Kurdish General Again Insubordinate, Angles for US to Remain in Iraq

The public statement by Iraqi chief of staff Lt. General Babakr Zebari,
at a defense conference that the Iraqi army would not be ready to stand
on its own until 2020 and US troops should remain until then
is not a statement about security issues in general but is a highly ethno-sectarian piece of insubordination.

Unsurprisingly, the elected prime minister of Iraq and head of the current caretaker government, Nuri al-Maliki, promptly refuted Zebari and insisted on civilian control of this decision-making.
As prime minister, al-Maliki is beholden to the elected parliament,
which set the timetable for withdrawal. The Obama White House is also committed to the withdrawal.

Zebari is an old-time Kurdish guerrilla and a prominent member of Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party.
(That the Guardian article above did not mention this background is
incomprehensible to me; I really like journalists and especially ones
who risk all by going out to places like Baghdad, and don't want to be
needlessly critical, but when reporting neglects essential context it
does a disservice to readers.)

The Kurds have many reasons for wanting the US military to stay in
Iraq. They have established what is for all intents and purposes an
independent state in what had been 3 provinces of Iraq (though by now
the provincial boundaries and administrative apparatuses have long since
been erased), called Kurdistan. Kurdistan is the Taiwan of the Middle
East, a separate and independent nation that cannot be so named without
causing a war (or a whole set of wars). But Kurdistan gives out visas
and refuses to allow Iraqi army troops on its soil and does foreign
contracts without consulting Baghdad, so what would you call it?

Despite being semi-autonomous, the Kurds also have a strange
relationship to the Baghdad government, electing members of its
parliament and at present holding the presidency of the country. Some
compare this situation to Quebec in Canada, but that province has far,
far fewer perquisites than does Kurdistan. It is more as though
Jefferson Davis served in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet and Robert E. Lee
was a high ranking staff officer in the Union army as well as in the

Kurdish nationalism in Iraq is not satisfied with this relatively
advantageous situation (de facto separatism plus powerful influence on
the central government). Kurdistan nationalists want to annex part or
all of several other Iraqi provinces that have substantial Kurdish
populations. The Arab population of Iraq (both Sunnis and Shiites) is
die-hard opposed to any expansion of Kurdistan at the expense of the
territory of Arab Iraq, though virtually everyone is willing to let the
Kurds retain their current territory and special privileges.

There have been clashes between the Kurdistan military, the
Peshmerga, and the regular Iraqi army, in parts of Iraq as far as 200
miles from the Kurdistan border, because the Peshmerga has taken control
there. The situation threatens another civil war in Iraq, and outgoing
US commander Gen. Ray Odierno responded by having US troops patrol with
both Peshmerga and regular Iraqi army units so as to avoid firefights
between the two. Since the US will less and less be in a position to
provide this mediation service, Odierno suggested that United Nations
troops be brought in to fulfill it, but met a firestorm of protest from
Iraqis eager to be out from under the long years of deadly UN caretaker
status (Iraq is one of the UN's great failures, where it is responsible
for killing large numbers of civilians with its regime sanctions, and of
destroying a promising developing economy, and of failing to prevent an
illegal and aggressive war on the country by GW Bush).

The US military has consistently sided with the Kurds in both
military and political affairs, so it is unsurprising that Zebari fears
their departure. Without a US protectorate, the Kurds will face Arab
Iraq alone. Moreover, Arab politicians in Baghdad who want to block
Kurdistan expansionism have on several occasions already sought support
from Turkey in this endeavor, and such a Baghdad-Ankara alliance against
the annexation of Kirkuk and of parts of Ninevah and Diyala Provinces
is likely to strengthen and be cemented when the US departs.

My own view is that the KDP's romantic territorial nationalism is
anachronistic and inappropriate to a Gulf oil state, and likely to be
undermined by economic developments. There is much more petroleum in
the Shiite south than in Kurdistan, and pumping and refining it will
require a big skilled labor force. Large numbers of Kurds will almost
certainly be drawn down to Basra Province to work the Rumaila and other
fields (and there is more black gold in Maysan and elsewhere not yet
exploited). Just as Kurdish nationalism in Turkey was blunted by the
way the Kurds were spread around the country as laborers in construction
and light industry (and the way they came to vote just like their
Turkish neighbors in Istanbul and elsewhere), Kurdish nationalism in
Iraq may well be blunted by the enormous labor migration to the south
that is likely to occur over the next two decades. (Further south in
the Perso-Arabian Gulf, the countries have such small populations that
they have brought millions of guest workers from India, Pakistan, Sri
Lanka, Nepal, etc.; but Iraq has a sufficiently large population,
including the Kurds, that internal labor migration is likely to be

In any case, Zebari cannot name any real function the US military
could play in Iraqi security in the coming decade beyond logistics and
air support, and the latter can be done from Qatar. The US is no longer
independently and actively patrolling the cities and therefore
increasingly lacks the sort of intelligence that would allow a
pro-active intervention. The violence is much less now than when the US
was wholly in control.

But beyond being biased and incorrect, Zebari is being insubordinate.
The Iraqi parliament passed the Status of Forces Agreement which calls
for US troops to be out by the end of 2011. That is the decision of
the civilian government. For a serving general to attempt to undermine
it is a very bad sign, and if there were an Iraqi government in
existence, it should fire him.

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