France’s Total has become the second major oil firm to defy Baghdad by signing agreements to work in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional of northern Iraq.

Total issued a statement on 31 July stating that it had completed the acquisition of 35 per cent stakes in two exploration blocks from US oil firm Marathon Oil.

The company will be the operator of the 424-square kilometre Safen block, while Marathon will operate the 705 kilometre Harir block. Marathon acquired the blocks which lie to the northeast of the provincial capital Irbil, in October 2010.

As one of the US’s main mid-size oil firms, with significant international experience, the agreements are widely seen as a vote of confidence in the region.

The addition of Total, and other major international oil companies has added to this claim. Total is part of a consortium led by China National Petroleum Corporation currently developing the Halfaya oil field in the south of Iraq.

The US’ ExxonMobil became the first oil firm working on oil fields in the south of Iraq to also sign agreements with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), signing six exploration and production blocks in October 2011. The company was subsequently blacklisted from competing in Iraq’s fourth oil and gas licensing round held in May.

The Oil Ministry has repeatedly condemned oil contracts signed with the KRG, saying only it has the authority to enter agreements for oil production. Nevertheless, international oil companies have been increasingly drawn to the largely untapped potential in the north of Iraq. Chevron, another US oil firm also bought stakes in the Rovi and Sarta blocks in late July.