Fate of Kirkuk in the balance as Iraqi rivals negotiate truce

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Tensions between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq have eased, but the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas means a full rapprochement between the two sides remains elusive, say officials.

Hostility between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened to boil over in September 2017 when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum that resulted in almost 93 percent of voters supporting its bid for independence.

Baghdad responded by imposing punitive measures on the region, including a ban on international flights at Kurdistan’s airports. In violent clashes, Iraqi troops also took control of Kirkuk from Kurdish Peshmerga forces who seized the region during the war against Daesh.

But earlier this month, Prime Minister Haider Abadi lifted the ban imposed on international air traffic after the KRG agreed to run the airports under the supervision of federal authorities. He also sent around 318 billion Iraqi dinars ($267 million) to Irbil last week to help cover government salaries, which had not been paid for five months.

“The airports’ issue was resolved in a way that guaranteed the sovereignty of the state and the dominance of the constitution,” Sa’ad Al-Hadaithi, a Baghdad government spokesman, told Arab News.

“With regard to salaries, the central government fulfilled its commitment and sent part of the amount before the holidays of Nowruz (March 21). The KRG has to complete the amount from revenues from oil exported by the region.”

Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein 2005 constitution allows the KRG self-rule over three northern provinces and guarantees it a percentage of the country’s oil income.

Baghdad has established several joint committees in an attempt to improve relations with Kirkuk and these now appear to be yielding positive results. However, several contentious issues still need to be addressed.

The committees are working to solve the issue of oil exports from Kirkuk, which have been suspended since October after the central government regained control of the city from Kurdish Peshmerga. Oil had been exported via a pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey.

“There is a political deal (between Baghdad and the KRG) to resume oil exports by the central government through this pipeline, but it needs some technical and administrational arrangements to implement this,” a senior federal official involved in the talks told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

Resolving the issues around five formal border crossings and many other informal ones linking the KRG to Turkey, Iran and Syria is one stumbling block that remains between the two sides, though this is expected to be resolved. An official involved in the talks said security concerns, rather than political differences, were delaying progress.

A more significant problem is the status of territory that both Baghdad and the KRG claim is rightfully theirs. Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse, oil-rich city, with large populations of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, lies at the heart of the continued tensions.

Erais Abdullah, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan parliamentary bloc in Baghdad, told Arab News: “Now the fate of the disputed areas and their people are unknown. Kirkuk is the biggest problem — if it is solved, all the other problems will be solved.

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