On September 19, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Iraq's new speaker of the Council of Representatives, Mohammed al-Halbusi. According to a statement by the State Department, Pompeo "emphasized his support for Iraq's territorial integrity and sovereignty" and said that the US supports Iraq's "efforts to form a moderate, nationalist Iraqi government." Increasingly, the US and Iran are involved in attempts to convince the Kurdish region of Iraq to support different candidates for the country's next president and prime minister.
In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the formation of the next Iraqi government is being watched closely, along with Washington's comments. A year ago, on September 25, the Kurdistan region held a referendum on independence. Turnout was high at 72%, and more than 90% of the voters choose independence. Yet the US spurned and condemned the Kurdish referendum, instead working closely with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
In October, Baghdad sent its US-trained army and Iranian-allied Shi'ite militias into Kirkuk to push out the Kurdish leadership in the contested city. Many Kurds were dismayed, angry and felt betrayed. They had fought the Islamic State alongside the central government. Their Peshmerga had helped save Kirkuk in 2014 when ISIS routed the Iraqi army. But in 2017 when the Kurdish leadership wanted a referendum on the region's future, they saw all their political capital, earned from years fighting alongside the Americans against extremist and terrorist groups, evaporate.
In 2017, the calculations in Washington were complex. Abadi was seen as the hope of Iraq, and securing him in power – by aiding Iraq's defeat of ISIS and also supporting Abadi's crackdown on the Kurdish region – was seen as a way to give Abadi what he wanted in exchange for his being amenable to American interests in Iraq. Those interests included patching up relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which was accomplished in the fall of 2017.
But the investment in Abadi became less relevant when he came in third in Iraq's May 2018 elections. Suddenly the Kurdish region again became a key to forming a pro-Western government in Baghdad.
The problem is that Iraqi voters in May of 2018 flocked to vote for Muqtada al-Sadr, the one-time anti-American militia leader, and Hadi al-Amiri, the Iranian-backed leader of the Fateh Alliance. Sadr has distanced himself from Iran while the Fateh Alliance is made up of Shi'ite militia-backed parties. Fateh includes Amiri's Badr Organization and parties like Kata'ib Hezbollah. Washington views some of the elements of the Fateh Alliance as terrorists, and members of Congress have been seeking to sanction other Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that are linked to Amiri.
Abadi, Washington's choice, only won 42 seats, while the Kurdish parties combined got around 50 seats. This means that today in Iraq, the Kurdish region and its parties, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), hold the keys to who will be the next prime minister and president of Iraq. The country's prime minister has tended to be a Shi'ite since 2003, while the president has been Kurdish.
The Kurdish parties have their own internal politics. The PUK tends to be closer to Iran, partly because the area it dominates near Sulimanyeh is on the Iranian border. The KDP has traditionally been closer to Washington. But anger over what was seen as a betrayal in 2017 has led the KDP to be more reticent to rubber stamp Washington's wishes about who the Kurdish region should support in Baghdad.
In early September, Iran fired seven ballistic missiles at Kurdish opposition parties in Koya in northern Iraq, killing more than a dozen people. The missiles were a strong message to the Kurds and also to the US that any attempt to confront Iran's role in Iraq would not go unopposed. US Vice President Mike Pence called Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and condemned Iran's rocket attack. He said that Tehran was seeking to "threaten and destabilize its closest neighbor."
The Kurdish region now finds itself between the US and Iran, both pushing to gain influence, with interests in who will be the next leader of Iraq. The US says it doesn't meddle in Iraqi politics and has sought to downplay rumors of meetings behind the scenes by US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk and various parties in Iraq. For instance, on August 30, McGurk tweeted in Arabic that he had not met with Amiri. The rumors of America's meetings with different factions are often spread by those seeking to portray the US as either accepting an Iranian-backed coalition or trying to work against Iran's interests.
Although much of the politics in Iraq is local – arguing over whether PUK politician Barham Salih or some other Kurdish candidate will be the next president, or whether Kurdish local elections will take place this month – the larger story is that what happens in Erbil and Baghdad in the coming months will determine who dominates Iraq's future. Washington hopes that the Kurds will forget about their independence referendum of last year. But the North remembers.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.