Iraq’s Kurds under Pressure

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Iraq’s Kurds continue to come under intense pressure from the authorities in Baghdad. In the latest twist of what has become a thorn in the relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the former has decided to move forward with punitive measures against foreign oil-and-gas companies that have cut deals with the Kurds against Baghdad’s wishes. Meanwhile, across the border, Kurdish leaders in Turkey are taking friendly fire about their strategy of armed resistance.

 On the surface, the political process in the north of Iraq appears to be on the right track. According to an Al Sumaria TV report, “Iraq’s Kurdistan Presidency announced, on Thursday, that leader Masoud Barazani accepted the resignation of Barham Saleh’s government…. Kurdistan’s current government was formed following 2009’s parliamentary elections and is led, by virtue of the strategic agreement concluded between Kurdistan Democratic Party headed by Masoud Al Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan headed by Jalal Talabani, to the election of Barham Saleh as Prime Minister of Kurdistan for the first half of the term and Vice-President of Kurdistan Democratic Party Nigirvan Barzani for the second half.”

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the relationship between the Kurds in the north and the central government in Baghdad. In an attempt to put pressure on the Kurds as well as the companies attempting to cut deals with them, the government is waging a legal as well as a PR war.  For example, the Iraq daily Azzaman notes statements by government officials who argue: “Iraqi Kurds are heavily involved in the smuggling of oil to Iran….Member of Parliament Furat al-Sharaa said Iraqi Kurdistan was the hub of oil smuggling operations. Sharaa, who is a member of the parliament’s energy commission, said the illegal trade was carried out through a fleet of oil tankers…..He said the smugglers carried crude oil from southern Iraqi oil fields to Iraqi Kurdistan and then to Iran. The long distance through which oil tankers travel is an indication of some form of complicity from higher authorizes as the trade would not be possible without their consent.”

AK News’ Joel Wing comments on the latest development regarding Iraq’s decision to “[s]anction Exxon for [making a] deal with Kurdistan…. In February 2012, [Baghdad] announced that Exxon would be excluded from the fourth bidding round for twelve oil and gas fields, which is scheduled for May. This is the first time that Baghdad has decided to confront a major oil corporation. It has done the same with other companies, but they did not have the standing of Exxon. This could backfire against the central government, as it is losing its leverage in this dispute….The Iraqi government’s increasingly confrontational stance towards Exxon may not pay off….The environment in southern Iraq may simply not have the payoffs that Exxon was hoping for, which is why they are willing to sacrifice their position there, and move to Kurdistan.”

There is evidence, however, that the pressure is paying off. Adel Kadhem writes last week that “A South Korean firm is reported to have given up working on an oil field in northern Iraq. A statement by the Oil Ministry said the firm, which it did not name, sold its share in the field in the hope of taking part in developing oil fields in other parts of the country. The ministry has said it will ban any foreign firm from working in Iraq it if found it had struck an oil development deal with Kurdish authorities….The Kurds dispute the ministry’s stand, saying the constitution grants them the right to sign such deals.”

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, also made the case over the weekend for a constitutional approach to the ‘Kirkuk problem.’ According to Aswat Aliraq, “Premier Nouri al-Maliki stressed the necessity to solve all Kirkuk problems on constitutional bases. In a statement issued by the Premiership, copy received by Aswat al-Iraq, Maliki met Kirkuk … MPs, where he stressed that ‘the constitution is the criteria to solve all problems, including of Kirkuk.’ He called ‘for further collaboration to preserve the unity, security and stability of Iraq’”

Meanwhile, across the border in Turkey, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders have sent an unmistakable message to Turkey’s Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Turkey’s Today’s Zaman noted: “Massoud Barzani, the leader of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish government, speaking in a meeting with Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Arbil, has claimed using violence and taking up arms is an ‘outdated and useless strategy’ in solving the decades-old Kurdish question in Turkey….Ruling out armed opposition and terrorist activities…, Barzani stated that he believes the real solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question — the Kurds’ search for equal cultural and political rights in Turkey — is only possible with dialogue and peaceful initiatives.”

The remarks come after considerable debate within Turkey about the path that their Kurdish population will take. Reflecting on the continued militarization of the conflict, Hurriyet Daily News’ Kadri Gursel asks, “If weapons are, as Diyarbakır independent deputy Leyla Zana has said, ‘The insurance of the Kurds,’ then what kind of insurance will this alleged ‘insurance policy’ provide for the Kurds within its current context and content and against what dangers today and tomorrow?…In fact, in today’s circumstances, ‘weapons’ are now a tool to be abandoned for the Kurdish movement….Those who took arms in the mountains are captives of the political equations they have formed by taking to the mountains with arms. Thereby, it is much more difficult to come down from the mountains than go up.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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