washington needs to look at alternatives. There are few good policy options here, but we must evaluate the Middle East as it is, not as it was or how we wish it to be, and adjust our approaches accordingly.”
Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network, agrees.
“When Americans look at the Middle East, Kurds are the only ones that measure up to their expectations of the good guys on the scene. Although we have an agenda of our own, it is not inimical to prevailing sentiment in Washington,” he told MEE.
Last year, American high school pupil Jonathan Schwoerer launched a petition calling for the US to recognise an independent Kurdistan and garnered the necessary 100,000 signatures. The White House has yet to respond.
“The Obama administration should make it a priority to support an independent Kurdish state, in doing so giving the world’s largest stateless ethnic group their own country and allowing them to be finally free from the persecution and oppression they have faced,” Schwoerer told MEE.
On Tuesday, the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, released a study warning that Obama’s efforts to arm and train moderate Syrian fighters would fall far short of the necessary force required to tackle Islamists and President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists.
Researchers proposed a Syrian National Stabilization Force as a “train-and-equip on steroids” with some 50,000 or more Syrians in three divisions under a national command that would boost moderates in Syria’s multi-front civil war and lead to a negotiated peace deal.
Al-Abadi’s US visit came on the heels of a decision by a Washington court on Monday to sentence a former guard for Blackwater, a US military security contractor, to life in prison and three others to 30 years over the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
The guards were convicted last year for the deaths in Baghdad’s crowded Nisoor Square, where a further 17 Iraqis were injured, as they opened fire to clear the way for a US convoy – sparking outrage and a debate over using private firms in warfare.
Resource: Middle East Eye, April 15, 2015