Kurdish General Again Insubordinate, Angles for US to Remain in Iraq

The public statement by Iraqi chief of staff Lt. General Babakr Zebari , at a defense conference that the Iraqi army would not be ready to stand on its own until 2020 and US troops should remain until then is not a statement about security issues in general but is a highly ethno-sectarian piece of insubordination.

Unsurprisingly, the elected prime minister of Iraq and head of the current caretaker government, Nuri al-Maliki, promptly refuted Zebari and insisted on civilian control of this decision-making. As prime minister, al-Maliki is beholden to the elected parliament, which set the timetable for withdrawal. The Obama White House is also committed to the withdrawal.

Zebari is an old-time Kurdish guerrilla and a prominent member of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. (That the Guardian article above did not mention this background is incomprehensible to me; I really like journalists and especially ones who risk all by going out to places like Baghdad, and don’t want to be needlessly critical, but when reporting neglects essential context it does a disservice to readers.)

The Kurds have many reasons for wanting the US military to stay in Iraq. They have established what is for all intents and purposes an independent state in what had been 3 provinces of Iraq (though by now the provincial boundaries and administrative apparatuses have long since been erased), called Kurdistan. Kurdistan is the Taiwan of the Middle East, a separate and independent nation that cannot be so named without causing a war (or a whole set of wars). But Kurdistan gives out visas and refuses to allow Iraqi army troops on its soil and does foreign contracts without consulting Baghdad, so what would you call it?

Despite being semi-autonomous, the Kurds also have a strange relationship to the Baghdad government, electing members of its parliament and at present holding the presidency of the country. Some compare this situation to Quebec in Canada, but that province has far, far fewer perquisites than does Kurdistan. It is more as though Jefferson Davis served in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and Robert E. Lee was a high ranking staff officer in the Union army as well as in the Confederate.

Kurdish nationalism in Iraq is not satisfied with this relatively advantageous situation (de facto separatism plus powerful influence on the central government). Kurdistan nationalists want to annex part or all of several other Iraqi provinces that have substantial Kurdish populations. The Arab population of Iraq (both Sunnis and Shiites) is die-hard opposed to any expansion of Kurdistan at the expense of the territory of Arab Iraq, though virtually everyone is willing to let the Kurds retain their current territory and special privileges.

There have been clashes between the Kurdistan military, the Peshmerga, and the regular Iraqi army, in parts of Iraq as far as 200 miles from the Kurdistan border, because the Peshmerga has taken control there. The situation threatens another civil war in Iraq, and outgoing US commander Gen. Ray Odierno responded by having US troops patrol with both Peshmerga and regular Iraqi army units so as to avoid firefights between the two. Since the US will less and less be in a position to provide this mediation service, Odierno suggested that United Nations troops be brought in to fulfill it, but met a firestorm of protest from Iraqis eager to be out from under the long years of deadly UN caretaker status (Iraq is one of the UN’s great failures, where it is responsible for killing large numbers of civilians with its regime sanctions, and of destroying a promising developing economy, and of failing to prevent an illegal and aggressive war on the country by GW Bush).

The US military has consistently sided with the Kurds in both military and political affairs, so it is unsurprising that Zebari fears their departure. Without a US protectorate, the Kurds will face Arab Iraq alone. Moreover, Arab politicians in Baghdad who want to block Kurdistan expansionism have on several occasions already sought support from Turkey in this endeavor, and such a Baghdad-Ankara alliance against the annexation of Kirkuk and of parts of Ninevah and Diyala Provinces is likely to strengthen and be cemented when the US departs.

My own view is that the KDP’s romantic territorial nationalism is anachronistic and inappropriate to a Gulf oil state, and likely to be undermined by economic developments. There is much more petroleum in the Shiite south than in Kurdistan, and pumping and refining it will require a big skilled labor force. Large numbers of Kurds will almost certainly be drawn down to Basra Province to work the Rumaila and other fields (and there is more black gold in Maysan and elsewhere not yet exploited). Just as Kurdish nationalism in Turkey was blunted by the way the Kurds were spread around the country as laborers in construction and light industry (and the way they came to vote just like their Turkish neighbors in Istanbul and elsewhere), Kurdish nationalism in Iraq may well be blunted by the enormous labor migration to the south that is likely to occur over the next two decades. (Further south in the Perso-Arabian Gulf, the countries have such small populations that they have brought millions of guest workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc.; but Iraq has a sufficiently large population, including the Kurds, that internal labor migration is likely to be significant).

In any case, Zebari cannot name any real function the US military could play in Iraqi security in the coming decade beyond logistics and air support, and the latter can be done from Qatar. The US is no longer independently and actively patrolling the cities and therefore increasingly lacks the sort of intelligence that would allow a pro-active intervention. The violence is much less now than when the US was wholly in control.

But beyond being biased and incorrect, Zebari is being insubordinate. The Iraqi parliament passed the Status of Forces Agreement which calls for US troops to be out by the end of 2011. That is the decision of the civilian government. For a serving general to attempt to undermine it is a very bad sign, and if there were an Iraqi government in existence, it should fire him.

25 Responses

  1. All of the European countries of the EU find it very difficult to work together. Would the Turks, Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, and Syrians find it any easier? I suspect that they would have just a much difficulty reaching a decision as the Europeans. Who will be the first person to recommend that they form a joint committee to study the feasibility of a Union of Diverse Peoples.
    I can guess that such a committee would conclude that it would not work with out a strong central leader, capable of being very brutal, to hold such a union together long enough until it took hold in the imaginations of the people of the area. The committee should know that I am free for the moment. They should act fast because one can never say how long that will be the case.
    In honor of Ernie Padgett,
    Born 1 March 1899
    Died 15 April 1957

    • The Iraqi army is the IRAQI army, and when a Lt. General is insubordinate, he should be fired just like McChrystal was. Unless you consider McChrystal a General for a different country than that of the United States.
      And I don’t really see the connection to Ernie Badgett in your comment but I am not a man, so please forgive me. The only connection I see today of a famous past baseball players is that to a cheap post by a neo-idiot coward that would stop at nothing to Cyber-Stalk intellectuals he can’t confront and debate. He would definitely Win field of the stupidest person on earth award. Margaritas are on me!

      • I don’t get it about Ernie Badgett either!!! Maybe someone could enlighten me.

  2. “But Kurdistan gives out visas and refuses to allow Iraqi army troops on its soil and does foreign contracts without consulting Baghdad”

    Wow I knew it was largely economically independent and knew about the tensions in the oil rich city of Kirkuk but didn’t know it was this independent.

    Does sound like it is effectively independent, which must worry Turkey and Iran and the oil lacking Sunni region of Iraq. The situation seems to be very similar to the ethnic-nationalist mess caused by the breakup of Yugoslavia and between Serbs/Bosnia/Croatia.

  3. Excellent post and excellent, crucial criticism of the Guardian article and “reporting that neglects essential context”. It absolutely does a disservice to the readers. Thank you Professor Cole.

  4. Question Professor Cole, what’s your source for Zebari being a member of the KDP? You criticise the Guardian for failing to provide context, yet either you’re ignorant of the fact that the Zebaris are historic foes of the Barzanis or you know for sure on the basis of some reliable source that the general is indeed a member of the KDP.

    Second, you’ve coloured the desire to have troops beyond 2011 as an ethno-sectarian request, but what about Tariq Aziz’s similar request, or those of other major Sunnis like Mutlaq, Allawi, etc? They’re not Kurdish are they?

    Funny how everytime it’s a Kurd saying troops should stay there seems to be a boring, age-old desire to dismiss it as part of some Kurdish desire for independence, etc.

    Get to grips with the reality on the ground Professor, and I say so with all due respect.

  5. 1) General Babakr Zebari has 4 stars
    2) General Babakr Zebari has been the commanding general of the Iraqi Armed Forces since 2003. To repeat he has been the top officer in the Iraqi Armed Forces since 2003
    3) General Babakr Zebari has been the chairman of the Iraqi Joint Staff and chairman of the Iraqi Army Staff since 2003
    4) General Babakr Zebari built the new Iraqi Army from scratch in 2003 and won a major war. Violence in Iraq fell about 95% from late 2006 under his Counter Insurgency Strategy and Battle Plan. It was the strategy of the Iraqi Joint Staff that General Babakr Zebari chairs that won the war. MNF-I served as a support to his strategy.
    5) General Babakr Zebari is a popular national hero among Iraqis across the political spectrum.

    To imply that General Babakr Zebari is sectarian or not a nationalist is to insult the Iraqi Army and its institutional culture.

    What General Babakr Zebari’s comments really are about is the Iraqi Air Force. In 2008, most of Iraq’s Air Force procurement was canceled or delayed because of the huge budget deficit and low oil prices. General Babakr Zebari was not pleased about it. He correctly feels that the Iraqi Air Force will not be sufficiently capable to meet Iraq’s security requirements until 2020. General Babakr Zebari is trying to persuade the Obama Administration to help Iraq build up its air force. General Babakr Zebari is also trying to persuade the Iraqi Parliament to accelerate IMoD [Iraqi Ministry of Defense] procurement.

    Perhaps you consider strong armed public relations to push the parliament to approve ISF weapons procurement to be insubordinate. Perhaps. But if the Iraqi Parliament continues to delay ISF procurement, then the continued reliance of the ISF on international enablers is the fault of the Iraqi Parliament.

    General Babakr Zebari doesn’t want a large US presence. Maybe 20 thousand to serve as trainers and combat enablers after 2011. Which would be an unusually small number of advisors by Iraqi historic standards.

    Keep in mind that India use to keep 15 thousand troops in Iraq as advisors in the 1970s and 1980s. Which means over a hundred thousand Indian troops rotated through Iraq. Similarly there were very large numbers of French, Soviet and other combat advisors in Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s.

    In 1973, the Iraqi Air Force was flown by Pakistani pilots during the war against Israel [where the Iraqi and Saudi Air Forces flew in support of Egypt and Syria.] There were many other Pakistani combat embedded advisors in Iraq at that time as well.

    When these combat advisors were withdrawn in late 1990, the Iraqi Armed Forces fell apart. Leading to the disastrous dissolution of early 1991, and 14 provinces temporarily being captured by the Iraqi resistance [Hakim, Badr, al Dawa, Chalabi, Barzani, Talabani, Allawi, Pachachi et all.] If the Iraqi resistance had kept its act together then, they would have defeated Saddam in 1991. Instead they didn’t finally triumph until the mid 2000s. Of course, they rule Iraq now.

    • It would be nice if anan could support his climes :)

      Of course, I believe him when he says that the general was put in his position by occupational army – so, I would like to say he is as much Iraqi general as Peten was French premier

    • Anan “forgot” to add, that in 1991 it was USA who let Saddam to end “resistance”. It seems the “resisters” are not too clever to rely on USA. And to come to their own country on others’ tanks is NOT the best way to establish themselves as legitimate power – tanks could not only come, but also go…

      Anyway, when UK masters got out of Iraq in 1950th, their puppets were thrown down – regardless any “Iraqi army” of then.

      • Lidia, the Iraqi Army was heavily British mentored until the Baa3th coup of 1968. The Iraqi President Abd al-Karim Qasim [1958-1963] kept large numbers of British advisors in Iraq. He, however, diversified advisors by bringing many Indian military advisors. Between 1959 and 1990, the Iraqi Army was heavily mentored by Indian advisors. The British advisors didn’t leave Iraq until 1968, after which Iraq became heavily dependent on large numbers of Indian, French and Soviet advisors.
        Iraq also brought in many Pakistani embedded advisors. Have you heard of the Pakistani Bangladeshi pilot hero, saif ul Islam? He got his two kills against Israel flying for the Iraqi Air Force Hunter Squadron in 1967.

        I have no idea what you mean by the term “puppet.” Who was Saddam Hussein a “puppet” of? Satan?

        • No matter who was advisers in Iraq after UK colonialism was shuttered by Iraqis, Iraq was independent, not much of it now.

          And Saddam was a darling of USA, for a long time. I am not sure about Satan, but I DO know that Kurdish leaders sided with Saddam against another Kurdish leaders.

    • I disagree with number 4. The death tall in Iraq fell largely because of ethnic cleansing. The claim that Zebari won the war is similar, if not worse, than the claim of Petraeus doing so. Zebari was in command since 2003. Where was he when hundred of thousands of Iraqi children, women and men were being killed, tortured and ethnically cleansed ?Where was he when millions of Iraqi were forced out of their own homes and their own country and scattered as refugees all over the Arab countries? living on less than 3 dollars a day in best case scenario. The beautiful Iraqi women cant even find jobs cleaning the houses of other Arab country house holds to provide for their own malnourished children..
      If Zabari is a hero, why cant he prevent the mass oil smuggling from the kurdish provinces to Iran? They need federal help? The federal government has no power whatsoever in the Kurdish provinces. They had that since the forced US new constitution for Iraq. What is sectarian is that they want to kick out and undermined the Arab Iraqis from the extra provinces they want, and bring in as many kurdish people in, because they are saying that the kurds that were kicked out by Sadam 40 years ago might make a kurdish majority in these extra provinces like Kirkuk and then majority would decide for itself. What kind of nationalism this goes under? They want to kick out Arab Iraqis from their homes again? The summary is that, without cleaning up corruption caused by the united state war in Iraq, from both sides, beautiful Iraq will not stand on it’s feet again and bring in its forsaken refugees home to live in Dignity again.

      • “Where was he when hundred of thousands of Iraqi children, women and men were being killed, tortured and ethnically cleansed ?Where was he when millions of Iraqi were forced out of their own homes and their own country and scattered as refugees all over the Arab countries? living on less than 3 dollars a day in best case scenario. The beautiful Iraqi women cant even find jobs cleaning the houses of other Arab country house holds to provide for their own malnourished children.”
        Gen Zebari was building the Iraqi Training and Doctrine Command [ITDC] and using it to train, equip and deploy the Iraq Army, Iraqi Navy, and Iraqi Air Force. This is extremely hard stuff. Gen Zebari’s operational commander who operationalized the surge campaign of 2007 was LTG Ghaidan [Deputy Chief of the Iraqi Joint Staff for Operations and commanding general of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command.] LTG Ghaidan [who reported to Zebari] commanded all operational Iraqi Army in the fight. Zebari was the equivalent of MNF-I commanding Gen Petraeus, while Ghaidan was the equivalent of MNC-I commanding LTG Odierno.

        “If Zabari is a hero, why cant he prevent the mass oil smuggling from the kurdish provinces to Iran?” Zebari executes what the PM and IMoD minister order him to execute. Your question should be directed at PM Maliki.

        I am guessing that you are an Arab. Maybe a non Iraqi Arab. If so, you are right that some Iraqi Kurds have mistreated Iraqi Sunni Arabs. It goes both ways though.

        Kudos to you for your compassion towards Iraqi Sunni Arab victims. Please remember the 15 thousand brave sons of Iraq who died fighting in the Iraqi Security Forces 2003-2008. Many of them were Sunni Arab Iraqis.

        • OK, so I am NOT an Arab, more than that, I am a Jew. But I still agree with Leila, and still see the general as a puppet of USA and Israel, more or less, regardless of him being Kurdish or not.

        • By the way, do Anan have ANY compassion for 1 000 000+ IRAQIS (all of them) dead as a result of USA aggression against Iraq?

        • This is your problem. My compassion is towards all IRAQIS. I don’t give a rat’s derriere if someone is Shiite, Sunni, Christian, or Buddhist. True Iraqis feel the way I do.

  6. I quite agree with the post. Zebari was presenting the Kurdish point of view, not the Iraqi, and he was being insubordinate. He should have been sacked.

    Reidar Visser has good figures on the oil production (which no doubt you would have given had you had them to hand). The Kirkuk field produces only 50-60,000 barrels per day; the remainder of Iraq’s 1.5 million bpd comes from the south. This point explained to me why my Iraqi students don’t much care whether Kurdistan goes independent, even with the Kirkuk oil field.

    However the Kurdish land-grab is an important issue, and will be fought, whoever turns out to be the Iraqi prime minister.

    With regard to the Kurdish “Taiwan”, I find their economic revival ephemeral. Kurdish economic success depends upon keeping Baghdad weak. If Baghdad gets its act together, which it will one day, then the Kurdish position is going to be much weaker than it is today. It is a zero-sum game: Baghdad weak -> Kurdistan strong. Baghdad strong -> Kurdistan weak.

    The Kurds understand this very well. They have every interest in keeping Baghdad weak. That is why every time you hear of a bomb in Baghdad, which will of course be attributed to al-Qa’ida, you should ask yourself whether it was not in fact the Kurds.

    There is another point. The results of the election did not show much of a vote for Kurdish parties, probably proportional to their percentage of the population. But much weaker than the position they held in the previous government, and still do without a new government. They don’t have much of a hand. So what to do? Best solution is to try to postpone the formation of a new government.

    • “That is why every time you hear of a bomb in Baghdad, which will of course be attributed to al-Qa’ida, you should ask yourself whether it was not in fact the Kurds.”
      Please apologize immediately for this slanderous, racist and sectarian remark.

      Kurdish Iraqis in the Iraqi Army have served Iraq, the Iraqi Army and the chain of command loyally.

  7. “The Kurds have many reasons for wanting the US military to stay in Iraq.”

    Yes, they do. Halabja 1988 , Al-Anfal Campaign 1986-1989, April, 1991

    • Kurdish militias were mass-murdering each other and collaborating with Saddam. If they want to rely on USA, they should look at what was the fate of other USA’s “allies” – in Vietnam, for ex. USA is far away and Iraq is near, it is not seems too prudent forget it.

  8. (Iraq is one of the UN’s great failures, where it is responsible for killing large numbers of civilians with its regime sanctions, and of destroying a promising developing economy, and of failing to prevent an illegal and aggressive war on the country by GW Bush)

    This is certainly not the fault of the UN, but rather of the US who blocked any attempt to put an end to the UN sanctions against Iraq. The weakening of Iraq all along has been the US agenda, untill the point the country was judged so weak that using a false pretext the US invaded it. The same is going on with Iran these days.

    • Not the fault of the UN but certainly due to a flaw of the UN.
      The flaw consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council,
      a relic of “the winners” of the “Second World War”, with their power of veto.
      This power when directly applied or just threatened, allows the bearer to exert
      a marked influence on events. The non-permanent members of the Security Council
      are well aware that they have been invited on sufferance; only there to provide a veneer of consensus.
      The USA, as the most powerful country at the present time, exerts the most influence.
      That might not always be so, however what is true, is that giving a select number of nations a veto, should no longer be acceptable.

      • Glen,

        I agree with you, but then who is preventing the much needed reform of the UNSC ? Mainly the US, plus the lackeys she is able to convince.

  9. “Someone who knows (his) stuff” says “…either you’re ignorant of the fact that the Zebaris are historic foes of the Barzanis or you know for sure on the basis of some reliable source that the general is indeed a member of the KDP…”

    Apparently at least one Zebari reconciled enough with his “historic foe” to not only join but become a leader in the KDP: link to kdp.se

    Is this Hoshia Zebari the same as Hoshya Zebari, the Iraqui Minister of Foreign Affairs?

    I realize Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, but for what its worth it gives an approximate date for General Zebari’s joining the KDP (1979) and says he was awarded a medal, “Barzani Award (the highest Kurdish Award)”: link to en.wikipedia.org

  10. Ernie Padgett was a baseball player who had a modest career in the Major Leagues of five seasons, 1923-27. He was an infielder for the Boston Braves and Cleveland Indians- his one claim to fame was that he made an unassisted triple play on October 6, 1923 when playing shortstop for the Braves against the Phillies. This was the first such unassisted triple play since 1878. I am a baseball fan and don’t quite get the reference to a rather obscure player of the early last century.

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