Baghdad-Erbil disputes set to continue amid divisions in Kurdistan

Iraq’s 2019 budget allows the KRG to export 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) via Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Company but Kurdish officials have continued to directly export up to 500,000 bpd to Turkey.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Family feud. Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani delivers a speech during his inauguration in Erbil, June 19.  (Office of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government)
Family feud. Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani delivers a speech during his inauguration in Erbil, June 19. (Office of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government)

BAGHDAD - Despite years of negotiations between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over a series of thorny issues, a positive outcome for the talks has remained elusive.

Complicating the divide between Baghdad and Erbil are increasing divisions among Kurdish parties in Kurdistan and the Baghdad government’s preoccupation with broader problems that the country as a whole faces.

Tensions between federal authorities and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) peaked when Masoud Barzani, then KRG president, called an independence referendum on September 2017 that Baghdad branded unconstitutional.

The Iraqi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, imposed punitive measures against the KRG, forcing Barzani to back down and eventually resign as president.

Abadi also reclaimed most of the territory taken by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and later lost by ISIS to Kurdish peshmerga forces, with military help from the United States.

The KRG has since selected a new president — Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani — and the country has a new prime minister in Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who is known to have good ties with Kurdish officials.

Good relations between Nechirvan Barzani and Abdul-Mahdi, however, may not be enough to iron out disputes between the central government and the KRG. Among the topics of contention are the KRG’s exporting of oil, the annual budget for Kurdistan and who should control the province of Kirkuk.

Iraq’s 2019 budget allows the KRG to export 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) via Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Company (SOMO) but Kurdish officials directly export up to 500,000 bpd to Turkey.

Baghdad allocated Kurdistan 12% ($8.2 billion) of the country’s 2019 budget, promising to honour the budget even if the KRG does not abide by exporting its oil via SOMO.

The Baghdad government had refrained from paying the KRG when Kurdish officials chose to sell oil independently of Baghdad. The KRG share of the 2019 national budget was decreased.

“In 2014, the KRG budget was 17% and it was 13% before 2014,” Baghdad-based political analyst Raad Hashim said. The reason for the jump, Hashim said, was a reward from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to Kurdish politicians who voted for him to have a second term in office.

“The two sides [Baghdad and Erbil] might reach partial solutions once they have a political will but Kirkuk will remain the most serious issue to be solved,” Hashim added.

Members of opposition parties in the KRG are calling for better cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil, including the halt of unauthorised oil sales from Kurdistan region.

Sarkawt Shamsulddin, a member of the Kurdish opposition Future bloc in parliament, said the alliance in parliament, led by Rabun Maroof, wants to see better ties between Kurdistan and Baghdad.

“We (in the Future bloc) will try to hold KRG officials accountable for unconstitutional oil exportation. We will pressure the federal government to avoid punishing the people of Kurdistan when KRG doesn’t abide by the laws. We should never ever allow political disagreements over oil and revenues lead to ethnic and sectarian divisions. We fight for unity and peace at all costs,” Shamsulddin said.

“The Future bloc’s approach is to bring Erbil to Baghdad’s circle peacefully. It is our core strategy to build strong relations between both governments based on the constitution and mutual respect. We as Kurds should always build alliances (with Baghdad) based on principles and values.”

Shamsulddin accused the Barzanis of having a hostile view towards Baghdad.

“They see Baghdad as a threat or this is how they portray it,” he said. “They export oil to Turkey for a much cheaper price than Baghdad’s oil. They invited foreign oil companies and gave them huge benefits so they can fight Baghdad by involving many interest groups.

“Baghdad knows that KRG’s oil exportation cannot be stopped unless Baghdad is ready to pay a huge price and face another internal crisis with Erbil.”

The opposition to the KRG, however, is itself divided. The Future bloc includes politicians who recently broke from the New Generation, another Kurdish opposition bloc in parliament.

Sarwa Abdul Wahid, a former member of parliament for the New Generation, accused the Future bloc lawmakers of being “opportunistic parliamentarians” who deserted their original party.

“I hope they work to change the political reality in Iraq and not be part of the lame political process,” Abdul Wahid said.

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