Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki visited the Kurdistan region on Sunday for the first time in more than two years, in an attempt to resolve a long-running dispute over oil and land that has strained Iraq’s unity to the limit.
With the country’s Shiite leadership facing fallout from the Syrian conflict, which has invigorated Sunni insurgents in Iraq and prompted warnings of civil war, better relations with the Kurds could ease some pressure on Maliki.
The Shiite premier was met on the Arbil airport tarmac by Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and a delegation of high-ranking Kurdish officials, but little concrete progress was expected immediately.
Al Maliki’s last official trip to Kurdistan was in 2010, when the “Arbil Agreement” was struck, allowing him to form a power-sharing government among majority Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds after months of wrangling.
That deal, like others after, was never fully implemented, and Baghdad’s central government and the country’s autonomous Kurdistan region have since been at odds over oil and disputed territories along their internal boundary.
“This will be an initial step on the track to finding solutions for all outstanding problems,” Al Maliki said in a speech before a cabinet meeting in Arbil. Iraqi and Kurdish officials were due to hold further talks after that meeting.
Unless the current talks succeed, Barzani said last week the self-ruled enclave would be forced to seek a “new form of relations” with Baghdad.
Kurdistan has been an autonomous part of Iraq since 1991, running its own administration and armed forces, but the region relies on the national government for a share of the budget financed by the OPEC nation’s oil revenues.
“Our expectations should not be too high,” said the Kurdistan Regional Government’s chief of foreign affairs, Falah Mustafa. “The ball is in the court of the federal government in Baghdad.”
In recent years, the Kurds have signed contracts on their own terms with the likes of Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Corp, antagonising Baghdad, which insists it alone is entitled to control exploration of Iraq’s oil.
Kurdistan used to ship crude through a pipeline network controlled by Baghdad, but exports via that channel stopped last December due to a row over payments for oil companies operating in the northern enclave.
The region says the constitution allows it to exploit the reserves under its soil, and it is building the final leg of an independent oil export pipeline that could allow to break its reliance on a share of the federal budget.
Land is another major sticking point. The Iraqi army and Kurdish “peshmerga” troops have both deployed to an oil-rich band of territory over which both claim jurisdiction.
Easing relations with the Kurds would help Al Maliki, who is facing an intensified campaign by Sunni Islamist insurgents and months of protests by Sunni leaders who accuse the Shiite premier of marginalising them.
“The Kurds recognise for some time now there has been an emerging opportunity to get Al Maliki to cooperate. Al Maliki concedes when he feels vulnerable, not when he’s strong,” said Ramzy Mardini at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Since the local and regional threat is coming from the Sunni side, the Kurds can move in and try to extract concessions from Al Maliki in exchange for cooperation.”
A suicide bomber killed at least seven people at a checkpoint outside a Shiite district in Baghdad on Sunday.
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