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Keeping Iraq's economy standing is a whole other challenge. Case in point - right now, three oil tankers are somewhere out at sea without a clear destination. They are carrying millions of gallons of crude from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and are the subject of legal and diplomatic wrangling. The problem is that even though the Kurds control the region's oil, their right to actually export it is in dispute. NPR's Jackie Northam explains.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On May 22, about 4 million barrels of crude oil surged through a pipeline running from the autonomous region in northern Iraq, which is controlled by Kurds, to a Turkish port. The crude was loaded into four tankers commissioned by the Kurdish regional government. One tanker, the United Leadership, sailed through the Mediterranean says Ben Lando with the Iraq Oil Report.

BEN LANDO: And it set sail, eventually heading to Morocco which is where the first alleged buyer was. But just as it was about to reach the port and unload, the Moroccan authorities refused entry and forced it back into international waters.

NORTHAM: Which is where the tanker remains.

LANDO: And this is because the Iraqi government and it's international lawyers and the U.S. government pushed back and essentially claimed that this oil is stolen, that it's smuggled - that it hasn't been exported with the authority of Baghdad and thus would be considered illegal. And they convinced the Moroccan authorities not to play ball.

NORTHAM: Relatively small amounts of crude oil have been trucked out of the Kurdish region into Turkey in the past, but this was the first time crude was shipped by pipeline. The Kurdish region sits on vast amounts of oil. Lando says at the moment, it has the potential to export upwards of 200,000 barrels a day.

But who has the rights to oil exports is open to interpretation. The Kurdish regional government says it does, and to that end, it signed contracts with major oil companies and tried to develop the industry over the past decade. But Iraq's central government, under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, says it controls the oil sector and any deals or exports must go through it. The U.S. also opposes oil exports by the Kurds because it could undermine Iraq's unity says state department spokesperson, Jen Psaki.

JEN PSAKI: Our position has long been that we don't support exports without the appropriate approval of the federal Iraqi government, and certainly, we do have concerns about the impact of those continuing.

NORTHAM: Baghdad's stance has brought international backing says David Goldwyn of Goldwyn Global Strategies and a former special envoy for international energy affairs at the State Department. He says any party trying to buy oil from the Kurdish regional government or KRG would face certain litigation from Iraq.

DAVID GOLDWYN: You have to have a pretty strong appetite for litigation to buy Iraqi oil which comes from the KRG because it is pretty clear to most parties that the marketing and export of oil from a country is a right which accrues to the national government.

NORTHAM: Two tankers that were loaded with that United Leadership vessel on May 22 are still at sea. According to online tracking data, one appears to be heading to South Africa - the other towards Brazil. Goldwyn says the final tanker commissioned by the Kurdish government was offloaded at a port in Israel.

GOLDWYN: In fact, it was quite clever I think of the KRG to pursue a transaction which had, at least, a tanker landing in Israel because Iraq doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel, and therefore, it would be difficult for them to lodge a lawsuit in Israel for the seizure of that oil.

NORTHAM: Still Goldwyn says it's not known who bought that oil shipment or even if it's been sold. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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