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Between Iraq and a Hard Place

The Kurds love America. It’s time to reciprocate.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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Iraq has 150 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, but 45 billion of those lie in northern Iraq, an area the size of Switzerland with a population of 5.2 million Kurds. Baghdad is responsible for selling Iraq’s oil. Kurds should receive 17 percent of the oil revenue. Unfortunately, corruption in Baghdad is so bad that the Kurds rarely receive their full share. Indeed, Iraq’s cities often suffer prolonged blackouts because the ministry in charge of oil denies the Ministry of Electricity enough oil to generate power.

Several years ago, Kurdistan began circumventing Baghdad by trucking its oil to Turkey, an industrialized neighbor dependent on Iran and Russia for energy. More recently, the Kurds built a pipeline to move oil directly to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. When oil companies frustrated by unacceptable business practices in southern Iraq announced their intention to move north, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad told them to stay put. They went anyway. Today, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, and Hess have exploration deals in Kurdistan.

Despite Iraq’s well-documented shortcomings and Kurdistan’s economic growth, the State Department continues to favor Baghdad. As ISIS terrorists began tolling down the Tigris River valley, a freighter loaded with a million barrels of Kurdish oil cruised aimlessly off the coast of Morocco because of U.S. pressure on Europe not to buy Kurdish oil. 

“Our most immediate concern is for Iraq’s stability,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily press briefing in Washington. “We’ve been clear that it’s important for all sides to help [Iraq] pull together and avoid actions that might further exacerbate divisions and tensions.”

Because of the spiraling cost of oil and the uncertainty of Middle Eastern deliveries, the Turkish broker handling the shipment managed to find a European buyer. Today, two more tankers filled with Kurdish crude are sailing for Europe. 

It is reasonable for Washington to try to salvage a relationship with a government in which it has invested more than 4,400 American lives. But who is our real ally in Mesopotamia? Unlike Iraq’s army, the Kurdish Peshmerga did not retreat from the ISIS assault. The Kurds held all three of their provinces, provided shelter for fleeing refugees, and moved into the nearby city of Kirkuk, saving it from terrorist occupation while adding to northern Iraq’s oil reserves.

Historically, Kirkuk was an ethnically diverse town inhabited by Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs. But because it sits atop a huge pool of oil, Saddam Hussein expelled 500,000 Kurds in 1991 and gave their homes to Arabs brought in from the Sunni Triangle. The Kurds’ return to the city rights a historical wrong, but it also changes the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad to the point that Baghdad now needs the Kurds more than ever before.

In 2008, George W. Bush told Maliki that Iraq needed a permanent U.S. military presence. Maliki refused, insisting that all American forces leave his country by December 2011. Two years later, Barack Obama reiterated the Bush position, asking only that remaining U.S. soldiers be indemnified against local prosecution. Maliki again rebuffed the offer of continuing assistance. In the present situation, the United States should do what it reasonably can to defend and shelter the people of Iraq, no matter their religion or ethnicity, starting by having the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance help the more than 500,000 refugees from Nineveh Province now in Kurdistan. The Iraqi government as presently configured is not worth another investment of lives and treasure. 

It’s time for the Pentagon and State Department to admit what they already know: Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government is a true ally and committed friend that shares our values. Working in cooperation with our NATO partner Turkey, Washington should help the Kurds preserve what they have achieved.

The prospect of an independent Kurdistan still troubles Erbil’s neighbors. But there is little reason for Iraq’s Kurds to change the status quo, given their oil wealth, leverage with Baghdad, and solid business relationship with Turkey. Perhaps it’s time for the United States to love the Kurds as much as they love us.

East-West News Service editor David DeVoss spent more than four years in Iraq working on private sector development projects for USAID.

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