Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad were already at a historical low. Yet for those who thought that ties could not get any worse, a series of events last week saw the line redrawn.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a fierce attack on the Kurds on national television, warning “We will not resort to silence while Erbil is a headquarters for Isis, Ba’athists, al-Qaeda and terrorists.”
Such strong remarks drew the inevitable ire of the Kurdish leadership, with Kurdish MP’s soon boycotting the Iraqi parliament with Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani hitting back at a Maliki who he deemed to have become “hysterical” and “lost his balance” and who he urged to stand down.
The Kurds have frequently warned that a third-tenure as Prime Minister for Maliki would signal curtains on Iraq.
On Friday, Kurds moved to secure the strategic oil fields in Bai Hassan and the Makhmour area to defend the oil infrastructure from what the Kurds deemed “politically motivated sabotage.”
KRG Ministry of Natural Resources released a statement confirming the Kurds had “moved to secure the oil fields after learning of orders by officials in the federal Ministry of Oil in Baghdad to sabotage the recent mutually-agreed pipeline infrastructure linking the Avana dome with the Khurmala field.”
A furious Baghdad had already gone as far as banning cargo flights to Kurdistan and even moved to halt international flights. At the same time it replaced Hoshiyar Zebari as Foreign Minister with Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani.
The escalating rhetoric and tit-for-tat moves would be bad enough in any normal day in Iraq with Baghdad and Erbil governments bordering each other.
Anyone observing last weeks would be forgiving for thinking that the Iraqi problem is limited to the Kurds and the Maliki government. Yet there is a not so small dilemma of an Islamist State in the middle.
Over a month since Mosul, Tikrit and large swathes of territory was taken over by ISIS led Sunni insurgents, Iraq is gripped in violence. Despite military aid from Russia and Iran, Iraqi forces have largely failed to dislodge the militants.
While the militants have not made advances, what they have done is essentially entrench their new borders and with it Iraq’s partition into 3 separate entities.
The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been involved in fierce battles with ISIS militants, filling a crucial security vacuum and housing hundreds of thousands of refugees. But it seems that Baghdad is intent on creating more enemies in the midst of a deadly sectarian war.
The sharp escalation of tensions between Kurds and Baghdad may jeopardise Kurdish support against ISIS – why battle insurgents and risk lives for a premier that is essentially accusing you of collaborating with them anyway?
Ironically, it was the Kurdistan Region that once protected a Maliki on the run from Saddam Hussein. Shiites at the time fought Saddam against centrist Sunni repression and many sought to establish an Islamic state at the time akin to Tehran. In 2014, the tables have merely turned with Sunnis on the attack.
In the midst of tension between Kurds and a raging sectarian war, the Iraq political chambers are getting increasingly empty. August 12th is the new date set to reconvene parliament, why such a laboured political process if there is real intent to heal national rifts and at a time of national emergency?
Unless Maliki steps down and a reconciliatory stance is adopted in Baghdad, the Kurds will assume the next gear in their independence drive.
Baghdad authorities may be furious with the Kurds but then what repercussion is left to hit the Kurds? Oil exports were already halted, share of national budget withheld, no government exists, Kurds stripped of ministries, and cargo flights are suspended.