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Why Washington Might Walk Away from Iraqi Kurdistan

Once considered the most pro-Western stronghold in the Middle East, Iraqi Kurdistan now teeters on the brink of collapse, forcing the U.S. to reconsider its once-unwavering support. So, what has gone wrong in this once-lauded experiment of nation-building? And why is Washington seemingly aloof amid the gathering storm?

In 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan gained constitutional recognition during Iraq’s political reshuffling. It was a region often touted as the Middle East’s “Second Israel,” a beacon of Western-style democracy. But the two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have arguably led the region into its current quagmire.

Governed by a ’50-50′ power-sharing principle since its inception, the KDP and the PUK have hollowed out institutions and undercut democratic values, leading to a governance crisis. This chaos has caused the U.S. to pull back, primarily because the Kurdish leadership has failed to meet two fundamental American demands: unifying the fractured Peshmerga military forces and upholding the principles of free expression and democratic elections.

During the war against ISIS, a unified Peshmerga was crucial for both the Kurds’ survival and sustaining Western influence in a region teeming with geopolitical rivalries. Yet, the Peshmerga remains divided due to persistent inter-party squabbles over command and control.

Freedom of expression has also suffered, as the ruling parties have aggressively stifled dissent, delayed elections, and retained their stranglehold on power. This has left U.S. policymakers wary of continuing their support, particularly as Washington’s focus pivots towards existential threats like China and the war in Ukraine.

Remarkably, Iran’s growing influence in Iraq doesn’t seem to perturb the Biden administration, preoccupied as it is with reviving the Iran nuclear deal. This tells us something critical: Iraq, and by extension, Iraqi Kurdistan, no longer tops America’s list of foreign policy concerns.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is under duress. Not only are they fighting for budget allocations with Baghdad—a battle further complicated by a recent International Arbitration Court ruling against Kurdish oil exports via Turkey—but they’re also fending off threats from Iran and enduring Turkey’s relentless airstrikes.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has made desperate appeals to President Biden for intervention. Civil unrest looms large as the fiscal standoff with Baghdad worsens, public services disintegrate, and public employees strike over unpaid salaries. Iran’s saber-rattling adds another layer of urgency.

In this precarious environment, internal divisions within the KDP and the PUK are inexcusable. It’s high time for the Kurdish parties to prioritize their constituents over political rivalries. Otherwise, they risk losing the world’s only internationally recognized Kurdish autonomous region—a bitter outcome after decades of striving for legitimacy.

Iraqi Kurdistan finds itself at an existential crossroads. If its ruling parties cannot set aside their petty squabbles and focus on the arduous task of nation-building, the world may soon witness the tragic collapse of a once-promising experiment in democratic governance. And the U.S., already disenchanted and distracted, may very well close the chapter on its support for the Kurds, leaving them to navigate a perilous future alone.