14 July 2013
Iraq's central government and the Kurdish region have resumed dialogue after a period characterized by heightened tension over land and oil disputes, although progress achieved at this stage points to a symbolic improvement in ties rather than a practical one.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's July 7 visit to Baghdad, the first such visit in more than two years, is a major step in the direction of restoring dialogue on the unresolved disputes between the two sides.
His talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, failed to produce any immediate breakthrough.
“My people expect me to give them good news about my visit to Baghdad,” Barzani told Maliki during their meeting in Baghdad, noting that his visit was aimed at putting agreements into practice between Arbil and Baghdad regarding their outstanding disputes.
Arbil has been at odds with Baghdad over oil and gas exploration and export rights, constitutional matters such as to what extent the power should be centralized in Baghdad, and disputed areas along the border between the centrally administered Baghdad and the Kurdish region. Barzani said there is goodwill on both sides to resolve the problems and that he and Maliki agreed to reactivate committees set up to work on the resolution of their long-running disputes. Unlike some of his previous statements about Maliki calling him a “dictator,” Barzani this time called Maliki his “brother.” He also announced plans to visit Baghdad again during the holy month of Ramadan.
Maliki, for his part, declared that there were no problems between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Barzani's visit follows a trip by Maliki to the Kurdish region last month. A few months before the visits began, Arbil and Baghdad were almost at war. Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi government boycotted cabinet meetings for months earlier this year over disputes regarding the federal budget, and the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army were deployed to the disputed areas as tension dangerously escalated along their border.
As tension deepened, Barzani said last year that he did not trust Maliki because he reneged on his promises to implement a power-sharing deal agreed in 2010 and described his actions as “illegitimate.”
The tension peaked after the establishment in late 2012 by the Iraqi government of a federal military command covering disputed territory in the north, sparking a military standoff with the Kurds.
Underlining the growing estrangement, Kurds' influence in Baghdad has diminished significantly over the years: In 2004, the Kurdish presence in the Baghdad cabinet was 26 percent, and now it is only 7 percent.
Kurdish politicians in Baghdad are divided about the outcomes of Barzani's visit to Baghdad. Some believe that the trip is “promising,” while others say it was just a courtesy trip that produced nothing.
Ashwaq Jaf, a lawmaker for the Kurdistan Alliance in the Iraqi Parliament, has expressed optimism regarding the outcome of the visit, saying that a resolution to the disagreements between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may be found. For Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, the visit, albeit a short one, was a major step towards normalizing Baghdad-Arbil relations since there was mutual mistrust prior to the top-level contacts between Baghdad and the KRG.
But Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker, has described Barzani's visit to Baghdad as a mere courtesy trip after which outstanding disputes regarding oil exports and constitutional matters between the two sides remained as unsettled as ever.
Barzani's visit to Baghdad was reportedly an issue discussed during talks on July 8 between Barzani and US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Beecroft. Iraqi Kurdish reports said Beecroft welcomed Barzani's visit and dialogue between the KRG and Baghdad, saying contacts between Barzani and Maliki could be a step towards resolution of disputes between the two sides that undermine political stability in Iraq. The US envoy, however, admitted that resolving the issues will take time since they have deep roots but that the recent dialogue will help break the ice and clear the way for dialogue. Barzani agreed, saying that his visit could be an opportunity to resolve disagreements with Baghdad.
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