Iraq’s Kurds waiting for dust to settle before placing bets

Caught between US, Iran autonomous government of northern Iraq's Kurdish region stays relatively mum on latest developments.

BAGHDAD - Things are moving fast in federal Iraq, as pro-Iran factions flex their muscles and authorities seek to oust foreign troops. Amid the chaos, Iraq's Kurds are watching apprehensively before placing their bets.

Caught between the US and Iran and wary of being accused of seeking independence from Baghdad, the autonomous government of northern Iraq's Kurdish region (KRG) has kept relatively mum on latest developments.

They include a US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a federal parliament vote to oust foreign troops, all against the backdrop of months of anti-government rallies.

But statements from the KRG and from Iraq's Pesident Barham Saleh, himself a Kurd, have been limited to calls for restraint and "respecting the sovereignty of Iraq".

And on Sunday, not a single Kurdish lawmaker attended the federal parliament's vote to oust foreign troops, declining to take a stance on the controversial issue.

"Iraq's Kurds have adopted the short-term strategy of waiting," Kurdish specialist Adel Bakawan said.

He said Kurdish authorities were "speaking to everyone" in closed-door meetings, but waiting for the dust to settle before stating their position.

"They want to see what direction events will take and won't pick one side or another until the situation becomes clearer," Bakawan said.

Iraq has long had close ties to both the US and Iran, but diplomatic relations with Washington have dimmed in recent years as Tehran's clout in Baghdad has soared.

KRG capital Arbil has also been caught in the tug-of-war for influence, with Kurdish armed forces supported by both countries and political parties split along the same lines.

'Emotional' decision 

The Kurdish region earned de facto autonomy during the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait, later formalised in the constitution crafted after the 2003 US-led invasion.

"The existence of an autonomous Kurdish region is thanks to the direct intervention of the US," said Bakawan.

But at the same time, Soleimani "had personal ties with all Kurdish parties", he added.

Soleimani was killed early Friday in a US drone strike outside Baghdad's international airport, along with top Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iraq's government was so outraged that within days, MPs voted to urge the cabinet to kick out all foreign forces.

Warned they would be considered "traitors" if they did not support the ouster, Kurdish lawmakers did not attend Sunday's vote as they largely see a US military presence in Iraq as a healthy counterweight to Iran.

"Iraq must not become a battlefield to settle scores or political conflicts," pleaded Vian Sabri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) bloc in the federal parliament.

Even members from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is seen as closer to Iran, boycotted the session.

"Shiite deputies took a radical decision for the future of all of Iraq, under the influence of emotion," said a top PUK official, on condition of anonymity.

"There are a number of violations of Iraq's sovereignty and we should take measures to stop them all, not target a single party," the party official said.

Some 5,200 US troops are stationed across Iraq to back local forces preventing an Islamic State group resurgence.

They make up the bulk of the broader coalition including troops from dozens of countries, invited by the Iraqi government in 2014 to help combat IS.

Prudence pays off? 

Late Monday, an American general told Baghdad that US troops were preparing to depart "in due deference" to parliament's decision, but the Pentagon denied a pull-out.

An ouster of foreign troops would likely rattle Arbil, as the US-led coalition worked closely with Kurdish peshmerga fighters to clear jihadists from swathes of the north.

And with Iran-US tensions soaring, Kurdish figures fear they could lose their hard-won autonomy, which grants them many more rights than their kin in neighbouring Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Even before the US strike, Iraq had been rocked by its own domestic political crisis.

Three months of anti-government protests in Baghdad and across the Shiite-majority south prompted Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi to step down.

He had been seen as a major ally to the KRG, making his resignation a stinging blow to their standing in Baghdad.

But as Washington distances itself from an ever-more hostile Baghdad, Kurdish prudence could pay off.

Seen as more reliable partners to the US and a safe haven for entrepreneurs, diplomats and humanitarians, the KRG could ultimately become Washington's best asset in Iraq.

"International and even regional powers have an interest in securing and even developing this state within a state that is the Kurdistan regional government," said Bakawan.