Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Mustafa Fahs

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Iraq on the Day After US Withdrawal, Again

We are back at the hypothetical press conference held by a senior US official after the conclusion of the American National Security Council meeting in which the US administration has announced that the last remaining US troops were pulled out of Iraq.

In response to a journalist's question, he stresses: "Our country will not abandon its friends in Iraq, and we will come to their aid when necessary." He then adds: "Central Command is considering the possibility of keeping some forces near the Iraqi border, and we have other ways to respond if friends are threatened, be it inside Iraqi territory or from outside the country."

A veteran Kurdish official, who had fought for the Kurdish cause alongside Mullah Mustafa Barzani and experienced the Kurds' many pains and their few joys, turns to his guest after the end of the press conference. Indignant, he incredulously asks the official if Washington has any friends.

He looked out from the balcony of his rural home on Mount Sakran, overlooking the Iranian border, and told himself: "Mahmoud Darwish was right when he said 'The Kurd has only the wind,' but after what I've seen, I know that the Kurd has only the mountain."

The moment the US forces withdraw, should they do so, the mountain will become the Kurds' safe haven once again. Even at the height of their ascendancy, some Kurds preferred to remain in the mountains. The country's capital Baghdad, remained, in their view, a dangerous place. They remained cautious despite the fact that Baghdad had been weak early on, haunted by fears that it might send its tanks one day in the future, as it had in the past.

The leaders in Erbil, indeed even those Sulaymaniyah and the Shiite leaders in Baghdad, failed to build trust among themselves. Their relationship never went beyond pragmatic alliances and never evolved in a manner that could give rise to national unity. Baghdad accused the Kurds of exploiting its weakness, political disarray, and security crises in the decade of change, using this narrative to maximize its gains.

Some Kurdish elites warned, early on, that their people could be made to pay the price if Baghdad grew stronger, its rulers turned their attention northward, and these rulers then treated the autonomous Kurdish province like a mutinous entity following the withdrawal of US forces.

Even without the withdrawal of American forces, the shared mistrust between Kurdish and Shiite politicians gradually has cooled relations between the two capitals. Baghdad's silence after the strikes on Erbil launched from within and without the country, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iraqi factions allied with the government, left the Kurds disappointed with Washington, which only took action when its own soldiers were killed.

Having already resigned from its role, Washington's behavior has aggravated the Kurds' apprehensions about their region's future. Indeed, the recent verdicts of the Federal Court Supreme Court of Iraq reminded everyone of the mindset of the central authorities in Baghdad, and these verdicts were all issued under Washington's watch.

In their perpetual struggle to safeguard their distinct identity, the Kurds have paid the price for the battles they have fought with chauvinistic identities on unequal terrain. In Iraq, the Kurds have also paid the price for unrealistic bets made by their politicians. Intra-Kurdish disputes among rival parties have been exploited by neighboring regional powers, especially those who fear the Kurds' struggle for autonomy.

Moreover, the authorities in Baghdad, in every phase of Iraq's modern political history - from monarchy to the Baathist era, to the current regime - have never hesitated to interfere in Kurdish affairs, sow divisions among them, and exploit their contradictions.

Despite the significant opportunities that emerged following the events of 1991 and 2003, and although the Kurds managed to turn the page on the intra-Kurdish conflict, the new Kurdish-Iraqi modus vivendi, namely the Kurds' self-governance, left them caught between their profound desire for independence and their fears of Baghdad. Even with the rise of the Kurdish-Shiite alliance, which was approved by both the United States and Iran, the Kurds paid the price for their attempt to hold a referendum during this period. They lost Kirkuk as a result of this attempt, and Washington didn't lift a finger.

This shock was a historical turning point that raised questions about the territory that the Kurds would control and the betrayal by their friends, the Americans. Independent Kurdish activist Hiwa Osman sees the relationship between his people and Washington like this: "For the Americans, there are no Kurds, there are only good Iraqis."

However, even this notion of "good Iraqis" is vague. Washington does not believe that there is an alternative to Baghdad, even when it makes a show of opposing Iraq's central authorities. How Erbil will behave now remains an open question... the conversation does not end here.