Gareth Stansfield: With US support, a brighter future beckons for the Kurds

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The Independent Online

Politics and diplomacy take unexpected turns in Iraq's Kurdistan Region Government (KRG). The President of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, and his counterpart Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish President of Iraq, had a troublesome 2009. They failed to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that specifies a process for the resolution of the status of the "disputed territories of Iraq", a huge swath of land that, most importantly, includes Kirkuk and its oil-field.

Ethnic tensions were heightened by the January provincial elections, from which Kirkuk was excluded. In Ninevah the Kurds were removed from the provincial council and replaced by the Arab nationalist party Hadhba. And, in the Kurdistan National Assembly, Barzani and Talabani faced a strong challenge in the form of the Gorran party. Perhaps the most pressing concern for President Barzani, however, remains the dispute over oil exploitation with the Iraqi government, which refuses to accept the legitimacy of contracts signed by the KRG with international oil companies.

But once again since 2003, US interests have coincided with Kurdish expectations. Needing elections to take place early in 2010 in order to maintain some semblance of normality in Iraq, the US desperately needed the Kurds to support the passing of the elections law. This they did and Barzani duly received a visit from Robert Gates and spoke with Biden and Obama. The statements that followed made a perfect Christmas present for the Kurds – unequivocal support on the disputed territories and oil questions, and a clear attempt to calm Kurdish leaders' nerves with affirmations of support.

This does not mean independence for the Kurds. But it does mean that, following the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, the political process will be one in which the Kurds enjoy considerable US support. Of course, the Kurds have heard promises from the US in the past (most notably in 1991) that failed to materialise. Yet this time seems to be different – if only because the US needs the Kurds to help maintain the trajectory of Iraq's political development. It will be interesting to see if the Kurds can make durable realities while their alignment with US interests lasts.

Gareth Stansfield is Professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter and Associate Fellow at Chatham House