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Washington must urgently address Kurdistan-Baghdad relations



The deal is another crucial reminder for the Kurdish leadership about the need to overcome divisions, Dr. Yaniv Voller


Dr. Yaniv Voller is Associate Professor at Kent University and the author of Second-Generation Liberation Wars: Rethinking Colonialism in Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Sudan, Cambridge University Press


Iraq's federal government in Baghdad authorised three monthly loans of 700 billion Iraqi dinars ($538 million) to to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) last month, a move that came amid a visit to Baghdad by Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and his negotiations with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani. This decision has mainly been celebrated as a solution to the financial crisis that the KRG has faced as a result of the International Chamber of Commerce’s arbitration from April that ordered Turkey to cease exporting Kurdish oil through its territory – a decision that devastated the delicate political order that emerged in 2005.


In the Kurdistan Region, the decision was celebrated as a demonstration of the resilience of the Kurdish people amid these difficulties. However, another dimension of the negotiations that should receive greater attention is that this episode allowed the KRG to present a united front vis-à-vis Baghdad. Although Mr Barzani orchestrated the talks, he was joined in Baghdad by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani. This is one of the first major joint public appearances by the leaders of the KDP and PUK this year, signalling the magnitude of the crisis that the region was facing. And it is another crucial reminder for the Kurdish leadership about the need to overcome divisions.


This is one of the first major joint public appearances by the leaders of the KDP and PUK this year, signalling the magnitude of the crisis that the region was facing. And it is another crucial reminder for the Kurdish leadership about the need to overcome divisions.

The KRG had its most significant achievements, whether in securing autonomy for the region or defeating the Islamic State insurgency when both parties collaborated. The financial crisis is only one of the challenges facing the KRG. The region’s neighbours, particularly Iran, have sought to deepen the schisms and undermine the KRG from within.


Events, such as the clashes in Kirkuk between the Popular Mobilisation Forces and the Kurdish population in the city, are a symptom of the challenges ahead. The negotiations with Baghdad, then, can serve as a crucial opportunity to, once again, find ways to overcome the differences within the KRG.


The urgency of addressing Baghdad-Kurdistan issues must not be allowed to drain away, Dr. Michael Knights


Dr. Michael Knights is the Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow of The Washington Institute. He has traveled widely in Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf states, and regularly briefs U.S. government policymakers, congressional committees, and U.S. military officers on regional security affairs.


The interim three-month payment of $538mn a month to Kurdistan from Baghdad is just a way to reduce the urgency of resolving Baghdad-Kurdistan ‘final status issues’ on revenue-sharing, oil exports and federalism. If Kurdistan has $538mn a month from Baghdad, it can combine this sum with its own non-oil income, local oil sales and US aid to reach the overall income it needs to pay most salaries and welfare in most months. Baghdad cannot be accused of ‘starving the Kurds’ and PM Mohammed Shia al-Sudani can be invited to the White House. Iraq and Turkey can negotiate their grand bargain in slow-time. The urgency is removed, and this seems to suit everyone at this moment.


The formula is popular in Baghdad, because it would return Kurdistan to being a poor, forgotten corner of Iraq with few connections to the world, and that is precisely what Iran and Baghdad’s Coordination Framework wants. If the Iraqi constitution and its freedoms and decentralization of power still means anything to America, the urgency of addressing Baghdad-Kurdistan issues must not be allowed to drain away.

But no-one should be fooled: this is just keeping Kurdistan on a subsistence diet, while cutting off its ability to attract new foreign partnerships or honor its obligations to oil investors. The formula is popular in Baghdad, because it would return Kurdistan to being a poor, forgotten corner of Iraq with few connections to the world, and that is precisely what Iran and Baghdad’s Coordination Framework wants.


If the Iraqi constitution and its freedoms and decentralization of power still means anything to America, the urgency of addressing Baghdad-Kurdistan issues must not be allowed to drain away. This deal prevents actual starvation of the Kurds but lays the groundwork for political strangulation of the idea of a Kurdistan Region of Iraq with unique rights within the Iraqi federation and a strong connection to the global community that brought the Region into existence over thirty years ago.

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