“The prime minister has been clear: If Exxon lays a finger on this territory, they will face the Iraqi army,” said Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament and confidant of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We don’t want war, but we will go to war, for oil and for Iraqi sovereignty.”
Iraq’s major ethnic groups have laid competing claims to a belt of land between the Kurdistan region and southern Iraq. An unofficial “line of control” bisects the disputed areas, demarcating the southern border of Kurdistan-governed territory.
The crisis began after a Nov. 16 battle in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, whose ethnic tensions are typical of the disputed areas. A shootout erupted when federal forces tried to arrest a Kurdish fuel seller, who asked Kurdish soldiers, known as the pesh merga, to protect him.
Maliki and the Kurdistan region’s president, Massoud Barzani, quickly ordered thousands of reinforcements to move toward the line of control. “We do not want war,” Barzani said in a speech to troops on the front lines, “but if war comes, then all Kurdish people are ready to fight.”
Iraqi Kurds are scarred by memories of Saddam Hussein’s campaigns of ethnic cleansing. After the fall of his regime, they staked out substantial autonomy in northern Iraq, and now the Kurdistan region has many features of an independent state.
Many of the region’s southern Iraqi neighbors, however, complain that the Kurds are grasping for territory that is not rightfully theirs. Authorities in Baghdad say they had to deploy thousands of Iraqi troops to prevent further Kurdish encroachment.
“This recent crisis has given gains to the Kurds,” said a high-ranking military officer in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.
Military leaders in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region say fighting could begin with a single misfire. In some areas near the city of Kirkuk — the epicenter of the territorial disputes — the Iraqi army and the pesh merga are well within firing range of each other’s weapons.
The military officer said the Iraqi army would open fire under three scenarios: if the pesh merga forces fire first or advance beyond their current positions, or if oil companies begin working in disputed areas.
“If they do this, it’s a declaration of war,” the officer said.
Exxon is not the only company with oil deals in Iraq’s disputed areas, but its contracts are the most controversial because of the company’s iconic stature and the location of its exploration blocks, on the southernmost edges of Iraqi Kurdistan’s expansive interpretation of its territory. Before Exxon signed the contracts in October 2011, Baghdad warned the company that it considered such deals illegal.