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Exclusive–Kurdish envoy calls on Trump to protect Kurds, explains fall of Kirkuk

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The official representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States told Big League Politics Monday that Kurdish Peshmerga forces are standing up to the unprovoked attacks by Iranian-led militiamen and Iraqi army regulars in the area of Kirkuk, Iraq as they await President Donald J. Trump to intervene to protect her nation.

“We really are looking to the United States, we are looking to President Trump to stand by us as we go through this crisis in Kirkuk,” said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, who began her Washington posting in 2015 and for the 10 years prior was the KRG representative in London.

“We see the United States as our friend and ally, whether it is a Republican or Democratic administration,” she said.

Rahman said Trump should reach out to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and urge him to pull back whatever forces are under his command, although the attacks are led by Iranian agents, who have co-opted the Iraqi army’s command and control apparatus.

A combination of Iraqi army units and Shiite militia, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, launched their attacks on Peshmerga positions in Kirkuk Monday morning and by the end of the day, they had captured the city and surrounding oil fields.

Rahman said control of Kirkuk could have been resolved without the loss of life.

“If Prime Minister al-Abadi wanted to have some discussion over Kirkuk, then a discussion or a negotiation was the way to have gone about it,” Rahman said. “Not this kind of very aggressive, very provocative attack.”

No matter how much violence and military action takes place, at the end of the day there is going to have to be a discussion, she said.

Rahman said her contacts at the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council staff at the White House have all expressed their support of both Kurdistan and the federal government of Iraq.

“We sometimes feel the emphasis has been on supporting the government of Iraq: the unity of Iraq, the territorial integrity of Iraq, when really, Iraq is not a sovereign state. Its sovereignty is abused every day by its neighbors and nobody says anything. Iraq is not one unified state. It has never been. It has always been kept together under some kind of force—and under Saddam, of course, it was absolutely brutal.”

There is some continued dialogue led by the Americans, but it is not enough, she said.

“We are looking for a much clearer support and a much clearer expression of the condemnation of the violence in Kirkuk,” she said.

Iranian influence

One of the strongest supporters of the Kurds on Capitol Hill, Rep. Trent Franks (R.-Ariz.) issued a statement Monday condemning the role of Iran and the PMF militias, which he called by their Arabic moniker: Hash’d al Shaabi.

“The Hash’d al-Shaabi has shown its true colors,” Franks said.

“They are not interested in the collective security of Iraq and the Middle East,” he said. “Rather, they are a pawn of the corrupt regime in Tehran, committed to affecting a ‘Shi’ite Crescent’ to continue funneling money and arms to designated terrorist groups like Hezbollah.”

The Arizona congressman said if the Iraqi government must live up to its obligation to protect the Kurdish people. “Otherwise, the U.S. will have no other choice but to pull funding, as it cannot in good conscience send money to an Iranian patsy working to subvert American interests.”

The PMF is a collection of factions, but the core of the force is a legacy of the Badr militia, the Shiite para-military organization that fought U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Al Jazeera reported in August that former anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called upon the prime minister to dissolve the PMF, but al-Abadi dismissed the request.

The PMF militiamen are not necessarily under the control of the Iraqi government, she said. “We believe there is a heavy, heavy influence of Iran with the Popular Mobilization units—Iran is controlling, managing, influencing and directing many of these militias in what they do and how they conduct themselves—how much they are under the control of the Iraqi government is debatable.”

Among the Iraqi army regulars attacking the Kurds is the 9th Division and the IA Counter-Terrorism Service, she said.

The “Falcon” paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team had been with the fighting with the 9th Division, along with other Iraqi security forces in combat operations, such as the liberation of Tal Afar from the Islamic State in August. The last of the Falcon troopers returned Oct. 12 to Fort Bragg, North Carolina at the end of their deployment.

The full-on nature Kirkuk offensive appears to have surprised the Pentagon.

Shortly after media outlets in the Middle East posted reports of the assault, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning said: “We are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during the predawn hours [today], and we believe this to have been an isolated incident.

Manning said the American military was monitoring military columns advancing toward Kirkuk, but it was not a prelude to military engagement. “We have not seen levels of violence suggested in some media reports.”

The colonel said U.S. and its coalition partners in the fight against the Islamic State were not participating with the Iraqi Army nor the Peshmerga forces in the area of Kirkuk.

The coalition strongly urges all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions, opposes violence from any party, and urges against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and undermine Iraq’s stability, he said.

Kurdish forces overwhelmed

Rahman said the swift capture of Kirkuk was not a defeat on the battlefield, so much as it was a case of some Kurdish forces being outwitted.

While the Peshmerga stood and fought the Iraqi army and the Shiite militiamen, a Kurdish para-military unit pulled back from the line after negotiating a halt to the advance, the envoy said.

“There was a naïve attempt by one very small faction within one political party in Kurdistan to reach an agreement with Prime Minister al-Abadi and the militia,” she said.

“They believed that the agreement was that if we hand over these places that there would not be any fighting and there would not be any Iraqi troops going into Kirkuk City,” she said.

“The people who came up with this were complete outmaneuvered and outfoxed,” Rahman said. “These forces retreated without firing a bullet at all in exchange for an agreement that turned out to be hot air.”

Retreating Kurds opened up a hole in the line, which allowed the advancing Iraqi army and PMF fighters to inflect themselves from the front and the back of Kurdish forces, which led to the swift defeat, she said.

“Some of us see the agreement as a betrayal,” she said. “Some of us see it as a very naïve greedy, little plot that has backfired on the entire nation.”

Despite the chaos on the battlefield, the Peshmerga regulars did not cut and run, said the former journalist, whose father and eldest son were killed in a 2004 suicide car bombing.

“Many Peshmerga have been killed and injured,” she said. “Some have been captured by the militia and we hear that they have been executed—but we do not have confirmation—there was fighting, but the surprise withdrawal on one side led to a kind of a rout.”

Now, Pershmerga forces have regrouped and preparing to mount a sturdy defense of other Kurdish-held territories, she said.

“I don’t know if there will be a counteroffensive,” she said. “We are ready to defend our country and we are doing our best to recover from this terrible violence that we have just seen.”

Kurdish sovereignty

It is impossible to view this offensive against Kurd-held territory without considering the Sept. 25 referendum on Kurdish secession, when 93 percent of the voters chose to instruct the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party to begin negotiations with the Iraqi government.

“When we called the referendum, three or four months ago, from the outset we were clear that the referendum would not lead to a unilateral declaration of independence,” she said.

“The referendum would give the Kurdish leadership the mandate to negotiate with Baghdad over borders, over assets, resources and future relationships,” Rahman said.

“It was the first step in many steps, but would eventually result in Kurdistan becoming independent,” she said.

In an Oct. 16 statement to the Iraqi people, the prime minister said the referendum results gave him no alternative.

We showed them the magnitude of the danger that will be exposed to Iraq and its people, but they preferred their personal and partisan interests to those of Iraq, with its Arab and Kurdish people and the rest of its components. They violated the constitution and the national consensus and national partnership in addition to their disregard for the unanimous international rejection of the referendum and the division of Iraq and the establishment of a state on an ethnic and racial basis.

We assure our people in Kurdistan and in Kirkuk in particular that we are keen on their safety and best interest. We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.

The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014, when the Iraqi army abandoned the city to the advancing army of the Islamic State. With the help of American air strikes by attack, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft, the Kurdish ground forces turned back the Islamic State offensive and have since integrated the city into its own autonomous nation within the nation of Iraq.

For 26 years, Kurdistan has largely ruled itself as a legacy of the American intervention in 1991 in defense of the Kurds, who were being attacked by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in that strongman’s effort to reassert control of this country in the aftermath of his defeat in Kuwait by the United States-led coalition.

“The intervention in 1991 with the creation of the safe haven, Operation Provide Comfort, and the no-fly zone that secured Kurdistan from Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s all the way up to 2003, fully enabled Kurdistan region to start to self-govern out of the grasp of the dictator, who had been committing genocide,” Rahman said.

“It has enabled us to rule ourselves, educate our children in our own language for the first time,” she said.

Rahman said the KRG operates similarly to the arrangement between Scotland and England, where Scotland has its own parliament and government—or even Quebec province in Canada or Catalan province in Spain, but more so, since the KRG has its own national military.

“Of all those examples, Kurdistan has the most autonomy.”

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