By Julia Payne and Aziz El Yaakoubi
LONDON/RABAT, June 5 (Reuters) – Iraqi Kurdistan’s bid to sell its first tanker of crude oil appeared to suffer a second setback in as many weeks on Thursday after Moroccan authorities ordered the ship to leave its waters.
The United Leadership tanker, a symbol of a long-running feud between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)over oil sale rights, loaded one million barrels of Kurdish crude on May 22 and has changed course twice abruptly without discharging oil.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said last week the tanker was designed to show Baghdad that the Kurds controlled their own oil sales.
But Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, which has deemed any exports of oil not under its control illegal, so far appears to have been successful in warding off potential buyers.
Nadia Laraki, director general at Morocco’s national port agency, said the tanker did not berth at Mohammedia and left without unloading at the request of the Moroccan authorities but declined to say which ones.
The tanker was now about 34 miles off the Moroccan coast, she said, in international waters.
“It’s not for us to say if it will return to the port…if the tanker gets the required authorisations, it will dock in Mohammedia port, otherwise it will not,” Laraki said.
After first sailing towards the U.S. Gulf Coast, according to tanker tracking data and shipping sources, the vessel turned back towards the Mediterranean at the end of last week.
It sailed to a refinery at the port of Mohammedia on June 2 and after sitting anchored for two days, sailed to just off the coast, ship tracking data showed on Thursday.
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This is the first attempt to sell a shipload of Kurdish crude, which has been exported to Turkey via the region’s newly built pipeline.
“This tells me that the KRG is facing real difficulties finding a buyers,” Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group.
“Many analysts expected that since the KRG already had a process to sell before with trucks … that this could be replicated on a bigger scale.”
Baghdad has repeatedly said that state marketer SOMO is the only body allowed to export Iraqi oil and has hired a law firm to pursue anyone who buys it.
A source familiar with the matter said Iraq immediately sought assurances from Morocco’s state oil company, foreign and energy ministries that it would not permit the tanker to discharge its oil.
The Moroccan, Iraqi and Kurdish governments either declined to comment or did not respond to requests from Reuters for comment on the tanker on Wednesday and Thursday.
“Baghdad was turning a blind eye before and now hired a top international law firm, the fact that they are actively pursuing buyers is making a difference and deterring potential buyers of Kurdish crude,” Kamel at Eurasia Group said.
In late 2013, Iraq hired Vinson and Elkins to pursue buyers of Kurdish oil. (Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil and David Sheppard in London; editing by Jason Neely and David Evans)
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