Iraq risk: Alert – The growing rift between the Kurds and Nouri al-Maliki

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Amid the crisis of the insurgency by the Islamic State (IS) that has ripped through western and northern Iraq since early June, political elites are still failing to co‑operate. Iraq’s Kurdish ministers are boycotting the federal cabinet after the prime minister, Nouri al‑Maliki, said that they were harbouring insurgents. In addition, on July 11th, in a politically charged step, the KRG took control of two northern oilfields.

Tensions between Mr Maliki and the Kurds have been high for months owing to a dispute over oil exports, but have worsened further in recent weeks since IS’s advance has all but geographically separated the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from southern Iraq. The Kurds have fought intensively against IS in places such as Jalawla in Diyala, and 62 Kurdish peshmerga were killed in June, 30 times the recent monthly average. Nonetheless, as the crisis has caused the KRG to absorb disputed territories such as Kirkuk, conspiracy theories have abounded about collusion. Mr Maliki fed on these when on July 9th he said that the KRG’s capital, Irbil, had become an operations base for IS and other insurgents.

KRG and federal government at loggerheads

His comments came after a week in which one of his members of parliament had made anti‑Kurdish comments during the opening session of parliament on July 1st and an Iraqi jet bombed the KRG‑controlled town of Tuz Khurmatu on July 6th, killing a girl close to the office of a Kurdish party. Another apparently friendly fire incident had happened on June 14th, when an Iraqi helicopter strike killed six peshmerga in Saadiya, a town in Diyala where the KRG and the national army had been co‑operating to repulse IS.

Given that the Kurds have been very outspoken against Mr Maliki, and are considering holding a referendum on independence (the KRG parliament debated this issue on July 3rd), the prime minister has clearly decided to attack them head on in an attempt to rally Arab support. The root of his accusation is probably the presence in Irbil of a number of anti‑government Sunni tribal leaders, such as Sheikh Ali Hatem al‑Suleiman (a vocal but marginal figure), who have framed the insurgency as largely a Sunni tribal rebellion, with IS only playing a minor role. There is no evidence that the Kurds are assisting the rebels, but they clearly hope that more moderate Sunni groups will take over from IS and create a KRG‑friendly Sunni federal region within the Iraqi state.

KRG take oilfields

Compounding these tensions, on July 11th KRG forces took control of oilfields around Kirkuk and the North Oil Company that operates the fields. This was not a defensive move to protect against IS advances. Rather the KRG justified its move by claiming that the central government in Baghdad had planned to sabotage the fields and related pipeline infrastructure. The implied logic for the federal government is that such sabotage would weaken any bid for independence by the Iraqi Kurds. If so, this has backfired.

However, the main impediments to the KRG treading a path to independence are probably more political than economic, given that key players such as Iran and the US have in the past made clear their preference for the KRG to remain part of Iraq; Turkey’s view, meanwhile, remains unclear. Even before the Kurds took over these fields, the KRG’s oil production had risen sharply in June. According to the International Energy Agency, output reached 360,000 barrels/day (b/d) in June, up from 130,000 b/d in May. The region made a first independent oil sale in May, albeit with difficulty. If the KRG can start exporting oil regularly through its pipeline to Turkey then the economics of independence would not look so daunting. However, intertwined with this are the formidable political challenges of forging a secure independent state amid severe regional instability and a tangled web of geopolitical tensions.

The growing rift means that if Mr Maliki is reappointed, which is looking increasingly untenable as an option despite his unwillingness to stand aside, the KRG will almost certainly secede from Iraq and, without peshmerga support, it would prove even more difficult for the Iraqi army to recapture lost territory from IS.

Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit