* First Maliki visit to Kurds in more than two years
* Little expectation of breakthrough in talks
* Shi'ite premier facing Sunni protests, surge in violence
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited the Kurdistan region on Sunday for the first time in more than two years, in an attempt to resolve a long-running dispute over oil and land that has strained Iraq's unity to the limit.
With the country's Shi'ite leadership facing fallout from the Syrian conflict, which has invigorated Sunni insurgents in Iraq and prompted warnings of civil war, better relations with the Kurds could ease some of the pressure on Maliki.
But no breakthrough was expected on Sunday.
Maliki's last official trip to Kurdistan was in 2010, when the "Arbil Agreement" was struck, allowing him to form a power-sharing government among majority Shi'ite Muslims, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds after months of wrangling.
That deal, like others since, was never fully implemented, and Baghdad's central government and the country's autonomous Kurdistan region have since been at odds over oil and disputed territories along their internal boundary.
"Our expectations should not be too high," said the Kurdistan Regional Government's chief of foreign affairs, Falah Mustafa. "The ball is in the court of the federal government in Baghdad."
Unless the current talks succeed where previous rounds have failed, Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said last week the self-ruled enclave would be forced to seek a "new form of relations" with Baghdad.
A cabinet meeting is due to be held in the Kurdish capital Arbil on Sunday.
Oil is likely to be high on the agenda.
In recent years, the Kurds have signed contracts on their own terms with the likes of Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Corp, antagonising Baghdad, which insists it alone is entitled to control exploration of Iraq's oil.
Kurdistan used to ship crude through a pipeline network controlled by Baghdad, but exports via that channel dried up last December due to a row over payments for oil companies operating in the northern enclave.
The region says the constitution allows it to exploit the reserves under its soil, and it is building the final leg of an independent oil export pipeline that could allow to break its reliance on a share of the federal budget.
"This meeting won't produce detailed solutions to the outstanding issues, but for sure it opens the door for dialogue and understanding based on goodwill," said cabinet secretary Ali al-Alaq, who travelled to Arbil from Baghdad.
Land is another major sticking point. The Iraqi army and Kurdish "peshmerga" troops have both deployed to an oil-rich band of territory over which both claim jurisdiction.
Easing relations with the Kurds would help Maliki, who is facing an intensified campaign by Sunni Islamist insurgents and months of protests by Sunni leaders who accuse the Shi'ite premier of marginalising them.
"The Kurds recognize that for months now, there has been an emerging opportunity to get Maliki to cooperate," said Ramzy Mardini at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Maliki probably recognizes that it is necessary to cooperate in the short term. The Sunni protests and the civil war in Syria are causing him a great deal of discomfort about his future prospects."