A Tale Of Two Cities

January 31, 2011

Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] Prime Minister Barham Salih’s recent return from Baghdad and the KRG-Baghdad agreement over oil and the budget is yet another episode in the never-ending cycle of tense disagreements between Erbil and Baghdad.
Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for the ongoing disputes between the two cities. Every few months, we see an increase in tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, and an ensuing media war between ministers and other officials who eagerly exchange accusations.
These are usually followed by a meeting of the PMs and the standard statement along the lines of: “It was positive and all ongoing issues were resolved”. But in reality it is just a temporary agreement to settle an issue – one that lasts either a year (when the dispute involves the budget) or for the term of one of the governments – Baghdad or Erbil.

There are various reasons for this fluctuating relationship between the two cities, but these solutions are far from sustainable. What is required is a change in the mentality of both sides to understand the nature of their relationship, to accept the new reality of Iraq and work on true confidence-building measures between the two cities. Historically, Iraq has been defined by a strong Baghdad with a dictator, while Erbil has served as the center of an armed opposition movement.
This has changed; today, Baghdad does not have as much control, and has an elected government in which the Kurds are represented.
Erbil is the capital of a region that is trying to rebuild what Baghdad destroyed over an 80-year period. Both Baghdad and Erbil still don’t digest this reality.
Erbil still sends a “negotiating team” to a government that they are part of; and Baghdad still behaves as if it is giving Erbil a share that it would not otherwise “deserve”.
The two sides are still trying to figure out what federalism means in the new Iraq. The constitution provided guidelines, but day-to-day operations are proving that each has a different understanding.
Miscommunications and misunderstandings on fundamental issues are usually cleared up by two groups: the technocrats and the politicians.
So far, most of the communication between Baghdad and Erbil has been led by politicians, and the delegation that appears on TV newscasts is usually the entire team on both sides.
A government official in Erbil, who is not a politician, said that on “many occasions, our politicians try to solve deep and complex issues with high-level handshakes.” He said that the absence of technocrats on these talks causes serious misunderstandings: “Each side thinks that they have agreed to something different”.
The statements after every breakthrough meeting are nearly identical – they even include the same language — because the talks are always between a small circle of people.
This is creating a strong perception of a lack of transparency amongst the public.
The public in Iraq in general is not clear on exactly what the issues are; what (or who) is causing the tension; how were they solved; or what happened that caused the breakthrough.
As a result, the public sentiment is one of resentment or even rejection of “the other”.
The distance between ordinary Kurds and Arabs should have been a lot closer than what it is today.
The reality is that dialogue between these two cities is quite dysfunctional, to say the least. Relations between the Kurds and Arabs today are reduced to politicians, Arab tourists during holiday seasons and a small amount of business. None of these help the public understand the other side’s reality.
To create permanent solutions, our politicians need to step back a bit and allow for other non-political bridges to be built between the two cities. It’s time to get the technocrats of both sides to iron out the issues, and then bring together political leaders to place their signatures on clear, open and permanent agreements.

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