Just six months ago, Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, was buzzing. Walking through the streets of the ancient city, where I was living and working, I could sense the tension that had descended on the Kurds as they geared up for another fight against Baghdad. “We won’t let (Iraqi prime minister Nouri) al-Maliki take Kirkuk from us,” people told me repeatedly.

Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi federal troops had just engaged in a deadly firefight near the northern city of Tikrit. Now both sides streamed tens of thousands of soldiers to the contested city of Kirkuk, where they faced each other in a tense standoff.

Over the ensuing months, relations between the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish administration in Erbil deteriorated even further. The sides were so deeply at odds — over oil, territory, and money — that prolonged conflict seemed inevitable.

The Kurds were not the only challenge facing Maliki’s administration, which has grown increasingly close with Iran. Iraq’s Sunnis would soon be protesting violently across the country, placing the Shiite prime minister under even more pressure.

Then the unthinkable happened. Early last month, Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani stunned Iraq by announcing they had reached a deal resolving the major issues plaguing the bilateral relationship.

The news seemed hard to believe. After years of mounting hostility, how were the two leaders able to find so much common ground so quickly? And so it immediately prompted a second question: Is the deal for real, truly built to last, or will it merely give Maliki some breathing room before he reverts to his old policies toward the Kurds?

Both the US and Israel may have a stake in the answers.

A friend in a dangerous region

America and Israel emphatically have an interest in the fate of the Kurds, especially those in northern Iraq. The United States has lost thousands of lives and spent billions of dollars attempting to locate and support democratic, pro-American leaders and governments in the Middle East. Bitter experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Authority has shown how daunting the task is. The Arab Spring, expected by some in the US — though rather fewer in Israel — to usher in a generation of democratic leaders in the Arab world, has thus far signally failed to deliver.

Though there is some religiously inspired anti-Westernism, the Kurds on the whole are vigorously pro-American. “Kurdistan, America — brothers!” Kurdish cab drivers would tell me as they leaned in too close and offered free rides. The oft-quoted Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” now often ends with “… and the Americans.” The KRG, attempting to build up its private sector, expends great energy trying to attract western, and especially American, investment.

In addition, the Kurds see the partnership with the US as a vital strategic asset in a region with powerful rivals. While Maliki refused to extend a December 2011 deadline for the US troop withdrawal from Iraq, the Kurds say they would be thrilled to host permanent American bases in Iraqi Kurdistan instead. “I think the parliament, the people and government of Kurdistan will welcome this warmly,” said KRG President Massud Barzani, the prime minister’s uncle. Though the idea is entirely unrealistic, it is a clear indication of how deeply the Kurds are willing to commit to their relationship with the US.

The Kurdish-Israeli relationship cannot be as overt, but security ties run deep. A Mossad officer named Sagi Chori was sent to help his close friend, the late iconic Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, manage the Kurds’ battles against the Iraqi army in the 1960s. (The partnership has been well-documented, in Kurdish and Israeli media.) And reports of Israel training Kurdish commandos continue to surface. Nationalist Kurds tend to see Israel as a role model for an independent Kurdistan, a small nation surrounded by enemies, bolstered by a strategic partnership with the United States.

Israel has long developed alliances with non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East. Today, that policy rests on partnerships with Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, and Caucasian and central Asian countries. Kurdistan fits perfectly into that framework.

Meanwhile, Maliki’s administration in Baghdad continues to move closer to Iran. Tehran and Damascus both supported his struggle to secure a second term as prime minister in 2010. Maliki has allowed Iran to fly over Iraqi territory on the way to support the Assad regime in Syria. An increasingly assertive KRG, and a diminished central government in Baghdad, could make it harder for Tehran to dictate the future of Iraq, and indeed, the entire region.

Maliki under pressure

After a relatively successful first term as Iraqi prime minister from 2006-2010, Maliki entered his second term bent on consolidating his own authority. It didn’t quite work.

The parliamentary elections had left him short of support for a new coalition so, following an eight-month stalemate, and with Iran’s encouragement, he persuaded the Kurds to back his government in return for a commitment to enact power-sharing measures.

Maliki implemented almost none of them, and found his administration under increasing pressure from all sides.

Arabs and Kurds have always looked at one another with suspicion, but relations between Baghdad and Erbil took a precipitous turn for the worse.

Oil, predictably, was a sticking point. The Kurdish government had never been happy with the arrangement that saw its ample oil resources flowing through pipelines controlled by Baghdad in return for a cut of the profits. Disillusioned with Maliki, the Kurds began signing deals directly with major oil companies, although at first they had no means to export their oil.

Claiming that Maliki’s government owed them more than $4 billion in oil payments, the KRG stopped exporting oil via Baghdad altogether in January. Baghdad, for its part, argued that the KRG’s deals with foreign oil companies — cutting out the federal government — were in violation of Iraqi law, and that it was holding up the back payments to pressure the Kurds to cede control of all oil deals to the central government.

The disputed city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq was another serious, long-term focus of dispute. An ethnically mixed city with Turkomen, Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrian Christians, Kirkuk historically sat within a heavily Kurdish province. However, when Saddam Hussein came to power in the 1970s, he embarked on a campaign of Arabization, bringing in Arab families to replace the 100,000 Kurds he had driven out.

Kurds see Kirkuk as an integral part of their historic homeland that should rightfully be under Kurdish authority. Kurds told me they consider it the “Kurdish Jerusalem.” A referendum on Kirkuk’s future, mandated by the 2005 Iraqi constitution, has been delayed indefinitely, and the city is currently split into ethnic pockets with their own security forces. Throw in one of the world’s largest oil fields beneath the contested city, and Kirkuk is a tinderbox lying in the middle of an already combustible Iraq.

It nearly exploded into violence over the winter. Maliki sent the Iraqi Army into Kirkuk, ostensibly to protect the city from terrorists. Kurds saw this as an attempt to take control by force, and poured in reinforcements. A gunfight between Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers in November 2012 near Tikrit left 12 federal troops dead and both sides anticipating more bloodshed.

A month later, Iraq’s minority Sunni population — with strong ties to the former Saddam regime — erupted into vehement anti-Maliki protests. After forcing Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi to flee the country in December 2011 under charges of terrorism, Maliki charged the Sunni finance minister with similar crimes. Sunni anti-government protests in the town of Hawija two months ago led to deadly clashes between government forces and protesters. This was the last straw for Iraq’s Sunnis, and violence spiraled out of control across Sunni provinces. Maliki has been unable to stem the growing discontent, and over 300 Iraqis have lost their lives in the ongoing turmoil.

Maliki’s headaches didn’t end there. His leverage over the Kurds slipped even further as the landlocked Kurdistan Region found a way to export its energy resources: via Turkey. Improving relations with Ankara led to agreements earlier this year over the construction of an oil pipeline into its northern neighbor. Ties between Turkey and the KRG took another major step forward in late March with a historic cease-fire agreement between Ankara and the Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK.

Maliki’s government tried to use the 2013 budget to punish the KRG. On March 7, Baghdad passed a budget giving the Kurds only $646 million of the $3.5 billion they expected. In protest, Kurdish parliamentarians and ministers in Baghdad boycotted the assembly and headed home.

One way out

It’s in the context of Maliki’s increasing weakness, the violent displeasure of the Sunnis, and the rising confidence of the Kurds, that last month’s Maliki-Barzani pact was sealed.

“Maliki was forced to take this move,” said Iraq expert Prof. Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University, “because of the deteriorating relations with the Sunnis. His earlier attempts to play Sunnis against Kurds and vice-versa did not work. So in order not to face two enemies at once … he opted once again to come to terms with the Kurds.”

Kurdish PM Nechirvan Barzani (photo credit: US Department of Defense)

Kurdish PM Nechirvan Barzani (photo credit: US Department of Defense)

The deal came together on May 1, when the Kurdish prime minister visited Baghdad.

At least on paper, the 7-point agreement addresses the key long-standing issues of dispute. In addition to compensation for victims of Saddam’s attacks on Kurds in the 1980s, the agreement includes provisions aimed to resolve the division of oil and gas profits, disputes over territory, and the Kurdish share of the federal budget.

The big question is whether the accord will lead to lasting cooperation, or whether vague, grand pronouncements will go unimplemented once again. Kurds themselves disagree over what the deal means.

Barzani’s allies are celebrating, and Kurds I spoke with in Erbil told me they were happy with the agreement.

But the opposition Kurdish Gorran (Change) party, not inclined to like anything PM Barzani does in any event, said the deal served the interests of the oil companies.

Prof. Bengio thinks likewise. She says the deal is unlikely to lead to a lasting resolution over oil resources or the fate of Kirkuk. “Maliki would not like to be seen as someone who sold these national assets,” she emphasized.

For its part, Iran will do its utmost to prevent the agreement from being implemented. The terms weaken Maliki and his Shiite allies, and strengthen the pro-American Kurds.

The history of Iraq, like the rest of the region, is littered with empty agreements and declarations. This may well be yet another. Still, the very fact that Maliki publicly agreed to its terms shows how precipitously his position, and by extension Iran’s, has slipped.

If that trend continues, there is a real possibility of an emerging independent, energy-rich Kurdistan, looking for Western support. A democratically inclined and reasonably friendly Muslim country, sitting right on Iran’s border, would be a boon for Israelis and Americans interested in countering hostile forces and building a pro-Western alliance in the region.