Iraq: Kurds Struggle To Consolidate Oil Field Gains

July 14, 2014 | 2228 GMT
Once again, internal Kurdish rivalries, spurred by the influence of regional competitors, threaten to undermine Iraqi Kurdistan’s aspirations of greater autonomy. On July 11, security forces loyal to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party seized the Kirkuk and Bai Hassan oil fields in Iraq, but those units may have done so without permission. Indeed, leaders from a rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, claim that the Kurdistan Regional Government was not consulted. Kirkuk Gov. Najmadin Karim, an ethnic Kurd aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, even alleged that the occupation bypassed authority in Baghdad, violating federal standards on operations within Iraq’s disputed territories.

Barzani’s newfound control over the oil fields directly challenges the interests of his historical Kurdish rivals in eastern Iraq. Kirkuk province has long been directly influenced by outgoing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has expanded its political and security presence throughout Kirkuk for years.

Leaders in Arbil continue to promote the formal integration of disputed regions into Iraqi Kurdistan. Aside from autonomous crude oil export options, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan increasingly finds itself at odds with Barzani’s party, which Turkey supports. Arbil continues to flirt with the prospect of Kurdish independence, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s influence in oil-rich Kirkuk province gives the party key leverage over Barzani. The deployment of unauthorized oil protection units may have been an attempt by Barzani to prevent future challenges from his newly emboldened rivals.

For the moment, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leaders seem hesitant to escalate the dispute. Both parties have larger issues to manage in the short term, such as confronting Sunni Arab militancy on their southern borders and making sure that another Kurd succeeds Talabani in Baghdad. The short-term value in consolidating a unified Kurdish front is to draw important energy and budgetary concessions from the Iraqi government.

The question of who controls Kirkuk’s hydrocarbon infrastructure may be the most incendiary factor that threatens to reignite the historical dispute between Iraqi Kurdistan’s political factions. Baghdad and its Shiite allies in Tehran want to limit Kurdish autonomy and expansionism. Internal Kurdish disputes give them an opportunity to divide the ruling elite in Arbil. Given the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s history of close ties with Tehran (and Baghdad to a lesser extent), these two Shiite powers will likely attempt to manipulate growing Kurdish divisions and challenge Barzani’s ambitions.