Despite Kurdish President Massoud Barzani's surprising public statement this week indicating that he does not wish for an independent Kurdistan, the regional government is continuing efforts to make Arbil its own locus of power.
Ongoing intransigence regarding the KRG's right to independently negotiate deals with oil and gas companies continues to trouble Maliki's regime. KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani traveled to Baghdad for discussions this week, though has given no indication that Baghdad's displeasure will hamper Kurdish ambitions.
That simmering angst may get a shot of anger when Baghdad learns that Kurdish officials are pressing the US for a cooperative strategic agreement separately from the one already signed by President Maliki.
Two weeks ago, the White House and the Maliki government released a joint declaration of "principles" for "friendship and cooperation"--the first step towards a strategic agreement that would most likely include long-term basing arrangements.
Omar Fatah, deputy prime minister of the KRG, arrived back in Kurdistan this week after a short visit to the US, saying that he delivered the message that the KRG wants a "strategic agreement with the Americans" similar to the one Washington signed with Baghdad last month.
"We expressed our pleasure about the agreement between Washington and Baghdad, " said Fatah, adding Iraqi Kurds want their own deal. "We want an agreement that would see that Kurds are not oppressed again," he said, referring to atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's regime.
Having US troops based in Kurdistan would be an insurance policy against Turkish invasion and would assuage Kurdish fears of the prospect of a strong central government.
The Kurdish Regional Government has made no secret of their ambition for an agreement with the US that could include some basing rights, as KRG spokesman in the US Qubad Talabani told me this past summer, "We are interested in a long term strategic cooperative agreement with the U.S. - one that will allay our fears of being abandoned, while also serving U.S. interests as it pursues this war on terror."
US military sources indicate the leadership has its eyes on Kurdish land to base a long-term presence of American troops, something which the Kurdish government would welcome, though perhaps not so eagerly if the terms of the agreement were negotiated between Baghdad and the US.
Strategic security agreements are generally negotiated between two-nation states--not a state and a region--but Kurdistan is looking for every means available to assert its independence, without actually declaring it. The challenge for the US will be to carefully pursue its own interests without upsetting either party, or encouraging regional independence so much that it establishes the seeds for future armed conflict within Iraq.
Perhaps Kurdish leaders have resigned themselves to remaining a part of the Iraqi nation (or perhaps not), but regardless of their long-term ambitions, it's clear now that the KRG is seeking any way to marginalize the central authorities in Baghdad. Whether it be in the realm of natural resources, managing security affairs, or negotiating a bi-lateral agreement, Kurdistan wants to be sure Baghdad understands who runs northern Iraq.