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Baghdad (UPI) Dec 5, 2012
The Iraqi government has stopped an airliner carrying Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz landing in Iraqi Kurdistan amid Baghdad's deepening rift with Ankara over its support Iraq's independence-minded Kurds.
The Kurds, who have a semiautonomous enclave in northern Iraq, are locked in a tense confrontation with Iraqi troops in the region because of long-simmering disputes over land and oil.
Ankara's backing for the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose territory contains an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil and 211 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, threatens a showdown with the Turks that could inflame tensions with Syria and Iran in a region already torn by war.
The decision Tuesday by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to refuse Yildiz's aircraft permission to land at Erbil, the Kurdish capital, imposed greater strains on Baghdad's relations with the Turks at a critical juncture.
Yildiz was heading to Erbil to attend the closing session of a Kurdistan oil and gas conference intended to accelerate the enclave's drive to establish its own energy industry operating independently of the central government, a move Baghdad clearly found offensive.
The Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil has signed exploration deals with oil majors like Exxon Mobil and Chevron of the United States, Total of France, and Gazprom of Russia, along with some 40 smaller foreign companies.
Baghdad refuses to recognize the contracts, branding them illegal. The KRG's deals with Exxon and the other majors are likely to end their investment in Iraq's mega oil fields in the south.
Other majors, particularly Chinese companies, are eager to take their place in boosting Iraq's oil production but the defections were a bitter humiliation for Baghdad and could set back its ambitious oil strategy.
This dispute with Baghdad, over oil rights and revenue-sharing, is only one component of the multilayered rift between Erbil and Baghdad, but the banning of Yildiz's aircraft reflects the growing tensions between the KRG and the federal government as well between Iraq and Turkey.
Baghdad was incensed in August after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made an unannounced visit to the flashpoint city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim is part of their territory along with its oilfields, without informing Baghdad.
Kirkuk "is a red line for the Kurds," observed Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis group. "The Kurds will never give up the city."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to make his country into the energy hub between east and west, which is why it's dealing directly with the KRG.
It's offered to build oil and gas pipelines from landlocked Kurdistan to its Mediterranean export terminals, allowing the Kurds to bypass Baghdad's pipeline network.
In recent weeks, Maliki and Erdogan have engaged in a war of words, accusing each other of pushing their countries toward conflict.
Erdogan has also given sanctuary to Iraq's fugitive vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, a minority Sunni who has been sentenced to death in absentia by a Baghdad court on charges of murder and treason against Maliki's Shiite-controlled government.
He denies the charges and says he was framed by Maliki, who's widely seen to be accumulating dictatorial powers following the U.S. military withdrawal in December 2011.
Baghdad's refusal to relinquish Kirkuk, traditionally a Kurdish city that Saddam Hussein sought to Arabize by forcibly driving out Kurdish inhabitants, has long been a powder keg waiting to explode.
Amid the growing tension between Baghdad and Erbil, there are concerns it could explode and touch off a shooting war between Iraq's Shiite majority and the Sunni Kurds, amid the wider sectarian strains.
The trigger could come from a standoff between battle-seasoned Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga -- "those who face death" -- and Maliki's mainly Shiite forces in disputed territory in northern Iraq.
Kurdish leaders want to expand their semiautonomous enclave across territory stretching from Iraq's eastern border to with Iran to the western frontier with Syria, a predominantly Kurdish region that also contains most of Syria's oil reserves.
This has raised suspicions the Iraqi Kurds may be seeking to establish a wider Kurdish state embracing Syria's Kurds, and energy resources, should war-torn Syria fragment.
Maliki warned Saturday of the danger of "ethnic conflict" after efforts to ease tension stalled. Baghdad refused to dismantle the newly established Tigris Operations Command that covers disputed territory in Kirkuk, Salaheddin and Diyala provinces in the north.
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