Iraqi Kurds slam Baghdad legal action over oil shipment

The Kurdish Ministry of Natural Resources statement comes days after Iraq's Oil Ministry filed a request for arbitration against Ankara

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Iraq's Kurdish region slammed legal action filed by the central government against Turkey, saying Sunday it was illegitimate and likely to fail, the latest in worsening ties between Baghdad and Kurdistan.

The Kurdish Ministry of Natural Resources statement came just days after Baghdad's Oil Ministry filed a request for arbitration against Ankara at the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce after crude from Kurdistan was exported to international markets via a Turkish port.

Relations between Iraq and its Kurdish region, and between Baghdad and Ankara, were already fragile and are likely to chill further over the row, with the latest shipments flying in the face of the Iraqi government's insistence that it has the sole right to sell its prized natural resources.

"The MOO [Ministry of Oil] is, with its behavior, isolating itself ... [and] potentially damaging Iraq's petroleum industry and Iraq's petroleum reserves," the ministry statement said.

"The MOO is also ... now prepared to damage Iraq's relations with Turkey and other friends of Iraq."

The statement labeled the arbitration request "self-defeating" and "illegitimate", saying it would "not allow hollow threats from the MOO to interfere with the KRG's (Kurdistan Regional Government's) oil export regime."

The dispute between Baghdad and Kurdish authorities in Irbil centers around interpretations of Iraq's constitution, with both sides insisting they are behaving legally.

The central government insists it has the sole right to export Iraqi crude, describes Kurdish sales as "smuggling" and also says contracts between Irbil and foreign energy firms without its expressed consent are illegal.

But the row took on a new dimension after Turkey confirmed shipments of oil pumped from the autonomous northern Iraqi region and stored in Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan began on Thursday.

Iraq responded by filing the arbitration request on Friday, asking the ICC to order Turkey and its state-owned pipeline company to "cease all unauthorized transport, storage and loading of crude oil," and added it was seeking financial damages of more than $250 million (180 million euros).

Washington has warned that the oil export move could destabilize Iraq, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying the US does not "support exports without the appropriate approval of the federal Iraqi government, and certainly we do have concerns about the impact of those continuing."

The tensions come as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki looks to secure a third term in power after April 30 elections in which his bloc emerged with by far the most seats in parliament, though well short of a majority.

Maliki is likely to need some Kurdish support if he is to secure the seats necessary to win re-election, but the latest row threatens to further complicate any potential talks for government formation.