As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki landed in Erbil to chair a rare but symbolic meeting of the Iraqi cabinet in the Kurdish capital and discuss a number of issues with the Kurdish leadership, expectations appeared high.
However, Maliki has shown political shrewdness when backed against a corner in the past, making concessions, striking agreements, renewing promises and proposing committees when the heat has been on, only to prove that rhetoric prevailed over real action and practical steps.
A delegation to Baghdad led by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in May culminated in a decision to form seven committees all geared towards addressing specific issues between Kurdistan and Baghdad which also ended the boycott of Kurdish MPs in Baghdad.
The committees, to be directly by Maliki and Barzani, include ones to oversee reviews of the federal budget, draft oil and gas law, article 140 and overseeing of parliamentary work and Baghdad and Erbil relations.
Kurdistan Massaud Barzani emphasized that the latest round of negotiations are a final chance and that Kurdistan will be forced to seek a “new form of relations” with the central government in Baghdad if negotiations fail to resolve key disputes.
The issues between the KRG and Baghdad have become so deep-rooted, cyclic and predictable that it is hard to see why this time around will be any different.
The Kurdistan leadership has played a role in reaching the current predicament and the lack of progress on historic issues such as disputed terrotories. KRG has rubber-stamped two terms of power for Maliki in return for strategic partnerships.
Yet several years since the first Iraqi elections and over 10 years since the liberation of Iraq, the strategic agreements have not been fully implemented and if anything disputes have become more protracted, entrenched and distant from resolution. Kurdistan should have given a “last chance” to Maliki and Baghdad many years ago.
Maliki was accused of centralist tendencies, inciting sectarian tensions and foot-dragging on constitutional implementation in his first term of power, never mind the second term (or even in a third term if he gets his way).
The relations between Erbil and Baghdad have been shrouded by formation of committees, agreements and political road-maps. But how many more meetings and committees do the Kurd want to participate in?
Kirkuk and disputed territories is a prime example. It is understandable if there are technical delays to implementing complex constitutional articles. But should there be a delay of several months or 6 years? And since there were delays, any sincere government would adopt a plan to meet its legal obligations in the quickest possible time.
This is the same for hydrocarbon law which has gathered dust since 2007, status of Peshermrga forces, national budget etc. In the case of Kirkuk, even a national census, delayed on so many occasions, would have at least marked one achievement. Even that has been sidelined as Baghdad knows it would serve as a de-facto referendum on disputed territories.
Now is the time for practical steps and firm timelines for implementation of issues by the Kurdistan leadership. Until Baghdad resolves disputed territories, KRG and Peshmerga forces have the right to jointly govern and control these regions.
The bitter Sunni protests and the latest cycle of sectarian violence has redrawn sharp lines between Shiites and Sunni and coupled with sectarian polarisation in the wider region, may prove to be even greater than peaks reached in 2007.
Maliki can ill-afford to carry on antagonising ever corner of Iraq (including his own Shiite alliance) and for Iraqi Kurds the time is ripe to seek real concessions. If Baghdad refused to succumb to Kurdish demands when it is at its knees, it will never implement agreements at its peak.
The recent provincial elections only served to highlight the deepening polarisation of the county and weak political picture. Forming a new government and choosing a Prime Minister after elections in 2014 will prove as daunting as ever.