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 Turkey, Kurdistan and the future of Iraq: Time for Washington to tune back in

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Turkey, Kurdistan and the future of Iraq: Time for Washington to tune back in  1.6.2012  
By John Hannah - Foreign Policy








Kirkuk oil fields Photo: Reuters/Ekurd.net 
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June 1, 2012

With last week's headlines dominated by Egypt's presidential elections, negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, and fresh atrocities in Syria, it would have been easy to miss a major development out of Iraq that in time could have equally momentous consequences for the future of the Middle East. I'm referring to the announcement that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey have agreed -- in principle at least -- to build a series of pipelines that will allow the Kurds to export oil and gas directly to Turkey and, from there, onward to the rest of the world. The U.S. should be paying close attention.

Until now, the KRG's ability to develop its substantial energy riches has been held hostage to its dependence on export pipelines controlled by the central government in Baghdad. To get any oil to international markets -- and, in turn, to get its fair share of revenue from those sales -- the KRG has largely been at Baghdad's mercies.

Iraq's oil ministry has sought to exploit its position of strength to coerce concessions from the KRG on a long-stalled national hydrocarbons law. In particular, Baghdad has demanded veto power over exploration and development contracts that the Kurds are negotiating with international oil companies. At least 40 such contracts have already been signed over the central government's vociferous objections -- including a breakthrough agreement late last year with the global energy giant, Exxon Mobil.

Baghdad has struck back on multiple fronts. Companies signing contracts in Kurdistan have been black-balled from competing for concessions in the mega-fields of southern Iraq. Kurdistan's access to Iraq's pipelines has been restricted. And as often as not, the central government has simply withheld payments that foreign operators are owed under their Kurdish deals. The latest row over compensation led the KRG in April to suspend exports altogether, which were scheduled to be as high as 175,000 barrels per day in 2012.

The oil dispute, of course, is at the center of a much larger argument, still unresolved, about the very nature of the new Iraqi state. The Kurds, scarred by a brutal history of subjugation at the hands of Arab rulers in Baghdad, are determined that their survival -- political, economic, and, yes, physical -- will never again be subject to the central government's diktats. Yearning in their hearts for independence, the Kurds since 2003 have reluctantly bowed to geo-political realities and agreed to work toward a unified Iraq -- but only on the condition that the country evolve toward a truly federal state, with Baghdad's authority strictly limited by constitutional guarantee and the Kurdistan region's autonomy assured. Having primary say over the fate of its energy resources, and a reliable, equitable claim on Iraq's revenue stream, are for the KRG essential elements of any durable national compact.

Baghdad, needless to say, has had a much different view. Under Prime Minister Maliki, the inclination has clearly been to revert to the modern Middle Eastern norm of a strong, centralizing state, where all political, economic, and security issues of consequence are directed by the national government. From this perspective, full-blown federalism is no recipe for stability, but rather a prescription for weakness, chaos, and fragmentation. Lebanon at best; the former Yugoslavia at worst. The KRG's oil contracts are perceived as a dagger aimed at the heart of the Iraqi state: disrupting policy with respect to the nation's most important resource; undermining the authority of the central government; and ultimately intended to underwrite a future Kurdish dash for independence that would rip the country asunder.

It's not hard to see how these conflicting visions, left unmediated, could trigger an unvirtuous action-reaction cycle. And the dynamic has only been exacerbated in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last December, as Maliki's bent for concentrating power is increasingly viewed -- by Kurds,www.ekurd.net for sure, but by many other Iraqis as well -- as veering dangerously in the direction of a new authoritarianism. Political opponents have been targeted for arrest, including Iraq's Sunni vice president. More than 18 months into his second term, Maliki -- in contravention of a power-sharing agreement -- has yet to yield personal control over the defense, interior, and intelligence ministries. He has further been accused of politicizing Iraq's judiciary and central bank, while subverting the army's chain of command and turning its best equipped, best trained units into his own praetorian guard. And the list goes on.

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