The Trump administration must do more to push a negotiated settlement between the Iraqi government and the country’s Kurdish minority over a blocked Kurdish push for independence, the Iraqi Kurds’ top representative in Washington said in an interview, warning that the current truce may not hold and the Kurds will fight back if pushed too far.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the U.S., said the U.S. government’s wariness to wade into the sectarian strife between Baghdad and Irbil has done little to tamp down Kurdish fears of a violent intervention by Iraqi forces after the Sept. 25 referendum, in which 93 percent of those in the Kurdish region voted for independence. Kurds say Iraqi forces are increasingly massing on the region’s borders.
“The cease-fire is fragile and reversible,” Ms. Rahman said. “Should it break, there is an awful lot of manpower and machinery and guns pointed at us.”
Kurdish leaders remain committed to a political settlement but say their famed peshmerga militia forces are ready to take up arms to defend their homeland.
“We will fight for what is rightfully ours. We do not want to fight, we do not want any violence. We want to live in peace,” Ms. Rahman told The Washington Times in an interview late last week.
“We do not believe it is in our interests, Baghdad’s interests or America’s interests to allow this to spiral into a war [but] we will fight back, we will fight back with whatever we have,” she said.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has offered “unconditional dialogue” with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after Iraqi military forces and allied Shiite militias claimed control of critical territories in northern Iraq’s Kirkuk and Sinjar governorates this month, the Kurdish diplomat said.
For much of the year, the Kurds and the central government fought side by side in the successful campaign to drive the Islamic State from Mosul and other major cities seized by the radical terrorist group since 2014. But with Islamic State nearly pushed out of Iraq altogether, old tensions between the central government and the Kurds have quickly resurfaced.
“We really need to have that political dialogue,” Ms. Rahman said. “At the end of the day, Irbil and Baghdad need to sit down and discuss all of the outstanding issues that have been there all along,” prior to the war against Islamic State. KRG officials have agreed to suspend results of the September referendum to clear the way for talks.
“If there is a willingness for dialogue, we have opened the way,” Ms. Rahman said.
But the al-Abadi government, backed by neighbors Turkey and Iran, which have restive Kurdish minorities of their own, is adamant that Iraqi Kurdistan fully nullify the results of the September referendum vote before any peace talks take place.
“Frankly, how can you cancel something that has already taken place?” Ms. Rahman asked. “Millions have already voted, and we know the result, so even if we were to rescind the referendum [results] everybody knows the sentiment of Kurdistan.”
Despite a long-standing relationship with the Kurds, the U.S. government also opposed the September independence referendum. In the tense aftermath of the vote, Ms. Rahman said, Washington has done little more than issue statements calling for a peaceful settlement to the ongoing crisis.
“We do not want any vacuum left by the United States,” Ms. Rahman said. “The statements are very good but those statements need implementation.”
Officials in the Trump administration say they have been scrambling behind the scenes during recent days, with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson engaging in telephone diplomacy to defuse the situation.
“We are on this 24/7,” one official with knowledge of the effort said last week. “We understand very clearly the peril that’s involved here. They’re both very good friends of ours. We’ve worked with both Baghdad and [the Kurds] pretty successfully for years, and it is something we do not want to see escalate.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis last week said Iraqi and Kurdish diplomats have been quietly negotiating a solution, speaking by telephone on a weekly, daily and sometimes hourly basis. But Kurds say the three-sided talks involving Baghdad, Irbil and Washington have done little to ease tensions.
“We do not have any [diplomatic] dialogue and that is not sustainable,” Ms. Rahman said.
Commercial airspace above Iraqi Kurdistan remains closed by order of the central government, and reconstruction on foreign currency and private banking, threaten to cripple the region’s economy.
Officials in Irbil say Washington should threaten to curtail military and reconstruction aid support for Iraq to provide a spur to a negotiated settlement.
Mr. Mattis said it was not Washington’s intent to force either side into a compromise, but rather to set the stage on which a compromise can be worked out. “We do not see [the U.S.] role as pressuring one side or the other,” the defense chief said.
Ms. Rahman said she believed the Trump administration appreciated the gravity of the crisis, but real progress is hard to see.
“On the ground, what we see is Kurdistan bring surrounded militarily by Iraqi Security Forces, Iranian-backed militias and an economic blockade that is deepening by the minute,” the diplomat said.
Ms. Rahman confirmed in the interview that KRG officials are keeping a line open to Russia, which has gained sway in the region after its effective deployment in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s brutal civil war. Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, the top Sunni official in Mr. Abadi’s government, said in a speech last week in Washington that Irbil and Moscow were looking to forge stronger ties in light of the U.S. administration’s reluctance to play a stronger role.
“Our relationship with Russia is on the rise,” Ms. Rahman said, noting that ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia go back to Mustafa Barzani, the founding father of the Kurdish movement in the Middle East, who was exiled to Russia in the 1940s.
Russia was also one of the first foreign consulates to open inside Iraqi Kurdistan shortly after its formal establishment in 2005.
The Russians “have been there, and they have been proactive” inside Iraqi Kurdistan, Ms. Rahman said. Moscow was also one of the few foreign powers not to publicly admonish Irbil for holding the referendum vote.
But Ms. Rahman rejected the idea that Irbil was ready to shift its ties from Washington to Moscow.
“Are we looking to replace the U.S. with Russia? I think that is far too premature” to assume, she said.
“Everyone is trying to cast their shadow over the Middle East, whether it be Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia [or] the United States and Iraq and Kurdistan is a vital part of that,” she said.
With the peshmerga and other Kurdish forces proving effective fighters in the war against Islamic State, Mr. Rahman said, the long-embattled Kurdish enclave could deal with the latest threat to its autonomy.
“We survived Saddam,” she said, referring to the late Iraqi dictator who dropped chemical weapons on Kurdish populations in the late 1980s.
“We had the worst imaginable state of affairs under Saddam, yet we survived. If it is a question of survival, then, yes, we will survive.”