Analysis. Bagdad will try to starve the Kurds out of Kirkuk by cutting the city’s budget, arresting independence organizers and pricing locals out of buying weapons.

Weapons and oil: The fight is in Kirkuk

Massoud Barzani has entrenched himself behind a wall of silence. There are no statements from his offices; outside, day after day the level of tension with the Baghdad government rises.

This arm wrestling has lasted two weeks so far, since Sept. 25, the date of the referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. It has been played our verbally, except for the air embargo, which is a serious issue in a region that survives on external commercial trade.

On Wednesday, the confrontation moved to the legal-political field. The Rusafa court, an arm of the Supreme Court, issued three arrest warrants against the material organizers of the referendum, the chairman and two members of the High Committee for Election and the Erbil referendum.

The ruling came at the request of the National Security Council, chaired by the Iraqi Prime Minister al Abadi (the same one who two days ago did not rule out that a similar measure, an arrest warrant, may also be issued against President Barzani). The reason: failure to comply with the Supreme Court’s request to suspend the vote pending verification of all challenges to the referendum’s confidentiality.

The High Committee isn’t the only thing in their sights. On Monday, the Security Council drew up a first list of names of high and low public officials, who were threatened with some criminal or administrative punishment for disobeying the central government. Erbil’s response was immediate: “This is a political decision,” the Kurdish Committee said.

There’s no doubt. The whole question of independence is political, with its obvious economic foundations. Erbil increasingly fears the threat of a possible embargo by neighboring powers Iran and Turkey.

The land borders are open, and the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which has been transporting crude from the Iraqi city to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast for the last two years, is working on a regular basis. Baghdad is leveraging Kirkuk: The Iraqi government will soon discuss the reduction in the federal budget for the city, which has been contended for decades and has been controlled by Erbil since 2014, after the military advance of the Peshmerga allowed its release from the brief occupation by ISIS.

Since then, the revenues of the oil-rich province are up. It’s the country’s richest energy source, and since 2015, the oil fields have been held by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

It sells the oil bypassing Baghdad and cashes in, although its budget is constantly in the red. This is a trigger that sparked popular protests and opposition to the KDP ruling party for the “mysterious” disappearance of revenue in corruption and structural clientelism.

Kirkuk remains the main source of tension, along with the smoke that day and night rises from its refineries. The measure causes a surge in the price of arms in the black market, especially among Arabs and Turks, concerned by the possible eruption of an internal conflict.

According to the New Arab news agency, since Sept. 25, prices have gone up. An AK-47 is now sold at a million dinars (€725), a Beretta at €845. And grenades and pistols are all the rage, say the locals. These are the weapons confiscated from the Islamic militias captured in the ongoing operation at Hawija.

The game is about money, which Erbil desperately needs in the face of a serious economic crisis raging for the last three years. Barzani will face the parliamentary and presidential elections Nov. 1 with empty pockets, hoping to win on the rush of popular enthusiasm.

He is facing his PUK rivals who took the lead after the disappearance of historian Jalal Talabani, who died on Oct. 3, after a stroke that had removed him from the political scene.

This loss weighs on the political future of the party that Mam Jalal, the “uncle,” founded in the mid-1970s from a KDP rib. It has already proven its inability to emerge as a credible alternative to Barzani (allegations of corruption also hurt PUK, which controls the east of the region militarily and economically) since it lacks a long-term project and now also a leader able to keep it united.

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