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Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, listens to speakers during a panel discussion on Afghanistan at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 12, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst(reuters_tickers)
By Missy Ryan and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When radical Islamic forces threatening to dismember Iraq unexpectedly captured several towns from the Peshmerga Kurdish fighters last weekend, the Kurds' public relations machine quickly seized on the setback to boost their case in Washington.
"This justifies all the reasons why the Pentagon should help beef up the Peshmerga forces by providing such sophisticated arms," Karwan Zebari, the Kurdish government spokesman in the United States, told Reuters.
With high-powered lobbying firms and a savvy media campaign in Washington, the Kurds are pressing hard for U.S. money and guns to meet short-term needs and support for their longer-term goal of a sovereign state in the mountains of northern Iraq.
According to U.S. government filings, the Kurdistan Regional Government is spending more than a million dollars a year on top Washington lobbyists, including the prominent firm Patton Boggs, to get its voice heard in top government circles and the media.
Supported by well-connected ex-officials such as former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, Kurdish officials say they believe Washington is edging toward direct support despite opposition from Baghdad and no public statements by U.S. officials to justify that optimism.
In early July, as senior Kurdish officials were visiting Washington, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani asked the region's parliament to prepare for a referendum on independence.
"The United States is not ready to come out and say it supports Kurdish independence because it would seem like they were advocating the disintegration of Iraq," a Kurdish official in Washington said on condition of anonymity.
American officials insist their commitment to a unified Iraq has not changed, despite the routing of government forces by radical Sunni militants of the Islamic State, an al Qaeda off-shoot, in northwest Iraq, and political deadlock in Baghdad.
Any moves toward independence for Kurdistan at this time "are pretty disruptive and counter-productive," a U.S. State Department official, said on condition of anonymity.
"We do recognise though that you can’t unscramble this egg," the official said. "There’s not going to be a return to the status quo" before the Islamic State captured large areas including the city of Mosul and raised talk of a divided state.
He said there would have to be some discussions between the Shi'ite-dominated powers in Baghdad and Arbil, the Kurdish capital, "about devolution of authority and potentially some greater autonomy."
Zebari said on Wednesday that after the Islamic rebel incursions into Kurdish territory, the Kurds had repeated their pleas to the U.S. government for direct military aid, arguing that "it's got to happen now. It's got to happen yesterday."
Weapons were available from stocks in neighbouring Turkey and could be delivered within a day or two to Kurdish forces, he said.
U.S. officials remained firm, however, that any arms supplies to Arbil would have to be arranged through Baghdad.
Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq from 2005-2007, recommends a two-pronged U.S. strategy: Press Baghdad to pursue efforts to form a united government but at the same time prepare for possible failure which could lead to Kurdish autonomy.
The best result would be a decentralized Iraq with a federal system in the Arab-majority areas, operating in confederation with Kurdistan, he said in a recent New York Times article. "The alternative is civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, and the emergence of an independent Kurdistan," he said.
Ethnic Kurds, who number more than 20 million across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, have dreamed of an independent state since they were denied a country of their own when Western powers created the modern Middle East after World War One.
Ken Pollack, a former U.S. intelligence official now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the advance of the Islamists in the last two months made prospects for Kurdish independence stronger than ever.
"It creates an opportunity for the Kurds to say to the rest of the world, 'Look, how can you expect us to remain part of Iraq? We never wanted to be part of Iraq,'" he said.
Kurdistan has been running its own affairs with little interference from Baghdad since the early 1990s, when U.S. military forces protected the region from President Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War.
The region's drive for economic independence depends in part on oil pumped from beneath Kurdistan. It was dealt a blow last month when Baghdad intervened in a U.S. court to block a Kurdish shipment of crude oil headed for Texas.
The legal action has stranded the ship loaded with $100 million (£59.3 million) of crude off Galveston and thrown in doubt the Kurds' ambitions to establish an international market for its oil.
For several years, landlocked Kurdistan has trucked smaller shipments of oil through Turkey, amounting to almost 20 million barrels sold internationally since 2012, in defiance of Baghdad's belief the region has no right to export on its own.
But it really began to threaten Baghdad's economic clout at the end of last year when it completed a pipeline of its own through Turkey to the north and began sending its own crude out to the world via the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Baghdad responded by cutting Kurdistan off from central funds and creating a financial crisis in the region, which had been relatively prosperous.
Kurdish officials say Baghdad owes them $7 billion and that the budget battle has made it difficult for them to pay salaries of bureaucrats and soldiers and to care for refugees who have fled the Islamic State into Kurdistan.
The weekend defeat of their forces by Islamists north of the city of Mosul damaged the region's image as an island of stability in the chaos of Iraq, and the Kurds are now accepting help from the Iraqi air force to fight the shared enemy.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Rebecca Elliott and Lesley Wroughton in Washington, Terry Wade in Houston, David Sheppard in London; editing by David Storey)