- By Siddhartha MahantaSiddhartha Mahanta is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. In recent years, he has written on everything from national politics to the telecommunications industry, big agriculture, foreign lobbying, corporate welfare, and film, for publications including The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Washington City Paper, among others. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour.
It’s never been easy for the Iraqis and Kurds to get along, what with the rancorous, diplomatically and legally dicey oil and land claims at issue between them. But the war against the seemingly unbeatable Islamic State that threatens to dissolve the Iraqi state may draw these regional foes into an uneasy alliance over the security of another, more basic liquid asset: water.
After Iraq’s stunning collapse to the Islamic State (then known as ISIS) in June, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leapt at the opportunity to seize territorial control from Iraq by taking the key oil hub of Kirkuk. As FP’s Keith Johnson wrote, Kirkuk “has been a bone of contention between Arabs and Kurds for centuries — and especially during Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq.” The Kurds’ seizure of the city showed just how dramatically the invasion was remaking Iraq. Tensions escalated further in early July when the KRG sent its vaunted peshmerga fighters to secure key oil fields and a prized pipeline near Kirkuk over worries that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might prefer destroying oil infrastructure rather than risk letting it fall into the Islamic State’s hands (Iraqi oil ministers laughed that off as “ridiculous”). Around the same time, Maliki called the Kurdistan region a terrorist haven, prompting officials in the Kurdish capital of Erbil to halt cooperation with Baghdad.
Even if the Kurds secured the 360,000 barrels of oil produced in their territory, serious questions remained about how they’d sell and export all that crude, as FP reported back on July 11. That’s because Baghdad controls the country’s oil exports and enforces a revenue-sharing agreement among Iraq’s regions. The Kurds, meanwhile, say the Iraqi Oil Ministry has not delivered its 17 percent of oil revenues, so they’ve taken more extreme measures, reaching out to Turkey to help ship and refine their crude. They’ve also sent several crude tankers abroad. One, the United Kalavryta, is in limbo off the coast of Texas. The Iraqi Oil Ministry has sued the KRG in the Southern District of Texas over the $100 million worth of crude it holds, claiming it was stolen from the Iraqi people and must be sold through the Iraqi government. The Kurds, unsurprisingly, disagree and say that U.S. courts have no authority in the matter. On Monday, the KRG asked the Texas court to drop the order for U.S. marshals to seize the Kurdish crude still stuck on the tanker.
But the Islamic State also has its eyes on hydro-domination. In July, its fighters targeted Anbar province’s Haditha Dam, Iraq’s second largest. As FP’s Johnson wrote, losing Haditha would cripple the western and southern parts of the country, allow the Islamic State to flood farmland, disrupt the drinking supply, and potentially provoke Maliki’s Shiite government.
Then on Sunday the narrative upended as the Sunni militants reportedly defeated peshmerga fighters. In the process, they seized yet another oil field — their fifth – to help pay salaries and keep public utilities running. Perhaps more troubling: reports that the Islamic State seized Iraq’s biggest dam, the Mosul. Iraqi state television said Sunday that IS fighters had seized the dam. But Kurdish officials said that they had control over the Mosul Dam. As of late Monday, the situation was still unclear. As FP reported last month, scientists say the destruction or failure of the Mosul Dam could unleash up to 50 million gallons of water per second on Mosul, covering more than half of Iraq’s second-largest city under 25 meters of water within hours and deluging Baghdad under 4 meters of water inside of three days. So there’s that. It’s also a staggeringly easy piece of infrastructure to compromise, thanks to an unstable, water-soluble foundation that needs constant reinforcement to preserve its structural integrity. That shoddy craftsmanship earned it the title of “most dangerous dam in the world,” in a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That massive setback — which the peshmerga claim is a strategic retreat — reportedly led Maliki to back up the peshmerga with air support, as Reuters reported on Monday. "We will attack them until they are completely destroyed; we will never show any mercy," a Kurdish colonel told the news agency. "We have given them enough chances and we will even take Mosul back. I believe within the next 48-72 hours it will be over."
So while Maliki is making good on his threat to use legal power to seize Kurd-claimed oil, he’s also sending in the planes to back the Kurds just as the myth of their apparent invincibility takes a potentially serious hit. It’s either a shrewd political move or a truly desperate cry for help. Baghdad and Erbil. These days, theirs is a tale of two frenemies.