Iraq's Kurds start unilateral oil exports

As sectarian conflict grows, the Kurds are bypassing the central government to export from the oil-rich north to Turkey

Workers at Tawke oil field in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Azad Lashkari/Reuters/Landov

Iraq's self-ruled northern Kurdish region says it has unilaterally started sending its crude oil to Turkey and is going ahead with plans to export oil despite objections by the central government in Baghdad.

According to a statement late Wednesday by the Kurds' regional Natural Resources Ministry, the flow of oil to Turkey started in early January. The oil is being shipped north through a newly constructed pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, bypassing Baghdad.

The Arab-led government in Baghdad and the ethnic Kurds in the country's north have been locked in a long-running dispute over who is in charge of the country's oil and who has the rights to develop Iraq's natural resources, based on different interpretations of the 2005 constitution.

Baghdad insists it has the sole right to draw plans, award deals to developers and export crude on the international market. Meanwhile, Kurds argue that the constitution allows their regional government to do so as well.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the Kurds have unilaterally signed dozens of oil deals with foreign energy companies to tap their vast oil and gas resources, without going through Baghdad. The central Iraqi government maintains that all those deals are illegal. The oil dispute is part of a bigger one involving territory and the allocation of money.

The Iraqi Kurdish ministry has also invited companies to participate in a tender later in January for the 2 million barrels already deposited in Ceyhan. It anticipates an increase in exports to 4 million barrels in February and 6 million barrels in March, with the goal of exporting 10 million to 12 million barrels in December.

Officials in Baghdad were not immediately available for comment on Thursday. But last month, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, who is in charge of the energy sector, warned that Baghdad would deprive the Kurds of their 17 percent share in the national budget if they go ahead with the exports without the government's approval.

For its part, Turkey has been reluctant to get involved in Iraq's internal oil dispute, but there have been reports that Ankara would not allow the exports without Baghdad's OK. Turkish officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.

Humanitarian crisis

The oil developments come as Iraq's Shia-led government continues to wage a fierce battle against a stubborn Sunni-led insurgency centered on a resurgent Al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The United Nations on Wednesday described the humanitarian situation in Anbar province, where ISIL fighters have made big gains in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the past week, as critical: "The situation in Fallujah is particularly concerning, as existing stocks of food, water and life-saving medicines begin to run out," U.N. envoy to Iraq Nikolay Mladenov said in a statement.

Also Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to eradicate ISIL in Iraq and predicted victory as his army prepared to launch a major assault against the Sunni militants who have taken over parts of the city of Fallujah.

In a televised address, Maliki thanked the international community for its support in the fight against ISIL and urged the group's members and supporters to surrender, promising clemency.

The prime minister spoke for the second time this week with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the White House said in a statement. Biden urged Maliki to keep working with local leaders and welcomed a decision to compensate tribal militiamen who may be wounded or killed in action against ISIL forces.

ISIL fighters associated with Al-Qaeda are active across Anbar province in western Iraq and several cities in northern Syria

Amid the ongoing sectarian fighting in Anbar, a large suicide bombing rocked Baghdad Thursday morning.

Iraqi officials say the toll from the blast at a military recruiting center in the capital reached 21 killed and nearly three dozen wounded.

The strike was likely meant to send a message to the government and would-be army volunteers about Iraqi troops' ongoing push to retake the two western cities overrun by ISIL fighters last week.

A police official who provided the death toll said 35 people were wounded in the attack. He said the dead included four soldiers guarding the site. A hospital official confirmed the casualty figures. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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