WASHINGTON -- Two of the leading political parties representing the Middle East's stateless Kurdish population will soon be removed from a U.S. list of potential terrorist groups, in a move that U.S. and Kurdish officials say will resolve a long-standing dispute between Washington and a community that has proven to be one of its favored partners in the region, most recently in the fight against the militant group known as the Islamic State.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the primary political parties in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The region's current president, Massoud Barzani, is the head of the KDP, and the PUK's leader is the ailing former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Peshmergas, or Kurdish militia fighters, aligned with both parties have been at the front lines of the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State, both in Iraq and in Syria.
Yet for more than a decade, the U.S. has listed both groups as Tier 3 "undesignated terrorist organizations." That classification places the KDP and the PUK in a category far below that reserved for international terror groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda -- both of which are Tier 1 organizations -- but has still made it difficult for members of either group to travel to the United States. Individuals who say on a visa application that they are linked to either the KDP or the PUK -- including Barzani himself -- cannot currently obtain visas to travel to the United States without a government-issued waiver.
Adding to the Kurds' frustration has been the symbolic value of the "terrorist" label, said a Kurdish official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to comment on the record. The official said the "terrorist" classification chafes especially because the Kurdish parties originally earned it while fighting against the government of their country in a war launched and directed by the United States.
Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of Iraq’s Kurdish region, expressed a similar view, telling The Huffington Post in an email that “the designation was unfair, unjust and psychologically damaging to the people of the region."
"It was inappropriate to continue to blacklist those who have been a stabilizing force in the Middle East and consistently loyal to the United States and western countries for decades," Mustafa wrote.
Though animosity toward the United States is common in much of the Middle East, many Iraqi Kurds are relatively pro-American. U.S. Army T-shirts and other American paraphernalia -- even the occasional poster of former President George W. Bush -- are common sights in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The statute behind the Kurds’ trouble is part of the 2001 Patriot Act, which classifies as a Tier 3 terrorist organization any group of two or more people involved in armed resistance that their government has described as illegal. The fact that Saddam Hussein's government saw the activities of the Iraqi Kurds as illegal made them, technically, "terrorists," at least by the definition of their American partners in the war against Hussein.
"We've been trying to get them off this Tier 3 for a few years," a State Department official told The Huffington Post. "There's never been a situation where we have implied that they should be on this list. It was just unfortunately in the way the Patriot Act was written at the time."
The two parties will have their Tier 3 classification removed as a consequence of language in this year's defense funding bill, which passed the Senate on Friday and now awaits the signature of President Barack Obama.
The State Department official, who said he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said the Obama administration had considered removing the groups from the list using executive action but had been advised by lawyers to seek a legislative change instead. He said a change had been attempted in last year's defense funding bill, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
This year, power players on the Hill -- led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senate foreign relations committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) -- introduced a bill explicitly stating that the KDP and the PUK should no longer be considered terrorist organizations. However, the legislation, which was later wrapped into the defense bill, does permit the Secretary of State to re-list the groups if he or she deems it appropriate.
Mustafa said the change is evidence of "the desire of the U.S. to enhance relations with the Kurdistan region." The U.S. has already provided arms to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia, three units of which will receive U.S. training using funds allocated in the defense bill. The U.S. also runs a joint operations center near the Kurdish capital, Erbil, from which airstrikes against the Islamic State group are being directed. Iraqi Kurdish fighters have also crossed from Turkey into Syria to help defend the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani from Islamic State invaders who seek to expand their territory.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and adviser to the Iraqi Kurds, criticized what he called the Obama administration's "lack of courage" for not acting to make the fix sooner through executive action.
"It made the United States look ridiculous, because this issue was ridiculous," Galbraith told HuffPost.
Galbraith noted that the requirement for a waiver had made it necessary for leading Kurdish figures hoping to visit the U.S. to first travel to Baghdad, a journey he described as "both dangerous and expensive." That detour would have been particularly taxing during the reign of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, when tensions grew between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government that are only now starting to diminish following a landmark agreement on the key issue of sharing oil revenue.
Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish president, canceled a visit to the U.S. earlier this year over the terrorist classification, saying he would not travel to the United States until it was removed. He last visited in April 2012, at which time, the Kurds say, he secured a commitment that the classification would be changed. (A message seeking corroboration from the White House on this point was not immediately returned.) Barzani could now be expected to visit the U.S. in 2015, according to the Kurdish official who asked not to be named.
It remains unclear whether the success of the legal change this time around was a consequence of the Kurds' prowess in fighting the Islamic State. The bill was introduced months before the United States began tackling the group, and officials with the U.S. and the Kurdish Regional Government both said they thought the change was a work in progress that would have been implemented eventually. Yet Galbraith, using another name for the Islamic State, said he believed "the ISIS fight would certainly give [the change] added impetus."
The change in policy will not have any effect on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a major militant group now based in northern Iraq that is listed as a Tier 1 terrorist organization. The group has battled the Turkish state for more than three decades, demanding greater freedoms for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The PKK’s terrorist listing has posed its own difficulties for U.S. policy in the Middle East: For months now, the U.S. has been supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters directly linked to the PKK in their own battle against the Islamic State, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s leadership.
In October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters, saying they were nothing more than terrorists. Given the PKK's designation and Turkey's qualms about the Kurdish group, deeper cooperation with the Syrian Kurds appears difficult for the Obama administration.
Galbraith said it may be worth revisiting the PKK's designation because of what the United States could gain by working more extensively with the Syrian Kurds, and because the group has not shown any interest in international terrorism that could affect Americans.
"Turkey's deep into talking with them," he said, referring to a peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK. "It's a minor issue in substance."
"It's only because we get all twisted in knots, including by our own terrorism list," Galbraith continued. "The difficulties are really incredibly of our own making."
Sophia Jones reported from Istanbul and Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported from Washington, D.C.