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US sits out the Iraqi-Kurdish dispute

11 Oct 2017, 2.26 pm GMT

US sits out the Iraqi-Kurdish dispute

Washington, 11 October (Argus) — The US administration is reluctant to intervene in a dispute between the Iraqi central government and the Iraqi Kurdish autonomy, even though Baghdad is taking steps to institute an oil sales embargo on Erbil.

Iraq's parliament has asked Turkey and Iran to suspend all trade, especially oil trade, with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), following the Kurdish independence referendum that took place on 25 September.

"We are in a cooling off period, making sure there are no new crises," according to Stuart Jones, who stepped down in August as the acting head of the State Department's near east affairs bureau, capping a long career in the US foreign service.

"Eventually the US will have to play some role to mediate, but there needs to be an atmosphere for this," Jones said during a discussion at Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council.

The State Department said it would be available to facilitate talks between Erbil and Baghdad, "but we have not been asked." It has urged Baghdad, Erbil and Iraq's neighbors to refrain from destabilizing steps. Jones said that so far neither KRG president Masoud Barzani nor Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi have taken irreconcilable steps to prevent negotiations.

US diplomats believe the situation is unlikely to get out of control despite strong rhetoric from Baghdad, Ankara and other regional capitals against the KRG's independence effort. Turkey's dependence on oil exports from the KRG is a key factor, Jones said.

The Iraq-Turkey pipeline, which transports the KRG-controled crude to Ceyhan, continues to pump at around 600,000 b/d. The other pipeline, which passes through the provinces of Salahuddin and Nineveh, can potentially carry 250,000-400,000 b/d.

The Iraqi central government can access it now, after liberating Islamic group Isis' last stronghold in the country, Hawija. Iraq's oil ministry yesterday asked state-owned oil companies to repair a pipeline running from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, which would bypass the one controlled by the KRG. But that pipeline "will not be available in the immediate future," Jones said.

KRG oil exports through Turkey give Ankara more leverage to influence Erbil than any other foreign capital, but shutting off that export route will be costly for Ankara, Jones said.

State Department counter-terrorism envoy Brett McGurk had shuttled between Erbil and Baghdad prior to the referendum, but the KRG shrugged off criticism from the US and others and held the vote.

The US administration understands Barzani's motives for pushing ahead with the referendum, Jones said. "The fight against Isis is winding down so there will be a lack of leverage [for the KRG] later." And the referendum was non-binding, so "he has tried to make it as little confrontational as possible."

Washington perceives Abadi's actions against the KRG as moderate, despite the harsh rhetoric.

"He could have done a lot more — instead he has tried to establish an atmosphere in which he can talk with the Kurds without having to be intimidated by the Shia hardliners," Jones said.

The US administration said its goals in the near term are to avoid violence, preserve gains against Isis in Iraq and not to empower Iranian proxies in Iraq.

But Jones noted the "irony often remarked on in Iraq" that Washington and Tehran, despite the mutual animosity, have similar perspectives on Iraq and frequently offer the same prescriptions on challenges facing Baghdad.

"Both Iran and the US were opposed to the referendum and both are stepping back and looking at how it will develop," Jones said.

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