The Return of the Americans to Iraq


US airforceThe inevitable has happened. The Americans have returned to Iraq and are using air power to resist the growing onslaught of IS forces against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters defending Kurdistan. Latest reports suggest that the IS forces that were barely 25-30 kilometers away from the Kurdish capital of Irbil are being pushed back with the help of US air power. The decision to commit US military power has been camouflaged in suitably humanitarian terms to give the impression that it was an effort designed to ‘protect’ the fleeing Yazidis and other minority groups. Perhaps the US establishment wished to assuage any guilt complex that might remain over their inaction when the Israelis were blasting the hapless children of Gaza with missile and tank fire. Secondly, the US made it clear that this intervention was designed to secure the safety and security of ‘our personnel’ stationed at Irbil. However, the US also clarified that this action was based on ‘narrow and specific objectives and not a broad based counter terrorism campaign against the IS’ .

While the US reticence to once again become involved in Iraq is entirely understandable, but what alarmed the Americans was that IS forces mounted ‘multi-pronged’ attacks across a wide swathe of territory controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The attacks by the IS forces were swift as they were unexpected, but unusually effective demonstrating according to US officials a high degree of ‘military proficiency.’ They easily pushed the Kurdish forces out of a number of towns and villages very close to Irbil; the Kurdish Capital.  The Americans feared that Irbil just might fall. In Irbil there is a US Consulate with support staff, a joint US-Kurdish Command Centre, a fairly large US business community with most US oil majors having their personnel and headquarters there.

The Kurds are the last remaining ethnic group in Iraq that still feel beholden to the US. Ever since the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US beginning 2003, the Kurdish areas have witnessed relative peace and have developed economically, whilst the rest of Iraq was convulsed in sectarian warfare with mass killings and bombings on an almost daily basis. During the period of US military occupation from 2003 to 2011, not a single US soldier lost his life in Kurdistan.  During this period slowly but steadily the Kurdish areas moved from complete autonomy within the Iraqi State to near independence; an outcome that the Kurds have dared to dream ever since their aspirations for an independent state were denied as a result of the settlements reached at Versailles; post the First World War. In the Middle-East they remain the only significant and distinct ethnic group, with a language and a culture of their own; that does not have a state. The Kurds are not Arabs, but are Sunni Muslims with a population of about 25 million that is scattered over Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. And for most of the World they remained a ‘forgotten’ people till the Americans moved in; first by declaring a ‘no fly-zone’ to save them from the wrath of Saddam at the end of the First Gulf War and later by devolving progressively greater autonomy as the US occupation of Iraq; post 2003 proceeded. Kurdish troops were relied upon extensively by the US in their bid to ‘control’ the situation in Iraq. The Kurds also know that but for the presence of US military power in the region, their autonomy would be rather short lived. Of interest is the fact that the Kurds maintain friendly relations with Israel.

The US knows that Kurdistan sits on huge reserves of oil and gas. Its proven oil reserves are estimated at 45 billion barrels which is about one-third of the Iraqi total. The only safe outlet for this oil is through pipelines through Turkey and this is the real danger that the IS advance poses. If the military advance of IS forces into Kurdish areas continues unabated, then it is possible that they will be able to capture and control these pipelines and with it the stupendous economic prize that this entails. That is the American fear and that is what the US will not allow to happen.

On the other hand, the US dilemma in countenancing Kurdistan to proceed towards full independence is acute. So far US policy as spelt out by an official of the State Department [McGurk] has been that ‘Iraq’s energy resources belong to all of the Iraqi people and that any issue should be resolved in a manner consistent with the Iraqi Constitution.’ The US is quite aware that if the Iraqi State was to break according to its sectarian fault lines then Southern Iraq, which is Shiite dominated, will naturally gravitate towards its co-religionists in Iran. Southern Iraq is oil rich and has by far the bulk of proven Iraqi oil reserves, estimated at 145 billion barrels. Any domination of this area by Iran would seriously upset the strategic balance, make the position of Saudi Arabia untenable and be a serious reverse for US strategic interests. It is for this reason that the US is working so assiduously in Baghdad to coax the Iraqi politicians to form an ‘inclusive’ government so that Iraq does not split along sectarian fault-lines. In this endeavor the US has the support of most of the great powers; with the Chinese even going so far as to support the use of US air power to blunt any IS advance towards Irbil and other Kurdish areas.

Now that Iraq has a new Prime Minister also a Shiite the US hopes that he, unlike Nuri al-Malliki, would follow more inclusive policies and placate the other two important communities; the Sunnis and the Kurds. It is easier said than done for in the vitiated atmosphere that prevails in present day Iraq, reconciliation between the three major communities remains a long way to go. In the Iraqi scheme of things, as with most regimes in the past, the first preference for the more important and lucrative jobs will naturally flow to the new PM’s fellow tribesmen. At the heart of the matter for most Iraqi politicians is: how to divide, in an acceptable fashion, Iraq’s huge oil revenues? If the US can foster and coax some kind of a ‘solution’ that then just might be the first step towards a semblance of stability.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
(Courtesy IDSA)