* Kurdish crude from Ceyhan delivered by Kamari tanker
* Total sales approaching $350 million
* Cargoes sold in June and July off Israel, Malaysia
* Kamari made ship-to-ship transfer off Malta Thursday
By Julia Payne and David Sheppard
LONDON, Aug 15 (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdistan has delivered its third major cargo of crude oil out of a Turkish port and a fourth is sailing to Croatia, showing the autonomous region is finding more buyers despite legal pressure from Baghdad and setbacks in the United States.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), whose peshmerga forces are being supported by U.S. airstrikes in their battle against the radical Sunni militants of Islamic State, has been in a long constitutional fight with Baghdad over independent oil sales.
But while some shipments have been tied up by diplomatic and legal pressure from Baghdad, an increasing number are now finding buyers. Around $350 million in oil sales have been completed or are under way from shipments sent via the KRG’s new pipeline to Turkey, a Reuters analysis of satellite tracking data shows. The first vessel of pipeline crude sailed in May.
“The sales process is standardising and our order book is growing,” a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government said when asked about the sales.
“While we are fighting a war with the Islamic State we’re also facing an economic war from Baghdad.”
Baghdad has cut the KRG’s budget since January over the oil sales dispute, saying it has sole authority to export crude from the country.
One cargo of Kurdish crude aboard the United Kalavrvta tanker has been sitting off the Texas coast since late July after Baghdad asked a court to seize the vessel. The ship remains in international waters off the U.S. coast, unable to unload. The KRG is appealing against Baghdad’s request.
Another vessel carrying Kurdish crude from Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, the United Leadership, has been anchored off Morocco for more than two months without unloading.
But a little over two weeks ago, the 1 million barrel Suezmax Kamari tanker loaded Kurdish oil at Ceyhan before sailing to a point just under 200 km (125 miles) off the Israeli and Egyptian coasts.
Reuters AIS Live ship tracking showed the ship was fully loaded, based on its draft in the water. After turning its satellite tracking off on Aug. 1, the ship reappeared four days later sitting far higher in the water - indicating it had unloaded its cargo of disputed oil.
It was not possible to determine which port the oil had been delivered to or who the buyer was. In June a cargo of Kurdish oil that sailed from Ceyhan aboard the United Emblem Suezmax tanker was delivered into Israel after being transferred at sea to another ship. The KRG has denied selling oil to Israel “directly or indirectly”.
Another cargo, again carried by the United Emblem tanker, was transferred to a second vessel off the coast of Malaysia late last month. The buyer remains unknown.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been selling small volumes of oil trucked into Turkey since 2012 but has faced fiercer opposition from Baghdad since its own pipeline to Ceyhan started at the turn of the year. It now carries around 120,000 barrels per day to the port.
The KRG has said it plans to increase oil sales to around 1 million bpd by the end of next year, which could potentially give it enough economic clout to speed a push for independence.
This week the Kamari has again loaded crude at Ceyhan, sailing to Malta where it executed a ship-to-ship transfer to a smaller vessel called the United Carrier, a shipping source familiar with the matter said and ship tracking showed.
The vessel is managed by Greece-based Marine Management Services, the same company that runs the Suezmax tankers lifting Kurdish oil.
The United Carrier is now sailing towards a port in Croatia. The Omisalj port imports oil for Croatia’s refineries, which are partly-owned by Hungary’s Mol Group, a company that has invested in oilfields in Iraqi Kurdistan.
A spokeswoman for Mol Group in Hungary declined to comment.
The Croatian government, which owns the 100,000 barrel per day INA refining company jointly with Mol Group, was not available to comment on Friday - a public holiday in Croatia.
Based on international prices above $100 a barrel, total Kurdish crude sales from Ceyhan would total around $350 million, even if some tankers have been slightly discounted.
This week a senior Turkish official called on the United States to lift hurdles to the sale of crude from Iraqi Kurdistan, the Financial Times reported, saying Kurdistan was facing an enemy that was boosting its operations through oil sales.
Islamic State militants are selling oil from oilfields and refineries they control to local communities and smugglers, U.S. intelligence officials said on Thursday.
“We appreciate the Turkish line of thinking and we believe other countries should also support oil sales from Iraqi Kurdistan,” the senior KRG source said.
“If they are going to trust Kurdistan to fight ISIS (the previous name of Islamic State) they should not expect us to do it with one hand tied behind our back.”
On Thursday Nuri al-Maliki finally bowed to pressure and stepped down as Iraqi prime minister. There are hopes the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will negotiate an oil sales agreement with the KRG, though some have cautioned he has previously backed Maliki’s stance on the issue.
The latest signs point to the KRG continuing to step up its oil sales. The United Dynamic, another Suezmax tanker managed by the same shipping firm as the other Kurdish oil vessels is also now sailing towards Ceyhan, according to Reuters AIS Live.
On Friday the United Dynamic, which is currently empty, was off the northern coast of Tunisia. It is due to dock at Ceyhan on Aug. 21. (Additional reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb; editing by Keiron Henderson)