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Kurdistan Oil Minister: Our Energy Cooperation Helped Ankara-PKK Peace Talks

Kurdistan Oil Minister: Our Energy Cooperation Helped Ankara-PKK Peace Talks
by MUTLU CIVIROGLU for RUDAW

WASHINGTON DC – Iraq’s central government should understand that it cannot rule the country by force, and should learn to share power with the Kurds and others, said Ashti Hawrami, the natural resources minister in the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

”We fought against the dictatorship of Saddam (Hussein) for decades, and we will not accept another dictatorship,” Hawrami said at a panel discussion organized by the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center in the US capital.

“Baghdad should understand that Iraq cannot be ruled by force, and it should also learn power sharing with the Kurds and others,” he said.

The KRG’s tense relations with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki took a nosedive last month, after the central government railroaded the 2013 budget, despite objections by the autonomous Kurds.

The KRG says it is owed more than 4 trillion Iraqi dinars ($3.5 billion) to foreign oil companies operating in the northern enclave, but Baghdad says those direct contracts are illegal because they should have been signed through the central government.

Relations between the ruling Shiites and minority Kurds had been tense for months, after Maliki sent in forces to take over security in disputed territories claimed by both sides, and the KRG sent in thousands of its own Peshmarga fighters.

Hawrami said that KRG projects and contracts are all consistent with the Iraqi constitution, adding that the Kurdistan region considers oil as the property of all Iraq.

“Article 115 of the constitution empowers the KRG to manage all new oil fields, but we want to share our revenue with all Iraq,” Hawrami said. “Oil accounts for 95 percent of Iraqi revenue, so we do not want to abuse this power. What Baghdad wants is the same policy under Saddam, no difference at all," said Hawrami.

“The KRG is supposed to get 17 percent of the budget, but due to Baghdad’s scheme of ‘sovereignty expenditures’ we only get a little over 10 percent. Baghdad should accept to be rational,” he said.

Responding to criticisms that KRG energy deals will eventually lead to Kurdish independence, Hawrami strongly expressed his objection.

“Some believe that the Kurds should not ask anything because they seek independence! Why would we not defend our interest?” he asked, adding that Iraq’s unity is the KRG’s top priority.

Hawrami emphasized that Iraq was held together by the constitution, and accused the central government of not respecting it and refusing to honor the agreement.

In response to a question about US policies on Iraq, Hawrami said Washington did not have a coherent Iraqi policy, but an outdated strategy that is based on stability. He demanded that Washington should update its Iraqi policies.

Washington has opposed the KRG signing direct agreements to develop or export its energy reserves. The US insists that Iraq must not be divided, opposing Kurdish aspirations of independence. He advised that Washington should be neutral on the oil issue, and only defend the constitution.

“Here in the US you swear by the constitution because it is important for you. Why wouldn’t it be important for us?” he asked.

Hawrami reproached the messages Washington was sending with its actions and words, and cautioned that they create unintended consequences.

“Washington should not pressure anybody. Each time it says the problems should be solved through the central government, Baghdad considers this as a license for its unilateral actions,” Hawrami complained.

Answering a Turkish journalist’s question about US pressure on the KRG against energy deals with Turkey, Hawrami said Washington does not pressure the Kurds, but advises them to sign deals in consultation with Baghdad.”

“Such advice is not in our interest, and we will not accept it,” Hawrami said, adding that the KRG’s relations with Turkey should not be a concern to the US. Both parties want the unity of Iraq, he said.

Referring to historic peace talks in Turkey with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Hawrami asserted that the KRG played an important role in the process. “Ankara tries to improve the situation of Kurds in Turkey. Our energy cooperation with Ankara helped Turkey to sit with the Kurdistan Workers Party,” he said.

High profile guests on the panel and at the event included the former US ambassadors to Turkey James Jeffry, Mark Parris and Ross Wilson, as well as former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and retired General James M. Garner.

The program opened with the introduction of former US National Security Advisor General James Jones and the CEO of the US-Kurdistan Business Council (USKBC), who emphasized the growing importance of Kurdistan as an energy hub and a safe center for investment.
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