The Cable

Kurds push back as Obama reportedly sides with Baghdad in oil dispute

The top Kurdish representative in Washington on Friday pushed back against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki‘s attempt to encourage U.S. President Barack Obama to stop U.S. oil companies — particularly ExxonMobil — from investing in the Kurdish area of Iraq following Chevron’s recent purchase of 80 percent of two blocks in the autonomous region. The ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The top Kurdish representative in Washington on Friday pushed back against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki‘s attempt to encourage U.S. President Barack Obama to stop U.S. oil companies — particularly ExxonMobil — from investing in the Kurdish area of Iraq following Chevron’s recent purchase of 80 percent of two blocks in the autonomous region.

The Kurdish representative, Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish Regional Government’s representative in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, was responding to Maliki’s claim that Obama had sided with Baghdad in the escalating dispute in a recent letter.

"We would like to confirm that the letter was positive and convincing and stresses its respect for the constitution and Iraqi laws, in the same manner as the Iraqi government is seeking," read a statement from Maliki’s office on Thursday.

On Friday, in a short interview with The Cable, Qubad Talabani shot back: "Every U.S. company that is working in Kurdistan today is working under the Iraqi constitution, so the notion that Obama has sent a letter to Maliki supporting his position on Exxon is misleading because the U.S. reaffirmed their support for the Iraqi constitution, and expressing their support is not contradictory to ExxonMobil working in Kurdistan."

But the dispute is not simply a legal matter. Baghdad is concerned that the KRG’s cooperation with oil companies threatens its authority, since Article 112 of Iraq’s constitution states that the management of the country’s oil and gas fields and Iraq’s energy policy are responsibilities of the federal government.  "Firstly, the prime minister of Iraq should know that private U.S. companies … don’t act on the behalf of the U.S. government," Talabani said, "and they certainly don’t take their orders from the U.S. government."

Baghdad banned ExxonMobil from bidding at a recent auction for exploration blocs after the company signed a 25-year exploration deal with the KRG last year. The KRG drew the ire of the Iraqi federal government earlier this month when it announced that it had exported some crude to Turkey, which gave the KRG refined product in return.

"This is an illegal and unconstitutional business that we will take the right decision against," a spokesman for Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq’s deputy prime minister for energy, said at the time. "The [Iraqi government’s] oil ministry solely reserves the right to export crude oil, gas, or oil products to other countries."

American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin told The Cable on Monday that KRG president Massoud Barzani had also raised the issue with President Obama, which The Cable was unable to confirm.

"It’s my understanding that Barzani walked away with the perspective that Obama was favoring Maliki’s claims over Barzani’s, so it seems already that the U.S. is siding with the Iraqi central government on this issue at least," he said. "We can’t pressure Iraqis because we have no leverage left."

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