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Iraq's unity tested by rising tensions over oil-rich Kurdish region

As Iraqi Kurdistan ramps up oil production that could soon surpass Libya's output, Kurdish leaders have warned they may seek independence if disputes over oil revenues, power-sharing aren't resolved.

By Jane ArrafStaff writer / May 4, 2012

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, center left, shakes hands with Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, center right, upon his arrival in Erbil, north of Baghdad, Iraq, April 26. Sadr visited Erbil for the first time in a sign of solidarity with the Kurds.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

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Erbil, Iraq

In the capital of the Kurdish region, a gleaming new international airport welcomes visitors to a part of the country that is increasingly striking out on its own amid mounting questions over whether a united Iraq will survive.

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Unlike Baghdad, foreign visitors landing on one of the ever-growing number of international flights to Erbil need no prior visa. That's just one of the signs of autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, the country's most prosperous and secure region. 

Newly discovered oil has fueled the prosperity underpinning Kurdistan's boldness. But it has also heightened tensions with Baghdad that have simmered for decades over land and identity. As Iraqi Kurdistan ramps up oil production that officials say could surpass Libya's output by 2019, Kurdish leaders have warned they could seek full independence if disputes over oil revenues and power-sharing aren't resolved.

"The Kurds will not live in the shadow of a dictatorial regime," Massoud Barzani, the powerful president of the Kurdish region said in a speech in Erbil Friday. "The right to decide our destiny is a legitimate one and we ask others not to try to take this right from us."

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told the Monitor in a recent interview he believes differences between Baghdad and Erbil can be solved.

“We can reach agreement on this,” he said, referring to the wider issue of Iraq’s fragile coalition government and increasingly bitter relations between Kurdish President Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We Iraqis had experiences many times on the brink of civil war – we retreated from that and we came back to dialogue and national unity.”

Not everyone agrees with the president’s assessment, however. Maliki's far-reaching consolidation of power has rankled other regions and even his political allies, with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently visiting Erbil for the first time in a sign of solidarity with the Kurds. 

Southern, oil-rich regions also pressing for more control

Nine years after Saddam Hussein was toppled, and two decades after breaking away from Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan is far more prosperous and secure than any other part of the country. Security has been maintained by the regional government’s strict controls on its de facto borders, including those ostensibly under the jurisdiction of the central government.

Kurdish support two years ago for Maliki’s coalition government was essential to the Shiite prime minister retaining his post after failing to win a majority of seats. Since then a power-sharing agreement which included the Kurds and the major Sunni political bloc has fallen apart with almost none of the provisions implemented.

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