Despite the resumption of fence-mending talks between Iraq's Kurdish and Shia communities, the country remains deeply divided, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have opened talks in Baghdad with the Iraqi Shia National Alliance in a fresh bid to end a year-long governmental crisis that has pitched Iraq's two main ethnicities against each other in a row over power and national wealth.
The dispute has become a source of instability and concern among Iraqis, who fear that meddling by powerful neighbouring countries competing for influence in the conflict-battered country is exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tensions.
A high-level Kurdish delegation met with leaders of the Shia National Alliance for plenary discussions this week that are expected later to include Iraqi Sunni Arab leaders who are also disgruntled with increasing Shia power.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is sponsoring the talks between the Iraqi leaders, gave some grounds for optimism about relieving the political tension that has been prevailing since the formation of the current coalition government following inconclusive elections in 2010.
However, many observers have cast doubt on Talabani's mission to end the crisis in view of the outstanding problems facing the two parties, such as disputes over oil, territory and power-sharing, which are straining the country's fragile federal union.
Before heading to Baghdad, the Kurdish delegation consulted with Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, a staunch critic of Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, whom he has accused of being a "dictator" and has demanded his ouster.
Striking a hopeful tone, chief Kurdish delegate Barahm Saleh said after a meeting with Al-Maliki on Monday that the two sides had decided to form "committees to discuss pending issues" following the week-long Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha which starts on Friday.
Relations between Iraq's Shia-led government and the country's northern Kurdish region have worsened in recent months, with Baghdad and the self-ruled Kurdish enclave remaining gridlocked over rapprochement.
The Kurds demand that the central parliament finally pass a draft oil-and-gas law that has been on hold for years because of disagreements over the central government's control over the nation's resources.
The Kurds have been pursuing separate exploration deals with foreign oil companies, and this week they started selling oil on international markets in independent export deals.
The move has aggravated tensions with Baghdad, which considers the sales to be illegal and a challenge to its claim to full control over Iraq's oil.
Tensions have also risen between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad over contested territories bordering the Kurdish enclave. The Kurds claim that a chunk of land larger in size than the whole of Kurdistan is part of their region, but observers consider the land to be a neutral buffer between the central government and the Kurds after the departure of the last US occupying troops in December.
Hours after the Kurdish delegation arrived in Baghdad on Sunday, the central government inaugurated a new military command structure in the city of Kirkuk which will take over security in a large section of the disputed area, including in the oil-rich province.
Kurdistan's prime minister, Nechirvan Idris Barzani, who is the Kurdish leader's nephew, described the deployment of the Iraqi troops as "dangerous and very frightening".
Another major disagreement has been over Baghdad's efforts to buy new weapons to revamp the Iraqi army's capabilities, destroyed by the United States after its invasion of the country in 2003.
In recent days Baghdad and Kurdistan have quarrelled over weapons deals that the Iraqi government has concluded with Russia and the Czech Republic. Kurdish leaders voiced concerns that Baghdad could use the weapons against them if conflict flares up with the central government.
Barzani is expected to fly to Moscow soon to try to persuade the Russians to put pre-conditions on the sales, such that the weapons cannot be used in internal disputes and in offensive operations inside Iraq.
Barzani had also opposed Iraq's purchase of squadrons of US-made F-16 jet fighters, accusing Al-Maliki of wanting the planes in order to use them against the Kurds.
The Kurds have demanded that the Baghdad government recognise the Peshmergas Kurdish forces and give them legal status, something which the central government has refused to do, describing the Peshmergas as local forces.
Since the downfall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion, the Peshmergas militia, now the official internal army of the Kurdish region, has been refusing to give access to Iraqi troops to the Kurdish areas.
Another sticky problem is Kurdistan's increasing flirtation with Turkey, whose government is at odds with Al-Maliki.
Relations between Baghdad and Ankara have been marred by a flurry of disputes this year, including Turkey's refusal to extradite Iraqi Vice President Tarik Al-Hashemi, sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court.
Most recently, Ankara allowed the Kurdistan region to build a pipeline that will take oil and gas from Iraq into Turkey and then possibly to Europe. The move, considered as a first step towards Kurdistan gaining its independence, has angered Baghdad.
Last week, Baghdad stopped 128 buses loaded with Turkish worshippers bound for Mecca on the annual Hajj pilgrimage because the worshippers' visas had been issued by the Kurdish authorities.
The pilgrims were finally allowed to pass through Iraq to Saudi Arabia on Sunday after they had obtained visas issued by the central government.
The dispute between Al-Maliki and Barzani has raised speculations about the Kurdish leader's intention to declare an independent Kurdish state. His "take and demand more" strategy has been aimed at keeping Baghdad weak and its government dysfunctional.
But while most Kurds are eager to be independent, Barzani is increasingly facing opposition from other Kurdish leaders suspicious of his long-term intentions and accusing him of sidestepping them in important decision-making, such as on ties with Baghdad and neighbouring countries.
Talabani, who heads the second-largest political party in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), had said he does not support efforts by Barzani to unseat Al-Maliki, and he has even threatened to resign if Barzani puts pressure on him to change his mind.
Other Kurdish parties refuse to see eye-to-eye with Barzani's challenge to Baghdad and the way he is handling Kurdish affairs, including his accumulation of vast powers and his control of the region's army and security forces.
Mohamed Faraj, leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a powerful Islamist movement that has sore relations with Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, was quoted by the Kurdish website Rudaw this week as saying that the party was considering fielding a candidate against Barzani in the next elections for president of the Kurdistan region.
Samir Salim, a member of the party's political bureau, told the same news outlet that his group was also seeking an Islamic alliance to contest Kurdistan's next parliamentary elections.
Barzani has also been encountering strong opposition from Goran, a reformist party that made a strong showing in Kurdistan's last elections.
The party has been refusing to join Barzani's bid to oust Al-Maliki and instead has been urging the Kurdish leader to pay more attention to Kurdish issues. The Party has accused Barzani of turning the region "into an arena for regional and international conflict".
The party recently advocated a new constitution for Kurdistan that would limit Barzani's authority and give more power to the region's parliament.
It is widely believed that Iran, which fears Barzani's alliance with Turkey, supports both the Kurdistan Islamic Union and Goran in their bid to stifle Barzani's power.
Indeed, Barzani seems to have been reluctant to send the current negotiation team to Baghdad, even sending a separate Kurdistan government delegation to negotiate the 2013 federal budget, a main hurdle in Kurdish relations with Baghdad.
Rouz Nuri Shawis, a close aide to Barzani and Kurdish deputy prime minister, criticised the timing of the delegation led by Barahm Saleh, deputy chairman of Talabani's party, the PUK.
"Sending two different delegations to Baghdad creates overlapping and confusing lines of responsibility," he told Rudaw.
As a result, Kurdistan's internal divisions are making the autonomous region more vulnerable and are diminishing Barzani's hopes of forcing Al-Maliki to make concessions during the upcoming negotiations.
With the Kurdish splits in place, Al-Maliki will be able to make himself sharper-edged during the upcoming negotiations.
"Kurdistan should make Iraq's interests its utmost objective," he was quoted by his office as telling the Kurdish delegation. "If Iraq is strong and solid, everyone will be strong within it."