The official position of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) towards the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and in general, the ongoing USA-Iran military escalation which has already spilled over onto KRI soil, has been to pursue a cautious policy of neutrality and calls for de-escalation. Additionally, the KRI has adopted a careful approach towards the conflict’s local parties in Baghdad. Fear and uncertainty have shaped the KRI’s perception of and reaction to events, reflecting both the decreasing influence of the Kurdish parties in Baghdad, but also the painful experience of the 2017 independence referendum when Erbil’s unilateral decision to hold the referendum and actively campaign for an independence vote backfired badly. Two factors help further explain this position:
Firstly, after the referendum, the KRI establishment, particularly its dominant party the Kurdistan Democratic Party, concluded that engagement with Baghdad was essential for the survival of the Kurdish political entity. In the past two years, they have invested heavily in restoring relationships with political actors in Baghdad. In all likelihood, this policy will continue, as the KRI needs the support of Baghdad, especially the dominant Shia parties, to address the issues of the KRI budget and the territories disputed between Baghdad and Erbil.
Secondly, the Kurdish leadership’s perception of the level and nature of the conflict between Washington and Tehran is an important consideration. Since 2003, both powers have been deeply involved in the politics of the KRI and until their rivalry is perceived to have reached direct and total war, Erbil views taking sides as a political calculation with inherent risks. Nevertheless, faced with the choice between the USA and Iran, the KRI’s political parties are most likely to side with the USA in order to preserve the KRI as a de facto entity.