Where the Kurds are Located in the U.S. Strategy After the Invasion of Iraq and Onward?

The Kurds’ desire to secure and consolidate the freedoms they enjoyed in the decade prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has reshaped U.S.-Kurdish relations in many ways. In order to keep Iraq united with a strong central government, U.S. policy tries to ensure that the Kurds will not be brutalized again
No wonder, then, that Iraq is such a difficult issue to manage. However, the Kurdish focus on self-rule, which opts out of the struggle for power over the country, is in this mix the relatively easiest goal to attain.

Dr. Zardasht Baban
Official adviser of the US Republican Party special assistant of Chawy Kurd-

The Kurds’ desire to secure and consolidate the freedoms they enjoyed in the decade prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has reshaped U.S.-Kurdish relations in many ways. In order to keep Iraq united with a strong central government, U.S. policy tries to ensure that the Kurds will not be brutalized again. At the same time, though, The United States has tried to work with the Kurdish Regional Government. The Kurds have equally tried to support the U.S. presence in Iraq as they too benefit from the cooperative relationship.

In this paper, I examine the U.S.-Kurdish relationship in the period after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It includes America’s pre-invasion plans and assessments and then evaluates the level of success after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the difficulties involved, and the changes made in the strategy of both sides.

A major Kurdish priority in post-invasion Iraq has been to secure and consolidate semi-independent status for themselves. In the same time, U.S. policy puts the emphasis on ensuring Iraq’s sovereignty and on having a strong Kurdish entity. This situation potentially puts the two sides on the same path.

Prior to the invasion, Paul Wolfowitz described Kurds as among the most educated and secular people in the Middle East. Similarly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld describing the Iraqi-Kurds problem as that of an ‘Eastern European country’ in which ‘a repressive dictator brutalizing them. Therefore, Wolfowitz suggested, if the United States were to remove Saddam’s regime, Iraqi appreciation and cooperation would be ‘much greater than that of Eastern Europe,’ where people had complained ‘that it took the United States so long to get there.”

This optimism dominated their official policies and statements during the first year of the invasion. Immediately after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the United States–under Jay Garner, who led the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)–depicted itself as a liberator with a limited and humanitarian role. Then, in May of that year, President George W. Bush declared the end of hostilities. This was followed by Rumsfeld’s declaration of the step-by-step plan for decreasing U.S. forces in Iraq to 30,000 troops by September 2003.

Later, Bush went further, declaring ‘Iraq as a democracy will have great power to inspire the Middle East.’. Thus, the initial phase of U.S. policy in Iraq was positive in outlook and expressed the hope for a bright future for the nation. U.S. plans for that period were based on their belief that Iraqi unity would emerge following the dictator’s demise. Yet the semi-autonomous status of Kurdistan and the Kurds’ desire for separation were perceived as a goal that should be considered later.


The U.S. encouraged many measures to impower Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdish Peshmerga to implement a powerful administrative system in Iraq and in Kurdistan. According some American official., the Turks were trying to have a major role in the war and in determining Iraq’s future. Reportedly, Turkey wanted to send a large military force to establish a security arc that might permit them to enter predominantly Kurdish cities. The claim has been made that the Turks wanted the Peshmerga disarmed, displaced Kurds forbidden from returning to Kirkuk, and an end to the quest for autonomy. Some sources have claimed that the United States had incentive to impower KRG in order to prevent Turkey and Iranian from muddling in the Iraqi’s affair. Prior to the invasion, U.S. policy also had l interest in encouraging some sort of federalism. Moreover, to show American support for the Kurd, the Kurds were brought into the coalition

The United States convinced that it was in its interest to arm the Peshmerga. This plan was achieved by classifying the Peshmerga as regular units of Iraqi Army but subject to Kurdish leaders’ orders to maintain the US control over the loyalty of the Iraqi’s Army. However, to avoid appearing as though they were interfering in such matters, the United States arranged for the Iraqi administration to appear to be the ones making the decision.

It could also be argued that the transitional constitution, however, did grant more many rights to the Kurds, such as the recognition of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the formation of a federal system for Iraq based on geographic and historic realities, the Kurds’ right to veto, and a proposal for a solution to the issue of Kirkuk. The Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period (TAL) granted some authority to the KRG by giving the central government ‘less rights’ on a wide range of sensitive issues, such as a central monopoly on military force, control over natural resources, broad fiscal powers, and control of the judiciary.

The strategy of the U.S. and the Kurds was substantiated by the US. need for Kurdish support. Concern over the growing strength of potentially pro-Iranian Shi’a parties led the United States to seek out a counterforce in a strengthened federalist structure. The Kurds also had other assets in this maneuvering. The United States’ relative isolation in its Iraq policy facing hostility from many Sunni and some Shi’a Iraqis, Iran, Arab states, and a significant part of Europe and the onset of an insurgency made Kurdish support, and the power of about 70,000 pro-coalition Peshmerga, more valuable. The relative stability of the north was one of the few advantages for the United States. Only a token force of U.S. troops was stationed in the Kurdish area.

Although the Kurds never threatened the Americans militarily, they could have raised the possibility of boycotting the central government and elections, barring representatives of the central government from Kurdistan, and even seceding from Iraq. Civil disobedience was also a possibility, as was organizing a separate referendum in Kurdistan.

The United States also had some important leverage of its own in preventing any disagreements with the Kurds from escalating. One of them was the ‘Turkish card.’ The United States recognized Turkish concerns, distance Turkey to participate in the U.S.-led coalition and remained vocal about the Turkish threat of cross-border operations. In April 2003, for example, the United States coordinated Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk, which they had entered as part of the coalition forces. The U.S saw an interest to allowed Kurds to sustain military presence in Kirkuk. In July 2003, U.S. forces apprehended 11 Turkish elite troops who were allegedly preparing to assassinate the Kurdish mayor/governor of Kirkuk and destabilize the de facto Kurdish government. In September 2003, the United States rejected an attempt to let Turkish participation in the coalition. On October 8, 2003, the Turkish parliament accepted a U.S. invitation to send 10,000 troops to Iraq-Kirkuk, However, this idea was rejected by Iraq’s and Kurdish government.


The frequent alterations of U.S. policy reflected the complex, changeable nature of the political and religious opposition to the United States in Iraq. This was evidenced by the fact that while most Sunnis rejected participation in elections and in the political process, Shi’a clerics and 42 Shi’a parties called for general elections in June 2003. Supporting this demand, in January 2004, tens of thousands of protesters marched.[40] On the one hand, the Sunni’s rejection, based on their demand for restoring a regime they had dominated, undermined the legitimacy of the whole political process and further reduced security. On the other hand, the Shi’a demand for what was in effect a Shi’a Islamist state–at least in the south–threatened to bring to power anti-American religious groups. In this context, the Kurds’ behavior and their interests were likely a welcome relief.


The combination of U.S. policy failures, the January 2005 election results, and relative Kurdish moderation brought a better understanding of the American towards the importance of the Kurds role in the Iraq and the region. The new balance created a climate favorable to further decentralization, benefiting the Kurds; this was clearly reflected in the permanent constitution. Furthermore, since Kurds comprised the second-largest bloc in parliament and the biggest secular group, U.S. interest in the Kurds increased to an unprecedented level. The Kurds became indispensable to the Americans. They also became a check and a balance between Sunnis and Shi’a, acted as an arbitrator between them, and encouraged reconciliation.

Finally, the high number of coalition casualties in the period both before and after the election created an increasingly disturbing and dangerous situation for the United States. This compelled the United States to adopt defensive strategies and transfers the power back to the Iraqis with a twofold benefit for the Kurds. First, as partners in power sharing, the Kurds found this new arrangement could work to their advantage. Second, with a quarter of the parliamentary seats, they held the balance of power, since a two-thirds’ majority was needed to rule. The willingness of the Americans to support the Kurds depended on the U.S. position in Iraq.

Within this new context, the Americans conceded on a few issues that had been rejected during the earlier phase. These included Talabani’s election as president (a reversal of U.S. policy); federalism with a weaker central government; a clearer resolution for Kirkuk; and recognition of the Peshmerga as the guards of Kurdistan.

The Kurds were now courted for their support. U.S. officials began visiting Kurdistan. For example, in May 2005 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Kurdistan the first stop of her first visit to Iraq. As Michael Rubin notes, ‘By going first to Barzani’s headquarters rather than to Baghdad, she bolstered the Kurdish leader’s position in the eyes of his constituents and among the other Iraqi political leaders negotiating in the nation’s capital. Then, in November 2005, Mr. Masoud Barzani was officially received in the White House as president of the KRG and was assured the United States would accord the Kurds ‘special status’ in Iraq. Therefore, it can be seen that the initial U.S. strategy, which seen as a support for the Kurdish position in Baghdad, weakening the pro-Iranian Islamists, and avoiding the menace of civil war.

This series of developments suggests that the pro-Kurdish element in U.S. policy was not inevitable, but rather arose with forces. The competition for power with the Sunnis, the fear of civil war, increasing Iranian influence, and the weakening of secularism all made the Kurds seem more attractive allies for the United States.

In addition, some influential Shi’a parties called for a special Shi’a region comprising nine provinces in the south. This attitude greatly strengthened the case for doing something similar in the north. The Shi’a were also willing to trade a relatively more secularist Iraq in exchange for Kurdish backing, a deal that also made Kurdish and U.S. interests run parallel and gave America another reason to appreciate the value of Kurdish leverage within the new Iraq.

Along similar lines, Iran’s policy gave advantages to the Kurds as well. With growing Shi’a-Iranian links and the radicalization of Iran’s government–under Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the drive for nuclear weapons–U.S. policy wanted stronger forces in Iraq that were not so tied to Tehran.

The emergence of the Sadr faction among the Shi’a intensified this situation. In the December 2005 elections, the Sadrists emerged as the strongest partner inside the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), with a bloc of 32 seats. Also, under Muqtada al-Sadr’s control was the Mehdi army, which doubled in size between 2004 and 2006. Sadr sent two strong messages to the Americans: One demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and the other was his willingness to defend Iran if it were attacked by the United States.

During the first stage, the response was to try to use the Kurdish card to overcome the problems posed by both the Shi’a and by the Shi’a-Sunni conflict. After the December election, for example, the Americans urged the Kurds to embrace the Sunnis and remain involved in negotiations to help form a secular government with Sunni Arabs and secular Shi’a under the leadership of Allawi. As a result, a temporary rival coalition of Kurds, Allawi, and Sunnis was formed that called on the UIA to withdraw from Jafari.

However, Iran’s influence in Iraq is not confined to the Shi’a, and it is relevant to note that there were instances of cooperation between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran before the U.S. occupation or the emergence of the region of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. Iran has been, as one analyst put it, a ‘longstanding benefactor and player in Iraqi Kurdish politics when the KDP and PUK administered Kurdistan under the No-Fly Zone.

Evidence of the Kurdish desire to gain support from Iran and maintain good relations with Tehran is the fact that since 1991 (when Iraqi Kurds assumed control of the region), the KRG has banned incursions into Iran from the armed camps of the Iranian Kurdistan opposition parties that have been based within the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan Moreover, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an economic dimension has been added to the relationship. According to Kurdish officials, the annual trade between the two is estimated to be about $800 million. There are Iranian consulates in both Arbil (the capital of the Kurdistan region) and Sulaymaniyah (the second largest city in the KRG). Unlike other neighboring countries, where the KRG has no formal representation, the KRG has official representation in Tehran, and this can be construed as recognition of the KRG by the Iranian government.

In its effort to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States has sought to undermine Kurdish-Iranian relations. For example, in January 2007, U.S. forces, accompanied by military helicopters, stormed the Iranian consulate in the Kurdish city of Arbil, arresting five Iranian employees. Then, on September 20, 2007, the U.S. army arrested an Iranian trade delegation on suspicion of smuggling weapons into Iraq for use against U.S. soldiers. This action has damaged Iranian-Kurdish relations.


The conflict in Iraq is particularly intransigent because of the convoluted tangle of competing ethnic, religious, cultural, historical, and political features of that society. It is a deeply divided nation with a legacy of internecine and interstate conflicts, factional strife, systematic repression, social alienation, and ethnic and religious fanaticism. Currently, it is a post-authoritarian state with little or no experience of electoral democracy. Iraq’s problem is a direct consequence of the accumulated effects of centuries of internal conflict.

An important contributing element in the internal divisions within Iraq is ethnic nationalism. For many decades, Kurdish ethnic nationalism has been expressed in the form of secessionist and irredentist movements, but this has brought them into conflict with Sunni pan-Arab nationalism and territorialism. Another key ingredient in the civil conflict has been the clash of identities, and as Carole O’Leary has noted, many Iraqis ‘view their own communal identities in primordial or essentializing terms.’ For example, there is a lack of feeling of belonging to Iraq and the absence (or weakness) of a sense of Iraqi national identity among the Kurds.

Instead, as O’Leary observes, there is an emerging form of a ‘Kurdistaniness’ form of identity. In other words, Iraqi society is dominated by seemingly irreconcilable groups with opposing notions of their own identity. The Kurdish identity seems incompatible with an Iraqi national identity; pan-Arabism clashes with Iraqi nationalist ideals; and Shi’a and Sunni versions of Islam have long been hostile to each other. Due to the depth of feeling that underpins this clash of identities, O’Leary classifies Iraq as a ‘non-nation state. She points out that ‘the identity and comparison patterns in a ‘non-nation state’ produce patterns of political conflict different from those found in nation states.’ In fact, for O’Leary ‘the failure to construct an Iraqi national identity that includes all Iraqis is a key factor in understanding Iraq’s institutionalized culture of violence, its inability to initiate political reform, and its aggressiveness toward its neighbours.’

Moreover, 80 years of conflict between these contradictions has created exclusive interests for each group. There is a unique balance between the former rulers, the Sunnis, and the subjugated Shi’a and Kurds. The Kurds want local self-rule or even independence. The Sunnis’ main interest is to recover their grip on power while keeping the country’s territorial integrity intact. Shi’a form about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and their main interest has been to exercise their right as the majority to run the country. Hence, the key interests of Iraq’s ethnic/sectarian groups are diametrically opposed and seemingly irreconcilable.

These opposite interests have resulted in the creation of exclusive visions for each group over many things. The role of Islam is one example. Most Shi’a and Sunnis insist on an Islamic identity for Iraq, but Ibrahim al-Marashi notes that the Kurds believe that ‘an Islamicized state will merely attempt to subsume the Kurdish identity under the banner of Islam. Foreign policy is another area of disagreement. Though both Shi’a and Sunnis express their hostility to Israel, it is often reported that the Kurds feel less so and even make agreements with Israelis. The Shi’a view Iran as a friend and as powerful coreligionists. Sunnis, on the other hand, consider Iran as an enemy that threatens Iraq’s Arab identity.

These are all real issues and problems, not merely misunderstandings or due to the personal quirks of individual leaders. No wonder, then, that Iraq is such a difficult issue to manage. However, the Kurdish focus on self-rule, which opts out of the struggle for power over the country, is in this mix the relatively easiest goal to attain.

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