A spokesman for Iraq’s central government said on Sunday that oil exports from the autonomous Kurdish province in the north of the country are “illegal and illegitimate.” Turkey announced on Friday that it had begun importing five to ten road tankers of crude per day. The volume could rise up to two hundred.
The government in Baghdad insists that Kurdish oil is the property of all Iraqis. Therefore, exports and revenue collection should be organized by the central government.
“Turkey, in doing this, is participating in the smuggling of Iraqi oil and putting itself in a position which we don’t wish from a neighbor with which we have broad and large interests,” the spokesman said. He warned that the issue “will influence the relationship between the two countries.”
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki previously warned Turkey not to engage in a private energy deal with the Kurds. He branded his neighbor a “hostile state” in April and accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of seeking “hegemony” in the Middle East, a reference to Turkey’s century long Ottoman domination of Iraq.
Even as it battles a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders, Turkey has sided with Iraq’s Kurds in their dispute with the central government. More than half of Turkey’s $12 billion trade with Iraq last year was with Kurdistan. That figure will only increase if Kurdish oil sales continue unabated. Policymakers in Ankara may even hope that peaceful, commercial relations with Iraqi Kurdistan will help defuse the struggle for autonomy of Turkey’s own Kurdish population.
Compounding the Kurdish issue are sectarian and strategic divides between Ankara and Baghdad. Erdoğan has accused his Iraqi counterpart of willfully exacerbating tensions between Iraq’s Shia, Sunnis and Kurds for political gain. He has offered refuge to Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi who initially fled to Kurdistan after Maliki’s government accused him of leading death squads against Shiites.
Maliki himself is a Shia Muslim and has deepened Iraq’s relations with neighboring Iran, a Shia power that sees in Turkey a rising regional rival. Maliki’s Iraq has been the only country besides Iran to stand with Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad who faces a largely Sunni uprising against his regime. The Turks worry that the sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria will lead to a wider conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the region.
The Kurds in Iraq, most of them are Sunni, want no part in this brawl. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has also sharply criticized Maliki and suggested that his region may break away from Baghdad. “What threatens the unity of Iraq is dictatorship and authoritarian rule,” he said in April.