September 21, 2007

Pick a side, Mr Barzani

KRG President Mas'ud Barzani and author
Salah ad-Din, Iraq - 1995
KRG President Mas'ud Barzani and author
Iran has been providing money, weapons and training to Shi’a militias in Iraq for some time now. These weapons include the lethal explosively-formed projectile (EFP) used in improvised explosive devices that have killed and wounded hundreds of American troops. In recent weeks, both the Secretary of Defense and commander of the U.S. Central Command have accused Iran of providing these same EFP’s to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As part of the effort to interdict the flow of these weapons into Iraq and to prevent further casualties, U.S. forces have begun hunting down members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force who have infiltrated into Iraq. Five such operatives were detained in January in the Kurdish city of Arbil. Iran claims them to be diplomats, and the Iraqi foreign minister (himself a Kurd) demanded their release. They are still in U.S. custody.

Earlier this week, American forced arrested another Iranian accused of smuggling explosive materials into Iraq. The arrest occurred in as-Sulaymaniyah, the major city in northeast Iraq, part of the Kurdish autonomous region. Iran, as expected, called the detained member an economic envoy, and threatened economic retaliation against the prosperous Kurdish area – prosperity largely due to Iranian trade.

Kurdistan Regional Government president Mas’ud Barzani called the action illegal. Mr Barzani, you need to determine whose side you are on. Are you going to blindly support the Iranian regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmous Ahmadinejad, or back the American forces that have been responsible for the security and prosperity of Iraq’s Kurds for the last 15 years?

Of course, many of the KRG’s actions have not been helpful. They have, as is their right under the Iraqi constitution, formed an autonomous region comprising three provinces in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Fine, that’s probably the wise thing to do given the situation in the rest of the country - the Kurds have successfully established a prosperous, secure zone.

However, the KRG acts like a sovereign nation, not an autonomous region under the jurisdiction of the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Earlier this year, KRG President Barzani banned the Iraqi national flag from public buildings in the region, ordering instead the display of the Kurdish flag. Many consider this to be an indication that the Kurds intend to establish an independent state, a step sure to anger Turkey, Iran and Syria.

There are other steps that tend to indicate this intention. Last year, at least four Kurdish airlines opened for business, offering direct flights between cities in Europe and the Middle East and the newly refurbished and improved airports in Arbil and as-Sulaymaniyah.

KRG officials have also made independent deals for oil drilling and oilfield development without consulting or involving the oil ministry in Baghdad. The most recent was this month between the KRG and JB Hunt Oil, a Texas firm.

We all support the Kurds’ right to form and administer an autonomous region. I spent a lot of time with the Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1990’s – they’re my favorite Iraqis, to be sure. That said, they have to be part of Iraq. That entails supporting the American forces that are in the country and are responsible for the Kurds’ successes.

Pick a side, Mr. Barzani. Support the United States, or support Iran. Pick carefully, as I suspect there will be reckoning about Iran in the not too distant future.