THE BLOG

Overcoming Tensions in Iraq and a Possible Railway Revolution

26/02/2013 11:48 GMT | Updated 26/02/2013 11:48 GMT

Many people ask me whether the Kurdistan Region in Iraq will become independent. This could be done either by seceding if and when the moment is right, and thanks ironically to its warmer ties with Turkey, or by being pushed out of Iraq in order to enhance Shia domination of the country.

The Kurds have always made it plain that they have decided to remain part of Iraq but as long as it is a country based on democracy and federalism. Their bitter and bloody experience of the opposite, especially under Saddam Hussein, is becoming better known.

The constitution, agreed in a referendum in 2005, provides a federal model but is stalled. The central government in Baghdad, especially its Prime Minister and his allies, are dead set against allowing the Kurdistan Region the right, which they claim is constitutional, to make their own arrangements with oil and gas companies and to export independently.

The Kurds say this is necessary because their oil and gas fields are new and require greater incentives for foreign companies to explore and produce. The energy has always been there but was completely ignored for decades whereas the fields in the south of Iraq are long established.

There are other disputes concerning a reliable revenue sharing practice, the funding of the Kurdish military forces and the status of disputed territories.

Confrontation between the Kurdistan Region and some in Baghdad has been brewing for a long time. Shots have been fired and one person has been killed but full scale fighting has been averted. There is a war of words with the Kurds, and Sunnis on other issues, being deeply critical of the current Prime Minister who they wish to be replaced by a less divisive figure.

The Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has reminded the country of the condition of their decision to stay in Iraq - that it should be democratic and federal in order to avoid the repetition of the genocide whose 25th anniversary is being marked next month and being debated in the Commons this week.

In these circumstances, people are reading the runes in different and sometimes apocalyptic ways. Some say that the Kurds' game plan is to create the conditions for independence. Others believe that the prospects for Kurdish independence are talked about more in the Arab part of the country than in its Kurdistan Region.

Others think that the Kurdish leadership has no such strategy but is simply seeking the implementation of the Iraqi constitution and protecting their rights under it. The link with Turkey could allow an independent export capacity to the Kurdistan Region and also help end the war between the PKK and Turkey.

It could also be said that it would be unwise for the Kurds to jump out of the Iraqi fire into the Turkish frying pan. They could have the best of all worlds in a solidly autonomous region of Iraq.

In the meantime, the outstanding issues need to be resolved. Taking a step back from the current heat of the arguments it is, in my view, a storm in a tea cup for Baghdad to bang on so wildly about how the Kurds decide to handle their energy resources, given that it doesn't alter the fact that all energy is the property of the Iraqi people as a whole and all revenues go to the central coffers.

These essentially arcane issues just obstruct the potential for Iraq to take back its rightful place at the centre of the Middle East. One exciting and potentially transformative possibility would, for instance, be the renaissance of rail travel in the Middle East. Cars and trucks damage the environment, planes are for the few but rail is for the masses. Rail is also better suited for a hot climate. David Cameron, on his recent visit to India, was almost certainly told of the vital role that British-built railways have had made in that country.

New freight and passenger lines between, say, Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Dohuk and Ceyhan in Turkey would drive new markets and knit people together wherever the borders are. And Iraq would be the transport hub of the whole region.

Iraq has come a long way in just ten years but it could go much further if leading politicians could see the bigger picture and as new generations of activists make their mark.