BERLIN, Germany – Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi blocked a visit by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to the Kurdistan Region in the beginning of November in an “undiplomatic way,” the German Der Spiegel reported on Thursday.
According to the German magazine, the chief diplomat wanted to first visit Baghdad and then head north to Erbil to meet with Kurdish authorities. Abadi strongly opposed this plan, instead giving a green for Gabriel to visit just Baghdad.
The dispute was not resolved even after Chancellor Angela Merkel picked up the phone to talk with Abadi. Gabriel subsequently cancelled the visit.
The planned visit was to take place after the Iraqi military incursion into the disputed or Kurdistani areas in mid-October, triggered by Baghdad’s rejection of Kurdistan’s independence vote.
Before the September referendum that saw nearly 93 percent support for leaving Iraq, almost all diplomatic visits followed the same pattern: land in Baghdad and then head north to Erbil. This however changed after the vote.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Baghdad after the October 16 crisis and met with Iraqi officials including Abadi and Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd. He did not visit Erbil.
No explanation was given at the time, but he has had at least two phone calls with Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani after the referendum, urging Baghdad and Erbil to start talks.
Other US officials have also skipped Erbil when visiting Iraq. General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, did so in late October.
US Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS Global Coalition Brett McGurk visited Baghdad in mid-October but bypassed Erbil, going straight to northern Syria. McGurk did visit both Baghdad and Erbil last week and met with PM Barzani and other Kurdish officials.
Baghdad controls all Iraqi air space, including Kurdistan’s. Even before the current flight ban preventing international flights in and out of Kurdish airports, Iraq had the last say over who flies into Kurdistan. Baghdad blocked a Turkish flight in 2012 carrying Ankara’s then energy minister Taner Yıldız.
UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson stated in a letter to PM Barzani on Wednesday that there is a “serious effort” in place to kick off talks between the two governments.
Erbil has expressed in clear terms that it is open for unconditional, open dialogue with Baghdad within the framework of the Iraqi constitution. Baghdad, on the other hand, demands the Kurdistan government accept all rulings of the Federal Court cancelling the “unconstitutional” referendum.
While criticizing the court’s conduct, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has yet to make comment on the verdict.
German FM Gabriel in early November appealed to his country’s parliament to extend its mission training the Peshmerga, arguing that international presence in the country would help prevent a civil war.
“The more international groups are active there, the lower the chance of a new escalation,” Gabriel told reporters, according to Reuters. “A withdrawal would be the wrong signal to the parties to the conflict, as if we were resigned to accepting the danger of a new civil war.”
About 130 German soldiers are based at the international anti-ISIS Combined Joint Operations Command Center, where they have worked with Iraqi and Kurdish commanders, in addition to Peshmerga units through the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center (KTTC).
German lawmakers last month agreed on a short-term extension of their deployment pending the formation of a new government after elections. The parliament must renew troop deployments annually.
Gabriel said he remained hopeful that a “fragile ceasefire” between Kurdish and Iraqi forces will hold and political solution can be found.
“A new civil war in Iraq would bring unbelievable suffering to this country, which has already suffered too much as a result of political conflicts in recent years,” he said.