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A Mysterious Oil Tanker Might Hold the Key to Kurdish Independence

A mysterious oil tanker off the coast of Texas might hold the key to Kurdish independence
A Mysterious Oil Tanker Might Hold the Key to Kurdish Independence
Photograph by Craig Washburn for Bloomberg Businessweek

At any given time, the Gulf of Mexico is crawling with oil tankers, many of them delivering some of the 7.5 million barrels of foreign crude the U.S. imports each day. On July 23 a Greek-owned oil tanker named the United Kalavryta came around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. For the previous month, as it crossed the Atlantic, its destination had been Brazil. Now it was headed for Galveston, Texas, a gateway to some of the biggest refineries in the U.S. What made the Kalavryta special was that its cargo was from Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region in northern Iraq that boasts an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil reserves. The Kurds contend it’s theirs to produce and sell as they choose. The government in Baghdad disagrees.

By the time the Kalavryta reached the edge of U.S. waters, the Iraqi government had filed a lawsuit in Houston federal court to block the tanker from unloading any oil. Iraq asked the U.S. to seize the ship’s cargo and put out the word that anyone who buys or offloads oil from the Kalavryta would be charged with possession of stolen goods. A magistrate judge in Houston issued an arrest warrant and ordered U.S. marshals to seize the oil if the Kalavryta came into U.S. waters. Then, after the Kurds appealed the decision, a district judge named Gray Miller complicated matters. On Aug. 25 he ruled in favor of the Kurds, claiming he lacked authority to stop them from bringing their crude ashore. With the tanker’s legal status still unresolved, and the Iraqis quickly contesting Miller’s ruling, just before 5 a.m. on Aug. 26, the Kalavryta disappeared.