The president of Iraq on Thursday called for direct talks between Erbil and Baghdad to settle their long standing disputes on the basis of the constitution.
Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, increased after the autonomous region held a vote on Kurdish independence in September that overwhelmingly backed secession from the rest of Iraq. The Iraqi government responded by halting all international flights in and out of Kurdistan and sending troops to retake disputed areas held by Kurdish forces outside of the autonomous region, leaving Erbil grappling with an economic and political crisis.
Iraqi president Fuad Masoum held talks with two of his deputies, Nouri Al Maliki and Ayad Allawi, in Baghdad on Thursday to discuss the political and security situation in the country. The politicians debated Iraq’s upcoming elections, the federal budget law and the situation in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a statement said. Kirkuk was one of the disputed areas retaken from Kurdish forces by Baghdad following the September referendum.
The three men called for “an immediate dialogue between Baghdad’s central government and the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) under the supervision of the Iraqi presidency and the support of the United Nations” to restore relations between the two sides on the basis of the Iraqi constitution, the statement said.
Baghdad and Erbil have quarrelled over territory and oil revenue sharing since the fall of Saddam Hussien in 2003 and for the past three years yhe central Iraqi government has halted all funds to Kurdistan. Until October, however, the KRG had held nearly all of northern Iraq's oil infrastructure and been able to sell enough crude to fund themselves. But the Iraqi government offensive that recaptured oil-producing territory from the Kurds in October means the autonomous region is once again financially dependent on Baghdad.
Renad Mansour, an academy fellow at London's Chatham House, told The National that the KRG is in a weak position and does not have much leverage.
“Erbil’s economy is suffering terribly, they don’t have control over their borders", he said, adding that "Baghdad has been backed by the international community whereas the KRG doesn't have any strong allies on its side; it must give in".
Mr Mansour said that over time "the Iraqi prime minister needs to come up with a short term settlement to help the Kurds".
On Tuesday, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced that Washington would support the de-escalation of tensions between the central government and the autonomous region.
“The policy has always been a unified Iraq. And as you know, the independence referendum which was undertaken by the Kurdish regional authorities a few months back was disruptive to that unity,” he said.
“We’re working through a process between Baghdad and Erbil to ensure the two parties remain unified, we’re supporting a re-engagement around the Iraqi constitution which was never fully implemented."