The Kurdistan region is calm and stable one year after a momentous independence referendum led to Iraq’s central government sending tanks into the disputed city of Kirkuk, south of Erbil, and threatening the region with sanctions. Baghdad ordered the Erbil International Airport closed last September and many Kurds wondered what would come next. It was a time of uncertainty as Iranian-backed militias wandered freely in Kirkuk, and many Kurds thought the United States had abandoned them after years of fighting ISIS together.
Now the Kurdish region is a key to US strategy in Iraq and the larger post-ISIS desire for stability in the Middle East. On Sept. 30, the autonomous region held elections for its parliament. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) came in first with 43 percent of the vote; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan took second place with 20 percent. These traditional parties in the region had been challenged in the past decade by the rise of a party called the Gorran Movement for Change, which promised to reduce the role of large families in the political system and reform the economy and Kurdish army, or Peshmerga. But in 2014, the arrival of ISIS brought a crisis to the region, and people fell back on the traditional politics that had helped Kurds gain their autonomy in the 1990s.
The two largest parties must try to form a new government, likely led by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. This will provide democratic continuity for the Kurdish region, a region historically close to the United States and more pro-Western than the Iranian-backed Shiite sectarian parties that have come to power in Baghdad.
However, one problem that Washington faces in its relations with the Kurds is the United States’ preoccupation with its campaign to confront Iran in the Middle East. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put together the Iran Action Group to coordinate the US attempt to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. One aspect of countering Iran is sanctioning the militias it backs that operate in Iraq. These include Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, which Congress is attempting to target for sanctions.
The United States generally has had a complex relationship with Erbil and Baghdad because Washington wants a strong Baghdad, to work against Iranian encroachment, yet understands that the Kurdish region is its closest ally. During the war on ISIS, for example, the United States helped train, equip and fund the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga. But the United States traditionally has backed Baghdad in disputes with the Kurds, such as over Kirkuk.
Now Washington faces this test again. The new president of Iraq, Barham Salih, is Kurdish. Pompeo has encouraged the new speaker of parliament to embrace a “nationalist” Iraq. But Iraqi nationalism generally has threatened the Kurdish region. When the US Consulate in Erbil tweeted a hashtag of “national pride” on Oct. 10, with photos of the Kurdish region, a series of angry responses ensued. “What a sad event you do not even mention the name of Kurdistan,” one man wrote. This shows how sensitive language is and how Kurds feel the United States is trying to shoehorn their region into having “pride” in Baghdad, which has been seen as an aggressor pressuring the region after its independence referendum.
Now is an optimal time for the United States to show the Kurdish region that Washington understands its strategic importance. The Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces are still fighting an ISIS insurgency. In addition, Iran fired seven ballistic missiles at the Kurdish region in early September, targeting Kurdish opposition groups. The Iranian attack was exactly the opening Washington needs to confront Iran (and Vice President Mike Pence did condemn the attack). At the time, the United States was waiting for the formation of a new Iraqi government. But that government will be backed by parties linked to Iran, meaning the Kurdish region will remain the closest US ally.
The region also is a hinge on which Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran pivot. It is an economic link to Turkey, to which it exports hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil taken from the ground daily. It is a strategic link to US forces operating in Syria. And it is at the doorstep of Iran. It also plays a key role in government coalitions in Baghdad.