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Iraq: more clouds ahead

The future of contested oilfields is one issue bound up with Iraqi Kurds' independence hopes

The military defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq should herald a new, peaceful era for the country, with the resettlement of thousands of displaced families and the rebuilding of towns and cities. Instead, a dark autumn cloud has appeared on the horizon in the form of an independence referendum to be held in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on 25 September.

The Iraqi Kurdish leadership insists that the vote is designed to measure the desire of the Kurds for independence, rather than trigger an automatic process leading to statehood. Nevertheless, the whole subject of the Kurds seeking their own state is an extremely sensitive one for the federal government in Baghdad.

The federal authorities oppose on principle any move that threatens the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state. Even more so since the proposed Kurdish independence region includes disputed territory—in particular the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. The Kirkuk oilfield and close by Bai Hassan field, which came under Kurdish control in 2014, provide around 380,000 barrels a day of output for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), more than its half total production (600,000 b/d).

Kirkuk represents a red line for the KRG as much as it does for the government in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurds describe Kirkuk as their 'Jerusalem'.

A compelling case

In the view of the president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, writing recently in the Washington Post, "Kurdistan's case for independence is compelling" as the Kurds missed out on statehood after World War One when the territories of the defeated Ottoman empire were divided up into new nations.

In later times, he continued, "the newly established state of Iraq was supposed to be an equal partnership between Arabs and Kurds. That hopeful dream soon gave way to a grim reality. All Iraqi governments suppressed the Kurds".

The likelihood is that the referendum planned for September will go ahead and may well show majority support for statehood, but it won't all be plain sailing because of intra-Kurdish political disputes. Not all groups back the joint decision of Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to call for a vote.

Even within the PUK some say the time isn't right, while the opposition Goran movement, which received more votes than the PUK in the most recent elections, accuses the KDP of using the referendum for domestic political advantage. The Kurdistan Islamic Group has also questioned Barzani's motives.

At the same time, Iran and Turkey, with sizeable Kurdish minorities of their own, are uneasy at the idea of Turkish Kurds achieving statehood. The KRG needs to be wary of Turkey, for nearly all its oil exports are piped across the east of that country to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast. Turkish companies have invested heavily in the Iraqi Kurds' energy and economic sectors, and the two sides have signed an agreement for the cross-border supply of Kurdish natural gas.

So the stakes are high on a number of fronts. Iraqis will be hoping that Kurdish leaders think over all the implications carefully before pushing the button for independence. Iraq has been living under one dark cloud or another for too long and a military clash over Kirkuk might be the last straw for many.

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