The United States always hoped Arabs and Kurds could share power in the central government. It hasn’t worked out that way. While the ceremonial president of Iraq is a Kurd, real power lies with the Shia Islamists led by the prime minister. More importantly, in a polity as fragile as Iraq’s, control over the security forces (not just the odd cabinet post like the Kurdish-held culture minister slot) is vital. While Iraq’s constitution mandated power-sharing there, too, its Shia hold the senior command posts. A former peshmerga general had held the post of chief of staff of the armed forces, but he quit in 2015, saying that Kurds made up only 1 percent of the Iraqi army. He also complained that Baghdad’s interference prevented him from exercising his command responsibilities.
Hopes for a sharing of real power dimmed considerably in September 2016, when Iraq’s Shia-Islamist-dominated parliament booted out the finance minister, the top Iraqi Kurd in the cabinet. Now, a year later, it is impossible to imagine that power sharing in united Iraq could enable Sunni Arabs or Kurds to control any key levers of the state. The Popular Mobilization militias so strong in Baghdad, for example, would never take orders from them.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that young Kurds don’t look much to Baghdad as a beacon for their loyalty. Many young Kurds don’t even study Arabic, focusing instead on Kurdish and English. The referendum, approved by about 93 percent of voters, demonstrated that Iraqi Kurds don’t want to remain a part of Iraq forever.
Meanwhile, America has been loath to throw out its script about a democratic, united Iraq whose people come together against a weakened ISIS, despite the fact that Baghdad and Erbil have long been looking ahead to a post-ISIS future. Washington’s plan, it seems, is to swap in a new antagonist.
During a visit to Iraq on October 24, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that Iran-backed militias should go home; his statement, a hamfisted appeal to Iraqi nationalism, drew the ire of Abadi, who countered that the militia fighters were Iraqi patriots, and that America should not interfere. Two days later, Tillerson again urged Iraqis to resist Iranian pressure because “Iraqis are Arabs”— a remark that surely annoyed Iraq’s Kurds and other ethnic minorities. In the tortuous constitutional negotiations of 2005, the Kurds had refused to sign a text that called Iraq an Arab state. The Iraqi constitution includes no such declaration.
After all this time, Washington doesn’t seem to get it. Iraqis are preoccupied with their domestic struggles, not with interference from Iran or other foreign states—some Iraqis welcome outside help against domestic competitors. Some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are urging the United States to mediate the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil. To pull that off, however, it would need to avoid distraction, and act with more than a little sensitivity and an awareness of Iraq’s evolution.