Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continued his tour through the Middle East and South Asia, joining Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday.
“We are concerned and a bit saddened by the recent differences that have emerged between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi central government,” Tillerson told reporters after meeting with Abadi, using the most euphemistic language for the violent territorial clashes in and around Kirkuk that threaten to plunge northern Iraq into another round of conflict.
The secretary of state made no mention of Iranian influence in Iraq, despite the Shiite Arab-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces’ (PMF) widely-reported involvement in the Iraqi Army-led operation that swept Kurdish Peshmerga loyal to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from Kirkuk province last week. The PMF is believed by many experts to have close ties with Iran and Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, was rumored to be on the scene directing troop movements outside Kirkuk.
Tillerson downplayed the Iranian role in the conflict more strongly on Sunday as he met with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha, Qatar. “[W]ith respect to Iranian presence in Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi is in full control of his country, he’s in full control of the movement of certain military operations,” he told reporters, avoiding the word “attack” to describe the Iraqi Army’s operations in Kirkuk Province.
After meeting with Abadi on Monday, Tillerson continued the State Department’s line of refusing to take sides. “[W]e have friends both in Baghdad, and we have friends in [the Kurdish regional capital of] Erbil,” he said. “I think if both parties commit themselves to a unified Iraq [and] to the Iraqi constitution, I think all differences can be addressed and the rights of all can be respected and Iraq will have a very secure and a prosperous future.”
Tillerson’s comments in Doha and Baghdad comport with the administration’s posture since Iraq’s autonomous KRG held a successful independence referendum last month, prompting Iraq’s federal government to act swiftly to wrest control of the oil-rich Kirkuk province then in control of the Kurds. Both the KRG and the Iraqi government were important U.S. allies in post-invasion Iraq and later in the fight against ISIS, forcing the State Department to tread a careful line between the two.
The United States has been generally cautious in its treatment of Iran’s role in the developing standoff. At her Tuesday press conference, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert was asked repeatedly about Iranian influence and the Islamic Republic’s ties to the Shiite militia engaged in Kirkuk. She seemed to downplay Iran’s involvement with the PMF, saying, “[T]here are Iraqi forces that are—the PMF, for example, that are a part of the Iraqi Government forces, but where there is also an Iranian influence, so that’s something that we fully recognize.”
Nauert would not comment on an Amnesty International report that strongly indicated the PMF militia were displacing Kurds in the Kirkuk Province. “I have not seen the report and I’ve not seen any pictures. So I’m sorry, I’m not going to comment on something that I haven’t seen myself,” she said.