Ashkelon, Israel - A shipment of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan has apparently been unloaded at the port here, despite objections from Baghdad, but the oil's final destination remains to be a mystery.
The SCF Altai moored in Ashkelon on Friday morning carrying the second cargo of crude exported from northern Iraq through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The route to Turkey, which was completed last year, allows Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil to bypass the federal pipeline system run by Baghdad.
On Sunday morning, the Liberian-flagged ship could be seen anchored to an offshore buoy in Ashkelon. It departed a few hours later, and ship tracking data showed that it was riding higher in the water, a sign that it had unloaded its cargo.
But in a statement, the KRG denied that any oil was sold "directly or indirectly" to Israel. An adviser to Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish prime minister, repeated that denial, suggesting that the shipment would be re-exported to another buyer.
"I would point out that oil often changes hands many times before it reaches its final destination," he said. "It's unloaded, and re-loaded. This is standard practice."
Officials at the port declined to comment, as did the Israeli energy ministry. "We do not comment about the sale of oil to private companies in Israel," said Maya Etzioni, a spokeswoman for the ministry.
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Analysts said the oil would likely be stored in Israel and eventually sent elsewhere. A pipeline connects Ashkelon to the Red Sea port of Eilat, which would allow the shipment to bypass the Suez Canal and travel onwards to Asia.
The KRG currently pumps about 120,000 barrels per day through the Ceyhan pipeline, but so far it has struggled to find buyers. The first shipment was loaded last month, and the tanker initially set sail for the United States, but it made a U-turn and is now anchored at a Moroccan port which refuses to accept its cargo. Two other tankers are currently loading at Ceyhan, the KRG said on June 20.
Baghdad has threatened legal action against anyone who buys the Kurdish cargoes, and the US and several European countries have warned firms not to accept them.
Israel, however, does not have any contracts with Baghdad, so it would face limited consequences for buying or transshipping oil from Ceyhan. It also has maintained quiet ties with Kurdish leaders, viewing a future Kurdish state as a useful ally on the periphery of the Arab world.
"The KRG is coy about dealing with Israel because of the controversy and the emotion that Israel brings about in the Muslim world," said Shwan Zulal, a Kurdish energy analyst. "But if Israel is willing to be supportive, and other countries are not, the Kurds will deal with them."
There could soon be even more oil flowing through Ceyhan. The KRG seized control of Kirkuk earlier this month amid the chaos caused by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's offensive in Iraq. Oil fields in Kirkuk account for half of Iraq's exports, and Kurdish leaders are talking about diverting their new-found supplies through the northern pipeline.