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Iraq and Kurdistan: An Emerging Frenemyship

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.

Photo by SAFIN HAMED / Stringer

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Ebola Outbreak Unlikely to Feature Heavily at White House Africa Summit

Amid a host of global crises, next week's Africa Summit, a White House effort to encourage business initiatives in Africa and foster security cooperation with the continent, has not garnered much hype in the leadup. But the ebola outbreak in West Africa changed that on Friday, when President Barack Obama discussed it in a wide-ranging press conference after two Americans contracted the disease.

The State Department evacuated the two U.S. aid workers from Liberia on Friday to the United States for treatment. They are being ferried by a specially modified Gulfstream jet that has a plastic tent separating crew and passengers to contain the virus. They will be taken to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which is also home to the Centers for Disease Control.

Earlier this week, Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency and deployed its military to quarantine the worst hot zones. The World Health Organization pledged $100 million to fight the outbreak and are sending experts to West Africa; the CDC is deploying personnel to help combat the outbreak that has claimed the lives of more than 700 people.

Experts have traced the outbreak to the death of a 2-year-old child in Guinea last December. The disease then spread through the family, killing the victim's sister, mother, and grandmother. Next, a nurse in the village was struck, then a midwife. From there, the disease has burned a trail through Guinea and across its porous borders into Sierra Leone and Liberia. The region's widespread poverty and its dearth of modern medical facilities have made quarantining the disease difficult. Regardless, the international and local response has been widely criticized as lacking urgency. With the burst of activity this week, the WHO and governments in the region are trying to catch up to what has become to worst ebola outbreak in history.

Against that background, the leaders of Africa convene in Washington next week for a summit that has itself been widely criticized as lacking a clear agenda and personal attention from Obama. However, the outbreak reportedly will not be a major topic of discussion. According to Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, there are no plans to alter the summit's agenda in response to the outbreak. "Global health issues already feature prominently on the agenda, and surely there will be natural opportunities for the assembled leaders to discuss the current outbreak," Price stated in an email to Foreign Policy.

The meeting's public agenda features one session devoted to health issues. On Monday, African officials and their U.S. counterparts will discuss "Investing in Health: Investing in Africa's Future. This discussion will highlight the decades-long U.S.-African health partnership that has saved and improved millions of lives," the summit agenda states. "It will also be an opportunity for U.S. and African leaders to agree on how we can further advance our shared health and development goals through our strong partnerships."

During his press conference, Obama emphasized that the United States is taking the outbreak seriously and will screen any summit attendees suspected of being infected with the disease. The CDC has procedures in place for airlines to report passengers exhibiting symptoms and to quarantine them upon their arrival as well.

Some think that, as a precaution, the summit should be canceled. However, the likelihood of ebola making it to the United States and causing an outbreak is exceedingly slim. The disease -- among the world's most deadly -- is actually difficult to contract. It can only be transmitted by coming into contact with an infected person's bodily fluids. A main transmission vector comes from handling victims' corpses. Anyone travelling to Washington for the summit is unlikely to have been directly involved in containing the outbreak.

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