Iran has delivered the US a “slap in the face” by backing Hashd al-Shaabi’s march on Kirkuk within just 60 hours of US President Donald Trump’s speech, says Michael Pregent.
Speaking to Rudaw’s Rebaz Ali on Monday as events were unfurling in Kirkuk, Pregent expressed frustration over Washington’s stance on the Kurds, believing Washington is too close to the ruling Dawa party of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Answering questions from the media later in the day, Trump refused to take sides, simply stating "We don't like the fact that they're clashing. We're not taking sides, but we don't like the fact that their clashing."
A Middle East analyst, Pregent is a former intelligence officer for the US Departments of Defense and State. He embedded as an advisor to the Peshmerga in Mosul in 2005-2006
Rudaw: Why is the US so silent on the situation happening in Kirkuk and Hashd al-Shaabi using American weapons against Peshmerga?
We’re surprised. We issued an order, not an order but a warning to Baghdad not to use military force against Kurdish positions in and around Kirkuk. Secretary Mattis said that, the president gave a very strong speech on Friday designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and the Hashd al-Shaabi are commanded by IRGC affiliates, Revolutionary Guard Corps affiliates. We pay money to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and they’re shifting American resources and equipment to these Iranian-led militias. We had a statement today that the Baghdad spokesman said Qassem Soleimani is an advisor to the Hashd al-Shaabi.
We are watching. I know we’re watching. The DoD (Department of Defense) is aware, the Pentagon’s aware and we’re going to see the results tomorrow morning in DC of what happened in the last six hours and through the night. We’re likely to see that this is exactly what the United States cannot allow. But more importantly, this just shows that we’re losing leverage with Baghdad. If you warn Baghdad and they do it anyway, it’s because Tehran is telling them to do it and they are okay with it, they agree. But this is an opportunity now for the United States, especially after the president’s speech, where he was very tough on Iran, to do something
The [referendum] was not an illegal vote. It should not be met with force
because this is testing American resolve by a Qassem Soleimani-led force moving against our allies, allies we’ve had since the Gulf War, even before that, moving against our allies less than 60 hours after the president designated them a terrorist group*.
So tomorrow, Washington DC will wake up and see what happens and everybody hopefully holds their positions tonight, the Iraqi security forces stop, the Hashd al-Shaabi are declared an illegal military, an illegal militia and moved out. But tomorrow, veterans of the Iraq war, myself and others, veterans in Congress that I speak to will be making our voices as loud as we can for the US to do something. This is, as an American who fought with the Peshmerga, to see this is… uh… I don’t have any words. So, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.
We just saw a statement from the Pentagon asking both sides to be calm and to restrain from using violence, but in fact, it’s the Hashd al-Shaabi who started attacking the Peshmerga and they started the violence that the Pentagon is talking about. What do you think about that?
Well, I saw the statement and the language I didn’t like was ‘we urge both sides to stop, yet we still condemn the Kurdish referendum’. That language actually gives Tehran, Baghdad, and Ankara a green light to do these types of actions. The United States needs to have a strong statement. The vote was a democratic vote. The vote was not an illegal vote. It should not be met with force. It should not be met with violence. I don’t believe that that was crafted by Mattis. I believe it was crafted by the DoD communications department, because the language is not Mattis-like. The language is very Brett McGurk-like… and [it’s a problem].
So people like yourself, the veterans, how do you think they’re going to respond to this? You fought against this in Iraq for years and now you see this happening. This must be frustrating for you and people like yourself. What do you think you need to do?
Well, the thing we’ve been fighting for for two years is the designation of the Revolutionary Guard corps as a terrorist organization and the decertification of the Iran deal. We got that Friday. That needs to mean something. Our Sunni regional allies heard the president’s message. It was very strong. This should restore confidence in our regional allies.
Pillar number one is to neutralize the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ destabilizing activities across the region. The Kirkuk operation is a
This shows the [US] president that the Iranians didn’t take him seriously
destabilizing activity. You can’t give a tough speech and then allow Iran less than 60 hours later to move against an ally. So I would hope that veterans are upset as well, civilians alike.
The Kurdish people are built for western democracy support. They’re built for democratic support. They’re tolerant, they’re accepting, and I find it ironic that the United Nations and other non-government organizations choose to operate out of Kurdistan in order to help Iraqis throughout. When there’s instability in Baghdad, when ISIS invaded Iraq, people go to Kurdistan. Why do they go to Kurdistan? Because it’s an accepting region, it takes care of its own security. It’s an ally of the West. There’s problems, yes, but let’s talk about the problems. We don’t use military action to solve them.
We saw the speech by the president on Iran, but now we see that Qassem Soleimani has been going around in Iraq, meeting with the prime minister and ordering the Hashd al-Shaabi and other militias against the Kurdish Peshmerga, as you said, less than 60 hours after the president’s speech. What does that say about the US involvement in Iraq? Do you think after this or tomorrow, are we going to see less support for the government of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi from the US government, after what they have seen in the last couple of days, the Iraqis dealing with Qassem Soleimani and the IRGC?
Well, this shows the president that the Iranians didn’t take him seriously. They heard the speech and they’re scoffing at it. This is a slap in the face to a US president by conducting these types of activities after this speech.
Baghdad is part of this, so Baghdad is doing the same thing. I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, but I do know that Secretary Mattis issued a statement and Abadi promised the United States he would not conduct an offensive operation against the Kurds. That operation is ongoing now. I truly believe that even if Abadi didn’t want to do it, the Iranians could still make this happen. The Quds force commander on the ground, I don’t know his name, but he actually told KDP officials and PUK officials, “Listen, either work with us or we can bring the whole Iraqi army here.”
So this is an Iranian commander telling Kurdish political parties that we can tell the Iraqi army what to do, we can tell the Iraqi
I don’t think President Trump knows he’s been slapped in the face
government what to do. And I think that everybody believes that, because we’re seeing it. We’re witnessing it.
So you said this is a slap in the face for President Trump. How do you think President Trump would react to this slap in the face? Do you think that he’s going to accept it?
I don’t think President Trump knows he’s been slapped in the face. The president needs to know who the Kurds are. The president needs to know that the Kurds have been our strongest US ally in Iraq. That the Kurds have helped us fight ISIS, they helped us decimate al-Qaeda. They’ve protected Sunnis, Christians, Shiite nationalists from reprisal attacks from Shia militias as civilians fled to Kurdistan after the violence in Baghdad in 2005-06.
I was actually in Duhok and a family came up to me and said, ‘We can’t talk to you in Baghdad, and thank you, because we’ll get targeted, but thank you for being here.’ I didn’t know who they were. I said ‘Where are you from?’ They said, ‘We’re from Sadr city.’ So that means something.
But I think the president needs to know who the Kurds are and I don’t think he does. [Secretary James] Mattis does, H.R. McMaster does, I don’t think [Rex] Tillerson does. And I think Brett McGurk knows exactly who the Kurds are, but he’s already picked sides. And that’s not coming from me necessarily. That’s coming from everybody I’ve talked to on the ground in Iraq, from Sunni nationalists, Kurdish nationalists, Shiite nationalists, they say the biggest problem is the US government is listening more to the Dawa party than they are to anybody else in Iraq.
What’s happening now is all going on in front of the US government’s eyes. They see how Prime Minister Abadi and the government of Iraq have been declining calls for negotiation from the KRG in order to avoid violence. There has been a blockade, international flights have been banned. And the KRG have been trying to do everything to start negotiations in order to avoid violence, but Prime Minister Abadi and the government in Iraq have declined that. What do you think the United States should do? Why have they been so silent against this?
I think the biggest problem is we’ve given the Iraq portfolio to a man from the Department of State – to Brett McGurk. Now Brett McGurk told DC, Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara that he could stop the Kurdish people from voting, that the US had enough leverage
The biggest problem is the US government is listening more to the Dawa party than they are to anybody else in Iraq
with the Kurds to get them to stop. Last night, he probably told DC that he had enough leverage with Baghdad to get Baghdad to stop, to not go into Kirkuk. Either that, or he’s signaled some sort of green light.
I’m frustrated by this, because this does not bode well for the relationships we’ve established with Kurds. The Peshmerga that I know, I’ve known for almost 12 years now, and I don’t ever want to put a time limit on a friendship or an alliance. And I think this is a moment where the United States… you know we got the strong statement on Iran, we got a designation of the IRGC, we’re talking about their destabilizing activities. This is what it looks like less than 60 hours after the speech. This is a provocation. This is a slap in the face.
How do you envision the future relationship between the US and the Kurdish government after what’s happening now? A lot of people believe that they have been betrayed by the US government.
Well if this continues and Baghdad conducts a military operation like they have against ISIS-held territory, if you start seeing mortars and artillery like we’re seeing tonight in – what’s the name of the city?
Yes. We’re seeing that now. I would hope that this gets taken care of tomorrow, that this stops. But our relationship with Kurdistan – basically, every US soldier that has ever worked with a Peshmerga is now looking to our US government, saying ‘Don’t do this to this ally of ours, you can’t do it.’ I don’t even have the words for this.
* On Friday, President Trump authorized sanctions on the IRGC for its support of terrorism, but stopped short of designating the force a terror organization.