Turkey weighs pivotal oil deal with Kurdistan, to U.S. displeasure

  • Article by: BEN VAN HEUVELEN
  • Washington Post
  • December 11, 2012 - 8:55 PM

ANKARA, TURKEY - U.S. diplomats are struggling to prevent a seismic shift in Turkey's foreign policy toward Iraq, a change the Americans fear could split the foundations of that fractious state.

The most volatile fault line in Iraq divides the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in the north from the Arab-majority central government in Baghdad. As the two sides fight for power over both territory and oil rights, Turkey is increasingly siding with the Kurds.

Kurdish and Turkish leaders have had a budding courtship for the past five years. But now Turkey is negotiating a massive deal in which a new Turkish company, backed by the government, is proposing to drill for oil and gas in Kurdistan and build pipelines to transport those resources to international markets. The negotiations were confirmed by four senior Turkish officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Turkey hasn't needed to ask what we think of this, because we tell them at every turn," said a senior U.S. official involved in Middle East policymaking, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to talk with the press. The official said any bilateral energy deals with Kurdistan would "threaten the unity of Iraq and push [Prime Minister Nouri] Al-Maliki closer to Iran."

Kurdistan has already staked out significant autonomy, providing its own public services, controlling airports and borders, and commanding police and army forces. The energy deal with Turkey would all but sever Kurdistan's economic dependence on Baghdad, which is perhaps the primary tie that still binds the two sides.

"We are having serious discussions with the [Turkish] company," Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said. "We hope they participate in the region."

The Turkish government has not yet made a final decision. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz is leading a review of the deal, according to the senior Turkish officials, and expects to issue a formal recommendation to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by the end of the year.

Turkey's moves come at an especially volatile time for the region. Along Turkey's southern border, in the midst of a civil war, Syria's Kurdish minority has gained control of a large expanse of territory. That instability has worried Turkish leaders, who have used their sway over the Iraqi Kurdish leadership -- both Prime Minister Barzani and Kurdistan's powerful president, Massoud Barzani, the uncle of the prime minister -- to help ensure that they exert a benign influence in Syria.

Iraq is also in crisis. On Nov. 16, a minor confrontation between Kurdish security forces and Iraqi army soldiers erupted into a deadly firefight. Since then, both sides have deployed thousands of troops, as well as tanks and artillery, to either side of their contested border, where they still remain within firing range.

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