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Iraqi PM visits Kurdistan in attempt to smooth over disputes

Published: Updated:

In his first visit to Kurdistan for more than two years, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Sunday attempted to resolve a long-running dispute over oil and land.

Maliki led a breakthrough cabinet meeting in Erbil on Sunday to resolve increasing tensions between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

After the meeting, Maliki said he and Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani did “not have a magic wand to fix all these problems in one go,” AFP quoted him as saying.

“But it is necessary to have a willingness to solve them,” Maliki said in a joint news conference with Barzani, with whom he has traded harsh words in recent years.

More visits by both sides are expected post the Erbil talks, he added.

The cabinet session marked “an important visit” and was a “start for removing all the problems,” Barzani said.

The move comes as a step towards resolving disputes between the central government and the province, and it may be followed by other cabinet sessions in areas such as Anbar.

Maliki’s last official trip to Kurdistan was in 2010, when the “Erbil Agreement” was struck, allowing him to form a power-sharing government among majority Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds after months of wrangling.

That deal, like others since, was never fully implemented, and Baghdad’s central government and the country’s autonomous Kurdistan region have since been at odds over oil and disputed territories along their internal boundary.

But no breakthrough was expected on Sunday.

“Our expectations should not be too high,” the Kurdistan Regional Government’s chief of foreign affairs, Falah Mustafa told Reuters. “The ball is in the court of the federal government in Baghdad.”

Unless the current talks succeed where previous rounds have failed, Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said last week the self-ruled enclave would be forced to seek a “new form of relations” with Baghdad.

Oil is likely to be high on the agenda.

In recent years, the Kurds have signed contracts on their own terms with the likes of Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Corp, antagonizing Baghdad, which insists it alone is entitled to control exploration of Iraq’s oil.

Kurdistan used to ship crude through a pipeline network controlled by Baghdad, but exports via that channel dried up last December due to a row over payments for oil companies operating in the northern enclave.

The region says the constitution allows it to exploit the reserves under its soil, and it is building the final leg of an independent oil export pipeline that could allow to break its reliance on a share of the federal budget.

(With Reuters and AFP)