Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has denied accusations that Peshmerga forces seizing two major oil fields in Kirkuk province is part of an attempt to put pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki after Iraqi Kurdish politicians announced they were pulling out of the central government.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of facilities at the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oilfields on Friday amid fears that this could be part of Kurdish attempts to strengthen their semi-autonomous region’s presence in the disputed region ahead of an expected referendum on independence.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraqi oil ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said: “The Peshmerga taking control of Kirkuk is one thing, but taking control of oil fields is something else entirely. This represents an unwelcome development and crosses every line.”
Jihad claimed that the Peshmerga forces had expelled oil ministry staff, including engineers and technicians, with Iraq’s oil ministry warning of “dire consequences” unless the Kurdish forces withdraw.
“Regardless of escalating political differences, we had not expected this to involve oil production. This is a federal issue, and so what the Peshmerga have done represents a transgression of the Iraqi constitution and federal authority. This is a clear threat to national unity and so it will have serious consequences,” he said.
But the head the energy committee of the Kurdistan Region’s parliament, Sherko Jawdat, denied that the Peshmerga advance had anything to do with the political situation unfolding in Baghdad.
“Peshmerga forces have taken responsibility on themselves to protect the oil fields in Kirkuk province in light of the security and military vacuum that has been created from the withdrawal of Iraqi troops,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“These conditions necessitated Peshmerga forces taking responsibility for protecting these regions and preventing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters from seizing them,” he added.
The Kurdish MP denied that the Peshmerga had expelled ministry staff.
As for claims that Erbil intends to sell off the Kirkuk oil, he warned: “If Baghdad continues its economic blockade of the Kurdistan Region, not paying the salaries of government employees in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, then Erbil has no choice but to think of other options to provide salaries and income to the citizens in these areas. One of these alternatives is to sell the oil and provide the income from it to the citizens.”
The controversy over the Peshmerga’s seizure of Kirkuk oil fields comes as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, announced that the Kurds are suspending their day-to-day involvement in the foreign, trade, migration and health ministries and the deputy premiership in response to accusations by Maliki that the Kurds are allowing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to use Erbil as a “headquarters.”
Maliki responded to the Kurdish walkout by appointing Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Al-Sharistani as acting foreign minister. On Friday Sharistani met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, who was on a state visit to the country.
In comments to Reuters, Zebari said: “The country is now divided literally into three states: A Kurdish state, a black state [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and Baghdad,” warning that unless Iraq’s political leadership rise to the challenge of forming a new, inclusive government, “the consequences are very dire: complete fragmentation and failure.”
The Iraqi foreign minister added that the Kurds, who have categorically rejected a Maliki third term, would re-evaluate the suspension if the prime minister apologizes.