- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2015

Iran’s influence over the Middle East is expanding but the region’s Kurds are determined to stay neutral in the face of tensions stemming from Tehran’s role in conflicts from Iraq to Syria and Yemen, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region said Friday.

“We do not want to be part of that power struggle,” said Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which shares a nearly 400-mile border with Iran in northern Iraq, wrapping several days of high-level talks in Washington last week.

While Mr. Barzani said Iran has on at least one occasion provided ammunition to Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the extremist Islamic State movement in Iraq, he insisted the Iranian military are not actively coordinating with the Kurdish fighters.

“Iranian forces have not come to our area and we have not asked for that,” he said. “We have no problems with Iran because we have our own policy and Iran has its own policy and we are neighbors.”

He made the comments Friday during an roundtable with reporters as he finished out a weeklong visit to Washington that included extensive closed-door meetings with top Obama administration officials about the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Mr. Barzani’s visit came as the White House nurses a delicate and seemingly contradictory set of alliances in the Middle East while pursuing nuclear detente with Iran that has drawn resistance from the region’s main Sunni Arab powers — particularly Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. finds itself supporting a Saudi-led military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen while at least tacitly coordinating with Iranian forces in the fight against ISIS, a Sunni extremist organization in Iraq.

The Kurds, whose own peshmerga fighters are playing a outsized role in the ground war against ISIS in Iraq, find themselves increasingly in the middle of Washington’s conflicted diplomacy. But Mr. Barzani took care on Friday to avoid criticizing the Obama administration. 

Mr. Barzani praised a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers for pushing legislation recently to try and require the administration to provide weapons directly to the Kurds. something the White House has resisted. But he stressed that he does not want to get in the middle of Washington’s internal policy fight over the issue.

He also said administration officials assured him on repeated occasion during his visit that weapons will arrive in Kurdish hands.

Mr. Barzani said he did not discuss Syria policy in detail during his meetings with Obama administration officials, but he believes they “know that the situation in Syria is closely tied with the situation in Iraq.” The government of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad is battled U.S.-backed rebel forces but also insurgents linked to al Qaeda, Islamic State and other jihadist movements.

“The situation in Syria is very complicated,” Mr. Barzani said. “What I see is that there is neither a military solution at hand nor a political solution.”

Mr. Barzani made headlines earlier in the week by asserting that Iraq’s Kurds will hold a referendum on independence when the war against ISIS is resolved. 

“I cannot say if it will be in the next year, or when, but certainly the independent Kurdistan is coming,” he said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council and the U.S. Institute of Peace on Wednesday.

But President Obama and Vice President Biden told Mr. Barzani during a meeting at the start of the week that the U.S. remains committed to a united, federal system in Iraq centered in Baghdad, White House officials said, and regional powers such as Turkey, Syria and Iraq are also hostile to the idea of an independent Kurdish state.

Mr. Barzani said KRG relations with Baghdad have warmed since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to power last year. But he pointed to ongoing tensions over Iraq’s oil revenues and the future of the oil-rich, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the capital of a future state. 

Kirkuk has been under peshmerga control the KRG-aligned fighters drove Islamic State forces from the city last July. Mr. Barzani said Friday that peshmerga have no plans of handing the city over to Iraq’s central government.

“We do not have a single doubt about the Kurdistani identity of Kirkuk,” he said.

But he added that any transition to KRG independence must occur without violence — and the matter of Kirkuk’s inclusion in it must be left up to a vote by the people of Kirkuk.

“We will give the final say to the people and then we will abide by what the people decide,” Mr. Barzani said.


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