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May 29, 2009 | 00:10 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The Reality of Iraqi Geopolitics

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Iraq's oil ministry has announced plans for oil exports to Turkey, from newly developed fields in the northern autonomous Kurdish region, to begin on Sunday. The Taq Taq and Tawke fields in Dahuk province will be the first new fields brought online in Iraq in more than three decades. Together, they will yield 100,000 barrels per day (bpd), with production growing to 450,000 bpd by 2011. Though the Kurds are already celebrating the occasion, this is a bittersweet moment for Sunni and Shiite leaders in Baghdad. Iraq's Shiite-dominated central government has long been in a fierce contest with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over oil reserves in the north. On a strategic level, Iraqi Arabs — as well as Iraq's neighbors — have a core interest in keeping the Kurds on a leash and quelling separatist hopes. The central government is doing its part to keep the Kurds boxed in: It wants to ensure that Baghdad gets sign-off on any oil deals the Kurds make with foreign companies to develop their energy fields, and that all oil revenues go through the central government before being distributed to the regional governorates. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds knew they had limited time to secure their influence before being ganged up on by an array of rivals (which is happening now.) The KRG signed production-sharing agreements left and right with foreign firms, giving companies 10-20 percent of the profit and partial ownership of the fields, to rush in investment. The Iraqi oil ministry, however, has declared all of these deals void, insisting that Baghdad must be the one to approve agreements and that all deals must be based on less attractive, fixed-fee service contracts, which deny foreign companies ownership of energy fields. The row between the KRG and Baghdad is ongoing, and it remains to be seen how the foreign companies developing the fields will end up getting paid. But with oil production stagnating at just under 2 million bpd, the Kurds have found a way to exploit the central government's vulnerability. With the budget in danger, Baghdad reluctantly agreed to get these fields pumping, in order to raise exports and generate more cash for government coffers. The Kurds are getting a nice break, but they are still beholden to central government-controlled infrastructure and the interests of their rivals, like Turkey, to continue exporting oil from KRG territory. While keeping a close eye on the Kurds, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is also busy picking out scapegoats for the fall in Iraqi oil production. He recently launched a massive anti-corruption drive that has brought down the trade minister and is now targeting the oil and electricity ministers, who could end up getting axed in a widely rumored cabinet reshuffle. Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, who has close ties to Tehran, is expected to be summoned by the Parliament soon to explain why his mismanagement of the ministry (never mind the effects of the global economic crisis) has prevented production increases. Al-Maliki is doing this for several reasons. He needs to blame someone for the economic pressure Iraq is under, but he also needs to clean house, consolidate power and prepare his government for the day that U.S. forces leave Iraq and Baghdad will have to fend for itself against a host of powerful neighbors — who all feel they have some stake in Iraq. The Turks are on a resurgent path and are privately discussing with the United States their desire to move into the north to contain the Kurds. The Iranians harbor aspirations about carving out Shiite-dominated southern Iraq for themselves. And Saudi Arabia and other Arab states see themselves as the defenders of Iraq's Sunnis against the Shia; they do not regard al-Maliki as a legitimate leader or even see Iraq as a legitimate country. Al-Maliki is on a mission to revive Iraq’s standing as a strong Arab state — only this time, under Shiite leadership. Iraq is already an extremely fractious country, split geographically, ethnically and politically among Shia, Sunnis and Kurds. What al-Maliki wants to avoid is a "Lebanonization" of Iraq that would brand the country as paralyzed, fractured and sufficiently vulnerable to be preyed upon by outside powers. The only way to overcome these internal weaknesses is to impose some level of authoritarianism at home. Al-Maliki is the leader of the Arab world's newest democracy, but some of his statements hint at an authoritarian strain of thought. He said recently that in the first stage of post-Hussein Iraq, "consensus was necessary for us." "But," he continued, "if this continues it will become a problem, a flaw, a catastrophe. The alternative is democracy, and that means majority rule ... From now on, I call for an end to that degree of consensus." Al-Maliki also has begun standing up to Iraq's neighbors — telling the Saudis, who among other Arab powers continue to snub him at regional summits, that "Iraq has no intention of making new goodwill gestures towards Saudi Arabia because my initiative has been interpreted in Riyadh as a sign of weakness." Contrary to popular perception, this behavior is not necessarily a reflection of al-Maliki's personality. Whether the person at the helm of Iraqi politics is al-Maliki or anyone else, Baghdad will see a need for the Kurds to be contained and — depending on who has the upper hand — for either the Shia or the Sunnis to rule with an iron fist. Such is the reality of Iraqi geopolitics.

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