US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, March 24, 2013. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The United States is engaged in efforts to bring Iraq’s three estranged groups -- the ruling Shiites, minority Sunnis and autonomous Kurds -- closer together, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last week.
Ten years after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains torn by ethnic and sectarian divisions unleashed by that upheaval.
For weeks the Kurds have boycotted the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, accusing him of violating the constitution over disputed territories and budget allocations. Most Sunni ministers have done likewise, following ongoing large-scale protests by Sunnis, who say their regions are neglected and their politicians targeted by an increasingly authoritarian prime minister.
“We are working on trying to bring the Kurds and the Sunnis together with Prime Minister Maliki in a discussion that, hopefully, can bring people back together and get the democratic process back on track,” Kerry told reporters last Tuesday.
He noted that KRG President Massoud Barzani had not been to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in about two years, and that Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, from the Sunni bloc, was feeling increasingly marginalized.
“President Barzani has not visited Baghdad in about two years, and increasingly speaker Nujaifi and the Sunnis feel as if they have been pushed away from the governing process,” Kelly said in Washington.
He noted that democracy was difficult, and said he hopes that Maliki will offer the Iraqi people democracy.
“It’s particularly hard work for people who haven’t experienced it ever or recently. And so, we all need to work closely together, which is exactly what we are doing now, with hopes that the prime minister will make the right choices to bring people together, to offer people a united election when it takes place in a few weeks,” Kerry said, referring to the April 20 local polls, in which the three-province Kurdistan Region is not taking part.
The US secretary visited Iraq March 24, to discuss the political process in Iraq and Syria. He called on Maliki to work with the Kurds, and moreover asked the Kurds to end their separate oil deals with neighboring Turkey, which Baghdad says are illegal.
Analysts suggest that the US fears that the improved Turkish-Kurdish ties could bring Baghdad even closer to Iran, Washington’s main rival in the region.
A US state department official told reporters in Jordan that Kerry had spoken to Barzani by phone, to emphasize the importance of maintaining Iraq’s unity, and telling the Kurdish leader that separate energy deals “undercut” unity, reminding him that the Kurds cannot survive without the budget allocation they receive from Baghdad.
Kerry also stressed that Erbil and Baghdad should engage, with the help of the United States or other parties, “to think in terms of developing the Iraqi strategic pipeline, that that is the route to prosperity and success for all parts of Iraq,” the official in Jordan added.
He said that the US is pressuring Maliki to stop the postponement of elections in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Mosul, where protests have erupted against the Shiite-dominated government.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Asharq Alawsat newspaper that during his visit Kerry had focused “on discussing the internal political crisis,” emphasizing that it had the potential to “threaten the whole country.”
The Kurdish government says that Baghdad owes it more than $3.5 billion to cover the costs of oil companies in the Kurdistan Region, but the Iraqi government says the contracts are illegal.
Moreover, there are disputes between the Kurds and the Iraqi government over control of disputed regions that are claimed by both sides, as well as over salaries for Kurdish soldiers.
In a March 20 message to mark the Kurdish New Year, Newroz, Barzani declared that the Kurds are ready for dialogue with Baghdad.