A handout picture released by Iraq's Prime Minister's Media Office on November 22, 2018 shows PM Adel Abdel Mahdi (R) meeting with prominent Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in Baghdad during the latter's first visit to the capital in over two years. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: Baghdad and Arbil are starting to reconcile, after more than a year of tension caused by a failed Kurdish bid for independence back in September 2017.

Last week on November 21, Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi said that he would be unifying customs tariffs with Kurdistan, days after re-starting oil production from Kirkuk, which benefits both his government, sworn-into office last October, and that of Kurdistan.

Last Thursday he also received former Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani in the Iraqi capital, who hasn’t visited Baghdad since early 2017.

Although out-of-office, Barzani is still the ultimate leader of Iraqi Kurds who head the largest Kurdish party.

Speaking to reporters, Abdul Mehdi said: “It’s very important for us to have good, smooth relations with between Arbil and Baghdad. We have seen a huge improvement on all levels.”

Arbil went ahead with a controversial vote on independence back in September 2017, prompting Baghdad to close off the region’s two international airports, threatening a full-scale ground invasion. Image Credit: AFP

“Much of that improvement is due to the excellent working relationship between Abdul Mehdi and (Iraq’s new President) Barham Salih,” Iraqi writer Laith Abdul Rahman tells Gulf News.

Salih and Abdul Mehdi have known each other for years, even since the current prime minister served as representative for his party in Kurdistan back in the 1990s, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

The Iraqi President is the “guarantor” of better relations on the Kurdish side, says Abdul Rahman who is a veteran Kurdish politician and Barzani protégé, elected to office last October.

“Salih is acceptable by all sides in Iraq and is expected to play a bigger role in solving pending issues between Kurdistan and Iraq.”

Conflict resolution

Currently, there is a tit-for-tat tariff war between the two entities.

Kurdistan had imposed a 5 per cent tariff on all goods coming from Iraq which infuriated Baghdad who slapped an even higher tariff (25 per cent) on all goods entering Iraq from Kurdistan.

Baghdad went even further to confiscate all goods who failed to pay the tariff as smuggled and illegal merchandise.

This proved to be a cost too high for Kurdistan to bear.

Now Arbil is marching to a different tune and scrapped the old tariff legislation.

Other pending issues are increasing Kurdistan’s budget which was slashed by the Iraqi Parliament in March as well as implementing Article 140 of the Constitution, which calls for a referendum in Kirkuk.

The Kirkuk vote has been put off now for 11 years as it was supposed to be held by December 31, 2007.

Souring of relations

Iraqi-Kurdish relations soured when Arbil went ahead with a controversial vote on independence back in September 2017, prompting Baghdad to close off the region’s two international airports, threatening a full-scale ground invasion.

Iraqi lawmakers described the Kurdish vote as “null and void.”

They also imposed an economic embargo of Kurdistan, slicing its budget in collective punishment, while allowing Iraqi and Iranian Shiite militias to invade the region of Kirkuk and take it by force.

ct 20, 2017. Iraqi forces took control on Oct. 20 of the last district in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk still in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a three-hour battle. Image Credit: Reuters

Iraqi forces then retook the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds had liberated from Daesh and annexed to their territory, saying that it was historically part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

They suspended oil pumping from Kirkuk, greatly damaging the Kurdish economy.

Stark warning

Prominent Kurdish analyst Hosheng Ossi believes Barzani’s visit reflects good intentions on the part of Kurds and a willingness to turn a new page in bilateral relations.

“However, good intentions are not enough,” he told Gulf News, adding that “practical measures” were needed “in order to overcome the damage caused by previous Iraqi governments.”

“The two sides have no choice but to solve their problems,” he said.

Ossi warns that Baghdad risks further alienating Kurdistan if it continues with draconian measures against it and encourages the two sides to work together to find common ground.

“Isolating Kurdistan and imposing sanctions clearly did not work. It will push the Kurds (again) to seriously consider separation and burn all their remaining ships (with Baghdad).”