SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – There’s no better place than Iraqi Kurdistan to understand the tortured relationship between Iraq and the United States, and why the two countries are still bound together.
It is a relationship forged with blood, betrayal, and hope.
Kurdistan sits at a geographical crossroads, bounded by Turkey, Iran, and the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq where ISIS established its so-called caliphate. The non-Arab Kurds are pro-American, and most were rooting for a Donald Trump victory in 2016 because they wanted a “strong” U.S. leader. They wish the U.S. military would establish a long-term base on their soil.
Yet something new was on display at a high-level conference of Arab, Kurdish, and Western scholars and officials at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, focused on the Mideast’s future after the caliphate is crushed. At similar conferences in the past the discussion would have focused on America’s role in stabilizing the region. This time, not only were no administration officials in attendance but America was viewed as one player among many, with questionable power.
Indeed, in most of the discussions, Washington was hardly mentioned. But with no U.S. superpower in view, the fear was palpable that no one could halt the chaos in a fragmenting region. “The big question is how to maintain a peace after (ISIS) is defeated, so as not to repeat the disaster,” said the university’s founder and former prime minister of the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, Barham Salih. “The key is to make sure (ISIS) is not one episode to be replaced by another.”
The bigger question is how to maintain peace in Iraq and the region if America doesn’t play a key role.
Among some Iraqi attendees there was a deep sense that America had used and betrayed them, breaking their country, constructing a new Iraqi political system based on sectarian parties, and ultimately leaving them open to the ISIS invasion.
I had one especially poignant conversation with Haidar al-Khoei, a scholar of Iraq, now living in London. His extraordinary father, Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a Shiite cleric and son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, returned from exile in 2003 to mediate between the American invaders and the Shiite clerical establishment. For these efforts he was murdered by a powerful rival cleric.
The younger Khoei faulted President Obama for pulling out all remaining U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and ignoring the rise of ISIS prior to its takeover of Mosul. “His disengagement allowed ISIS to sweep over the country,” Khoei told me. “Then when ISIS took over Mosul, the United States abandoned us.”
It was the Iranians who first rushed in to aid Iraqis with weapons and funds. “The U.S. and Iran are both strategic allies,” Khoei said, “but Iran didn’t let us down.” Only when ISIS was on the verge of sweeping into the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil did the United States respond with airpower.
Khoei notes that America has paid a heavy price for this negligence. After ISIS’s rise, Washington has had to send troops back to Iraq and into Syria.
Yet, like many Iraqis I spoke with, Khoei wants the United States to remain politically engaged with Iraq, and to keep those several thousand troops in the country. “From an Iraqi strategic point of view, it is important for the United States to stay,” he said.
Many Iraqis stressed the importance of a U.S. presence as a political balancer to offset the deep penetration of neighboring Iran.
Of course, serious Iraqis recognize that they bear a heavy share of responsibility for their troubles. “Iraq is not a normal country after all these years,” said the astute Kurdish politician and former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. “We have to blame ourselves,” he added, urging the Baghdad government to be more inclusive.
In other words, unless Shiites are finally willing to share power with Sunnis and Kurds, the country will explode.
However, without intense U.S. pressure, the Kurds believe the Shiite-led government in Baghdad may abandon any pretense of inclusiveness, ignoring the plight of Sunni cities destroyed in the fight against ISIS. That would provide fertile ground for a jihadi revival.
The Kurds also seek U.S. intermediation in future talks with Baghdad over Kurdistan’s future.
Their faith in America is unbowed despite a checkered history of U.S.-Kurdish relations. In 1975, Henry Kissinger abandoned a U.S. alliance with the Kurds, opening them up to slaughter by the Baathist regime in Baghdad. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, U.S. mistakes allowed Saddam Hussein to launch yet another genocidal drive against the Kurds. Then U.S. airpower belatedly forced Hussein to back off, saved the Kurds, and provided a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region of Iraq.
In March 2003, I crossed the border from Iran into Iraqi Kurdistan just before the start of the Iraq war, and saw how the Kurds welcomed the U.S. invasion and the chance to oust a brutal dictator.
In 2014, U.S. airstrikes (belatedly) prevented ISIS from reaching the Kurdish capital. With U.S. support, Kurdish fighters have driven ISIS out of much of northern Iraq. Iraqi and Kurdish forces coordinated with U.S. forces to retake Mosul from bases on Kurdish soil.
The Kurds ultimately want independence, a goal the United States does not yet endorse. What they dread is the possibility that Washington will turn its back after ISIS is defeated. They are waiting anxiously for a clear Trump foreign policy to gel.
Stakes are high. If U.S. patience with Iraq and the region wanes, if the United States tries to wall itself off from the world, that wall won’t prevent the rise of malevolent actors who can harm U.S. interests and people. ISIS cells are already shaving their beards and secretly regrouping.
So the U.S. still has a stabilizing role to play in Iraq, requiring intense political attention and a post-ISIS force of a few thousand troops. Should the Iraqi government reject that force under pressure from Tehran (which it probably won’t if the Americans pay attention), the Kurds have another suggestion. They stand at the ready to provide U.S. forces with a permanent base.
Trudy Rubin’s email is email@example.com.