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World

Kurdish autonomy campaign puts Obama between Iraq and a hard place

Pressure for expanded territorial rights for Iraqi Kurds from Kurdish lobby groups and US supporters in Washington and Northern Iraq is creating problems for President Obama and his policy of preserving Iraq's unity.

President Barack Obama is greeted by the US commander in Iraq Ray Odierno

Obama's Iraq policy is under threat from Kurdish demands

It is said that Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of the same name in Northern Iraq, is the one place on earth in which George W. Bush could still win an election. While the Kurds continue to lose faith and become frustrated with US President Barack Obama's stance over their internal borders and sharing of natural resources, the legacy of the Bush administration's involvement in the region is supported and celebrated.

The Kurdish region – and Erbil in particular – is enjoying somewhat of an economic boom and the state of security, as much as is possible in Iraq, is relatively stable mainly thanks to the US support shown to the Kurdish militias, known as peshmerga, who have managed to keep out Sunni Arab insurgents. Even Turkish incursions across the border have failed to unsettle the sense of renewal.

The resource-rich north of the country has probably profited the most from the 2003 US-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein's government and many Kurds are still very grateful for that intervention. They also remember that US support for the no-flight zone helped protect the region's slow recovery and allowed the Kurds to pursue autonomy from the rest of Saddam's Iraq in the 1990s. As well as being a region where the former President Bush would be welcomed, it is perhaps the only part of Iraq where US troops are still embraced as liberators.

Oil and gas reserves maintain US interest in the region

Shopping centres in the city of Erbil

New modern shopping centres are a sign of Erbil's rise

The result of American investment in the region's stability and economy is an almost Western capital where shopping malls buttress plots of land put aside for hotel complexes and golf courses. Erbil is a city of opportunity and one full of foreigners, mostly Americans, who work and consult with the many oil and gas companies at the heart of the Kurdish region's wealth.

Among them are a number of former US diplomats and military officials from the George W. Bush-era who are now reaping their own rewards from the pro-US atmosphere in the Kurdish region. People like former US ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, Jay Garner, the former administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq, and former US government advisor to the Kurds Peter Galbraith, have all held paid advisory or board positions at Kurdish oil and gas companies at one time or another since retiring from office.

Given the Obama administration's support for the government in Baghdad in its dispute with the Kurds over the sharing of oil and gas reserves, the involvement of former US officials in expanding and strengthening the Kurds' grip on their region's resources has created clashes with Washington over the White House's stated policy of preserving Iraq's unity. While some work with Kurdish companies, others represent the dozens of foreign oil companies who were awarded concessions in oil field auctions against the wishes of the central government in Baghdad.

Kurdish lobby groups in Washington build pressure on Obama

A Kurdish flag waves as Iraqi Kurdish families enjoy by the Dukan river during the Nowruz celebrations in Dukan near the city of Suleymaniyah, in the Kurdish dominant northern Iraq

Kurds want more territorial rights in Northern Iraq

Obama is not only feeling the pressure from Iraq. The Kurds have developed an impressive lobbying system in Washington based on their contacts with former politicians from the Bush administration, many of which remain advocates of the Kurdish cause and supporters of the right of statehood for the strategically important region between Iran, Syria and Turkey.

According to the US lobby watchdog the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, the Kurdish region ranks among the top 10 buyers of lobbying services in the United States. The Kurds are using their lobbying and public relations machine to apply pressure on the Obama administration to cement a "strategic and institutional relationship" with the US akin to that enjoyed by Israel and Taiwan and push the US to influence Baghdad over their territorial rights in the north of Iraq.

"The Kurds certainly seek a 'special relationship' with the US within Iraq and probably also support on contentious issues like the so-called Article 140 matters concerning disputed territories where Kurdistan meets Arab – and Turkomen – Iraq," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign, national security and defence policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Deutsche Welle. "In earlier eras, the Kurds probably hoped that a relationship with the US could be preserved even if the rest of Iraq fell apart. That has probably changed. But as a back-up plan, the Kurds do like thinking of the US as their ultimate security guarantor, although this is not stated explicitly"

According to O'Hanlon, "the Kurds are pushing for a more favorable resolution of disputed territorial matters than autonomy. There is a kernel of truth to the concept of more autonomy though as they apparently want flexibility to sign oil contracts with foreign firms without the need for a blessing from Baghdad – and that would be problematic if it makes the Sunnis in particular feel left out."

Kurdish message to Washington: We are major players

While the Kurds haven't been involved in the business of lobbying in the US capital for very long, they develped a knack for it quickly. "The Kurds are doing a lot of lobbying in Washington, and they are learning the game rather well, sending people not only to congressional hearings but to all meetings in Washington that touch on the politics of the region, not only Iraq – and of course the lobbying firms do their job behind the scenes," Marina Ottaway, the Director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Deutsche Welle.

"From the point of view of Washington, the Kurds were useful to the US in the days of Saddam Hussein, but now they make things more complicated with the issue of the contentious region of Kirkuk and indeed tensions along the entire order between Kurdistan and Iraq," she added. "The Kurds are not exactly demanding more autonomy; they want to keep what they have. The changes they want are territorial adjustments. Nobody is going to try and reduce their autonomy."

Instability due to Kurdish autonomy a threat but a remote one

Kurdish peshmerga troops drive their T-54/55 soviet made tanks during an exercise near Halabja, south of Sulaimaniyah, northern Iraq

The Kurds are well-prepared but a return to war is unlikely

While the Kurds have influential friends both in Washington and back in Erbil, many power-brokers in the current US government are wary of supporting the Kurdish campaign for increased autonomy as it goes against the policy of a unified Iraq espoused by the White House and the Iraqi government. Some senior US officials still believe that giving in to Kurdish demands could break up Iraq and destabilize Turkey.

"The danger of instability and even disintegration in Iraq is there, but it is not the result of Kurdish autonomy, rather of the incapacity of the factions and above all of top personalities to compromise," said Ottaway. "There could be strife over territory and that could be extremely destabilizing. If something goes wrong, the next step may be a push for independence, but it would only happen if the Iraqi government tries to limit Kurdish autonomy, and I do not think they will try."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Michael Knige

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