State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert gave an update Tuesday on the difficult situation in which American diplomats find themselves in Iraq as two of their putative allies settle into an armed face-off that threatens to escalate into yet another chapter in the country’s 14-year civil war.
“As we watch the situation unfold in Iraq, we continue to call for calm, to call for calm on the part of the Kurds, on the part of the government in Baghdad as well. We have made no bones about that,” Nauert told reporters asking about the developing military situation around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Home to a diverse ethnic mix of Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs, Kirkuk is the staging point for much of Iraq’s vital oil industry. The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a successful independence referendum last month, much to the chagrin of Iraq’s largely Shiite Arab national government. Although the Kurds have yet to formally declare independence, the very possibility the region might take Kirkuk with it prompted the Baghdad regime to issue an ultimatum demanding the Kurdish Peshmerga forces evacuate the city.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from Kirkuk as Iraqi soldiers, aided by the mostly-Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias, approached the city, which the Kurds had held since driving out the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. Allegedly, the effort was led, in part, by Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ shadowy Quds Force special operations group, which is linked to Iranian meddling and terrorism throughout the Middle East.
Nauert claimed that the United States, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the forefront, is trying to de-escalate the situation. “The secretary is making calls to the region, I believe set for today,” Nauert said, adding later:
In addition to the secretary making calls, our Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk is on the ground in Iraq right now. He’s holding meetings. Our ambassador to Iraq, Ambassador Silliman, is also engaged in a lot of meetings and conversations. So we are very engaged, heavily engaged in this. We want to see a unified, democratic Iraq.
The Kurdish decision to make a bid for independence has placed the United States in an awkward diplomatic situation. Both the Kurds and the Iraqi army are important allies in the fight against ISIS. “The whole of the U.S. Government is watching the situation closely. Our U.S. forces have fought side by side with those in Iraq, whether it’s the north or whether it’s in the south, okay. We care deeply about what happens in Iraq,” Nauert put it.
An increasing number of American voices are calling for the United States to side more decisively with the Kurds, with whom close cooperation extends back to the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. On Breitbart News Daily this Monday, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton explicitly called on the administration to recognize Kurdish independence. As reporters pointed out at Nauert’s press conference, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) made a similar call in 2015.
The State Department, however, was careful to remain non-committal. “Our advisers are not supporting the government of Iraq and we’re not supporting the Kurdistan Regional Government activities, Nauert told reporters. “We’re trying to get the situation calmed as best as possible.”