x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Baghdad and Irbil's common interests

To see the increasing autonomy of the Kurdish regional Government as the dawn of a "Greater Kurdistan" spanning Iraq, Syria and Turkey would be to misread the situation.

Much has been made of the increasing autonomy of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. And as Kurdish groups in Syria take advantage of the country's crisis to assert their own limited autonomy, many are discussing a transformational moment for Kurdish groups across the region. But to see this as the dawn of a "Greater Kurdistan" spanning Iraq, Syria and Turkey (and arguably Iran) would be to misread the situation.

The tensions in recent days between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, tend to highlight the transnational narrative. A standoff at the weekend between Iraqi national forces and Kurdish peshmerga in the disputed Zimar area again raised the spectre of a disastrous - if unlikely - clash.

Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's government has, by all accounts, done a terrible job of mending Iraq's wounds, in particular since the American withdrawal last year. Partisan politics and the marginalisation of Sunni and Kurd political forces have crippled effective policy in Baghdad.

As a result, there has been no resolution on the governance of oil-rich, disputed Kirkuk, which remains a key flashpoint for Arab-Kurdish relations. So too, a policy vacuum on oil revenues has led to squabbling, and Chevron and Exxon's much-criticised deals with Irbil.

Mr Al Maliki wins no medals for building national unity, but his counterparts in the Kurdish Regional Government are also using the dispute for political gain. The KRG's President Massoud Barzani told Al Jazeera yesterday that the region could seek independence from Iraq if troubles persisted. The day before, Mr Barzani said it would be a "declaration of war" if Baghdad were to cut funding to the government in Irbil, which relies overwhelmingly on federal funds.

The warlike rhetoric makes the situation seem worse than it is. There is a contradiction in Mr Barzani's position, which demands continued support while advocating greater autonomy. And Mr Barzani does not speak for all Iraqi Kurds; Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president in Baghdad, lent his tacit support to Mr Al Maliki in a recent challenge to his power.

In the absence of coherent policy from Baghdad - and amid the region's unrest - these disputes are not going to disappear. But no one benefits from breaking Iraq further apart.