AS BLOODSHED in Iraq and Syria has steadily escalated, the importance to the United States of one regional ally has been growing. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which controls an autonomous enclave bordering Iran, Turkey and Syria, is democratic, secular, pro-Western and a determined enemy of the al-Qaeda forces that operate on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It wasn’t surprising that KRG President Massoud Barzani was booked for a visit to Washington and a likely meeting with President Obama last month. By the same token, his abrupt decision to postpone the trip is cause for concern.
Mr. Barzani stayed home because the Obama administration and Congress have failed to fix an enduring irritant in the U.S.-Kurdish relationship: the presence of the region’s two leading political parties on a U.S. list of sanctioned organizations. Both Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were added after 2001 to a “Tier 3” group of organizations deemed to have provided material support to terrorism under the Patriot Act. The reason: Both parties supported the resistance to the regime of Saddam Hussein before the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
This absurd anomaly is the result of overly broad Patriot Act language matched with excessively cautious U.S. government lawyers. The two political parties aren’t the only victims. Many people who have inadvertently done business with terrorists or al-Qaeda-linked groups around the world, or who fought against repressive regimes, have unjustly been swept onto the Tier 3 list. The designation is more than symbolic, since those named cannot obtain visas to enter the United States without a waiver. That includes Mr. Barzani and virtually every other senior official in a territory of 3.7 million people.
U.S. administrations have promised the Kurds relief from the sanctions for years, but have failed to deliver. The Obama administration contends that a legislative fix is needed and proposes language specifically exempting the Kurdish parties from the Patriot Act provisions. That solution has encountered resistance in the Senate Judiciary committee, where some are pressing for a more general repair of the Patriot Act language rather than a case-by-case approach. The Kurds and their Washington lobbyists argue, in turn, that Congress and its chronic gridlock could be bypassed with a simple executive branch decision.
What’s clear is that the impasse is damaging an important U.S. relationship at a critical moment — and that the fault lies entirely in Washington. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has led efforts in the Senate to end the sanctions on the Kurds, is planning to introduce a stand-alone bill on the matter in the coming weeks, with the Obama administration’s support. Congress should act quickly — and Mr. Barzani should reschedule his visit.