If It's Good for the Kurds...

Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan region, can be pleased. For 10 minutes, U.S. President Barack Obama pleaded with him by phone to support Iraq's election law. It's true that Vice President Joe Biden has also spoken to Barzani, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates has visited Erbil, the region's capital. But there's nothing better than a talk between two presidents to iron out differences.

Obama needed Barzani to push through the election law so it would be possible to set up a stable government in Iraq, the kind that would allow the United States to send its troops over to Afghanistan. The timetable is tight. Obama hopes to withdraw most of the force by August. He has already committed himself to sending another 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, and any holdup in Iraq means putting off Afghanistan.

Barzani met Obama's request and parliament passed the election law. Meanwhile, a high-ranking Kurdish delegation traveled to Washington last week for talks with U.S. officials and meetings with exiled Kurds. Barzani is also expected to be invited to Washington to meet with Obama.

'The rights of the Kurdish people'

But beyond a display of personal friendship, Barzani says he heard an unparalleled political statement by Obama. "Obama referred to the rights of the Kurdish people and promised to support their implementation," he declared after the telephone conversation. Barzani did not give details, and no one is talking about setting up an independent Kurdish state.

Barzani, meanwhile, is making do with an American commitment to preserve the region's autonomy as part of a federal Iraq, but his remarks have caused a shudder in both Iraq and Turkey because an American commitment implies support for Kurdish demands that the Iraqi government opposes.

The Kurds want funding for the Kurdish militias, the Peshmerga, from the Iraqi defense budget, they want to set up two additional Kurdish divisions, and to apply paragraph 140 of the Iraqi constitution regarding the future of the contested city of Kirkuk. Especially, they seek backing for the agreements the Kurdish region has signed with foreign oil companies.

Obama's intervention in solving Iraq's political crisis is another indication that when U.S. interests are at stake, Washington is prepared to bypass a number of principles and talk with political rivals of another country's government. That's what it does in Afghanistan when the elected government is not able to carry out its tasks; Washington is willing to forge agreements with local tribal leaders there. The same is true of Iraq because of the Kurds' political clout.

Obama's pragmatism in Iraq raises the question of why this policy is not suitable for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, why doesn't the U.S. administration try to solve the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, to recognize Hamas if it signs a reconciliation accord with Fatah? This would end the stalemate that is blocking the diplomatic process.

If the Americans were able to tempt Hamas, they might even change the organization's attitude toward Israel, especially because Hamas has accepted the two-state solution in principle and the 1967 borders as the borders of a Palestinian state. But maybe resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as important as solving the problems in Iraq.

Washington vs. the inciters

Four Arab satellite television stations are Congress' next target. According to a bill approved by the House of Representatives last week, it will be possible to blame owners of communications satellites, not just TV networks, for spreading world terror and acting against the United States.

In the text accompanying the bill, Hezbollah's Al-Manar satellite station is referred to, as is Hamas' Al-Aqsa as well as Al-Zawraa and Al-Rafidain, two stations that broadcast for Iraqis.

The bill, which still needs the approval of the Senate, says it will be possible to prosecute satellite owners, and that the president will have to present an annual report on anti-American incitement in the Middle East. The report will include Israel, but not Turkey, which is considered part of Europe.

The bill is likely to sting other satellite stations such as Al Jazeera and Egyptian satellite stations that broadcast talk shows in which anti-American positions are de rigueur. The big question is the extent anti-American discourse will -be allowed, especially in view of Obama's desire to expand the dialogue with Islamic countries including Iran.

It will be interesting to read the views of the first annual report - which is supposed to be published six months after the bill becomes a law - on broadcasts by Israeli networks that often voice strong criticism of American policies in the region.