President Donald Trump and his State Department issued their first official responses to the latest flare-up of inter-ethnic violence outside Kirkuk, Iraq, in the fallout from Iraqi Kurdistan’s controversial independence referendum Monday afternoon.
“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” President Trump said in response to a reporter’s question on the situation at a Rose Garden press conference.
Asked directly if he supported Kurdish independence, the president gave a more amenable response than previous administration statements, saying:
Let me tell you, we’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know. And we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been in there in the first place. We should never have been there. But we’re not taking sides in that battle.
The Iraqi Army, aided by thousands of Shiite militiamen allegedly aided by Iran’s regional pariah Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, have attacked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk in a fight that raged Sunday and Monday. The Baghdad government had previously issued an ultimatum to the Kurds to relinquish control of key strategic objectives in and around the city.
State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert sent out a press release detailing the American position on what could be the beginning of yet another civil war in Iraq. “The United States is very concerned by reports of violence around Kirkuk, Iraq. We are monitoring the situation closely and call on all parties to coordinate military activities and restore calm,” she wrote.
The State Department had previously been unequivocal in its insistence on a unified Iraq, a long-standing American policy in the region, and condemned the independence vote. Monday’s press release may presage a softening American position on Kurdish independence and included no mention of a unified Iraq. Instead, it said only, “We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution, in all disputed areas.”
“We are working with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions, avoid further clashes, and encourage dialogue,” Nauert continued, keeping the emphasis on the United States’ primary objective in the region, the destruction of ISIS:
We strongly urge all parties to avoid provocations that can be exploited by Iraq’s enemies who are interested in fueling ethnic and sectarian conflict. In particular, we note that there is still much work to be done to defeat ISIS in Iraq, and continued tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish forces distract from this vital mission. The United States will continue to stand with our Iraqi partners to ensure ISIS’s defeat.
The situation in northern Iraq is rapidly developing, with some voices, like former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, already calling for the White House to get behind Kurdish independence.