Archive for the ‘Iraq and Kurds’ category

McMaster, McCain Call to Back Kurds

October 29, 2017

McMaster, McCain Call to Back Kurds, Clarion ProjectElliot Friedland, October 29, 2017

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster answers questions during a press briefing at the White House (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

McCain blamed the chaos in the region on the previous president, saying “This is the unfortunate legacy that the Obama administration left for its successor.” That alone is not a plan. Despite making encouraging sounding remarks about safeguarding Kurdish security, both McCain and McMaster were remarkably light on specifics.

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Leading U.S. political figures Senator John McCain and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster have called for America to ensure Kurdish security and curb Iranian influence. Iraqi forces recently seized disputed territories including the city of Kirkuk from the Kurds as tensions mount following the Kurdistan independence referendum.

President Trump has long warned about the dangers to American security posed by Iranian ambitions. Iran is steadfastly opposed to a Kurdish state.

“What we would like to see in Iraq is a stable Iraq that is not aligned with Iran,” McMaster told a meeting of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

He clarified that “part of a strong Iraq is a strong Kurdish region where we have very long-time partners whose partnership we value tremendously, who you know, who bore the brunt of Saddam Hussein’s brutality over many years and who we intervene on their behalf as everyone knows after 1991 and they used the safety and security we helped provide that region to build a—phenomenal communities in Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil and in Dohuk. I mean these are southern European thriving cities when you go to the Kurdish region.”

McMaster did not shy away from blaming Iran for aggression against the Kurds. In an interview with the U.S.-funded Arabic news network Al-Hurra, he accused Iran of taking “advantage of divisions within the Kurdish Regional Government, divisions within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] after the death of Jalal Talabani, God rest his soul, and what they have done is tried to advance their interest at the expense of long-term security and stability in Iraq.”

He called on America to intervene, saying, “What we need to do, though, is we have to work to mediate this conflict in a way that allows our Kurdish friends to enjoy the safety, security and prosperity they built over so many years and not regress from that.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain was more forthright. In a New York Timesop-ed, McCain slammed the Iraqi government’s attacks on Kurdish forces as “totally unacceptable.”

“The United States offered arms and training to the government of Iraq to fight the Islamic State and secure Iraq from external threats — not to attack Iraqi Kurds, who are some of America’s most trusted and capable partners in the region,” he said.

Despite his strong words, Iraqi forces are already using American equipment to attack Kurds. People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), the paramilitary forces attached to the Iraqi army, launched a four-pronged attack against the Kurdish Peshmerga northwest of Mosul on Thursday, according to Kurdistan 24.

“As of 1200 hrs, Peshmerga heroically repelled today’s attacks, destroying three tanks, five U.S. Humvees and one Badger,” the Kurdish Region Security Council said in a statement. “Having retreated from the areas, Iraqi forces have resorted to shelling Peshmerga positions.”

The Kurds report that around 100 militia fighters were killed. The offensive is aimed at capturing the strategically important area of Iraq next to the Syrian border, according to analyst Seth Frantzman. If successful, it would cut off the Iraqi Kurds from Kurdish areas of Syria.

“Let me be clear: If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds,” McCain wrote.

What exactly does he mean by that? Iraq has already rejected a request by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to disband the Iranian-backed militias grouped under the PMU banner.

The PMU were called to arms in 2014 by a fatwa issued by leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to fight ISIS. The PMU were officially made part of the Iraqi army in November 2016.

It was unclear if McCain would support using U.S. military force to protect Kurdish areas against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. It is also worrying what might happen if America does not act.

“There is a great fear among the Kurds that they could face another genocide at the hands of the Iraqi government and the Shia militia forces backed by Iran,” said Julie Lenarz, the executive director of the Human Security Centre, a London-based think-tank with extensive contacts in Kurdistan. Lenarz was speaking on a conference call hosted by The Israel Project.

McCain blamed the chaos in the region on the previous president, saying “This is the unfortunate legacy that the Obama administration left for its successor.” That alone is not a plan. Despite making encouraging sounding remarks about safeguarding Kurdish security, both McCain and McMaster were remarkably light on specifics.

Toward an independent Kurdistan

October 20, 2017

Toward an independent Kurdistan, Washington Times, James A. Lyons, October 19, 2017

Illustration on the strategic importance of an independent Kurdistan by Alexander Hunter/The Washington Times

Unfortunately, with the Obama and Muslim Brotherhood holdovers still in key positions in the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense, the U.S. position has been to back the Iranian Baghdad puppet regime.

[W]hen you consider that one of the key U.S. objectives in the Middle East is (or ought to be) to prevent Iranian regional hegemony, a staunch ally like the Kurds, who have fought with us to defeat the Islamic State, is exactly what we need in this volatile region. In addition, as a free and independent Kurdistan is key to preventing Iran from establishing a land bridge from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, the current U.S. position makes no sense. Further, should Iran be successful in establishing a land bridge to Lebanon, Tehran will be able far more readily to augment Hezbollah’s already formidable forces as a direct threat to Israel’s survival.

Besides providing verbal support for Kurdistan’s independence, we should take immediate action to establish a forward operating base in Irbil with its 13,000-foot runway, one of the longest in the world. We should plan to rotate a detachment of F-16s and A-10s in and out of the base. Additionally, such a move would complicate any plans by Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara for further aggressive action against Kurdistan. Such a move will not only enhance Israeli security but place added pressure on Iran, along with President Trump’s recent decision on refusing to recertify the unsigned nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

We need to face facts: The only true ally we have in the region today is Israel. A free and independent Kurdistan would clearly enhance the chances of achieving two of our joint, vital objectives in the Middle East — bolster Israel and add to our partners and allies in the region.

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq held a referendum on independence on Sept. 25. It was overwhelmingly approved. This referendum, not surprisingly however, has precipitously raised tensions not only with Iraq but also with Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have large — and restive — Kurdish minorities.

Baghdad already has made moves to isolate the Kurdish region by banning all international flights from landing there and demanding a halt to all crude oil sales. And although Ankara has quarreled repeatedly with the Iranian puppet regime in Baghdad in recent years, the Turkish government late on Oct. 16 decided to close not only Turkish airspace to flights to and from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, but also to close the Irbil-Ceyan oil pipeline, which is the Kurds’ only source of revenue. Additionally, Turkish and Iraqi troops had held joint military exercises shortly after the Sept. 25 referendum vote.

In what may presage a new and violent phase in the break-up of Sykes-Picot Iraq, Baghdad moved aggressively on Oct. 16, sending Iraqi Army troops into the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Further, units of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite paramilitary groups that receive equipment and training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), were deployed alongside the Iraqi Army units south and west of Kirkuk. It is a city of a million people that lies just outside the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government territory. When the Iraqi Army deserted Kirkuk in 2014 in the face of the Islamic State onslaught, however, it was the Kurdish Peshmerga forces deployed there that kept the Kirkuk oil fields from falling into the Islamic State’s hands. They have declared that they are now not about to give up that territory. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of the IRGC Qods Force in charge of Iran’s foreign operations, arrived in Kurdistan on Oct. 15 for discussions — but only with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), not the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). He apparently presented Baghdad’s demands that the Kurdish Regional Government cancel the referendum results as a precondition for talks to resolve the current dispute. KRG officials led by President Masoud Barzani not only previously had rejected any such demands, but pledged to defend Kurdish-held territory in case of attack.

With Iranian-dominated Iraqi and Shiite militia forces now in control of Kirkuk, though, at least in part due to apparent PUK treachery, the region and its deeply divided factions may be poised on the brink of yet another explosion. According to reports, the KDP Peshmerga forces fought hard to avoid being pushed out of Kirkuk, but ultimately had to retreat when their ammunition ran out. Thousands of civilians and Peshmerga fighters fled toward Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.

Unfortunately, with the Obama and Muslim Brotherhood holdovers still in key positions in the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense, the U.S. position has been to back the Iranian Baghdad puppet regime.

The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 is dead. The U.S. must recognize the realities on the ground. The former Iraq, like the former Syria, has always been an artificial construct, cobbled together by European powers in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Absent the brute force of a dictator, these entities simply cannot hold together against the clashing centrifugal forces of their feuding ethnic, sectarian and tribal components.

Further, when you consider that one of the key U.S. objectives in the Middle East is (or ought to be) to prevent Iranian regional hegemony, a staunch ally like the Kurds, who have fought with us to defeat the Islamic State, is exactly what we need in this volatile region. In addition, as a free and independent Kurdistan is key to preventing Iran from establishing a land bridge from Tehran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, the current U.S. position makes no sense. Further, should Iran be successful in establishing a land bridge to Lebanon, Tehran will be able far more readily to augment Hezbollah’s already formidable forces as a direct threat to Israel’s survival.

Besides providing verbal support for Kurdistan’s independence, we should take immediate action to establish a forward operating base in Irbil with its 13,000-foot runway, one of the longest in the world. We should plan to rotate a detachment of F-16s and A-10s in and out of the base. Additionally, such a move would complicate any plans by Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara for further aggressive action against Kurdistan. Such a move will not only enhance Israeli security but place added pressure on Iran, along with President Trump’s recent decision on refusing to recertify the unsigned nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

We need to face facts: The only true ally we have in the region today is Israel. A free and independent Kurdistan would clearly enhance the chances of achieving two of our joint, vital objectives in the Middle East — bolster Israel and add to our partners and allies in the region.

• James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

Iran has given US ‘slap in the face’ with Kirkuk: expert

October 19, 2017

Iran has given US ‘slap in the face’ with Kirkuk: expert, RudawRebaz Ali, October 17, 2017

Iran has delivered the US a “slap in the face” by backing Hashd al-Shaabi’s march on Kirkuk within just 60 hours of US President Donald Trump’s speech, says Michael Pregent.

Speaking to Rudaw’s Rebaz Ali on Monday as events were unfurling in Kirkuk, Pregent expressed frustration over Washington’s stance on the Kurds, believing Washington is too close to the ruling Dawa party of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Answering questions from the media later in the day, Trump refused to take sides, simply stating “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that their clashing.”

A Middle East analyst, Pregent is a former intelligence officer for the US Departments of Defense and State. He embedded as an advisor to the Peshmerga in Mosul in 2005-2006

Rudaw: Why is the US so silent on the situation happening in Kirkuk and Hashd al-Shaabi using American weapons against Peshmerga?

Michael Pregent: We’re surprised. We issued an order, not an order but a warning to Baghdad not to use military force against Kurdish positions in and around Kirkuk. Secretary Mattis said that, the president gave a very strong speech on Friday designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and the Hashd al-Shaabi are commanded by IRGC affiliates, Revolutionary Guard Corps affiliates. We pay money to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and they’re shifting American resources and equipment to these Iranian-led militias. We had a statement today that the Baghdad spokesman said Qassem Soleimani is an advisor to the Hashd al-Shaabi.

We are watching. I know we’re watching. The DoD (Department of Defense) is aware, the Pentagon’s aware and we’re going to see the results tomorrow morning in DC of what happened in the last six hours and through the night. We’re likely to see that this is exactly what the United States cannot allow. But more importantly, this just shows that we’re losing leverage with Baghdad. If you warn Baghdad and they do it anyway, it’s because Tehran is telling them to do it and they are okay with it, they agree. But this is an opportunity now for the United States, especially after the president’s speech, where he was very tough on Iran, to do something because this is testing American resolve by a Qassem Soleimani-led force moving against our allies, allies we’ve had since the Gulf War, even before that, moving against our allies less than 60 hours after the president designated them a terrorist group*.

So tomorrow, Washington DC will wake up and see what happens and everybody hopefully holds their positions tonight, the Iraqi security forces stop, the Hashd al-Shaabi are declared an illegal military, an illegal militia and moved out. But tomorrow, veterans of the Iraq war, myself and others, veterans in Congress that I speak to will be making our voices as loud as we can for the US to do something. This is, as an American who fought with the Peshmerga, to see this is… uh… I don’t have any words. So, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.

We just saw a statement from the Pentagon asking both sides to be calm and to restrain from using violence, but in fact, it’s the Hashd al-Shaabi who started attacking the Peshmerga and they started the violence that the Pentagon is talking about. What do you think about that?

Well, I saw the statement and the language I didn’t like was ‘we urge both sides to stop, yet we still condemn the Kurdish referendum’. That language actually gives Tehran, Baghdad, and Ankara a green light to do these types of actions. The United States needs to have a strong statement. The vote was a democratic vote. The vote was not an illegal vote. It should not be met with force. It should not be met with violence. I don’t believe that that was crafted by Mattis. I believe it was crafted by the DoD communications department, because the language is not Mattis-like. The language is very Brett McGurk-like… and [it’s a problem].

So people like yourself, the veterans, how do you think they’re going to respond to this? You fought against this in Iraq for years and now you see this happening. This must be frustrating for you and people like yourself. What do you think you need to do? 

Well, the thing we’ve been fighting for for two years is the designation of the Revolutionary Guard corps as a terrorist organization and the decertification of the Iran deal. We got that Friday. That needs to mean something. Our Sunni regional allies heard the president’s message. It was very strong. This should restore confidence in our regional allies.

Pillar number one is to neutralize the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ destabilizing activities across the region. The Kirkuk operation is a destabilizing activity. You can’t give a tough speech and then allow Iran less than 60 hours later to move against an ally. So I would hope that veterans are upset as well, civilians alike.

The Kurdish people are built for western democracy support. They’re built for democratic support. They’re tolerant, they’re accepting, and I find it ironic that the United Nations and other non-government organizations choose to operate out of Kurdistan in order to help Iraqis throughout. When there’s instability in Baghdad, when ISIS invaded Iraq, people go to Kurdistan. Why do they go to Kurdistan? Because it’s an accepting region, it takes care of its own security. It’s an ally of the West. There’s problems, yes, but let’s talk about the problems. We don’t use military action to solve them.

We saw the speech by the president on Iran, but now we see that Qassem Soleimani has been going around in Iraq, meeting with the prime minister and ordering the Hashd al-Shaabi and other militias against the Kurdish Peshmerga, as you said, less than 60 hours after the president’s speech. What does that say about the US involvement in Iraq? Do you think after this or tomorrow, are we going to see less support for the government of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi from the US government, after what they have seen in the last couple of days, the Iraqis dealing with Qassem Soleimani and the IRGC?

Well, this shows the president that the Iranians didn’t take him seriously. They heard the speech and they’re scoffing at it. This is a slap in the face to a US president by conducting these types of activities after this speech.

Baghdad is part of this, so Baghdad is doing the same thing. I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, but I do know that Secretary Mattis issued a statement and Abadi promised the United States he would not conduct an offensive operation against the Kurds. That operation is ongoing now. I truly believe that even if Abadi didn’t want to do it, the Iranians could still make this happen. The Quds force commander on the ground, I don’t know his name, but he actually told KDP officials and PUK officials, “Listen, either work with us or we can bring the whole Iraqi army here.”

So this is an Iranian commander telling Kurdish political parties that we can tell the Iraqi army what to do, we can tell the Iraqi government what to do. And I think that everybody believes that, because we’re seeing it. We’re witnessing it.

So you said this is a slap in the face for President Trump. How do you think President Trump would react to this slap in the face? Do you think that he’s going to accept it?

I don’t think President Trump knows he’s been slapped in the face. The president needs to know who the Kurds are. The president needs to know that the Kurds have been our strongest US ally in Iraq. That the Kurds have helped us fight ISIS, they helped us decimate al-Qaeda. They’ve protected Sunnis, Christians, Shiite nationalists from reprisal attacks from Shia militias as civilians fled to Kurdistan after the violence in Baghdad in 2005-06.

I was actually in Duhok and a family came up to me and said, ‘We can’t talk to you in Baghdad, and thank you, because we’ll get targeted, but thank you for being here.’ I didn’t know who they were. I said ‘Where are you from?’ They said, ‘We’re from Sadr city.’ So that means something.

But I think the president needs to know who the Kurds are and I don’t think he does. [Secretary James] Mattis does, H.R. McMaster does, I don’t think [Rex] Tillerson does. And I think Brett McGurk knows exactly who the Kurds are, but he’s already picked sides. And that’s not coming from me necessarily. That’s coming from everybody I’ve talked to on the ground in Iraq, from Sunni nationalists, Kurdish nationalists, Shiite nationalists, they say the biggest problem is the US government is listening more to the Dawa party than they are to anybody else in Iraq.

What’s happening now is all going on in front of the US government’s eyes. They see how Prime Minister Abadi and the government of Iraq have been declining calls for negotiation from the KRG in order to avoid violence. There has been a blockade, international flights have been banned. And the KRG have been trying to do everything to start negotiations in order to avoid violence, but Prime Minister Abadi and the government in Iraq have declined that. What do you think the United States should do? Why have they been so silent against this?

I think the biggest problem is we’ve given the Iraq portfolio to a man from the Department of State – to Brett McGurk. Now Brett McGurk told DC, Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara that he could stop the Kurdish people from voting, that the US had enough leverage with the Kurds to get them to stop. Last night, he probably told DC that he had enough leverage with Baghdad to get Baghdad to stop, to not go into Kirkuk. Either that, or he’s signaled some sort of green light.

I’m frustrated by this, because this does not bode well for the relationships we’ve established with Kurds. The Peshmerga that I know, I’ve known for almost 12 years now, and I don’t ever want to put a time limit on a friendship or an alliance. And I think this is a moment where the United States… you know we got the strong statement on Iran, we got a designation of the IRGC, we’re talking about their destabilizing activities. This is what it looks like less than 60 hours after the speech. This is a provocation. This is a slap in the face.

How do you envision the future relationship between the US and the Kurdish government after what’s happening now? A lot of people believe that they have been betrayed by the US government.

Well if this continues and Baghdad conducts a military operation like they have against ISIS-held territory, if you start seeing mortars and artillery like we’re seeing tonight in – what’s the name of the city?

Tuz.

Yes. We’re seeing that now. I would hope that this gets taken care of tomorrow, that this stops. But our relationship with Kurdistan – basically, every US soldier that has ever worked with a Peshmerga is now looking to our US government, saying ‘Don’t do this to this ally of ours, you can’t do it.’ I don’t even have the words for this.

* On Friday, President Trump authorized sanctions on the IRGC for its support of terrorism, but stopped short of designating the force a terror organization.