Iraqi Kurdistan saw two milestones Friday: the announcement of its first women-only local council and of the official launch of a long awaited oil pipeline that will service international markets, via Turkey. The former is significant, especially in a country where gender equality remains largely hypothetical, but the latter may prove a game-changer for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), recharged by a strong mandate after April’s legislative elections.
Due to its proximity to Iraq’s vast deposits of natural resources (i.e., oil reserves totaling nearly 44 billion barrels), the KRG has been embroiled in a ten-year-long turf war with the central government over control of said resources. Baghdad maintains that all oil revenues should go directly to the central government, with profits then reallocated to individual regions; the KRG, however, is aiming to get what it considers as its fair share (17% of Iraq’s national budget). Already, Iraqi Kurds have managed to create a mini-statelet in northern Iraq, which, thanks to deals with international gas giants, has seen an economic boom, compared to stagnation in the rest of the country.
As of late, this power struggle has been further tilting in the Kurds’ favor as a weakened Baghdad struggles to calm sectarian fighting; the KRG has been aided in large part by a surprising thaw with Turkey, today Kurdistan’s largest trade partner and clearly eager to diversify its gas and oil imports. (Here, Turkey is treading a fine line, however – bolstering Kurdish separatists in Iraq, while attempting to squash a similar movement back home, all the while pledging to respect Baghdad’s “sensitivities.”) Less enthusiastic observers include the United States, which, after waging a $2 trillion war in Iraq, is wary of seeing the country split in two. Even more unsettling for the region’s power players is the danger that a flourishing Kurdistan could set a precedent for separatists movements in neighboring Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and further threaten precarious regional stability.
Yet Baghdad and company may be out of options. This time around the KRG has critical leverage over Iraq’s central government, and notably over Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose hopes of nabbing a third term as Iraq’s premier rely on his ability to rally support around a future coalition government. The Kurdish parties are, naturally, against Maliki, who suspended distribution of oil revenues to the KRG, and are threatening an independence referendum if he doesn’t step down. Raising the question: will Maliki sacrifice Baghdad’s already faltering grip over Iraq’s oil resources in exchange for political survival? Perhaps. But the horse is already out of the barn, so to speak: the KRG pipeline exported its first shipment late Thursday night.