Khalid Mohammed/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

Because of the political wrangling, Iraq has no interior or defense minister. Instead Maliki effectively oversees both, as well as an increasing number of intelligence and security services reorganized to fall directly under his command. In a country with some of the world’s biggest oil reserves, a proposed oil law mandating how revenue is shared between the provinces has never reached Parliament for a vote.

“We have to clearly define the oil law,” says Latif Rasheed, senior adviser to President Talabani. “Not only regarding central authorities but regional authorities – this is happening in Kurdistan now; tomorrow it might happen in Basra if it’s not clear.”

In addition to Kurdistan, other regions, including the south – which has seen little benefit from its vast oil reserves – have been pressing for more control. Some local government officials in Basra and Diyala have even raised the prospect of seeking autonomy. 

Mr. Barzani, who next to Mr. Maliki has emerged as the most powerful politician in Iraq, has warned that the Kurds could "resort to other decisions" if the prime minister does not follow through on a power-sharing agreement. Barzani's comments are widely seen as an implied threat to seek independence. 

Legacy of Saddam's genocidal campaign

The legacy of Saddam Hussein’s military campaigns against the Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s has rekindled fears in Iraqi Kurdistan that a central government with unchecked powers could again pose a threat. That worry has been heightened by the withdrawal of US troops that served as a buffer between Erbil and Baghdad.

American protection in the form of a no-fly zone in 1991 created the semi-autonomous Kurdish region after the Kurds rose up against Mr. Hussein's weakened regime when he was driven out of Kuwait. Deeply traumatized by Saddam’s genocidal campaign, two decades later Kurdish leaders have raised concerns in Washington over Iraq’s purchase of American F-16 fighter jets.

“It’s normal for Iraq to have an army, to have advanced weaponry but the concept of against whom that would be used this is what worries us,” says Falah Mustafa, the Kurdish regional government’s de facto foreign minister. “When we have worries about the nature of that army and the loyalty of that army we have all the right to be afraid because planes have been used against Kurdish people ... so our tragic history tells us to be careful.”

Kurdish officials are adamant that they won’t seek the breakup of Iraq but many seem prepared for the possibility that Sunni-Shiite tension could splinter the country on its own.

Feeding into Iraq’s sectarian tensions, Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, wanted on terrorism charges, was given refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan and then allowed by the Kurdish government to leave the country, despite a no-travel order. He is now being tried in absentia in Baghdad.

As Kurdish political and economic power grows, ties with the rest of Iraq weaken. Most younger Kurds don’t speak Arabic and few feel a strong connection to the rest of the country.

“What is not independent about Kurdistan today?” says one Kurdish official speaking on condition of anonymity. “The fact that we get our money from Baghdad – that’s the only thing that’s left.”

Kurdish ties with Turkey improve

Kurds are looking at the possibility of replacing that revenue from an unlikely source. Opposition from powerful Turkey has been one of the main reasons the Kurds have not sought more autonomy. But as Baghdad’s relations with Ankara have soured over accusations of Turkish interference in Iraqi affairs, Erbil's ties with Turkey have improved dramatically. 

Kurdish officials maintain they are discussing with Turkey plans to build crude oil and natural gas pipelines that would carry fuel directly from Iraqi Kurdistan to the neighboring country.

Talabani, who last month hosted Baghdad’s first Arab League summit in more than 20 years, maintains that it would be unrealistic for Kurds to push for independence despite calls by the younger generation to seek it.

The older Kurdish political elite spent years as mountain fighters followed by years in exile but Talabani says that for all Kurds in the region seeking control over their destiny, that era is over.

“Armed struggle is past – now we are in a parliamentarian struggle ... we are always telling this to our [Kurdish] brothers in Turkey to understand the spirit of a new era," he says. "This is not the time of partisan war or armed struggle. Look to the countries that use popular struggle; even they get freedom from dictatorship from other places, so through this kind of struggle people can achieve their goals.”

2 million barrels per day by 2019

The dispute over oil – potentially worth billions of dollars as new fields come on stream in Iraqi Kurdistan – is entangled in the wider issue of land, towns, and cities claimed by both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments – including the disputed city of Kirkuk. Kurds claim oil-rich Kirkuk as their historic capital, as do the Turkmen and other groups. Tens of thousands of non-Arabs were expelled from that city during Hussein’s campaign to Arabize the country.

“There are a number of issues that have to be sorted out – one is the disputed territories, which I think is much more serious than the oil,” says Mr. Rasheed, the Iraqi president’s adviser.

Oil though has become the driving force behind Kurdish aspirations. Since Barzani turned the tap on the first oil well in the Taq Taq field three years ago, Kurdish officials expect production to rise to 500,000 barrels per day in the next 1-1/2 years. They say it could reach 2 million barrels per day by 2019 – a higher output than oil producers such as Libya.

Reflecting the rising tension, the Kurdish government in April shut off oil exports bound for the Iraqi government pipeline to Turkey. Foreign companies have cut back production and are selling the remaining fuel within Iraqi Kurdistan – a move that contravenes long-standing agreement under which oil revenue is distributed by Baghdad. The companies and Kurdish authorities say it’s a necessary step to recover their costs after months of not being paid under existing agreements with the central government. 

For many Iraqi Kurds, the question is whether the autonomy they have gained is enough or whether they should aim for more and risk losing it.

“It’s a tough one for any Kurd to balance their natural desire for any independence, which every Kurd has deep down, even Jalal Talabani, with a reality that puts what we have today in danger,” says Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish government’s representative in Washington and the president’s son. “I think that’s what every Kurd grapples with – what their heart tells them and what their head tells them.”

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