Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, got head-of-state treatment in Washington this week: two meetings with Vice President Joe Biden with a “drop-in” by President Barack Obama plus talks on Capitol Hill and the State Department and appearances at several Washington think tanks.

Barzani governs just a portion of Iraq, albeit the most functional part. He acknowledged that his people’s aspirations for full independence must remain on hold while the KRG’s peshmerga forces battle the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

An often-promised referendum on independence among Iraqi Kurds “will take place when the security situation is better,” Barzani told a packed audience at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday. At the same time, he noted that the continued unity of Iraq is “voluntary, not compulsory.”

An ally of the United States for more than 20 years, Iraq’s Kurds have perfected the art of staying on good terms with powerful countries that often have clashing agendas, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Asked his view on the proxy conflicts that are tearing apart the region, especially Syria and Yemen, Barzani avoided taking sides.

“We have a cause that is different from all you mentioned, but we cannot say it’s irrelevant to us,” he told VOANews. “The top priority to us is how can we achieve a better future for our people… We try to avoid being part of any of these disputes.”

The rise of IS has been a decidedly mixed blessing for the Kurds.

On the one hand, the KRG has been able to use the IS threat to leverage some weapons shipments from the U.S. for the Peshmerga and a new oil revenue-sharing arrangement with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

On the other hand, Barzani said, over 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced people have flooded Kurdistan as they fled the civil war in Syria and other parts of Iraq, a “heavy burden,” he said on an entity with a 5 1/2 million native population. In one area, Dohuk City, he said refugees and IDPs now outnumber the locals.

The Obama administration, while highly supportive of the Kurds, refuses to deliver heavier weapons and ammunition directly to the Peshmerga, requiring that kind of military aid to flow via the government in Baghdad, which the U.S. also hopes to strengthen.

Barzani, who called his meetings with Obama and Biden “very successful,” said the two “want the peshmerga to receive the right weapons… The important point is that the Peshmerga gets these weapons … how they will get them is less important.”

In meetings on Capitol Hill, Barzani also asked for more anti-tank weapons to defeat IS, which is armed with tanks and other armored vehicles seized from the Iraqi Army.

Barzani sidestepped questions about his attitude toward Iraqi Shiite militias which have helped push IS out of cities such as Tikrit but are accused of abuses against Iraq’s Sunni Arab population — abuses that have deepened sectarianism and strengthened support for IS in western Iraq. Iran helped train and equip these militias, some of which killed Americans during the highpoint of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq a decade ago.

“The Shiites are our allies,” Barzani said. “The popular mobilization units [a euphemism for the militias] are not in Kurdistan and we are not in need of them.” At the same time, he stressed that such groups should be “under the control of the prime minister” of Iraq. He did not mention Iran’s role.

Barzani was also circumspect in discussing plans to recapture Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from IS. Until Mosul is liberated, he said, there would be a direct threat to the nearby Kurdish region.

Losers in the redrawing of the Middle East map that followed dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own country and are believed to number about 40 million.

In addition to northern Iraq, they live in mountainous areas of southeastern Turkey, western Iran and northern Syria. While their historic goal has been to achieve one independent state, political realities are such that they have had to settle for greater or lesser degrees of autonomy, grabbing power where they can without antagonizing stronger neighbors.

The Iraqi Kurds have been the most successful in this process, benefiting from U.S. protection since the 1991 Gulf War. They held their first democratic elections in 1992 and have overcome internal political disputes since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein to become a relatively liberal, tolerant island in a sea of fanaticism and sectarianism.

The KRG has been particularly adept in cultivating a relationship with Turkey, building lucrative trade ties and supporting a peace process between Turkey and a Kurdish militant group, the PKK. This relationship bore fruit earlier this year when the Turkish government allowed the KRG to send a small number of Peshmerga to help a PKK affiliate, the PYD, defeat IS in the battle for the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

Meanwhile, better KRG-Baghdad relations following the replacement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Haider al-Abadi last summer facilitated a new oil deal between Erbil and Baghdad.

Some half a million barrels a day of oil from Kurdistan and Iraq now flow out of the KRG through Turkey to the port of Ceyhan. In response to a question, however, Barzani said that the KRG had not yet received its full share of revenue from Baghdad, which has been hit hard by a 40 percent drop in oil prices and the cost of fighting IS.

Nevertheless, “the spirit is to work together,” Barzani said of KRG-Baghdad ties. His small entity, he said, had become a model for the nation: “Had the rest of Iraq been able to do what we did, it would be in better shape.”

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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