Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani and his high-level delegation meet with US President Barack Obama during a visit to Washington DC, 2011. Photo: KRG foreign relations department
London – The Obama administration has pledged to support urgent measures that would eliminate a major bone of contention between Washington and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) by removing two major Kurdish parties from a US terrorist blacklist.
The promise to scratch the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from the list came shortly after Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani postponed a scheduled visit to Washington this month, citing prior commitments.
However, there was speculation that the cancellation was linked to the continued blacklisting of the two Kurdish parties.
That version appeared to be confirmed this week in comments attributed to a senior KRG official who was quoted as saying President Barzani would not travel to Washington until the blacklisting issue was resolved.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, the KRG’s foreign minister, was quoted by London’s The Guardian newspaper as saying he had informed U.S. diplomats that Mr. Barzani would not meet President Barack Obama until the classification of the two Kurdish parties was changed.
To categorise the KDP and PUK as terrorists was "unfair, unjust and psychologically damaging to the people of the region," he was quoted as saying.
The minister confirmed in an e-mail exchange with Rudaw that President Barzani decided not to go to the United States until this issue was fixed.
The issue was raised last week at a hearing of the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee at which its chairman, Ed Royce, said it was inappropriate to continue to blacklist those who were “a stabilising force in the region and consistently loyal to the United States for decades.”
He said Washington’s Kurdish allies had been caught up in the catch-all provisions of the US Patriot Act, which was passed soon after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the US. He said the law allowed the KDP and PUK to be “inadvertently labelled” as terrorists.
The KDP and PUK fall under the broad Tier III provisions of the Act which bar members of practically any movement that has ever supported resistance to an established government, however repressive.
The stringent rules meant that even Nelson Mandela was for a time officially denied admission to the US. Other individuals applying for citizenship, seeking asylum or simply trying to immigrate, have been caught out by the same restrictions.
In testimony to last week’s Congressional Committee hearing, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, acknowledged that the two parties should be removed from the blacklist as soon as possible.
“We think it’s an imperative,” Mr. McGurk told the February 5 hearing on behalf of the administration. “We are one hundred per cent supportive of an immediate legislative fix to this problem.”
He made clear, however, that President Obama could not rectify the anomaly with a stroke of the pen. It would require action in Congress to amend the Patriot Act. However, he said the administration looked forward to working with the relevant committees in Congress to get that done.
The seeming haste to resolve an issue that has dragged on for more than a decade may be tied to Washington’s present preoccupations in the Middle East.
The assurances from Mr. McGurk came at the very end of a more than two-hour hearing on al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq and the threat it posed to US interests.
Mr. Royce, the committee chairman, gave a clue to the US motives in wanting to remove any possible barrier to relations with the KRG when he said: “As al-Qaeda and associated groups expand across the Middle East and beyond, it seems like a good time to take count of our remaining friends in the region.”
Kurds might question why the promised removal of the terrorist designation has taken so long. Washington’s ambivalence towards the Kurdish resistance movement in Iraq long predates the stringent measures introduced under the Patriot Act.
When senior Kurdish officials went to Washington in early 1991 in the final days of the US-led coalition’s campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, they were barred from entering the premises of the State Department.
The reason given was that to host Iraqi nationals, Kurdish or otherwise, would violate sanctions against the Saddam regime that their would-be visitors had opposed for much longer than the United States itself.