They have criticized one another harshly and their military forces have come dangerously close to an open confrontation, yet relations between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have recently taken a more positive turn.
Negotiations between Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani may have come as a surprise to many observers. Last month, Maliki visited Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for the first time in two years. This rare visit was returned by Barzani last week, in order to confirm the political will between the two sides to tackle unresolved issues through dialogue.
Barzani’s visit to Baghdad provided some more impetus behind the talks discussing, among other issues, the fragile security situation, the administration of disputed areas over which both Baghdad and the Kurdish region claim jurisdiction, and the national hydrocarbons law that has been held in the Iraqi parliament for years due to a political impasse. Both leaders claimed to be optimistic about Iraq’s future and are said to have formed special committees to look into the best way to resolve their outstanding differences. However, caution is advised concerning this outspoken optimism. Similar proposals were made in 2010 and the agreements were only partially implemented.
Maliki’s efforts to ease tensions with the Kurdish region may take some pressure off his Islamic Da’wa Party at a time when it is facing an intensified campaign by Sunni insurgents, as well as months of protest led by Sunni leaders who accuse his party of marginalizing them. This, in turn, is a great opportunity for the Kurds to liaise with Maliki, since the threat to his power is coming from the Sunnis—and the majority of Iraq’s Kurdish population is Sunni. The Kurds can more successfully extract concessions from Maliki in exchange for Sunni cooperation.
The disputes between both governments are so deeply rooted that is hard to see why things will be any different this time around. The constitution alone is a huge source of controversy, due to conflicting interpretations from the two sides. The debate is particularly intense over whether power should be centralised in Baghdad or if there should be a more federal system for the provinces.
Nonetheless, Barzani’s visit to Baghdad is highly significant. The last time he set foot in Baghdad was in 2010, during negotiations that produced the Erbil Agreement, under which a power-sharing central government was formed between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds. That deal, however, was never fully implemented, and so the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government have continued to clash over oil fields and deals that fall within the disputed territories. The war raging next door in Syria has also provided an extra push towards reconciliation in order to minimize the fallout from the conflict.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way: Barzani and Maliki have at least shown their willingness to resolve their differences. Only time can tell whether the two sides are heading in the right direction. The average Iraqi is unlikely to share in their optimism, away from the negotiating table troops from both sides remain stationed opposite one another in the disputed territories.