Mending fences: Iraq’s President Salih leads Baghdad delegation to Erbil

Lawk Ghafuri

Iraq’s President Barham Salih (L) is greeted by Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani at Erbil International Airport, September 17, 2019. Photo: Iraqi Presidency

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraqi President Barham Salih arrived in the Kurdistan Regional capital Erbil on Tuesday evening at the head of a delegation sent to discuss oil, the budget, and territorial disputes – hot topics that have long caused ruptures between the semi-autonomous region and the federal government.

Delegations have shuttled back and forth between Erbil and Baghdad in recent months as relations between the two continue to improve after hitting their lowest ebb in late-2017.

Erbil and Baghdad have formed committees for talks on the joint administration of the disputed territories, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s share of the federal budget, and the touchy subject of independent oil sales.

President Salih, accompanied by Iraq’s Kurdish finance minister, Fuad Hussein, was met at Erbil International Airport on Tuesday afternoon by Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani.

During his stay in Erbil, Salih will hold talks with his Kurdistan Region counterpart, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) chief Masoud Barzani to further mend fences.

Fuad Hussein will meanwhile meet with the KRG’s finance ministry to discuss the budget issue.

Baghdad cut the KRG’s share of the budget from 17 percent to zero in 2014 in response to the Region’s independent sale of oil. Coupled with a costly war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and the collapse of global oil prices in 2016, the Region was plunged into a financial crisis.

The KRG’s share of the budget was reinstated in 2018, but at the reduced rate of roughly 12 percent. 

Under the 2019 budget, the KRG agreed to send 250,000 barrels of oil per day to Iraq’s state oil marketing body SOMO in exchange for its share of the budget. Although Baghdad has delivered funds to Erbil’s central bank, the KRG is yet to send a single barrel of oil. 

Omed Sabah, Chairman of the KRG Council of Ministers, told Rudaw the Ministry of Finance has prepared a report outlining the KRG’s requirements from the 2020 federal budget.

“The KRG finance ministry aims to discuss the demands of the KRG from the 2020 federal budget and hand over a detailed report on this case,” Sabah said.

Mohammad al-Halbousi, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker, is also scheduled to visit Erbil on Wednesday to discuss the federal budget.

Jutiar Adil, the KRG spokesperson, told Rudaw the regional government is optimistic about the talks with the Iraqi delegation.

“In general, the Iraqi delegation is in Erbil to discuss the unresolved issues between Erbil and Baghdad,” Adil said. “There are very positive talks between Erbil and Baghdad, and more talks are underway to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government.”

Safin Dizayee, head of the KRG foreign ministry, visited Baghdad on Sunday for talks with top Iraqi officials including President Salih.

Dizayee told Rudaw the new positive atmosphere in meetings between Erbil and Baghdad officials means the two sides can tackle points of conjecture “more efficiently”.

Erbil-Baghdad relations have generally improved since Adil Abdul-Mahdi became prime minister in late 2018. 

As an independent technocrat with historically good relations with the Kurds, Abdul-Mahdi has presided over a thawing of the tensions between the two, which reached their peak under his predecessor Haider al-Abadi.

Already strained relations collapsed on October 16, 2017 when Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias launched an offensive into the disputed territories, forcing the Kurdish Peshmerga to withdraw.

Improvements in the relationship were noted by Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN Special Envoy to Iraq, in her recent quarterly briefing to the UN Security Council.   

Hennis-Plasschaert told the Security Council she is hopeful the two sides can resolve their differences now that both governments have been formed.

“This has created a positive momentum to advance of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil, also demonstrated by the establishment of a High-Level Joint Committee,” she said.

“And I cannot deny: the expectations are high, in particular on key files – including Kirkuk, Sinjar, and revenue sharing,” she added.

The failure of both sides to cooperate on security in the disputed territories has contributed to a resurgence of ISIS, which has exploited the security vacuum between Peshmerga and Iraqi lines – particularly in the hotly disputed and oil-rich province of Kirkuk. 

In late August, Iraq’s Interior Ministry reached an agreement with its KRG counterpart on visa issuing powers and on the lifting of entry fees imposed on Iraqis entering the Kurdistan Region.  This followed the suspension of internal customs duties.


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