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Syrian conflict threatens to fracture Iraq

Semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government are on a collision course as the Kurds increasingly side with the Syrian opposition and Baghdad stands by the Assad regime. 

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The Iraqi Kurds are at the opposite end of the equation from Maliki. Though Turkey treats its own Kurdish population poorly, the KRG's deep mistrust of Baghdad has seen a tactical relationship developing between Ankara and Erbil and, by extension, the regional Sunni powers backing the Syrian uprising.  

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Although the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, Hiltermann says the KRG's interest is not about religion, but an attempt to further nationalist goals. "They [Kurds] have long-term aspirations to independence, and today this means allying themselves with Turkey, which is encouraging them to take distance from Baghdad," Hiltermann says.

Although Iraq's constitution gives the federal government theoretical control of the country's foreign policy, the KRG seldom defers to Baghdad on matters of international relations.

Iraq's Kurds have enjoyed a high level of autonomy in northern Iraq since the 1990s, when the West backed a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds during an uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime. The KRG has its own diplomatic representatives in some key international capitals – Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow among them – and more than 20 countries, including the US, have diplomatic missions in Erbil. 

To say that Baghdad has a problem with the KRG's overtures to the Syrian opposition and its backers is to put it mildly. 

"They have completely gone their way and are sometimes on a collision line with the federal government [in Baghdad]," says Saad al-Muttalebi, a prominent figure in Maliki's coalition. "Unfortunately the KRG behaves as if it's an independent state and sets up its own international policies... without any consideration to the central government."

Politicians in Baghdad are particularly unhappy with KRG's closer ties to Turkey, which harbored exiled Sunni Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi after he fled Iraq earlier this year. Mr. Muttalebi, who used to serve as an adviser to Maliki, lashed out at Turkey for choosing "an unwise course of action" and "misusing its relations with Iraq."

But Erbil sees Ankara as a critical counterbalancing factor against Baghdad, which the Kurdish government accuses of being increasingly heavy-handed. 

"It is true that there is a federal broad-based coalition government in Baghdad, but day after day we see it becoming more autocratic," Safin Dizayee, the official spokesperson for the KRG, told The Monitor at his office in Erbil. 

"[Iraq's] foreign policy is determined not by the institutions of the state, but by certain individuals within the state or a certain party," Dizayee explains, referring indirectly to Maliki and his Shiite Dawa Party. "And when it comes to the policy of that party toward Syria, that might be actually questionable."

Turkey's annual trade with Iraq stood at around $11 billion in 2011, according to Turkish government's figures, but Kurdish officials say about 70 percent of the trade occurs with the Kurdish region. The discovery of large oil reserves in Iraqi Kurdistan has only made the energy-thirsty Turkey more interested in developing closer ties with the KRG without much regard for Baghdad's opposition. Erbil has been happy to go along. 

But for a country with a long history of internal conflict and instability, the current regional shift may not pay off in the end.

"Baghdad and Erbil are taking decisions that they believe will enhance their regional and domestic positions," says Ahmed Ali, a Middle East analyst at Georgetown University. But in a region of ever-shifting alliances, there is danger in charting "domestic policy while thinking that regional alliances are permanent and will help them fulfill their plans."

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