Biden in Iraq: Mission Possible? Obama sends Personal Letter to Kirkuk

Incoming Vice President Joe Biden was in Kirkuk, Iraq, Tuesday afternoon. According to al-Hayat writing in Arabic, he is on a fact-finding mission and will report back on the current situation to President-Elect Barack Obama, with a view toward setting Iraq strategy when the new administration convenes after next Tuesday. Al-Zaman is reporting that he delivered a personal letter from Obama to the Kirkuk Provincial Council.

In Baghdad on Tuesday morning, Biden had met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and assured him that the Obama administration will conduct a “responsible” withdrawal of troops from Iraq that does not threaten security gains of the past few months. US military commanders characterize those gains as “fragile.” As it is, the Bush administration signed an agreement with Iraq to have all US troops out by the end of 2011.

I was glad to see Biden visit Kirkuk, which is the center of increasing tension between Arabs and Kurds, and between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government and al-Maliki’s central government in Iraq. According to AP’s intrepid Robert H. Reid, Ribwar Faiq Talabani gave this account of the meeting:

‘ Behind closed doors, Biden said the U.S. was spending billions of dollars — some of it in Kirkuk — which could be used to help solve the global financial meltdown, according to Ribwar Faiq Talabani, a local official who attended the session. Biden insisted that the Iraqis solve their disputes through concessions and compromise. But Kurdish representatives repeated their demand that Kirkuk be incorporated into their self-ruled region, and the Arabs insisted the city remain under central government control. Turkomen representatives suggested Kirkuk become its own self-governing region, Talabani said. ‘

Ribwar Faiq Talabani is a Kurdish member of the Kirkuk provincial council who has sometimes chaired it and who a year ago talked to the LAT about Kurds losing patience and taking Kirkuk by force. The Kurdistan Regional Government is made up of three former provinces of Iraq– Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniya, but those provincial boundaries have been erased and the administration of the three has been merged. The KRG wants to annex Kirkuk province as a fourth, but is meeting resistance from the province’s Arabs and Kurds, from the central government in Baghdad, and from Turkey. Kirkuk oil fields export roughly 300,000 barrels a day of petroleum through a pipeline that runs through Turkey to the Mediterranean.

KRG President Massoud Barzani gave an interview with Ned Parker this weekend in which he slammed PM al-Maliki for what he called authoritarian tendencies and threatened to secede from Iraq if he did not get his way. He meant by ‘authoritarian tendencies’ al-Maliki’s insistence on a strong, French-style central government, whereas Barzani says he favors a Canadian or Swiss model (though Kurdish demands for autonomy go substantially beyond what is given to Quebec by Ottawa or to the Swiss cantons).

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that according to a member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, Biden brought a letter to the council from Obama, “which expressed his special interest in that province.”

Al-Hayat says that Biden stressed that a consensual resolution of the Kirkuk issue is of the greatest importance to the United States. Turkmen representative Tahassun Kahya told the pan-Arab London daily that he conveyed to Biden the Turkmen demand that Kirkuk remain a separate, united province with administrative divisions. (That is, this Turkmen plan for Kirkuk seems to involve the sort of soft partition that Biden once advocated for Iraq as a whole. Thankfully, Biden appears not to have brought up his earlier scheme, which proved very unpopular in Iraq and was denounced by everyone in parliament but the Kurds).

These reports of Obama stressing the importance of a resolution in Kirkuk are great good news. I argue in the current issue of The Nation,

‘ Obama could help make sure that the troop withdrawal goes smoothly by engaging in the sort of hands-on, intelligent and far-seeing diplomacy the previous administration was either uninterested in or incapable of. He should seek a concrete plan for the disposition of Kirkuk before the United States loses all leverage in Iraq. It might be possible, for instance, to partition the province so that the Kurdish population can join the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Turkmen and Arabs can have their own province and remain in Iraq proper. The city of Kirkuk could also be partitioned or could have a dual role. The city of Chandigargh in India is the capital of both Punjab and Haryana provinces, after all. The oil wealth of Kirkuk is already divided between the federal government and the KRG by a formula that gives 17 percent to Kurdistan. A territorial compromise can also be reached, but high-level and tough diplomacy will be required. ‘

And, it appears that I am getting my wish early and that President-elect Obama is already signalling a personal interest in resolving the Kirkuk issue before it explodes into yet another Iraqi civil war.

It should be remembered that it is entirely possible that such a civil war would inexorably draw the US military right back into Iraq on a large scale, and so avoiding it is potentially central to the success of the Obama administration.

Biden also seems to be playing a little hard ball with the Iraqis, warning them that the US cannot afford, given the financial crisis, to go on spending billions a week in Iraq, and that they had better get their act together and reconcile with one another, because we are not going to be there as referees much longer. This is also a welcome message, though I am afraid some Iraqi leaders view the US as standing in the way of their getting a good bead on their rivals, and would be glad to have the US out of the way so they could take a clean shot.

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