Tillerson to Abadi: We support stable, viable Kurdistan, but problems emerge at Kuwait Conference

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the US supports “a stable and viable Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” as the two leaders met in Kuwait at an international conference on funding Iraqi reconstruction, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert informed reporters on Tuesday.

Nauert added that Tillerson had “commended the prime minister for his leadership and for his efforts to improve Baghdad-Erbil relations.”

Given Abadi’s abusive treatment of the Kurdistan Region—from his ban on international flights to slashing income for the Kurdistan Region in his budget—Kurds may well not recognize such a description. Nonetheless, Tillerson’s statement marks a relatively new US public willingness to emphasize to Baghdad the importance of fair treatment for the Kurds.

Sectarianism continues to plague the Iraqi government. US pressure led to the last-minute inclusion of representatives from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the Kuwait conference.

However, the problem of Sunni Arab representation remained. “We were sorely underrepresented,” a spokesman for the council of tribal sheikhs in Salahuddin province complained, as The New York Times reported.

Brookings scholar Ranj Aladdin summarized Baghdad’s dilemma in a tweet: “Officials have to somehow inspire confidence by awkwardly explaining why half the country is either completely in ruins or under collective punishment. And then ask for $88 [billion]”—the sum Baghdad estimates is needed for reconstruction.

Indeed, the Times described the Iraqi Reconstruction Conference as a “failure.” It noted that Iraq “is expected to receive only $4 billion in pledges by Wednesday, when the conference ends.”

Most of that money will come from the Arab Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar each promising some $1 billion.

The US is focused on promoting private sector investment in Iraq, but Sami al-Araji, head of Iraq’s National Investment Commission, said there had been no commitments to date, and “I am not expecting any contracts to be signed,” the Times reported.

Nauert, however, took issue with the negative reporting. She said it “mischaracterized the conference as a pledging conference,” and it was not intended as such.

The idea was merely to present investors with “Iraq’s ten-year reconstruction program,” after which they could consider it further “to determine what is best for them.”

Nauert also highlighted the US role in promoting private investment. The US Export-Import Bank and Iraq’s Ministry of Finance signed a $3 billion memorandum of understanding, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation has “five active projects in Iraq,” totaling $250 million, while it is “reviewing more than $500 million” in new proposals.

However, the Times noted systemic problems that discourage foreign investment, including ingrained corruption.

“Donors have expressed wariness at what some see as throwing good money into a black hole in Iraq,” it wrote. Transparency International ranks Iraq among the ten most corrupt countries in the world.

The US spent $61 billion on development aid in Iraq between 2003 and 2012,” the Times stated, but “around $6 billion vanished and a further $1 billion was wasted.”

Regarding the problem of the Iranian-backed Shia militias that emerged in Iraq in the course of the fight against the Islamic State (IS), a senior State Department official suggested that Abadi would disband them.

Abadi has “made very clear” that they “need to integrate into the proper Iraqi Armed Forces or they need to return to their homes,” the US official told reporters in Kuwait.

Kurdistan 24 asked Nauert whether the US really had confidence in Abadi’s willingness and ability to disband the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF.)

She would not go beyond affirming, “All armed actors should operate within Iraq’s state security framework and answer to the prime minister.”

The State Department subsequently explained to Kurdistan 24 that most of the PMF were volunteers who “answered Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s call” to defend Baghdad when IS threatened the city in 2014.

However, “some of the undisciplined PMF” are close to Iran and responsive to its directives, the State Department statement continued. They have “a history of criminal activity and terrorism and are as problematic for the Iraqi state as they are for us.”

Editing by Nadia Riva

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