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US action in Iraq can be traced back to oil

I HAVE a certain affinity with the Iraqi Kurds.

During the first Gulf War in 1991 they helped smuggle me across the Turkey-Iraq border to join their peshmerga fighters, who were trying to hold back Saddam Hussein's army.

Then again, in the wake of the "shock and awe" operation that started the 2003 Iraq War, they brought me in from Iran to link up with the peshmerga who, with US Special Forces support, subsequently routed the Iraqi army and occupied the cities of Mosul and oil-rich Kirkuk.

The Kurds have often had their backs to the wall. This time the enemies at the gates are the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group who now threaten Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Yesterday the IS threat was greater than ever, with reports that their fighters were massing near the Iraqi town of Qara Tappa, 73 miles north of Baghdad, a move security sources described as an attempt to "broaden their front with the Kurdish fighters".

If the threat from the jihadists was growing, then concerns over trapped civilians from the minority Yazidi community had eased a little. This assessment of their humanitarian plight was based on US Special Forces intelligence revealing that thousands of refugees had managed to avoid IS fighters, helped by an escape "corridor" established by a combination of US airstrikes and resistance from Kurdish peshmerga.

So what do the latest developments on the ground mean for President Barack Obama and his allies?

Well, to begin with, it may well force an even bigger decision from the US president. To be candid, it's probably not unfair to say that Washington's current humanitarian operation in Iraq has been something of a political and military fig leaf.

Mr Obama has long wanted to get out and stay out of Iraq, but unfortunately the IS advance forced his hand. His military response was made easier by using a humanitarian label that had the added advantage of drawing in international allies and partners to stand by Washington's shoulder.

While the humanitarian crisis is far from over, the easing of the immediate emergency means President Obama is faced with stopping the IS advance without the plight of the Yazidis as a convenient justification for further military action.

None of this matters, of course, to the powerful political lobbyists in the US who the Kurds have nurtured for years. It is estimated that the Kurdish Regional Government, which runs its semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq, spends at least $1 million a year on its efforts to win friends and influence people within America's corridors of power.

What should never be forgotten is that Erbil is an oil-rush town. When Washington speaks of moving militarily in northern Iraq to protect US interests and civilians it is, in effect, thinly disguised code for oil companies, their executives and other personnel.

Erbil has to be defended, it seems, otherwise it will be overrun by IS and "thousands" of American lives will be threatened.

But as renowned intelligence writer Steve Coll recently asked in a New Yorker magazine article, just why is it that thousands of Americans happen to be in Erbil these days? Certainly few, if any, are there for the benefits of the clean mountain air.

Rather, they are part of the massive oil industry contingent of which ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms large and small drilling in Iraqi Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favourable terms.

What's more, look closely into the backgrounds of the most vociferous of US lobbyists calling for military support for the Kurds and you will find a strong correlation between policy advocacy and outright commercial and business concerns.

Only last week, former US national security adviser and retired Marine General James Jones and former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad were on national television urging Washington to give the Kurds the kinds of military hardware and support needed to match the jihadist IS fighters, who have looted much of their sophisticated weapons from overrun Iraqi military bases and are now bearing down on Erbil.

Both General Jones and Mr Khalilzad are among the many ex-military men, intelligence officials and diplomats who have had business dealings within the region and are long-term supporters of the Kurdish Regional Government. Which brings me back to the Kurds themselves.

Much vaunted as the peshmerga are, they are not the force they once were. Not only do they have outdated arms and inadequate logistics, but their new generation of fighters also lacks battle experience. Above all, the Kurds remain bedevilled by myriad political rivalries and as a result the peshmerga suffer poor unit integration. Even with their US benefactors behind them, the peshmerga will have their work cut out facing up to IS fighters. Without Washington's help, they could be in deep trouble.

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