Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraq’s parliament has rejected a proposal by the US Congress to bypass the Baghdad government and directly arm Sunni and Kurdish groups in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi labeling the initiative a bid to “split Iraq.”
Despite three hours of intense meetings, and the withdrawal of the main Kurdish and Sunni blocs in Iraq’s parliament—respectively, the Kurdistan Alliance and the Iraqi Forces Alliance—162 out of 167 MPs voted to reject the proposal on Saturday.
The motion to reject the proposal was led by the majority bloc in parliament, the Shi’ite-led National Alliance.
The US bill, proposed last week by Texas Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, proposes to directly arm Kurdish and Sunni tribal groups if the Iraqi government fails to rein in sectarian activities by Shi’ite volunteer groups enlisted by Baghdad in the fight against ISIS, according to the text of the bill, which was released last Monday.
The Shi’ite militias have been accused in recent months of committing human rights abuses against Sunnis, including directly targeting civilian populations, burning homes and ransacking entire villages.
If Baghdad does not meet this condition, the bill proposes the US should make available between 25–60 percent of the current funds allocated by the US to government-led Iraqi security forces—that is, between 178–429 million US dollars—in order to arm the “Kurdish Peshmerga, the Sunni tribal security forces with a national security mission, and the Iraqi Sunni National Guard.”
In a highly controversial step, the bill proposes these forces would be “deemed a country” in order to “to directly receive assistance from the United States” as well as diplomatic cooperation.
Saturday’s vote was called by Parliament Speaker Salim Al-Jabouri, who said in a statement prior to the vote that all Iraq’s parties and factions needed to “form a united front on the issue.”
But members of the Sunni and Kurdish blocs expressed dissatisfaction that the motion to reject the bill was not even discussed, warning of the determination of Iraqi policies by the Shi’ite National Alliance, which is the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament.
Following Saturday’s vote, Farhad Qader, an MP in the Kurdistan Alliance, said: “The danger [to Iraq’s unity] is no longer just represented in the US Congress bill, which we feared was working to divide the country; it is now also represented in the [Shi’ite] National Alliance going it alone today and voting without the Kurdish and Sunni blocs. It is this that threatens the unity of Iraq.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Qader explained the reasons for the Sunni–Kurdish walkout during the vote.
“The National Alliance put forward a motion for us all to reply to the [US Congress] proposal, but we the Kurdistan Alliance and our Sunni brothers in the Iraqi Forces Alliances refused it because the National Alliance insists on us all refusing the [US] bill without even discussing the matter,” he said.
“On the other hand, our position, and that of the Sunnis, is that we need to form a united front, [but] based on the principle we have all agreed to [i.e. discussion], especially in such major issues such as this, where we can see how going against this principle threatens Iraq and its national unity.”
He continued: “Our position as the Kurdish bloc in parliament—and this is a position shared by the Sunni bloc—is that we welcome all efforts related to arming the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes in cooperation with the Iraqi government, insisting at the same time that we believe in the unity of Iraq.”
“The Peshmerga are in dire need of arms—bearing in mind that the Iraqi government has over the last two years failed to provide even one dinar of assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government in terms of military aid.”
He added: “Why do we accept the [involvement of the] international anti-ISIS coalition led by the US but not the US’s arming the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes within the context of cooperation with the Iraqi government?”
The US bill has provoked controversy with Iraq, with Iraqi newspapers labeling it a move to divide the country into independent Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish states, a belief that has been widespread among some Iraqis ever since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.
On Sunday a statement from Premier Abadi’s office said he had contacted US Vice President Joe Biden to express his concern that the bill could weaken the unity of Iraq.