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Iraqi Kurds: "No Friend but the Mountains"

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The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been an island of peace and stability surrounded by sectarian strife and civil wars. Until last week when several suicide bombers struck Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, decimating the Interior Ministry, killing 6 people, wounding scores, and sparking gunfights in the streets of this serene city.

The explosion shatters the myth that Iraqi Kurdistan can immunize itself from Iraq's violence between Sunnis and Shia. It also shattered hope that Iraqi Kurdistan's security forces - the "Peshmerga" - could keep Syria's civil war at bay. The attack was launched by jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda fighting in Syria with bases in Nineveh province, adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan.

President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan has pledged protection for Syrian Kurds from al-Nusra, a terrorist organization, which issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Kurdish women and children. Barzani declared on August 11, "The Kurdistan Region is ready to do everything in its power to protect the lives of the Kurds in western Kurdistan (i.e. Syria)."

Moreover, the Erbil bombings brought home another reality. Iraq is a failed state, with deep and irreparable divisions. So far this year, more than 6,000 Iraqis have been killed in sectarian conflict; Iraq Body reports 1,220 were killed in September alone. Iraq is at war with itself.

There is an old adage: "The Kurds have no friends but the mountains." As Iraq crumbles around them and Syria disintegrates, Iraqi Kurds are forced to become increasingly self-reliant. If Iraq finally fragments and Iraqi Kurdistan becomes independent, no one can blame the Kurds.

Barzani and Jalal Talabany, Iraq's President who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have done everything possible to mediate between Arab factions, sacrificing their national aspirations in service of Iraq's unity and stability. Iraqi Kurds have bent over backwards since the London Conference of Iraqi opposition in December 2002.

The Conference sought to establish a committee to guide the country's transition to democratic rule after Saddam Hussein. However, Iraqis could not agree on the committee's membership; Arab Shiites and Sunnis argued bitterly over their percentage of seats. And Shiites argued amongst themselves, with representatives of Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq seeking primacy. To break the stalemate, Iraqi Kurds surrendered some of their seats on the committee satisfying the demands of Shiite factions.

Iraqi Kurds also helped mediate differences during negotiations over the constitution in October 2005. As a major concession, Kurds abandoned their dream of independence in lieu of establishing Iraq as a federal, democratic republic.

In addition, Kurdish negotiators surrendered some core concerns. Instead of requiring that Kirkuk become a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, they agreed to Article 140 of the constitution requiring a referendum on Kirkuk's status within 2 years. And instead of insisting on ownership of oil and gas reserves in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish negotiators agreed to share existing resources with the central government in Baghdad, proposing that future energy development would belong to Iraqi Kurdistan.

To date, however, there has been no referendum on Kirkuk. Nor is there a hydrocarbons law defining ownership and transport arrangements of oil and gas between Baghdad and Erbil.

Once again, Iraqis ended up at loggerheads again after the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya list won 91 seats while the Dawa-led Shiite coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ended up with 89. For 8 months, they bickered over forming a government. The impasse was finally broken when Barzani, working with Vice President Joe Biden, brought the parties together in Erbil to hammer out a power-sharing arrangement.

The Erbil Pact of November 2010 assigned leadership positions. Maliki would be prime minister and Jalal Talabany president. The posts of Deputy Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Speaker of the Parliament were assigned to Arab Sunnis. The National Council for Strategic Policies, a new super-agency responsible for national security affairs, was established under the leadership of Allawi. Barzani played an indispensable role brokering the Erbil Agreement.

But since the Erbil Agreement, Maliki has single-mindedly sought to marginalize other Iraqis and consolidate power. He has taken steps to provoke the Kurds, forming a "Tigris Operation Command of Tigris ("Dijla") to pacify the so-called disputed territories and restore the Iraqi Government's control. Violence between the Peshmerga and Dijla forces erupted in Tuz Khurmatu in November 2012. A tense military stand-off now exists.

Moreover, Maliki mocks constitutional commitments. Kirkuk's status still has not been resolved. Other disputed territories have become flash-points for conflict between Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi armed forces. The Peshamerga were established in agreement with Baghdad as a national guard for the Kurdistan region. However, Baghdad refuses to release funds for their salaries.

The central government has withheld royalty payments to the KRG, while refusing to adopt a hydrocarbons law. Maliki has even tried to block energy cooperation between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, souring relations between Baghdad and Ankara, while exacerbating tensions with Erbil.

The Obama administration's failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement led the final withdrawal of U.S. forces on December 16, 2011. "Good Kurds" did everything asked of them by the United States. U.S. troops and Peshmerga fought side-by-side in 2003. Not a single American has been killed in Iraqi Kurdistan since then. Iraqi Kurds showed flexibility when asked to make political concessions.

Despite cooperation by the Iraqi Kurds, the United States has paid lip service to the core interests of the Kurds over the past decade. With Iraqi Kurdistan under threat from Maliki, the United States should suspend the sale of F-16s and Abrams A1 tanks to Baghdad. The Obama administration must also be steely-eyed in assessing the viability of the Iraqi state within its current frontiers. The United States should work with Turkey to develop plans for a security guarantee if Iraq falls apart. Contingency planning is in the interest of America and Turkey, as well as the interests of Iraqi Kurds.

It is ironic that Turkey may emerge as the protector of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara vilified Massoud Barzani for years, and did everything possible to undermine Iraqi Kurdistan's development. Today, the interests of Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are inextricably linked.

In 2012, Turkish firms sold $13 billion in goods to consumers in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its construction companies signed contracts for more than $30 billion. Energy cooperation is expanding, with Iraqi Kurdistan exporting natural gas to Turkey. As the $12 billion Nabucco pipeline comes on line, Turkey needs natural gas from Iraqi Kurdistan to make the project viable.

The United States has no friends in Iraq or Syria except the Kurds. Instead of trying to placate its adversaries, Washington should reward its friends. Iraqi Kurds are due protection and diplomatic support. Stability is served by nurturing relations with like-minded nations, rather than pursuing policies aimed at stabilizing failed or failing states.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who worked on the "Future of Iraq Project." He is also author of Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-war Reconstruction Fiasco.