White House To Kurds: Please Just Stay In Iraq

Obama's position has not changed despite U.S.-Kurdistan cooperation against ISIS.
Pool via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Kurds who run their own region in northeastern Iraq should be content with the level of autonomy they have now, the White House said Tuesday in response to a petition asking for President Barack Obama to endorse full Iraqi Kurdish independence.

"The President is committed to the united, federal, and democratic Iraq that is defined in the Iraqi constitution," reads the Obama administration's response to a petition filed more than a year ago, which has since garnered 107,136 signatures.

The administration "will continue to support the efforts of Iraq's political leaders to unify the country and, as part of this commitment, we have encouraged all sides to strengthen their partnerships and to work together to fight against their common enemy" -- namely the extremist Islamic State group, which holds significant territory in western Iraq.

The fight against the militant group has brought more attention to the question of whether Iraq's Kurds should have their own state. The Kurds say that poor relations with Baghdad over the past few years left them unprepared for the extremists' advance in 2014.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan region's representative to Washington, told The Huffington Post earlier this year that some of the failures in the Kurds' initial efforts against the Islamic State group -- such as leaving Yazidis vulnerable -- occurred because they possessed only the limited weapons they received from Baghdad. "We were effectively under an embargo" while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki led the country, Rahman said.

Maliki's government had also undermined the Kurdish region by declining for nearly a year to send it its portion of Iraq's oil revenue -- a situation that was only eased once the U.S. pressured Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish capital, to reach a new revenue-sharing agreement in December 2014. The petition asking Obama to endorse Kurdish independence was published during the height of the tensions, on July 23 of last year. It noted the long history of the Iraqi government persecuting Kurds, including by gassing them in the thousands under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Denied an independent state of their own, the Kurds have suffered innumerable injustices at the hands of the people ruling them," the petition reads. "The Kurds, already given self-autonomy in part of Iraq, have proven themselves more than able to run a country and are currently fighting against the [Islamic State group]. As such, the Obama Administration should support Kurdish Independence for the betterment of the region and the world."

Since then, U.S. concern and international worries over the losses to the Islamic State forced Maliki out of office and focused attention on the Kurds, who have proven effective against the militant group. The Obama administration has ramped up military support and coordination with the Kurdistan region, and received grateful messages from the Kurdish leadership in return. Kurdistan's leader pointedly declined to echo Republican criticism of the administration's anti-Islamic State strategy during a recent trip to Washington.

Pressured by donors and political expediency, Republicans have gone as far as to suggest that the White House should simply promise the Kurds a state -- ignoring Iraq's status as a sovereign country. That goes a step further than Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who has said he would support an eventual referendum on Kurdish independence but not while the Islamic State remains on his region's doorstep.

Still, Iraq's unity remains far from guaranteed. Baghdad and Erbil have continued to squabble over the critical question of oil revenue, and the Kurds have for months expressed a desire to receive U.S. arms directly rather than through the Baghdad government. The Obama administration has consistently opposed that change in arms shipment policy despite congressional pressure, likely because it would be certain to set off a firestorm in Iraq.

The White House's latest statement shows that it remains cautious -- an important sign as NATO ally Turkey is flexing its muscles over the growing autonomy of the Syrian Kurds, who are part of U.S. plans to combat the Islamic State group.

"Kurds have and will continue to play an important role in the fight against ISIL terrorists, whose brutality has created a significant humanitarian crisis in the region," the White House statement reads, using the administration's preferred acronym for the Islamic State group.

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