The Vision Behind the US Consulate in Erbil Is Dissolving

A year after American diplomats were supposed to move in, it is no longer clear that the complex will serve its original purpose

The Vision Behind the US Consulate in Erbil Is Dissolving
The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous region, Nechirvan Barzani (right), gives a joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Erbil in March 2023. (Safin Hamid/AFP via Getty Images)

Tucked away behind modular concrete walls in a corner of a residential neighborhood, the U.S. consulate in Erbil is one of the most important manifestations of Washington’s special ties with Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

Unlike most consulates around the world, the mission handles the type of high-profile and sensitive political, security and economic portfolio typically reserved for full embassies, reflecting the region’s semi-autonomous status within Iraq and the geopolitical heft of the countries that surround it.

Plans are underway to move the consulate from the low-slung collection of buildings in Ankawa, a Christian district in the northern part of Erbil, to a brand-new compound on the outskirts of the city. The move was initially announced in 2017 and construction began the following year. Years in the making, the upgraded facility is heavy with symbolism. Its conception was shaped by what the Kurdistan region meant to Washington as U.S. soldiers battled the Islamic State group alongside the Peshmerga — the region’s standing armed forces — and U.S. companies sought opportunity in the oil fields.

“The new consulate will be a tangible sign — in concrete, steel and reinforced glass — of the long-term commitment of the United States to the Kurdistan region’s government and people,” then-Consul General Robert Palladino said at an event in September 2021.

Since then, however, dynamics between the U.S. and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have changed in significant ways. The interests that brought Washington and Erbil together, like the fight against the Islamic State, are no longer as significant. Geopolitics once papered over divergent political values and problematic governance by the Kurdistan region’s leaders, but these now lie exposed. Moreover, Washington has toned down its support of Kurdish interests as Baghdad has made its centralizing ambitions increasingly clear.

Events and changing political circumstances threaten to overtake the new consulate project, which is already plagued by delays, and weaken the ties it represents. The U.S. will continue to have a diplomatic presence in the Kurdistan region, but the purposes, intentions and significance embodied in the new buildings are no longer as relevant. The substantial compound will be a relic of unfulfilled ambition: not merely a case study in the ebb and flow of dynamics in a volatile region but also of the complexities of setting politics into stone.

The new consulate is located on the outskirts of Erbil. The surrounding area is relatively empty for the moment, but the city’s expanding glut of luxury real estate is working to fill it in. An adjacent multilane highway, known as 150-Meter Road, offers quick access to the international airport. The headquarters of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani is a straight shot up the road in nearby Pirmam.

Architectural renderings of the compact main structure show an impressive entryway of glass and stone, with fabric shades and a latticed roof. Outer buildings in the sprawling 50-acre campus include housing, recreation areas and security for the resident diplomats. Unlike most Department of State missions, Erbil is not a post where diplomats bring their families with them. Most are on short-term assignments of around a year.

The new consulate’s large size is one of the main talking points behind it. It will be “one of the largest U.S. diplomatic facilities in the world by area,” the Office of the Spokesperson for the Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) told New Lines. The construction contract awarded in 2017 was for $568 million, though subsequent cost estimates have put the new facility’s price tag at $800 million.

Construction was originally scheduled to wrap up in 2022, with a move-in date of January 2023, but delays have repeatedly pushed that back. “Construction is estimated to be completed in spring 2025 barring any major disruptions,” the OBO said.

Beyond acting as a practical work and living space for diplomats, embassies and consulates are symbols of the relationships between countries. They provide recognition of significant ties and a platform for them to play out. In Washington, D.C., for example, an address on Embassy Row or in another prominent location in the city is a coveted symbol of a country’s link with the U.S. The KRG’s Representation in the United States is located on 16th Street, just blocks north of the White House. The U.S. post-military commitment to Iraq was to be expressed in the embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Once billed as the world’s largest, it now sits largely empty.

While diplomatic relationships are subject to change over time, the buildings that symbolize them are more static. Embassies and consulates “are built for the future and the future arrives quickly and, by then, it’s the past,” historian Jane Loeffler, who has written extensively about the construction of U.S. overseas diplomatic facilities, told New Lines via email.

“This is what makes it so difficult to plan for new facilities and make them fit well. … It represents our intentions and hopes at one moment in time,” Loeffler added.

The relationship between the U.S. and the Kurdistan region is changing in three important ways. First, the interests that made the two governments so close during the middle years of the 2010s — particularly the fight against the Islamic State group and the Kurdistan region’s independent oil exports — are no longer as relevant. Second, governance and human rights issues that previously sat on the back burner now constitute thorny and embarrassing disagreements. Finally, the U.S. is increasingly looking to Baghdad as the center of its Iraq portfolio after years of relative neglect — to the detriment of Kurdish interests.

Officially, both the U.S. government and the KRG say their relationship remains strong and highlight the new consulate as proof.

“We’re proud of our long-standing and historic partnership with the [KRG], forged in shared sacrifice combating tyranny and confronting ISIS. Our relationship with the KRG is strong due in large part to that historic bond and our enduring shared interests,” a Department of State official told New Lines.

“We consider the KRG an indispensable component of the 360-degree relationship we enjoy with Iraq … [and] support a strong, resilient KRG within the framework of the federal system enshrined in Iraq’s constitution,” the official added. Moreover, the new consulate compound “is another indication of our long-standing partnership with the Iraqi Kurdistan region and our long-term commitment to that relationship.”

KRG Representative to the U.S. Treefa Aziz told New Lines that the new consulate “sends a clear message about the importance of the relationship between the U.S. and the KRG.”

“We are optimistic about the future of our relations. Both the KRG and the U.S. have shown a commitment to addressing challenges and working closely to promote stability in the region,” she said. “The potential for greater cooperation between the U.S. and the KRG is boundless.”

Yet it is hard to ignore that times are changing when one examines the relationship issue by issue.

When Palladino made his remarks about the new consulate as a symbol of the relationship between the U.S. and the Kurdistan region, the consul general spoke in detail about the U.S. focus on economic development, fighting security threats like the Islamic State and strengthening the rule of law in the Kurdistan region.

KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani also spoke at the event, saying that the two governments “are bound together by shared values and by the will to stand together to defend those values.”

The following day, a court in Erbil extended the prison sentence of Kurdish journalist Omed Baroshky by a year. He was already three months into a yearlong sentence related to social media posts criticizing the KRG. The region’s judiciary is often criticized for a lack of independence. Political interference in cases by prominent officials is common.

Baroshky was originally arrested in Duhok governorate in 2020, as part of a crackdown on dozens of activists and journalists known as the Badinan cases. In response to related trials held in the first half of 2021, the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil released a statement saying that freedom of expression as embodied in the First Amendment “is part of our identity and we continue to promote it as one of our core values.” It also harshly rebuked the Kurdish authorities in Erbil for accusing it and the German consulate of financially supporting activists and journalists who criticized the KRG.

Far from demonstrating shared values, the divergence between Washington and Erbil over freedom of expression and the press is a source of real tension. Palladino’s successor as consul general, Irvin Hicks, told an interviewer that the U.S. is “concerned about backsliding” by the KRG on human rights, the rule of law, gender equality and treatment of minorities. Erbil for its part furiously denounced criticism of its rights record in the 2022 U.S. Department of State human rights report on Iraq, alleging that the findings were “opaque [and] inaccurate, and [present] a double-standard modality about the realities of the Kurdistan region.”

In any bilateral international relationship, human rights are merely one aspect of a complex set of considerations — and often they fall to the bottom of the list of priorities in the face of hard geopolitics. The diplomacy between the U.S. and the Kurdistan region reflects those other considerations in spades, especially security issues.

Over the past decade, fighting the Islamic State was vitally important to the bilateral relationship. While still active in parts of Iraq and Syria, the militant group does not pose the threat it once did. As a result, the U.S. is reducing its military posture in Iraq and funding for operations countering the Islamic State. The U.N. humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations that were pervasive in the Kurdistan region during the past decade have largely wound up their major operations and shifted attention and resources to more active conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for New American Security, told New Lines, “In Washington, there’s an interest in moving beyond framing the U.S.-Iraq relationship strictly in terms of our partnership against ISIS.”

That sense also seems to be held by Iraq’s government, which is under pressure from influential figures within Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s governing coalition and Iraqi lawmakers to end the presence of foreign troops as soon as possible.

U.S. airstrikes in Iraq that have nothing to do with the Islamic State have drawn strong rebukes from Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraqi public opinion is inflamed by Washington’s staunch support for Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza.

Historically, the Kurdish political parties have been the strongest partners of the U.S. in Iraq and provided a conduit for influencing the country’s affairs. Establishing a consulate in Erbil in 2011 and building the new compound were results of that fact. Kurdish authorities remain strongly in favor of U.S. troops — and diplomats — maintaining a robust footprint in Erbil. Not only do they ostensibly bolster the Kurdistan region against security threats, but they reassure U.S. businesses that want to invest there, including oil companies. Moreover, it is a sign that the international community recognizes the Kurdistan region’s special status within Iraq.

Yet the KRG’s ability to manage its own affairs is increasingly threatened. The federal government is using the courts and other state institutions to reassert control over the Kurdistan region’s oil industry, political institutions, budget, elections and internal political affairs. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan region is dealing with economic dysfunction and increasing political division. As Baghdad becomes more confident in wielding its power within Iraq and Erbil weakens, Washington has increasingly turned its attention to the center. It constitutes a worrying development for the KRG and its supporters, who want the U.S. to speak out forcefully when Kurdish interests are threatened.

Security is an important consideration for diplomatic posts, particularly in relatively hostile environments like Iraq. The current consulate compound is on the edge of a dense residential neighborhood. This type of environment conjures the sort of threat that helped make the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, so dangerous. Indeed, the entrance to the consulate in Ankawa was targeted in an Islamic State bombing on April 17, 2015, which killed four people and wounded 18 others. The move to a more isolated area mitigates that factor, but the most likely threat these days comes from above.

On Jan. 15, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired ballistic missiles at Erbil, killing at least four people, including a prominent businessman with close ties to the KDP. U.S. officials were quick to say that the current and the new consulate compounds were not targeted, though the latter was less than 3 miles away from the attack site. Iran-backed militias have attacked targets in Erbil governorate at least 30 times since the war in Gaza began in early October, including locations where U.S. troops are based.

“The new location should actually — perhaps counterintuitively — be more defensible than the current location,” Lord told New Lines. “A facility in an area that is less population-dense will enable a wider variety of air defense and force protection measures with fewer concerns about shrapnel falling on civilians.”

While the consulate should theoretically be well protected, Kurdish civilians remain exposed to threats from the air. The U.S. failure to deploy air defenses to defend against a major attack on a Kurdish city was discussed extensively and sometimes bitterly on social media. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq expressed condolences and “steadfast support,” but the attack has renewed worries that the U.S. commitment to the Kurdistan region is faltering.

This is what awaits the next generation of U.S. diplomats, the first group who will make the new consulate their home. The landscape is significantly different from when the bulldozers broke ground six years ago. Diplomats and policies can adapt but, as Loeffler points out, infrastructure is inflexible — embassies and consulates cannot be repositioned overnight. “They are almost always out of date by the time they are realized because the world is always changing.”

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