Iraq is being torn apart by conflicting sectarian and oil interests, with at least one external power exploiting the mayhem for its own profit.
During a visit to Washington six months ago, Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Autonomy of Iraq – KRG, asked President Barack Obama to provide his peshmerga army with fighter planes and assault helicopters. He explained an air force was essential for safeguarding the 45 billion barrels of oil reserves buried under the self-ruling Kurdish republic.
President Obama turned him down. At the back of his mind were the interests of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in holding Iraq together and retaining a measure of control over the northern semi-independent Kurdish region.
He was also unwilling to risk upsetting Washington’s unwritten understanding with Tehran for keeping matters on an even keel Iraq by stubbing Iran’s Kurdish toes.
Encouraged by the US denial of Barzani’s request, Maliki decided it was time to show the Kurds who was boss of Kurdistan’s oil. After some months of secret preparations, the Iraqi prime minister transferred to the oil city of Kirkuk an Iraqi Army command group drawn from the different corps plus two armored and infantry divisions to secure them. He then quietly unveiled his Tigris Operations Command to his military chiefs.
Iranian oil’s serpentine oil route for beating sanctions
Questioned by US officials about the new command, Iraqi military sources assured them it consisted only of Iraq’s 12th and 5th Divisions and would not interfere with local police work. Until then, the police had been responsible for security in the KRG’s big oil city of Kirkuk.
Baghdad then moved forward: On Aug. 30, the new command was pronounced ready to take up its operational duties from a new base “in region K1, west of Kirkuk and near the airport.”
Maliki acted stealthily because he was breaking a promise he had given the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, not to post any Iraqi army command elements in Kurdistan.
However, in early September, when the Obama administration saw what the Iraqi prime minister was up to, he told him sharply to disband the Tigris Operations Command and withdraw the first units of the two military divisions which had already reached Kirkuk before they go into trouble with the Kurdish army.
The Americans were intent on putting a stop to Maliki’s machinations to avert a number of hazards:
1. Tiger Operations Command could easily be used to accommodate a semi-official Iranian presence in the Kurdish oil region of Iraq.
Far from being wild speculation, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that this suspicion was borne out by US observations in Basra, Iraq’s second oil region in the south. They discovered that Basra and its oil port had become a busy hub for Iranian sanctions-breaking oil transactions and the smuggling out of its oil to international markets.
Maliki as Iran’s wily oil sales agent
The dry figures on paper confirm that sanctions had slashed Iran’s world oil sales, formerly a bit over 2 million barrels a day, by half and that Tehran was losing roughly $40 billion a year. Those figures failed to take into account the oil sneaked out of Khuzistan to Basra and how much it was being sold for, figures which no oil expert in the world is capable of discovering.
Iraq’s Shiite prime minister was effectively Tehran’s sales agent, who also proved to be a wily fixer. He was discovered flogging smuggled Iranian oil disguised as an Iraqi product. He had even arranged from some quantities to be diverted to Kirkuk for transportation in the guise of Kurdish oil through the regular route through Turkey out to Europe.
Our sources also revealed that Iranian undercover agents were posted to Basra to oversee Tehran’s illicit oil trade via Iraq. Washington calculated that the creation of Tigris Operations Command would allow the Iranians to establish in Kirkuk the same set-up they were running successfully in Basra.
2. After tumbling to Maliki’s shenanigans on behalf of Tehran, the Americans squeezed him hard for certain actions:
a) Roll up Iran’s oil smuggling route through Iraq.
President Obama, who took a personal interest in this, was heard to raise his voice in a telephone conversation with the Iraqi prime minister in the second week of September and warn him that American soldiers would be back in Basra if he failed to act fast.
Maliki promised to do what he was told. But Washington has still not discovered for sure whether he has really put a stop to the illegal trade or simply moved in out of Basra to a less noticeable part of the Iraqi-Iranian border.
b) Drop the Tigris Operations Command plan and pulled its command and troops out of Kirkuk.
The Iraqi prime minister says he has already done this, but the US administration is not entirely sure whether the outfit is disbanded or on hand somewhere near the KRG ready to jump back when Washington is not looking.
Turkey is actively interested in Kurdish progress
Obama withheld an air force from self-ruling Kurdistan because he is against the partitioning of Iraq into sectarian entities and hopes to avert sectarian strife over oil.
Acquiring an air force for its army would moreover accelerate the self-ruling Iraqi Kurdistan’s association with the burgeoning Kurdish entity in Syria. The Americans have encouraged the Syrian Kurds to strike out for themselves in another context – the drive to undermine Bashar Assad – but believe the formation of a Greater Kurdistan should not be achieved in haste.
(Occupying together 80,000 square kilometers, the two territories bordering on Iranian Kurdistan, southern Turkey and the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, are home now to 7-8 million Kurdish citizen.)
Turkey is also naturally seeking its way through the shifting Kurdish maze.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is publicly opposed to the Greater Kurdistan concept – he has picked a bone with Obama over the semi-independent region rising in Syria on Turkey’s southern border. On the quiet, however, he is coming around to the notion of negotiations for Kurdish semi-autonomy – if it is a Turkish protectorate.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 551 of August 3, 2012: Obama Picks a Kurdish Bone with Turkey and Iraq – a Pro-US Kurdish State Rises in Northern Syria between Irbil and Aleppo.)
Baghdad loses its oil contest with Irbil as Gazprom moves into Kirkuk
The moving parts of this scenario have made Barzani all the more determined to obtain an air force for his peshmerga (which numbers 200,000 men and officers, well trained by American and Israeli military instructors and armed with modern American and Israeli weapons.)
Moscow did not miss this opening.
A Kurdish arms purchasing delegation was in Moscow in early September, followed in mid-month by the arrival in Irbil of Russian salesmen and the clinching of a deal for the sale to the KRG of an unknown number of Russian M-24 assault helicopters.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that Kurdish eagerness for an air force was matched by Russian eagerness for a stake in Iraqi oil and gas.
The Russian Gazprom and other world oil companies have been racing for oil deals with semi-autonomous Kurdistan. Those deals are counter-productive to Baghdad’s efforts to ramp up crude exports from the southern oil fields around Basra. The Maliki government wants to attract foreign companies to focus on the larger but less profitable southern oilfields and so boost their production targets. He is losing this contest to Irbil.
Oil deals galore
Since July, Chevron of the US, France’s Total and Gazprom of Russia has each signed deals for oil blocks offered by the Kurdish regional government – ignoring the Iraqi federal government’s claim to the sole right for making such agreements.
As the struggle heats up, Russia has gained an interest in contributing assault planes for a Kurdish air force to defending its own stake in Kurdish oil.
The Kurdish leader has taken another step on the bumpy road toward the dream of Kurdish statehood.
But the Iraqi prime minister is not done yet. He plans to visit Moscow in October and place a bid for $4.3 billion worth of Russian arms, our exclusive sources disclose. He proposes to make this huge order to the Russian arms industry conditional on Moscow withdrawing the supply of helicopters to the Kurdistan republic.
If the Russians refuse to play, he plans to include in his order warplanes and anti-air missiles capable of downing the new Kurdish helicopters.