Tensions between the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad were taken to a new height on Wednesday when authorities in Baghdad closed the KRG representation office in Baghdad at the request of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office.
Iraqi officials said the office did not have legal support to exist in Baghdad. However, Kurdish officials in Baghdad said the office had the legal paperwork that was signed by the Prime Minister himself.
Yet, it is evident that the closure of the office was politically motivated and grounded in the recent tensions between Baghdad and Erbil as the office has been there for seven years now. The office was set up in 2006 after a visit by Maliki to the capital of Kurdistan Region, Erbil, where he agreed with Kurdish leaders on the opening of the office to coordinate relations between the two governments.
Mohammed Ihsan, the KRG representative to Baghdad said that the order they received for the closure of the office explained that the KRG-Baghdad relations were directly handled between the two governments and therefore a KRG representation was not necessary in Baghdad.
The closure of the office was quickly condemned by Kurdish MPs in Baghdad as an "illegal and unconstitutional" move by Baghdad. Mohsen Sadoun, a senior member of the Kurdish Blocs Coalition (KBC) in the Iraqi Parliament said the "The Iraqi government has to provide explanations for the decision [closure of KRG office].. this decision was illegal and unconstitutional… that is an official office… that has been in Baghdad for seven years."
|Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki|
The timing of Baghdad's action shows the extent to which Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is upset by KRG attitudes on a number of issues including oil deals, growing Kurdish-Turkish relations and KRG support for the rebellion in Syria against the Shiite minority regime about which Iraq has kept silent amid regional and international condemnations and calls on Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Kurdistan's Oil Deals
Kurdistan Region has continued its oil deals with world energy giants. Recently the French giant Total also moved in buying a 35 percent stake in two exploration blocks in Iraq's Kurdistan region. The move set off immediate response from the Iraqi government which has desperately tried to bar companies from dealing directly with the semi-autonomous region.
The Iraqi government warned Total to cease its dealings with the KRG or lose its share in a major oilfield in southern Iraq.
United States Exxon Mobile and Chevron, Russia' Gazprom are already working in the region.Also, earlier this month, London-listed Genel Energy increased its stake in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region after it acquired a 23 per cent stake in the Bina Bawi exploration license. The deal was approved by the KRG and the acquisition was completed at $175 million.
The UK-Turkish firm has interests in seven exploration and production licenses in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Among the license are two major producing fields; a 25 per cent stake in the Tawke field, Duhok province, and 44 per cent in the Taq Taq field of Erbil province.
The firm also holds a 25 per cent interests in Peshkabir, 40 per cent in the Duhok, 18.75 per cent in Miran, 20 per cent of the Chia Surkh as well, all of which are located in Duhok province.
What added to Baghdad's rage was that Mehmet Sepil, the chief executive of Genel Energy said the central government had lost its energy fight against the KRG in Arbil. "Let's take a look at companies operating there currently: Exxon, Chevron, Total and Gazprom. These are some of the largest oil companies in the world. What's more, Exxon, Total and Gazprom are also working in Baghdad [oilfields]. Baghdad says it will put those who operate in northern Iraq on a blacklist, but the largest companies in the world are working there. This issue is over. In addition, Baghdad operates too slowly, so the oil companies are escaping from there and moving to the north. The energy fight is over today. The important question is when Baghdad will admit this." He said.
Sepil also predicted that Kurdistan "will see a large consolidation. The number of [oil]companies in northern Iraq, which is between 40 and 50 today, will fall to between 10 and 15 in two or three years," Sepil said, adding that the region has already proved its potential. What is happening in northern Iraq is typical, according to Sepil. "First the small companies penetrate, they find the oil, and sell [the field] after benefiting from it. Now this is the process taking place in northern Iraq."
Recent rapprochements between Turkey and Kurdistan Region have sent waves of resentment across the Shiite dominated government authorities in Baghdad. Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Kurdistan and made a side trip to Kirkuk, an oil-rich and disputed city which Kurds have been trying to incorporate into their, angering the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi government condemned the visit as a "blatant interference in the Iraqi internal affairs" and said Davutoglu had violated the sovereignty of Iraq. Baghdad harshly criticized the Kurdish government for facilitating the Turkish official's Kirkuk visit. Baghdad also said it will review relations with Turkey. And on Aug. 15, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry denied a Turkish leader, who had plans to visit Kirkuk, visa into Iraq.
Following the Turkish FM's Kirkuk visit, Baghdad has been complaining that Turkey treats Kurdistan Region as independent from Baghdad. Maliki told a Turkish TV channel that Turkey is "dealing with the (Kurdistan) region as an independent state, and this is rejected by us,"If Turkey "wants to establish good relations, its relations with the region must be built through the gate of Iraq," Maliki said.
Kurdistan's support for Syrian Kurds
While the rest of the world has condemned Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on civilians in the country, the Iraqi government has remained silent. Further to that, the Iraqi government rejected in July an Arab League call for the Syrian President to step aside from his post. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the decision was an intervention in the Syrian affairs.
Iraq's rejection to call on Assad to go drew criticism from the Kurdish leaders in the country. Spokesperson for the KBC, Moayyed Tayyib, said "What is happening in Syria is that the regular Syrian army is committing horrible crimes against the Syrian people.. And when these horrible crimes are committed, it is no longer an internal affair in any country"
The Iraqi government also shut down borders in the face of fleeing Syrians who sought refuge in Iraq from the violence in the country and sent army troops to a border crossing area that was controlled by the Kurdish Peshmarga forces. The border crossings were only opened after pressure mounted on al-Maliki from within the country to provide shelter for the refugees.
The deployment of troops to the Fish Khabur area on the Syrian border, in Duhok province, nearly broke out into a deadly fight between the two forces had it not been for a US intervention to play down the disputes.
The government claimed to have sent the troops to control the Syrian border to prevent the infiltration of militants from and into Syria and also to prevent fleeing Syrian from entering Iraqi territories. Apparently, Maliki believed that the Kurdish control of about 15 kilometer long border line made it possible for Iraqis to smuggle arms and support into Syria for the opposition forces in particular the Kurds who had taken over some towns and districts in the northeastern Syria.
Maliki's military movement came after Kurdistan Region's President Massoud Barzani said Syrian Kurds were being trained in Kurdistan and would be sent home to "defend" their territories.