- - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

In February of this year, I was grateful for a return visit to Erbil, the dynamic capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq that is governed by the Kurdish Regional Government. Throughout my visit, I was able to clearly appreciate the vital role of Kurdistan as a partner to the United States, promoting peace and security in the Middle East. However, recent plans for a referendum of Kurdish independence could put our positive relationship at risk. We can appreciate the successes of the Kurdish Region as a part of a federated Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan should remain a vibrant and thriving part of Iraq because it works with coalition partners in the fight against ISIL and supports positive reforms in the region. Protected by the American no-fly zone during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, the region was secure with a robust economy, in great contrast to the oppression of the other Iraqi regions. I have been so impressed by the leaders and people of the Kurdish region that I served as a founding co-chairman of the Kurdish Regional Caucus.

There is no better example of U.S. cooperation with Iraqi Kurds on combatting terrorism than the liberation of Mosul. In June, the Islamic State was finally driven out of Mosul — the territorial stronghold in Northern Iraq that they have held for nearly two years. This accomplishment was made possible because of the success of the Kurdish Peshmerga and their collaboration with Iraqi forces. While this was one of the most significant victories of the fight against the Islamic State and violent extremists, the Peshmerga have also been responsible for other successful campaigns against ISIS and other terrorist organizations throughout Iraq.

Clearly, security cooperation is one of the greatest ways for the United States to expand their remarkable partnership with the Kurdish government, especially as we face increasing threats in the region.

The Kurdish Regional Government has also been a leader in promoting positive, modern governmental reforms. Under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani, the parliament has made great strides in enacting penalties for violence against women and investing in critical infrastructure. The Kurdish Regional Government has also taken great strides to promote economic development — both by increasing educational opportunities within the oil and gas industries but also by developing other sectors, including tourism and encouraging foreign direct investment.

Disappointing, though not unsurprising, Kurdistan’s economic advancements have diminished in the past few years, given the rise in ISIS, increase in refugees and deterioration of security. However, I am optimistic that as Kurdistan makes positive advancements that allow them to prosper, they can serve as a model for other regions of Iraq to diversify, stabilize and prosper.

It is important to be clear-eyed about the Kurdish Regional Government’s success in terms of governing because there are still some areas of concern. However, I am hopeful that as the security and economic situations improve, the region can return to regular elections and uphold our shared democratic principles.

While a strong, prosperous Kurdistan benefits Iraq and the region, an independent Kurdistan could threaten the fragile stability of the region. Additionally, it could cause other Kurdish minorities in bordering countries, like Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iran, to attempt to join an independent Kurdistan, disrupting the balance of power with extraordinary violence as nations preserve existing boundaries.

Additionally, one of the most significant reason to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq is the fact that this is what the country — including the Kurdish Regional Government — agreed to in the nation’s 2005 constitution. While I appreciate the concerns that the Iraqi government has not fully upheld the agreement with the Kurds, specifically in regards to territory and oil revenue-sharing, I believe the United States could play a greater role in helping to facilitate the renewal and upkeep of the agreement.

Kurdistan has been, and continues to be, a vital partner for the United States in the Middle East, promoting stability, modernization, and economic reforms. However, our partnership in the Middle East is at its best with Kurdistan as a semi-autonomous region of Iraq.

At this point in time, while there still may be opportunity for improvements, ultimately, our meaningful cooperation would be put at risk if Kurdistan were to separate from Iraq. As a senior member of both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I look forward to working with the talented regional government to continue our strong partnership on areas of mutual interest.

Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, is chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness and serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is also co-founder of the Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus.

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