Even Islamic State Can’t Get Baghdad and Erbil to Cooperate
Arguments persist over autonomy and oil as war rages
Both Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops are locked in bloody battle with invading Islamic State militants in Iraq. And yet Iraqi and Kurdish leaders still can’t manage to settle their differences and cooperate.
Oil is a big sticking point. Baghdad considers Kurdish oil exports to the international market to be a violation of the Iraqi constitution, while the Kurds consider it their right to sell the crude.
In some ways, the divide between the two parties is wider than it’s ever been. And that’s saying something.
Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s government formed in 2010 after an eight-month impasse. As parliamentary sessions belatedly started up in Baghdad, several Kurdish factions were still debating whether to participate at all.
Eventually the government formed, Kurds included, but the arguing didn’t stop.
Today Al Maliki is out. There’s a new government under Haider Al Abadi. The new prime minister is a Shia Arab, but he has reached out to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds—and has appointed Kurdish and Sunni ministers to his cabinet.
But Baghdad and Erbil are still fighting over oil rights. And just under a year ago, the Iraqi government even suspended the KRG’s budget—including salaries for Peshmerga fighters.
There’s still a lot of mistrust to overcome if Iraq’s factions are ever going to fight the insurgents together.
Najeeba Najeeb, a member of parliament from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told War Is Boring that, as an initial step toward resolving the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil, Kurdish ministers joined the legal swearing-in of parliament on Oct. 16.
“We were expecting Haider Al Abadi’s government to also take a step in solving the issues, but it has yet to do anything,” Najeeb added. She said that if Al Abadi has any intention of making amends, he can start by finally releasing Kurdistan’s budget.
“Getting the budget from the Baghdad government should not be linked to the political conflicts,” Najeeb said. “Yet Maliki and Abadi’s governments [have] both linked the Kurdistan citizens’ budget to the political issues.”
Hushiyar Abdullah, a parliamentarian from the Kurdish Movement for Change Party, said that this has been a huge letdown for Kurds.
“Kurdistan’s residents were anticipating that the budget problem would be solved after formation of the Iraqi government,” Abdullah explained. “But the Kurdish ministers [were sworn in], and the salaries have yet to arrive.”
And many are running out of patience. “We should not wait for the budget if the oil issue is not resolved,” Abdullah said.
But Hussain Alawi, the head of Iraq Energy Institute’s Baghdad branch, told War Is Boring that the swearing-in of the Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi parliament indicates a level of trust in Al Abadi’s government. He said it’s premature to judge a government that’s only 50 days old.
“All the parties need negotiations,” Alawi said. “If the conflicts between the governments of Baghdad and Erbil continue, it will negatively affect the country’s economy and budget.”
He explained that both the war against Islamic State and the decrease of oil prices in the international market have intensified the economic crisis in Kurdistan.
But Iraq and the KRG’s problems go deeper than just budgets and oil. Baghdad wants maintain its historic role as the seat of power and favors centralizing authority. Erbil, on the other hand, pursues policies that allow it to maintain the greatest possible autonomy.
This could explain why the KRG has implemented much different policies from those of the Baghdad government regarding economic and foreign relations. Even on the military level, the KRG has insisted that Kurdish Peshmerga forces be in charge of protecting Kurdistan and the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil.
As Alawi sees it, the problems between Kurdistan and Baghdad are mostly related to the distribution of the country’s wealth.
“We need to establish federal laws on the distribution of revenues, laws on oil and gas,” he explained, “a law on managing the Ministry of Oil, a law regarding the Iraq National Oil Company, Union Energy Council and country’s revenues’ observation committee.”
According to Alawi, if Baghdad puts these measures in place and establishes the appropriate regulating bodies, it will be enough to bring Baghdad and Erbil together.
But that could take a while. The Iraqi parliament was unable to vote on the oil and gas laws during the past two sessions due to conflicts between Kurdish and Shiite factions.
Najeeb said that the Kurdish leadership is giving Abadi three months to resolve the issues. “If Abadi does not take any steps in the next three months, we will have another decision.”
In any event, agreements between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments are usually temporary ones. This isn’t a new problem. “There are no Iraqi people inside Iraq,” the country’s King Faisal I said as far back as 1932. “There are only diverse groups with no national sentiments.”
And even an invasion by murderous militant insurgents hasn’t changed that.
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