December 22, 2008


The 'other Iraq' forges ahead (Stephen Starr, 12/23/08 , Asia Times)

However, with the countrywide decline in violence, inevitable political quagmires have mushroomed and look set to dominate the new face of Iraq. Headlines depicting the awful carnage that has seen thousands killed and millions displaced have waned, but fears remain over how Iraq's long-term reconstruction plans will be divided among the country's various ethnic groups. Homogenous regions previously regarded as havens of stability could become political flashpoints as Iraq's vast reserves of oil and gas become focal points of importance. Iraqi Kurdistan is a prime case in point.

In Kurdistan, signs depicting civil society organizations are now commonplace. In Amadiya, a town of about 6,000, offices promoting women's liberties, support groups for political prisoners and the Kurdistan Communist Party can be found all along a single street. The word "Kurdistan" appears everywhere and nationalism has blossomed in light of newfound freedoms.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been working hard to depict itself as being an opposite to the rest of Iraq, even posting a website under the title of "The Other Iraq" whereby it is encouraging tourists with imagery of breathtaking scenery.

More important in terms of politics, it is looking to exploit and further utilize the most valuable asset in its possession, oil. In a country where crude oil reserves are estimated at 115 billion barrels, ownership of this precious commodity has quickly become a sticking point and for the territorial integrity of the entire country, this means bad news.

The northern city of Kirkuk, populated by an ethnic mix of Arabs, Christians, Kurds and Turkomans, sits adjacent to one of the largest untapped oilfields in the region. For all concerned, the status of Kirkuk represents a strategic crossroad and legitimate claims can be made by the KRG and the central government.

Kirkuk was dominated by a Kurdish majority until Saddam's attempted "Arabization" of the northern provinces during the 1970s. Now it rests under the administrative control of Baghdad and is populated by an eclectic mix of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and other minorities. The relative stability enjoyed in the north has allowed the KRG to push ahead in pursuing deals with international energy companies. So far, two dozen contracts have been signed with companies from Canada, South Korea and Turkey, among others.

For over 12 months, negotiations have been continuing between the KRG and Baghdad over oil concerns. When Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani visited Irbil in November, his comments that Kurdish oil would be connected to national pipelines bound for Turkey led many to think a softening in relations was imminent.

However, Baghdad insists the KRG has no right to conduct oil deals with foreign interests independently, based on Article 140 of the historic 2005 Iraqi constitution. The KRG claims exactly the opposite. As such, up to 20 contracts signed by the KRG with Iraqi and foreign interests since February 2007 - without authorization from the central government - have been regarded as "illegitimate".

In addition to this, the decrease in the price of oil has led to increased competition among international companies, something that has led to renewed interest in the "safe part" of Iraq. Such events can only conspire to hasten conflict over the issue, still governed by an oil trade law from the Saddam era. The law itself supposes control of oilfields to the Baghdad-controlled Oil Ministry.

The desire to make the new Iraq a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society is noble but futile. Let the Kurds get on with life.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2008 8:41 AM
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