IRBIL, Iraq — As the rest of Iraq descends into a crisis of deepening violence, the autonomous enclave of Kurdistan is enlisting the help of an unlikely ally, Turkey, to reach for a long-delayed dream of independence.
In many ways, Iraqi Kurdistan already acts like a sovereign state. Kurdish authorities provide all public services, command their own army and control their own borders — including their heavily guarded southern border with Arab-majority provinces of Iraq. In Irbil, the Kurdish capital, most government buildings fly the Kurdish flag — not the flag of Iraq — and many members of the younger generation never learned Arabic and speak only Kurdish.
Until now, however, the Kurds have remained tightly tied to Baghdad because they depend on the Iraqi treasury for the vast majority of their regional budget.
That could soon change.
Putting aside years of hostility, Turkish and Kurdish leaders are quietly implementing an energy partnership agreement, signed earlier this year, that promises to provide the Kurdistan region with an independent stream of oil revenue.
The first major step in the plan is a pipeline that runs directly to Turkey, beyond Baghdad’s reach, and that will begin operating by the end of the year, according to the Kurdistan region’s minister of natural resources, Ashti Hawrami.
“It is our duty as Iraqis to pursue export routes for oil and gas, to secure our future,” Hawrami said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Obama administration have balked at Turkey’s budding alliance with the Kurds, saying that it could further destabilize Iraq. They worry that a push toward Kurdish nationalism could raise ethnic tensions with Iraq’s Arab majority, especially those who live along the disputed boundary between the Kurdistan region and the rest of the country.
More than 5,500 people have been killed in attacks in 2013, Iraq’s deadliest year since 2008. The Kurdistan region has remained safe, with the exception of one major attack on an intelligence headquarters in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, in September. But the war in neighboring Syria has helped reenergize al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliates, which are waging an escalating campaign of bombings, assassinations and prison breaks.
Leaders in the Kurdistan region have tried to quell the concerns of Iraqi and American officials, giving assurances that they have no plans to formally secede from Iraq, even as they lay the groundwork for increasing autonomy.
“Independence is an aspiration in the heart of every Kurd,” said a senior Kurdish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. “But we need to be strategic.”
Ironically, Turkey could become a key enabler of Kurdish dreams.
In the past, Turkish leaders opposed political autonomy for Iraqi Kurds, for fear that Turkey’s own sizable Kurdish minority might be emboldened toward separatism.
As recently as 2008, Turkey massed tens of thousands of troops on its southern border and launched major ground attacks on Kurdish militants in Iraqi territory, prompting Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani to threaten violent retaliation.
But Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds has shifted dramatically. Relations warmed as Turkey began to see growing economic opportunities in Iraqi Kurdistan, including several unexploited natural gas fields. Turkey needs cheap and plentiful energy supplies to keep its economy growing quickly.
In March, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Kurdish region’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, finalized a comprehensive energy agreement. It calls for a new state-owned entity called the Turkish Energy Co. to explore for oil in several parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and to facilitate the pipeline export of oil and natural gas.
Most details of the deal have been kept secret, but two senior Turkish government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities, outlined its broad parameters and confirmed the signing.
Beyond the oil sector, Turkish companies are helping transform Irbil, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, into an aspiring capital of commerce with a skyline full of cranes. In the past five years, Turkish companies have built an international airport, two luxury hotels, gated communities for expats and a towering office park named Empire World.
But the oil deal has raised alarms in Washington. When Erdogan visited the United States in May, President Obama emphasized his administration’s opposition, according to two government officials, one American and one Turkish, who were briefed on the meeting but were not authorized to speak to the news media. The White House pushed Turkey to reformulate the agreement to address the concerns of Iraq’s central government, which claims primary authority over oil development and exports.
But that proposal went nowhere with the Kurds, who keenly remember the oppressive policies of previous Arab-majority governments in Baghdad. From the Kurdish perspective, one of the primary benefits of an alliance with Turkey is the validation of an expansively federalist interpretation of Iraq’s constitution, under which the Kurdistan region claims almost total autonomy.
“We have learned a lesson from history,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdistan region’s Department of Foreign Relations. “Our natural resources have strengthened our hand, our position, our political weight.”
The regional government has signed more than 50 contracts with dozens of oil companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron. But the landlocked Kurds can only persuade their private-sector partners to develop billions of dollars worth of oil production if there is a reliable way to transport all of that crude to international markets — and that means pipelines.
In the past, the Kurds have struck a series of temporary agreements with Baghdad to export through federal Iraqi infrastructure. But Baghdad, loath to condone independent oil ambitions, has accepted the Kurdistan region’s crude while withholding most of the expected payments.
Turkey has guaranteed that Iraqi Kurdistan will receive revenue from its oil and gas sales directly, circumventing Baghdad.
The Turkish state company Botas has begun building a gas pipeline toward the Kurdish border, according to a senior Turkish energy official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities. Under the terms of the March agreement, the Kurdistan region will ultimately export at least 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year — enough to meet more than one-fifth of Turkey’s current consumption.
The Syrian civil war has helped push Turkish and Kurdish leaders together. Seeing growing instability in the largely Kurdish areas of northern Syria, Erdogan has been eager to enlist Massoud and Nechirvan Barzani — the uncle-nephew team that leads the Kurdistan Regional Government — to exert a moderating influence on militant Kurdish groups.
For the Kurds, deteriorating security in the rest of Iraq has helped create political opportunity. Maliki, who is seeking reelection as prime minister next year, faces widespread public frustration and political challenges from the fractious Shiite parties that form his base and is likely to need Kurdish support to win another term.
In the Kurdistan region, the Barzanis just led their political party to a victory in regional elections through a campaign that proudly linked oil with Kurdish nationalism. In one television commercial, a young boy in the desert smiles with delight as he walks along the region’s new pipeline, following the path of oil flowing toward a sunset in Turkey.