Nouri al-Maliki (left) shakes hands with his successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in 2014. AP file photo.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was very clear when he said last week that the US will not recognize, neither support the Kurdish independence referendum despite the seismic vote by the people of Kurdistan. He said that the US is for the a united Iraq, an indication that the Trump administration, like its predecessors, will continue the One Iraq policy, something that has been tried time and again, but always with the same result.
The main argument against the Kurdish vote, from the US perspective, is that the vote will undo the gains made against ISIS, and that it weakens the chances of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of winning a second term in office, someone seen as a moderate voice in an otherwise coalition of Shiite hardliners headed by Vice President Nouri al-Maliki.
Iraqi PM Abadi is technically the commander-in-chief of all Iraqi armed forces, including the Hashd al-Shaabi. However, his office and the Joint Command of the Iraqi Army that is directly under his control expressed their concerns and denied any knowledge of the Iranian backed ISIS-transfer deal from the Lebanese border to the Iraqi border. The Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi though praised and showed support for it.
The rift between the Iraqi PM and the Iranian-backed Nouri al-Maliki and the Hashd forces is an indicator of what would an Iraq coming out of the ISIS war will look like. The two sides are increasingly heading in different directions, and the chasm is set to widen as the elections approach.
Maliki who has said he does not intend to return to the office as the next Iraqi PM appears to play his powerful role behind the scenes. He had earlier said that Iraq needs change, a sign that PM Abadi should go. He is also the head of Abadi’s Dawa Party and the head of the ruling State of Law Coalition.
Much has changed since Maliki was forced to leave office in 2014. The Iraqi and Kurdish forces have controlled 90 percent of the territory once controlled by ISIS militants. Thanks to the US mediation, and pragmatic policies of both PM Abadi and President Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers for the first time in history fought side by side against a common enemy, just about three years after the two armies were on the verge of clashes over territorial disputes when Maliki was in power.
Though Abadi has received most credit for victories in the battlefield and securing the support of US-led Global Coalition, Maliki too feels emboldened by an estimated 100, 000 Hashd fighters, and MPs who heed to Maliki than the prime minister.
Maliki is Vice President, but his actions have far surpassed his post. He, for example, led a high-profile Iraqi delegation to Russia where he met with Vladimir Putin, possibly to discuss an arms deal. He has had many such meetings with Iranian officials including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Tied to the rift is the issue of the Kurdish independence referendum, which the US has said will take the focus away from the war on ISIS. But Kurdish officials have rightly revealed that it is more about securing a second term in office for Abadi.
What the US should understand is that an Iraq going to war is different from an Iraq coming out of one. In 2014, Iraqi politicians did not have much of a choice: They had to choose between Maliki staying in power and risk losing international support against ISIS, or vote him out and secure the US-led Coalition. But now, there are signs that Maliki and his men have reached a conclusion that after the defeat of ISIS, Iraq neither should have nor leave any room for the West including the US.
Though the US may fear Iraq divided by the Kurdish vote, the reality is that the rest of Iraq is not united. The Kurds may choose to take part in the upcoming elections next year and put their weight behind a "friendly" Abadi with whom they could achieve better results when negotiation to leave the country begins. But the question is: For how long and how far can the US play a decisive role in Iraq?
President Barzani has said it before that Iran's role in Iraq is far bigger than that of the US. He has also said that the Kurds can play little or no role in shaping the politics in Baghdad compared to 2003.
In fact, the Kurdish referendum may fuel Maliki’s campaign against a weak Abadi. All Iraqi prime ministers since 2003 have refused to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that aims to determine the fate of the disputed areas such as Kirkuk, let alone allowing the Kurds to vote for independence. The punitive measures taken against the Kurdistan Region by the Iraqi parliament under the auspices of Abadi tell us a great deal.
Maliki cut Kurdistan Region’s 17-percent share of the federal budget when Erbil announced exporting oil to the international market in 2014, and he even deployed troops to areas such as in Kirkuk.
So even if PM Abadi stays in power, Maliki and his parliamentary faction will make sure that he is Malik 2.0
Michael Knights, a Lafer Fellow with The Washington Institute, rightly argues that the US should urgently start mediating or else risk Iran and Russia dominating the Turkish view of the Kurdish crisis, something he said is not in the interest of the United States, especially as it comes to the war against ISIS.
Knights writes that “the KRG will always be America's "Plan B" in Iraq should Baghdad slip fully into the Iranian orbit, and the Kurds are the only local actors who have stood up to Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.”
In fact the US should go a step further. The Trump administration should understand that while Abadi has been able to win the war, he is unable to win the next election. For now, America’s Plan A relies on one man with no parliamentary support, or that of the powerful Hashd al-Shaabi.