Iraqi Kurdish president visits Baghdad to ease disputes

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The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, visited Baghdad on Sunday for the first time in more than two years, in a step towards resolving long-running disputes between the central government and the autonomous region over land and oil.

The visit follows an equally rare trip by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who met Barzani in Kurdistan last month, easing tensions between leaders who have repeatedly accused each other of violating the constitution.

There was little concrete progress then, and officials on both sides said any major breakthrough on Sunday was unlikely, but the focus would be on how committees formed to resolve the disputes should work.

“The main thing the (Iraqi) prime minister and the Kurdistan region’s president will discuss is how to activate the committees they agreed to form last time, and decide the mechanisms by which these committees work,” Maliki's media adviser, Ali al-Moussawi, said.

The last time Barzani was in Baghdad was in 2010, during protracted negotiations that eventually produced the “Arbil agreement”, under which a power-sharing central government was formed between Shi'ite Muslims, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds.

That bargain, like others thereafter, was never fully implemented, and the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region have since been at odds over oil and disputed territories along their internal boundary.

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

A senior Kurdish official said the two sides would discuss Iraq’s deteriorating security situation, the administration of areas over which they both claim jurisdiction, and a national hydrocarbons law that has been held up for years in parliament.

Differences are rooted in a fundamental disagreement about the degree to which power should be centralized in Baghdad, based on divergent interpretations of Iraq’s federal constitution, which was drawn up following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Better relations with the Kurds would help insulate Maliki from the fallout of the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions, spurring Sunni insurgents to take on Iraq's Shi'ite-led central government.

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