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Protecting the relationship between Irbil and Baghdad is a must

Three weeks have passed since Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) controversial independence referendum. Iraq’s political map is rapidly changing again after Kurdish Peshmerga forces were forced on Tuesday to withdraw from the city of Kirkuk, which they had captured during the war against Daesh.
The Peshmerga withdrawal from Sinjar and other disputed territories should only be considered a temporary victory for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who is ferociously opposed to the Kurdish independence bid.
Even though he previously insisted that the Kurds back off as far as the positions they held before the Daesh onslaught in 2014, it is far from certain whether he will follow through on the matter. This is because it would escalate tensions further with the KRG, and could even bring the opposing parties to the brink of civil war.
It is also unclear whether KRG President Masoud Barzani wants to escalate tensions further with Baghdad, despite having pushed through the referendum — to the great dismay of the central government and near-unified opposition from the international community.
For Barzani, who has presided over the Peshmerga’s military gains against Daesh and kept Kurdish-controlled territories relatively safe by providing political stability, the gains achieved could very well be lost if a civil war breaks out.
Given these dynamics, it would be a mistake to interpret the Kurdish withdrawal as a strategic game-changer, but rather as a goodwill gesture from the KRG to strengthen Al-Abadi’s domestic standing, especially within the complex and multifaceted Shiite political landscape, where identity politics have long been championed by competing groups vying for power and influence.
The Kurdish withdrawal allows Al-Abadi to claim some sort of victory, especially in the event Barzani seeks to use the referendum as leverage for negotiations for further Kurdish autonomy.
It is also conceivable that the KRG’s decision to withdraw from Kirkuk was tied to US diplomatic pressure, as Washington remains committed to a unified Iraq. Ever since the US-led invasion — from then-President George W. Bush’s push for democracy, to his successor Barack Obama’s insistence on adhering to arbitrary deadlines for the withdrawal of American troops, to Donald Trump’s reckless foreign policy approaches — Washington’s Iraq policy is at best characterized as “whiplash diplomacy.”

Both the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi have a responsibility to ensure that the political gains achieved in the war against Daesh are not lost.

Sigurd Neubauer

While Washington has partially contributed to Iraq’s instability, the narrow sectarian agenda of Shiite supremacy pursued by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki also contributed to the near collapse of the country’s fragile political system. Marginalized Sunnis eventually felt they had little choice but to tolerate Sunni extremism, which provided Daesh with the initial political space to set up its brutal and barbaric entity.
Given that Barzani and Al-Abadi were allies in the fight against Daesh, they have a collective responsibility to ensure that the political gains achieved in the war against the terrorist group are not lost, and that the fragile political entities of Irbil and Baghdad remain stable, and hopefully even cooperate on matters of mutual interest.
Because of Washington’s historic responsibility toward Iraq, it too must ensure that the fragile relationship between Irbil and Baghdad is upheld, and that the Sunni minority is not excluded from the political process.
But given Iran’s close association with various Iraqi Shiite groups, including those who fought on the frontlines against Daesh during the operation to liberate Mosul, Washington must have realistic expectations when it comes to how to deal with Tehran’s influence over Iraqi politics.
While it is highly unlikely that any of the Shiite militia fighters who fought Daesh in Mosul and surrounding areas will voluntarily disarm, the best scenario Washington can opt for in a post-Daesh environment is to promote a “Finland model” for Iraq, under which the Baghdad government is neither politically aligned with Tehran nor Washington.
To do this, the US should continue to apply pressure on Irbil and Baghdad to ensure that hostilities between them do not erupt. Moreover, Washington can prevent Iraq from turning into an Iranian vessel state by maintaining a presence of special forces as political leverage to help Baghdad and Irbil with intelligence and training.
Trump’s emphasis on destroying Daesh, his first visit overseas as president to Saudi Arabia, and his pledge to decertify the Iran nuclear deal all serve as important incentives as to why Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies are expected to play a larger role in Iraq’s reconstruction.
Given Washington’s historic responsibility toward Iraq, it has a unique opportunity to leverage its positive relationship with the GCC, and with Saudi Arabia in particular, to help protect the fragile relationship between Irbil and Baghdad. This can be done by providing necessary humanitarian assistance to the millions of internally displaced people.

Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast.