Wednesday, 27 June 2012, 07:14 GMT
As the oil dispute heats up, time for Obama and the US to come off the fence in Iraq


Kurdish President Massoud barzani meets with his US counterpart Barack Obama in the White House in this file photo of April 5, 2012/PRESS PHOTO

Globe Editorial
By Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel

In many ways, the US adventure in Iraq was marked by failure. Billions of dollars, thousands of lives and countless years later, and the Iraq of day is not much different to that of 2003.

The US had the painstaking task of stitching warring factions, striving for its elusive goal of national reconciliation and playing the mediator, but all they did was buy time.

The US relied heavily on the Kurds at their time of need, with the Kurds stepping up to plate at the height of the Iraqi civil war and with US grip on security in free fall. The Kurds will always be grateful for the ousting of Saddam but remain weary of long-term US intentions towards them and have not always been rewarded for their pro-American stance.

Too often in the past the Kurds have been cruelly played and it remains to be seen what position the US will take long-term.

It has tried to remain neutral but sitting on the fence in a place like Iraq has its evident limits. Months after the withdrawal of US troops and Iraq is in a fresh and escalating crisis that has left Iraq at breaking point.

Dispute over oil sharing and oil contracts has always been in the thorn of Baghdad-Erbil relations, but when US oil giant Exxon Mobil entered the fray, the landscape suddenly changed. Frequent rhetoric from Baghdad about the illegality of oil contracts signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is nothing new but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to take the matter up a level by formally requesting that US President Barack Obama intervenes to stop Exxon Mobil from proceeding with its deal with the KRG.

Although, the letter has been received by the White House, Obama has not yet responded. Maliki had warned the deal would severely jeopardise the stability of Iraq.

The Kurds wait anxiously for Obama's response, as they find out which side Obama will pick. Whenever a dispute has arisen, Washington has been quick to point out that all issues should be addressed based on the principles of the Iraq constitution and within its plural and democratic framework. However, clearly many aspects of the constitution have been continuously sidelined especially the implementation of article 140 and the US has remained largely idle.

Any oil in Iraq belongs to all of Iraq and the constitution is clear on rights of regions to control and explore oil. The notion of a disputed territory doesn't necessarily mean that Baghdad has exclusive access as per the constitution.

While the Kurds have done more than their share in keeping Iraq intact, persevering with democratic channels and remaining patient, Baghdad works hard to display them as overreaching or jeopardising the unity of Iraq.

A man in Baghdad continues to amass power, control security forces, a number of ministries and breaks agreements with nonchalant ease, and yet has the audacity to write to the US to warn about the serious affects the Kurds are having on Iraq.

If the US endorses the Exxon Mobil-KRG relations, then this is a major feat for the Kurds and a de facto endorsement of their autonomy, strategic standing and rights under the constitution. If it sides with Baghdad, then it's a warning sign for Kurdistan that as warm as their relations with the US may appear or have been, ultimately, the US will work to serve their greater aims, as witnessed on countless occasions in the past.

Hussein al-Shahristani has been as vociferous as anyone in his quest to derail Kurdish hydrocarbon ambitions, and warned French companies this week that their contracts with Baghdad would be deemed void if they inked deals with Kurdistan. French giant Total, appeared very keen to do business with the KRG, but it remains to be seen whether they have been sufficiently influenced to back away from Kurdistan.

From the outside, one would easily forget with the frequent attempts to shackle its development and onward drive, that Kurdistan is a part of Iraq. If Baghdad was really so intent on maintaining unity and serving Iraq, why would it be fixated on creating handicaps for the Kurds and limiting their ambitions?

According to al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali Mussawi, the premier maintains that the oil deal between Exxon Mobil and the KRG region could mean the "breaking up the unity of Iraq" and the "outbreak of wars". Such a statement resembles more as a threat than a warning. The deal was signed almost 8 months ago, but now with the immense political heat on Maliki, he is using all forms of tactics to divert attention and pressure.

Signing of oil deals between KRG and foreign companies is not new, and the only difference is that Exxon Mobil are a massive corporation whose entry into Kurdistan could spark a new phase for the oil industry in the region.

Even Nineveh Governor Atheel Nujafi of Ninewa has come to realise the benefits of the deal and has provided his crucial endorsement. Some of the Exxon Mobil exploration blocks may reside on disputed territories, but how long do the Kurds wait for the implementation of article 140 and let Kurds, that clearly form the majority of those areas, suffer?

When Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani warned Obama on the centralist tendencies of Maliki at a recent meeting in Washington, Obama only reiterated his support for a democratic Iraq that abides by the constitution and fell short of criticising Maliki, when clearly the writing was on the wall.

Now it would be interesting, if they side with the same man that is affectively strangling democracy in Iraq.

Maliki warned that the deal with Exxon Mobil would lead to conflict. Clearly, it is his actions that is the brewing the very wars he warns on. How long can Kurdistan stay idle when the issue of Kirkuk and other disputed territories is ignored, when there is no national hydrocarbon law or when the likes of Maliki in Baghdad continue to pursue the Arab nationalist policies of the past?

Is it the actions of Maliki or Kurdistan that smell of war?

Iraq does not want to see Kurdish growth and prosperity, but the aim of Kurdistan should not be to serve Baghdad but only its people. American policies serve their short-term interests and for Baghdad its Arab nationalist goals. Kurdistan is siding ever closer to Turkey with historic oil deals and a new move to build pipelines that would completely bypass Iraq.

Kurdistan must ensure it is never at the mercy of any regime or power, even one as powerful as the US. The days when it could be bullied or swayed are over.

With or without the help of Baghdad, the endorsement of US or even the Exxon Mobil contract, the Kurdistan project will not be derailed. At the end of the day, the oil is on Kurdish soil and is not the property of Baghdad or any foreign power.

According to Mussawi, "Maliki is prepared to go to the highest levels for the sake of preserving the national wealth and the necessary transparency in investing the wealth of the Iraqis, especially oil". Such warnings are a bit rich coming from a man that at the current time, the vast majority of the Iraqi parliament is frantically trying to remove.