While in Iraqi Kurdistan, I had multiple conversations with Kurdish government leaders. The primary purpose of these conversations was to advocate for improved women’s health in the region, but I also learned much about the country outside of that topic.
The highlight was a meeting with Nichevan Barzani, Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan. For security reasons, his staff sent a car to pick us up at our hotel. Since the Prime Minster’s office provided the vehicle and driver, there was theoretically no reason for concern about a hidden bomb inside the car. Security is an issue in Erbil, Iraq but the procedures are similar to other areas I’ve visited in the Middle East.
The Prime Minister’s complex is beautiful, and I was quite impressed with the hundreds of trees which have been planted over the last decade or so. Trees in the area were destroyed under the Saddam Hussein regime, and the presence of new trees is a sign of foresight and hope for the future.
The Prime Minister is an impressive leader who articulates a future vision. He explained: “We are friends of America, but we have to live with our brothers in the region. The reshaping of our relationship with our brothers after the many recent changes is our challenge.” The prime minister observed that one can pick one’s friends, but not one’s brothers. He mentioned the challenge of plotting a future course for his country when American policy is perceived as unclear. He pointed out that Iran and Russia have plans for the region, so that the American lack of a plan leaves America’s friends feeling rather isolated and vulnerable.
Other officials and citizens agreed with the Prime Minister’s assessment that America’s goals for the region are unknown. “America invested 4,000 lives and billions of dollars in Iraq, why would you turn it over to Iran and Russia?” asked Interior Minister Karim Sinjari. Many in Iraqi Kurdistan see the Iraqi central government in Baghdad as under Iranian control, as essentially an Iranian proxy government.
It was pointed out during our stay that 1,800 Kurdish Peshmerga died in battles against ISIS and that over 200 more Peshmerga died in October 2017 defending Kirkuk from the Iraqi central government. There are claims that the central government used American-supplied weapons, including tanks, in the assaults against Kirkuk and that such use of these tanks against Kurdish people was prohibited in the agreement under which the U.S. provided the tanks. This experience has left many Kurds feeling betrayed and confused. The Kurdish view is that they love Americans but they wonder if it is a one-sided love.
The economic situation is severe. Dropping oil prices have diminished revenue in that area, and the Kurdish leadership feels that the Central government in Iraq has failed to fulfill its financial obligations. Many Kurds believe that U.S. aid that is supposed to go to Kurdistan is routed through Baghdad via US policy; the Baghdad central government then takes a cut before sending the reduced funds on to Kurdistan. As a result, Kurdish doctors and teachers go unpaid; the University of Sulaimania closed for a while.
I also met with Silvia Eiriz at the U.S. Consulate, who graciously agreed to meet on short notice. We discussed observations on Kurdish morale, and I pointed out that the U.S. State Department website, in the “Travel to Iraq” section, prominently recommends that travelers “Have your will in order.” Based on my experience, this seems to me an exaggeration for the Iraqi Kurdistan portion of Iraq, and I advocated that a change in the website to point out that some areas of Iraq have different travel risks than others would be appropriate.
We Americans have friends in Iraq. I’ve been treated well in Baghdad, in Basra and in Kurdistan. Our friends currently are worried that their faith and trust in us has not been returned. This could be problematic for us the next time we need friends in the region.
We can do better.