In the last month or two there have been several high-level meetings between representatives of Iraq’s central and Kurdish regional governments. Most recently oil officials from Baghdad and Kurdistan met, while a delegation from the Kurdish ruling parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) travelled to Baghdad to consult with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, amongst others. That might give the impression that progress is being made in mediating the major disputes between the two sides. In actuality neither side has budged on the substantive issues, and there are differences within the KRG as well about how these negotiations should be conducted.
In September and October 2012, there were four meetings between Baghdad and Kurdish politicians to discuss the on-going problems they have with each other. Deputy secretary general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Barham Saleh and the deputy KRG Prime Minister Imad Ahmed representing the ruling Kurdish parties and the regional government respectively headed two separate delegations. They met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and others. On the same day, October 21, there was also a conference between KRG Natural Resource Minister Ashti Hawrami, Deputy Premier Rowsch Nouri al-Shaways of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Deputy Premier Hussein al-Shahristani of State of Law who is in charge of the country’s energy policy. Likewise, in September, Premier Maliki travelled to Sulaymaniya to meet with President Talabani after he returned from three months of medical treatment in Germany. The Kurds wanted to go over the Irbil Agreement, which put the current ruling coalition together after the 2010 election, the 19 points that the ruling Kurdish parties had Maliki sign in return for their support for his second term in office, the Tigris Operations Command, which has just been formed in Tamim, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces, and the oil industry. These are some of the outstanding issues the KDP and PUK have with the central government. Baghdad for example, has called all of the oil deals the Kurdistan Regional Government has signed illegal, because it wants control over the country’s resources. This has complicated attempts to pass a new oil and gas bill as well as the Kurds’ desire to export their petroleum. Likewise, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has become increasingly upset with the lack of power sharing within the government, feeling that the prime minister has tried to concentrate power in his hands. Finally, the ruling parties in the KRG are alarmed that Maliki recently created a new security command that covers some of the disputed territories in Iraq, which they hope to eventually annex. All of these issues have their antecedents in the struggle over the direction Iraq should take since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Maliki on the one hand, feels like he has to take a strong hand to keep the country together after all the chaos that beset it following the 2003 invasion. In contrast, the KDP and PUK have been pushing for greater autonomy for the Kurdish region, and feel that a strong government like that which the prime minister hopes for will be an impediment to their cause. While these get togethers may seem like the two sides are at least talking with each other to resolve some of these differences, nothing has changed the current stalemate. In the zero sum game that these officials view Iraqi politics there is little room to compromise, especially on matters that are so important such as the country’s oil and gas reserves.
At the same time, the Kurdish delegations have highlighted the continuing differences within the KRG. A statement by the Kurdish Coalition in parliament said that the Saleh-Shaways groups stood for all the Kurdish parties. In fact, it only represented the PUK and KDP. Before the parties arrived in Baghdad, there was a meeting with President Barzani to go over their itineraries. The Change List did not attend, and later criticized the delegations as being partisan. That’s because Change and the two Kurdish Islamic parties, have been calling for a national strategy for the Kurds formed by consensus amongst all of the KRG entities. This is in part, because the opposition has said that the ruling parties only represent their own agendas when holding meetings with Baghdad. This points to the fact that within Kurdistan there is a power struggle going on as well. The PUK and KDP have run the region since the 1990s, and therefore consider themselves the representatives of the Kurds. They have been very jealous of holding onto their positions, and therefore resent the demands and attacks made by the opposition. President Barzani especially, tends to act unilaterally, and expects the other parties to fall in line behind him. The opposition parties are not always willing to heed him, and want a real say in Kurdish policy vis-à-vis the central government.
Iraq’s political parties have been battling for power even before the 2010 parliamentary elections happened. Many of the arguments that the KDP and PUK have with Maliki even predate that. The recent meetings between the two sides are all part of this on-going soap opera. They will not be the last as Baghdad and Irbil always have time to talk. The question is whether anything will come of them. This also brings up the Kurdish opposition parties, as they would like to be involved in the discussions as well. Maliki and the KRG have been unwilling to budge from their positions. Likewise, the ruling Kurdish parties have not been willing to take the opposition in Kurdistan that seriously when it comes to dealing with the central government. Things remain stalemated as a result, and will likely take many years, and perhaps a change in leadership in both central and northern Iraq before any real change will come about.
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