For some observers, it was a shocking sight: Massoud Barzani, the current President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime Minister of Iraq hugging and kissing one another. But that is exactly what happened when al-Maliki travelled to the north of the country to meet with Barzani in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil last weekend. It was al-Maliki’s first trip to Erbil in two years.
It was shocking to some because recently the two leaders have been at distinct loggerheads. When Iraqi army troops faced off against Iraqi Kurdish forces near the disputed city of Kirkuk late in 2012, nobody could have imagined that the pair might reunite in such a friendly way. For example, Barzani visited the area where the two forces had drawn their battle lines and he urged the Iraqi Kurdish military – known as the peshmerga – to stop the progress of the Iraqi army into the disputed territories at all costs.
Mosul, Kirkuk and other parts of the state of Ninawa are what are best described as Iraq’s disputed territories. That is, there is land there that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq. However in reality, the Iraqi Kurdish has been able to, at least partially, control some of these areas, as their military have remained in charge there. Barzani described any progress of the Iraq military into these areas as “a red line”.
Al-Maliki was just as opposed to any further movement of the peshmerga – he said that nobody was above the law and he too mentioned red lines. And those troops are still in the same place today.
Many Iraqi Kurdish believe that Barzani is a strong leader who is bringing them closer to self determination and a homeland of their own; the Kurdish are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own country. But shortly before making his visit to Erbil, al-Maliki said something along the lines of “that there is nothing like the right to self determination in Iraq”.
However Barzani made no reply to that comment – despite the fact that he has accused al-Maliki of autocratic, dictator-like behaviour in the past. And when the two came together this past weekend, Barzani greeted al-Maliki with a red carpet, rather than further talk of red lines.
Al-Maliki arrived at Erbil’s international airport with a number of senior ministers in a military plane. The two leaders embraced warmly when they met and they appeared to be smiling. Both said the aim of al-Maliki’s visit was simply a regular meeting of the Iraqi cabinet – even though the pair met again later separately and they also held a joint press conference.
But just like most other press conferences held by Iraq’s leaders, there was nothing substantial to reveal to the local press. Both politicians said they were optimistic about Iraq’s future and that they were forming special committees to look into how best to resolve their outstanding differences. However the same suggestions were made two years ago and nothing concrete has happened since then either.
Independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, was quick to criticise the meeting. For one thing, he told NIQASH, nobody talked about how the two were going to solve their problems – it was all “unclear and hardly transparent,” he said. For another, the local media were not even allowed to ask questions at the press conference.
Some locals have speculated that al-Maliki and Barzani wanted to meet before any more elections are held to resolve outstanding problems. In the past the Iraqi Kurdish politicians have been able to play kingmaker in Baghdad’s federal parliament. However others have suggested that the meeting has more to do with external pressures and that’s the real reason for the overnight thaw in relations.
The latter suggestion may be closer to the truth. In April, Iraqi Kurdistan\'s Prime Minister, Najirvan Barzani – who is also Massoud Barzani’s nephew – took a delegation to Baghdad; after the meetings there he announced that al-Maliki’s visit to Erbil would be arranged for later in the year. And that Baghdad visit actually came after Najirvan Barzani visited Iran – he was there in January and March at the invitation of Iran. At the time Kurdish media said the Iranian visits were supposed to be about reducing the tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan and that the Iranians, who are widely considered to have a lot of influence with Iraq’s Shiite-Muslim led government, promised Barzani that al-Maliki would be more flexible when it came to Iraqi Kurdistan’s various demands.
But the Iraqi Kurdish media have also speculated that it’s not just the Iranians who want things to go more smoothly in Iraq. They suspect the US has also played its part. “The US doesn’t want Iraq to get involved in the Syrian conflict,” says Kamran Mantak, a professor of political science at Erbil\'s Salahaddin University. This wouldn’t serve the US’ interests in Iraq.
Despite last week’s warm welcome for al-Maliki in Erbil, Mantak doesn’t think this is any kind of sign of long term, long-lasting reconciliation between Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdish. “The two leaders continue to attack and criticize one another,” Mantak says, “and they are encouraging their people to do the same.”
As for how average Iraqis and their Kurdish counterparts feel after this meeting, their view is most likely to remain the same: that Barzani and al-Maliki appear to be two opposing politicians who cause crises every few months, then issue inflammatory statements and scare everyone with them. After that things to die down and go back to normal – until the next “crisis”. This most recent meeting – warm embraces while troops remain stationed opposite one another in the disputed territories – is unlikely to change that impression.