ANALYSIS: The troubled relationship between Iraqi nationals and Kurds

Michael Flanagan
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The ongoing relationship between the Arab Iraqis and the Kurds in the north of Iraq continues to be difficult. It has evolved from the parent to child relationship that Iraq has with all of its provinces to more of a brother-to-brother relationship.

Much of the changes in the relationship lie in the fact that the United States elevated its relationship with the Kurds from that of a just another people oppressed by Saddam Hussein to an actual entity apart from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.


The facts of that relationship are old and rooted mostly in a military relationship of expedience. After the first Gulf War and after Saddam’s horrors inflicted in the North and the South of Iraq in order to put down insurrection, the United States instituted a “no fly zone” in both the North and South of Iraq in order to protect oppressed minorities from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government.

Part of that agreement was that each of the ethnicities of consequence in these areas North and South would disband their private, ethnic militias so none would be able to dominate the others. All agreed and complied except for the Kurds, which kept the Peshmerga. The Assyrians, the Turkomen, the Marsh Arabs in the South and all the other militias disbanded.

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Because the Kurds had been gassed and caught much of the worst of Saddam’s rage in the North, the US military turned a blind eye to the Peshmerga. The US military thought that nothing would come of their having a militia for their own protection. After being gassed, this was natural enough.

Over time, the US military came to regard the Kurds as a useful force against the Iraqis. The US military not only was indifferent to the Kurdish militia but came to rely on it in the North – to the necessary exclusion of the rights and needs of other, now-disarmed minorities.

In the Kurds, the US military has had a willing military ally ever since and is treated grandly by the Kurds in return. For this, the US government has lavished billions in aid in the Kurdish areas annually and to such an extent that they are actually more advanced than the rest of Iraq.

Assortment of forces

As for the other ethnicities disarmed in the North, they are all but eradicated by an assortment of forces from the short-lived religious oppression from ISIS and long-term seizures of their lands by the Kurds. The latter was possibly only because the Peshmerga is the militia around and it is actively supported by the US military.

Mosul and Kirkuk were Christian cities – no more. Had they (like the Kurds) kept their militias, their fate in Iraq vis-à-vis their Kurdish neighbors might be very different.

The Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran are also minorities but only in Iraq do the Kurds enjoy something close to independence. In fact, in Iraq, the Kurds talk openly of actual independence from Iraq and eventually from all of the other countries as well.

Massud Barzani in Arbil on September 11, 2018. (AFP)
Massud Barzani in Arbil on September 11, 2018. (AFP)

As the United States continues to actively deal with the Kurdish region as if it were actually an independent country the Kurds are likely to keep this attitude. This is not helpful to the Iraqis or to the idea of an Iraqi nation. The attitude of the US military is indifferent to this affront as they view Baghdad as an extension of Tehran’s influence and unworthy of assistance like the “ever-faithful” Kurds are.

With the US exiting Syria, we shall see how ever-faithful the Kurds stay with the United States. Much of the conservative opposition to Trump’s exit from Syria is the consequence of the military’s de facto divorce from the Peshmerga in Syria. The Kurdish relationship with Iraq is deteriorating.

The Kurds control the Iraqi borders with Iran in the Kurdish areas and permit Iranian smuggling for a price. Where Iran has great difficulty getting their goods into Iraq at other border crossings, they have few difficulties getting their goods to Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. Additionally, Iranian illicit traffic in drugs and oil between Iran and their forces in Syria and beyond must run through the Kurdish region. It is not even slowed down there.

Taxes and oil revenues

Further and apart from its acquiescence to Iran, the Kurds refuse to follow Iraqi laws regarding taxes and oil revenues. The Kurds sell Iraqi oil pumped in the Kurdish region on their own and keep the revenues while still insisting that a portion of the Iraqi oil-dominated economy be spent in Kurdish regions. This year, the Iraqi parliament is staying in session beyond the ordinary closure dates to sort-out the Kurdish appropriation.

In years past, that portion was 17 percent of the national oil revenues. When Masoud Barzani seized Kirkuk and talked openly of independence for “Kurdistan,” that amount was reduced to 12.6 percent by Baghdad. Having been moved out of Kirkuk by the Abadi government and otherwise partially brought back into line, the Kurds would like a return to 17 percent as compensation.

A compromise of 14 percent has been offered but the situation is far from settled. The Peshmerga casts a shadow over the ability of Iraq to enforce its own laws inside of its own borders.

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There are other areas of disagreement and problems as well. For example, the Kurds generally refuse to enforce Iraqi customs duties. The Kurds enforce only a 5 percent tax on cigarettes where the federal Iraqis tax on cigarettes is 125 percent. Automobiles are also sold with greatly reduced duties in the Kurdish region.

Every Iraqi gets his smokes and cars from the Kurdish region. Even the protectionist laws governing the seasonal importation of vegetables is ignored by the Kurds to the great disadvantage of Iraqis’ own economy but to the advantage of taking Iranian and Turkish bribes.

Imagine if Texas had a strong militia which worked independently from the US military and was openly supported by a foreign power. Would the US be able to force Texas to toe the line when we wanted it to do so and Texas did not? It is a hard question.

The US needs a complete overhaul of its official relationship with the Kurds and it must observe the preeminence of the role of Baghdad in Kurdish affairs. The US president must also stop the US military from dictating Kurdish/Iraqi policy based on matters of their preference. It is unhealthy and will not lead to a good end.
Michael Patrick Flanagan represented the 5th District of Illinois in the historic 104th Congress. He sat on the Committees on the Judiciary, Government Reform and Oversight, and Veterans’ Affairs. Prior to his Congressional Service, Michael was commissioned in the United States Army Field Artillery. After leaving Congress, Michael and his firm, Flanagan Consulting LLC, have represented both large and small corporations, organizations, and associations. In 2009, Michael took a sabbatical from his lobbying business and entered public service again with the United States Department of State in Iraq as the Senior Rule of Law Advisor on the Maysan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Maysan, Iraq. For his work, Michael was awarded the Man of the Year by the Iraqi Courts, the Civilian Service Medal by the US Army and was also given the Individual Distinguished Honor Award. Michael is currently a consultant in Washington, D.C. His email ID is [email protected].

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