Iraq’s oil minister Abdul Karim Luaibi was quoted on Monday as saying that neighboring Turkey agreed to cancel plans to extend oil and natural gas pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan across the border which would have allowed the region to sell natural resources independently of the central government in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government insists that it alone has the authority to control export of the country’s oil reserves which are estimated to be the fourth largest in the world. The Kurds argue that they have a right to sell natural resources independently under the federalist constitution that was drawn up following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime by the United States and their allies in 2003.
Turkey announced in July of last year that it had begun importing five to ten road tankers of crude oil from Kurdistan per day. The number rose to fifteen in September.
The Turkish oil import was condemned by the administration in Baghdad. Maliki had earlier warned the Turks not to engage in a private energy deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government and accused his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of seeking “hegemony” in the Middle East, a reference to Turkey’s century long Ottoman domination of Iraq.
Even when it battled a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders, Turkey appeared to side with Iraq’s Kurds in their dispute with Maliki’s government which is mostly controlled by Shia Muslims. More than half of Turkey’s $12 billion trade with Iraq last year was with Kurdistan.
According to Iraqi state media, Luaibi said on Monday, “Turkey has officially informed Iraq it rejects extending oil and gas export pipelines from the Kurdistan region to pass through Turkey without approval from federal government.” A spokesman for Prime Minister Maliki added, “The government welcomes Turkey’s move which will significantly help to stabilize the region and also strengthen relations between central government and Kurdish region.”
However, Kurdistan’s natural resources minister vowed earlier this month that the region would press ahead with plans to build its own export pipeline to Turkey.
If Turkey has changed its mind, the uprising in neighboring Syria might have influenced its decision. Different sectarian groups, mainly Sunni Muslims, battle army forces loyal to the secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad there with Turkey’s support. Syria’s Kurds, numbering some two million, appear to have remained largely on the sidelines of the conflict and escaped retaliation from the government’s part. Assad may tolerate whatever Kurdish insurgent activity occurs on the northeastern border for fear of aligning Kurds in Iraq and Turkey against him.
Turkey fears that northern Syria becomes a safe haven for Kurdish militants to launch attacks against the country but risks losing the trust of not only the Sunni rebel fighters in Syria with whom it has sided but Iraq’s Kurds as well when it seeks to suppress unrest across the border.
The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, admitted in August of last year that Syrian Kurds had received military training in his province. “We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained,” he told the Arab news channel Al Jazeera at the time. Erdoğan had warned a month earlier that if Kurdish separatists in Syria and Turkey joined forces, his government couldn’t possibly “look on with tolerance.”