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Paul Iddon

Iraqi-Kurdistan's relationship with the US has had its ups-and-downs

Anti-Americanism is unlikely to take root in Iraqi-Kurdistan, but the relationship remains uneasy [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 16 October, 2017

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Analysis: While most Iraqi Kurds have a positive perception of the US, they haven't forgotten darker moments in the relationship, writes Paul Iddon.
The United States is disappointed that Iraqi Kurdistan pursued its independence referendum on September 25. Iraqi Kurds are also disappointed that Washington did not support their endeavour. While most Iraqi Kurds have a positive perception of the US, they haven't forgotten darker moments in the relationship.

Iraqi Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani held large rallies across the autonomous region in favour of independence in the run up to the vote last month. While he did not explicitly single out the US, some of his statements and actions clearly signify he was disappointed with Washington's lack of support.

The Kurdish Peshmerga has been a major US-led coalition ally in the fight against the Islamic State group over the past three years, and Barzani argues that their sacrifices - more than 1,700 lost their lives - have earned Iraqi Kurds the right to pursue their self-determination. 


Perceived double standards


The Kurdish president declared last month that the people of Kurdistan "and not the outsiders" are the ones who give the referendum legitimacy. He clearly had Washington first and foremost in mind when he went on to rhetorically ask: "Where is your call and support of democracy? Human rights? We expected you to reward us with independence after [the] Peshmerga destroyed Daesh [IS].

"They praise Peshmerga sacrifices, but don't let Peshmerga and our martyrs' families decide their destiny."

Barzani clearly had little time for the special envoy to the US-led anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk. When McGurk came to Kurdistan to suggest an alternative to the referendum Barzani didn't receive him in the capital Erbil; McGurk and his delegation had to travel to meet him in the city of Duhok.

The Kurdish president is far from an anti-American leader. If he ever leads an independent Kurdistan it will doubtlessly remain a loyal American ally in the region. Nevertheless, Barzani has several reasons from his own past experiences to harbour some mistrust towards Washington. 


Cynical US involvement


He remembers, probably quite vividly, how the Americans, alongside the Shah of Iran and Israel, cynically used the Kurdish war against Baghdad in the mid-1970s (the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War), led by his father Mullah Mustafa Barzani, simply in order to keep the Iraqi military embroiled within its own boundaries killing Kurds.

As the Pike report on this covert action made clear, US policy was to ensure "the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighbouring country".

In practice, this meant sacrificing thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in full knowledge they had no hope of prevailing or winning any concessions from Baghdad.

"Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise," the Pike report noted.

In the end, the Shah of Iran made a deal with Saddam Hussein in which he cut off all support to the Peshmerga. The Kurdish revolt was quickly crushed, with 200,000 Kurds fleeing to Iran. Mustafa Barzani died four years later a broken man in a Washington hospital. 

Kissinger bears the main responsibility for the disaster which befell the Kurdish people after 1975... For me, he is enemy number one. I will never forget what the Kurds had to pay as a result of his stances...

Journalist William Safire interviewed the Kurdish leader during his remaining years spent in exile. Barzani told him that his people "do not want to be anybody's pawn. We are an ancient people, we want our autonomy, we want sarbasti - freedom".

Kissinger had no scruples whatsoever, even telling the House Intelligence Committee that: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

Masoud Barzani didn't mince words when it came to what he thought of the then-US Secretary of State.

"Kissinger bears the main responsibility for the disaster which befell the Kurdish people after 1975," he said. "For me, he is enemy number one. I will never forget what the Kurds had to pay as a result of his stances, manoeuvres, and the deals he made without taking into consideration the suffering these caused."

Masoud Barzani picked up where his father left off, fighting the Iraqi Army in the 1980s, when 182,000 Kurds were massacred in the infamous Anfal campaign. The Reagan administration at that time largely ignored the atrocities since they didn't want Saddam Hussein to lose his war against Iran. Some in the United States even tried to pin the blame on Iran for the infamous Halabja attack, when 5,000 Kurds were killed in a single day by Iraq's chemical weapons. 


An uncomfortable history


Kurds are understandably uncomfortable about this history, but are thankful that the US implemented a no-fly zone over their region following the 1991 Gulf War, which served to incubate their autonomy. They cheered the subsequent US overthrow of the hated tyrant Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the ensuing years, their region blossomed and achieved a level of autonomy and self-governance that has brought them so close to independence today.

When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) briefly administrated Iraq following Saddam's ousting, Barzani had his reservations about the man leading Iraq's calamitous post-Saddam transition, Paul Bremer, a former member of Kissinger and Associates, and a protégé of Kissinger himself.  

According to Barzani, Bremer wanted him to disband the Peshmerga in 2003. The Kurdish president recalled this recently, at a gathering of academics in the region.

"[Bremer] said… this is a red line for me," Barzani recalled. "I told him if it is a red line for you once, it is ten times more a red line for me." 

Anti-Americanism is unlikely to take root in Kurdistan - neither among the people, as it has among some in neighbouring Turkey, or in the leadership, like the regime in Iran.

After a heated argument, Barzani gave Bremer a clear ultimatum when he told him: "I am going back to Kurdistan. If you are a man, come and disband the Peshmerga."

Bremer would later back down. Barzani told the academics that he used this example to demonstrate that independence "would not be gifted to the people of Kurdistan".

Interestingly, the legal adviser to Bremer at this time was none other than Brett McGurk, which is possibly another reason Barzani's patience with him is, putting it mildly, limited.

In 2007, the Kurdish president unequivocally denounced the Americans when they sent forces into Erbil to raid the Iranian consulate under the pretext that it was being used to plan attacks on US troops in Iraq, without giving forewarning to the Kurds and almost getting into a firefight with local Kurdish security forces as a result.

Anti-Americanism is unlikely to take root in Kurdistan - neither among the people, as it has among some in neighbouring Turkey, or in the leadership, like the regime in Iran. This doesn't mean Kurdistan will unquestionably support the wisdom of American policies when it directly affects them.

Quil Lawrence, an NPR journalist and author of the 2007 book The Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, summed up this attitude perfectly when he pointed out many Kurds feel the following quote from Winston Churchill has particular resonance to the Washington-Erbil relationship: "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities." 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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