- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2016

Iraq’s Kurds, having played a major role in the fight against Islamic State, are banking that the incoming Trump White House will expand U.S. military and political support for Iraq, taking on a larger role in stabilizing the country after the defeat of the terror group in Mosul.

As American-backed Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces face a long and bloody campaign to re-take Mosul, the ethnic Kurds will need Washington’s support in the political aftermath, Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, said on a Washington visit Thursday.

“We expect more support from the next administration,” he said told an audience at the Wilson Center. “We do not claim [Islamic State] is the end of terrorism” in Iraq, Mr. Barzani said. “The issue is not solved” even when the group is driven out of the country.

His comments come amid recent reports of heavy Islamic State resistance east of Mosul, after several days of advances by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. Iraqi and coalition troops were forced to pull back from the Wahda neighborhood, southeast of the city, under “heavy enemy fire,” coalition officials told the Reuters news agency.

The majority of Iraqi forces are pressing into Mosul’s eastern borders, while Kurdish troops have focused their attack on the city’s northern edges. Iraqi Shiite paramilitary groups, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, are moving into the city from the west while blocking escape routes into neighboring Syria. Roughly 1,000 American service members and military advisers are on the ground, supporting the Iraqi-led assault.

Despite recent progress, “it is very hard to say exactly when this fight will come to an end,” Mr. Barzani said.

When asked if Kurdish leaders would allow U.S. forces to maintain an extended presence in northern Iraq after Mosul falls, Mr. Barzani replied: “We would love to see Americans engaged [in Kurdistan] to help stabilize the region,” but added that would be up to the incoming administration.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are concerned that the defeat of Islamic State may not solve the country’s deeper political problems, including sectarian hostility between Shiites and Sunnis and the Kurds’ long-stated hopes for greater autonomy and — in time — a homeland of their own uniting Kurdish communities in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly stated that his primary national security goal for his administration would be the complete defeat of Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, while criticizing the Obama White House’s overall counterterrorism strategy.

Mr. Obama’s strategy included heavy reliance on local armies and paramilitary groups, trained and armed by small U.S. special operations teams and backed by American surveillance drones and air power.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump famously claimed one of his first acts as commander in chief would be to order the Pentagon to draft up a new Islamic State strategy, due a month after he takes office. But the president-elect’s transition team and prospective members of his emerging national security team have provided few details on Mr. Trump’s long-term political solution for Iraq.

“We don’t only have to win the war, we also have to win the peace,” Mr. Barzani.

The widespread slaughter and displacement of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities — especially the Iraqi Kurds — at the hands of the Islamic State for the last two years has exacerbated the divisions, he added.

“How are they going to live together [again]” once the Islamic State is defeated, Mr. Barzani said. “It will be very difficult for those people to trust each other again.” As always, Kurdish dreams of independence are a major sticking point, opposed not just by Baghdad, but by the other countries housing significant Kurdish populations.

On Wednesday, Mr. Barzani said discussions were already underway between Irbil, the increasingly powerful Kurdish regional capital, and Baghdad, regarding a referendum vote on Kurdish independence. “This is an open dialogue, to see what would be [needed]” in any type of agreement on independence.

“The world, unfortunately, has not been very just to the Kurdish people,” Mr. Barzani said, but indicated a Trump White House could provide a much-needed push to get a deal in place.

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