U.S. demands Iraqi Kurds cancel vote on independence


By Nahal Toosi, POLITICO

The Trump administration demanded in unusually strong terms Friday that Kurdish leaders in Iraq cancel a referendum on independence set for later this month, saying it was “distracting” from the military effort against Islamic State terrorists.

The White House statement came hours after the parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan voted to go ahead with the referendum. The developments are the latest in an intensifying campaign, some of it waged on Capitol Hill, over whether the Kurds should hold the vote. It’s an especially sensitive issue because the Kurds are critical U.S. allies in the anti-terrorism fight in Iraq and Syria, providing ground troops that have scored numerous successes.

“The United States does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum later this month,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday. “The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat [the Islamic State] and stabilize the liberated areas.”

The Sept. 25 referendum is advisory — meaning Iraqi Kurds will vote on whether they support creating an independent Kurdish state, giving their leaders a mandate to start negotiating an exit. It is expected to result in a “yes” for independence.

In addition to the United States, Iraq’s central government, Turkey and Iran are among critics of the referendum. The latter two, in particular, fear it will bolster Kurdish separatists in their territory.

Kurdish officials have expressed surprise and frustration over the international response. The Kurds in Iraq have long aspired to independence and spent years considering whether to hold a referendum. Kurds make up 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq’s 37 million people, concentrated in a largely autonomous region in the north. They have faced brutal repression in the past.

The Kurdish Regional Government’s representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, told POLITICO in a recent interview that over the past two years she had found a fair amount of support among U.S. lawmakers for the Kurds’ aspirations, though many are keeping it quiet.

“We know, by the way, that the State Department and possibly the [Defense Department] are personally contacting members of Congress, senators, representatives, asking them not to support the referendum,” Abdul Rahman said. “We’re very serious about independence. It’s kind of disheartening that for two to three years we talked about a referendum and the U.S. said that it was surprised.”

She likened the referendum to British voters’ decision last year to leave the European Union, spawning a lengthy negotiation process known as Brexit. Abdul Rahman acknowledged that a formal declaration of Kurdish independence is not imminent but said any future “negotiations are not going to be open-ended.”

It’s not clear where President Donald Trump himself stands on whether the Kurds deserve their own country. But some top members of his administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have spent weeks trying to persuade Kurdish leaders to call off the vote.

Instead of holding the referendum, Trump aides are urging the Kurds to enter into new talks with the Iraqi central government that could, perhaps, lead to even more autonomy for their region of the country. In her statement Friday, Sanders reiterated that call for a new “serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad.”

A day earlier, Brett McGurk, a U.S. special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, announced that he had presented an alternative plan to the Kurds that would include new talks with the government in Baghdad. He did not give any details, however, and Friday’s vote by the Kurdish parliament appeared to rebuke him.

Kurdish leaders have suggested they may delay the vote if they can get ironclad guarantees from international leaders, such as the U.S. president and the United Nations secretary-general, that they will one day support a Kurdish referendum and will recognize its outcome. But so far they’ve not been assured that such guarantees are forthcoming.

Abdul Rahman noted that despite the Kurds’ strong overall relationship with the United States, they don’t need American permission to hold a referendum. The U.S., she said, should start preparing for the reality that Sept. 26 will bring.

“Once we’re independent,” Abdul Rahman said, “they will look at us differently.”

September 16, 2017 | 5 Comments » | 549 views

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5 Comments / 5 Comments

  1. So USA is siding with the Islamic States of Turkey and Iran in lieu of its actually true ally fighting side by side with USA military in the middle east. Kurds show respect to women and minorities and deserve their own state.

    The USA government is highly highly confused and narrow minded in not supporting the Kurds. USA needs to respect Kurds interests also. Yes fighting ISIS is important but why should the Kurds be stuck under the thumb of an Iraqi goverment controlled by Iran the chief sponsor of terrorists.

  2. The abject hypocrisy of Turkey and Iran is plain. They support the Pal but oppose the Kurds. Shame on the US!
    The Kurds are being used and abused by the SuShi Islamofascists and the US!

  3. Hi, Watsa.

    Like you, I am frustrated with President Trump about many foreign policy issues; but the Kurdish issue is more nuanced than you might think. The most important thing to know about the Kurds, is that they are deeply divided: Masoud Barzani is the one pushing for the referendum; but he is also the Kurdish leader who is most in bed with the Turks. Neither the PUK, Gorran nor the PKK and YPG have been pushing for independence. Barzani seems to be trying to look like a nationalist; but wait and see — he is likely to back down on his independence push, once the Turks, Iranians, Iraqis and Americans have compensated him enough to get him to back down. Barzani is a tribal leader/ warlord, more than a liberator. He has been illegally holding on to power for years, and pocketing money intended for his people, for years. The Kurds put up with him, I believe, because they have no good alternative.

    You are correct, in part, in that the YPG Kurds in Syria have been faithful and useful allies to the US. The time is quickly approaching, though, when the US will have to dump them and they will have to fend for themselves. We simply cannot support a landlocked ally that is surrounded by hostile powers (Turkey, Syria, Iraq-Iran and Barzani).

  4. @ Michael S:
    At a minimum, couldn’t the US simply abstain on the question and stick to Trump’s pledge to form temporary military alliances to kill terrorists and not engage in nation building? The Kurds, or at least some factions of Kurds, are doing pretty much all of the fighting, anyway, aren’t they? Moreover, if we wish to accomplish regime change in Iran and Turkey, as well as to curb their regional ambitions, doesn’t it behoove us to cultivate any allies we can in the region, and even within their countries, so as to further the goals of disruption, containment, rollback and regime change? Wouldn’t it be a relief to be able to support non-Islamist, non-terrorist allies for a change, with no chance of blowback, as we have so often seen from Bin Laden to Benghazi? Allies who geniuinely like us and don’t want to conquer us at some point? Shouldn’t we be engaging in a real Cold War, again? Or should I say, engaging back, because that’s what they’ve been doing to America and Israel?

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