Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 21 June 2012 13:06

In an interesting move, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has asked President Barack Obama to intervene to stop Exxon Mobil activities in areas of Iraq controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

Few details of the correspondence are known. The White House has officially acknowledged receipt of the letter from Maliki but has made no elaborate comment except saying it will reply in due course. A few comments on the letter by a Maliki adviser have been published by Reuters.

There is one interesting snippet of information in the reports that have emerged so far: Maliki is evoking Iraq’s “political stability” as an argument against Exxon’s operations in Kurdistan. As is well known, the conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds on oil concerns above all the right to sign deal with foreign companies generally. Additionally, some of the Exxon deals with the Kurds affect areas that are not only disputed between the KRG and Baghdad but even include territories that may well revert to the central government in a final border settlement.

The United States already has a series of executive orders in force relating to the stability of Iraq, though most of them target support for terrorism more specifically. Given Maliki’s choice of language, though, it is not inconceivable that he has in mind a logic similar to that embodied in a recent presidential executive order against US citizens threatening the stability of Yemen. That order contains deliberately vague language and could in theory apply to everything from Al-Qaeda to Aden separatism.

At any rate, by choosing the stability focus, Maliki is also addressing a latent contradiction in US policy on Iraq that is rarely addressed by the Americans themselves: Their continued support for Kurdish leaders with declared separatist agendas despite an official US desideratum of a unified Iraq within its sovereign borders. The fact is that the United States (and many European nations) are treating Kurdish leader Masud Barzani pretty much as a head of state, with privileges during state visits etc. that few other heads of federal entities worldwide can expect. This is precisely the sort of schizophrenic behaviour that has helped create unmanageable formulas for Iraqi governance like the Erbil agreement. It would be more honest of these players to make up their minds and either support full Kurdish independence or encourage policies that would provide for meaningful integration of the Kurdish region in an Iraqi federation.

Whether Washington will actually use this opportunity to rethink its Iraq policy remains to be seen. It is perhaps somewhat unrealistic given the presence of an able Kurdish lobby in DC that helped create the current contradictive policy in the first place. At the very least, though, Maliki will likely score some domestic points on this issue, of the same kind that recently endeared him to Sunni and secularist figures unhappy with how parts of the Iraqiyya leadership are cooperating with the Kurds, including in relation to Exxon Mobil in Nineveh.

Whether such support for Maliki’s KRG policy is sufficient to prevent any concerted action against him when the Iraqi parliament reconvenes on Saturday is still unclear. Already, some of Maliki’s enemies are accusing him of manipulating the security environment around parliament with a view to intimidating political opponents (in particular this applies to the recent removal of the concrete barriers surrounding the national assembly). An unremarkable agenda for Saturday’s session appeared on the parliament website yesterday only to be removed again today. Parliament speaker Nujayfi now says he expects a request for a questioning of Maliki within two to three days, whereas Iraqi state television has indicated a forthcoming request for Maliki himself for an emergency session.

At any rate, with President Jalal Talabani having apparently abandoned the project of a presidential call for a no confidence vote, the conflict surrounding Maliki’s premiership is now likely to become a more long-drawn affair.