Tag Archives: Baghdad

Erbil Deserves Equal Focus as Baghdad

As Iraq continued to make slow but steady gains against the Islamic State (IS), politicians were equally busy with scuffling and fighting of their own in parliament as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s reform drive continued to hit obstacles.

Abadi’s proposed cabinet reshuffle and reform plan, after weeks of protests led by influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr over corruption, lack of public services and a gloomy economic picture, has been met with fierce resistance. A plan for a government of technocrats to replace party-affiliated minister is great in theory but impossible in practice in the complicated landscape that is Iraq.

Are these relatively unknown technocrats, who lack any real clout or influence, really going to sway dominant parties who rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds?

More importantly, the great focus of the U.N. and international powers on Baghdad’s struggles by promoting stability and providing significant military aid and financial assistance merely ignores the equally difficult plight of the Kurdistan Region.

Whilst the region may not have experienced the same social unrest or public protests seen in the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has been operating under great constraints for over 2 years. If the dramatic decline of oil prices hit Baghdad hard then this is only amplified for Kurdistan where budget payments were already frozen by Baghdad putting pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) long before IS arrived on the scene, refugees arrived in droves and oil prices tumbled.

Erbil’s fight against IS is no less significant than Baghdad’s, and the West should not just respond to whoever creates the biggest social or political commotion.

Kurdistan deserves an entitlement of all aid provided to Baghdad including its own financial assistance package from the international community.

If Baghdad has limited cards at its disposal to turn the economy around, then the KRG has a much tougher hand to work with. For example, the KRG cannot control value of the Iraqi currency or raise debts on financial markets.

Of course, the urgent need for financial assistance in Kurdistan should not mask the need to continue its reform drive. The economy is overly reliant on oil revenues, there is a lack of a tax regime, there a need for greater transparency and far too much of the population relies directly on government salaries.

The Peshmerga, who are at the heart of the coalition war on IS, do not receive salaries in months as with much of the population. If this scenario was mirrored in the U.S. or E.U., there would be great chaos and unrest.

The Kurdish population has been fairly resilient so far, but patience when families are affected so deeply, can only stretch so far.

KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani recently urged for coalition partners to provide budgetary support, warning that the crisis facing the region had made it one of the “most vulnerable entities in the coalition.”

Which government in the E.U. would not suffer if they had over million refugees to support, crippling revenue streams, insufficient international support and a war on its door step?

The crisis is bound to impact the fight against IS and the current cycle cannot continue.

Talabani stressed that reform measures had cut the monthly deficit to $100 million, but further support was now needed. “It’s important for our friends around the world to realize that this threat facing Kurdistan … is real and without immediate direct support the experiment of Kurdistan is in danger,” warned Talabani.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Cleaning polluted political waters in Iraq when streams are rising

The Kurds prepare to send yet another delegation to Baghdad but can the same formula produce a different answer?

The political forces in the Kurdistan Region are preparing to send a delegation ahead of Eid Ad’ha to Baghdad, hailed as a “final attempt” to solving the crisis.

The delegation, which was intended to represent a cross-spectrum of Kurdish political voices, is charged with reaffirming the Region’s adherence to the constitution and former deals concluded but also on the other hand to warn the government over its damaging monopolisation policies.

Kurdish political forces have agreed to take a united stand should attempts to find a solution prove futile.

While looking for factors to remain hopeful or positive, it is difficult to overlook the fact that such delegations, negotiations and attempts at reconciliation are hardly new.

Furthermore, they come at a time when a Kurdish olive branch has been severely burned by brazen and worrying statements from a leader of the State of Law Coalition, Yassin Majeed, who attacked Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani as a “a real danger to Iraq’s economy and national security” just as the Kurds were preparing their reach out.

While the statement from Majeed may not be reflective of the overall view of the State of Law Coalition, it severely derails any positive motions that are initiated and makes the bridge towards reconciliation and understanding all the more slippery.

Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, severely reprimanded Majeed for his statements, deeming them as a “call to war”. Talabani blasted Majeed’s “provocative” and “reckless” statements at a time when the Kurdish government was working to send a delegation to reignite dialogue with the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA) and other groups.

The Kurdistan Alliance (KA) also hit back at Majeed saying his stance was designed to cover the failures of the government, and as Barzani is against the onset of a totalatarian regime spurred towards sectarianism and the corruption that is rife in Baghdad.

The problem is Majeed’s stance is unlikely to be an isolated view and too often dialogue has proved fruitless and met with insincere ears. Nouri al-Maliki is the real danger in Iraq and his centralisation tendencies have too often been masked under narrow political or security pretexts.

All of the problems that grip Iraq today including issues between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad have been discussed before with agreed mechanisms for their resolution.

The problem in Iraq is not finding agreements amongst parties but the implementation of such agreements. The Iraqi constitution already lays the groundwork for the resolution of disputed territories, oil sharing, federal powers and the distribution of the federal budget. The Erbil Agreement and the 19 points that underpinned the agreement that formed a key precondition for the formation of the current coalition and broke the unprecedented political stalemate, already make the terms and basis for political partnership clear.

Why does an already settled and accepted Iraqi constitution or clear political basis for partnership need to be revised or restudied? How many more agreements need to be formed for a solution to the current differences or discrepancies to be adopted?

The issue is not striking agreement but the stomach and genuine intent to fulfilling the terms of such agreements. Until such a time, dozens more agreements will not be worth the paper they are written on.

This makes the Kurdish position all the more precarious. From the Transitive Administrative Law (TAL), the Iraqi constitution, to the Erbil agreement, they have watched as successive Baghdad governments and particularly Maliki have paid lip service to honouring such legally binding covenants.

The Kurdish leadership have emphasised that should the latest Kurdish delegation fail to yield solutions with the Baghdad government this time round, they will take a “united stand”. However, the manner of such a stance was not clear and ambiguities of reprisals in the face of broken Baghdad promises have hurt the Kurds on countless occasions before.

Any responses or actions by Kurds should they deem negotiations a failure should be met with definitive action. Conversely, if any agreements are struck, these should be measured by clear timetables and a join committee to monitor the implementation of the terms of agreement. What good is any political concord, such as the Erbil Agreement, if a little over a year to new national elections, the terms are not implemented?

Both internal developments as well as growing regional shifts and crises that are drastically changing the political and strategic outlook of the Middle East is pushing Iraq further apart with the stance of various factions becoming more engrained. Iraq does not have a coherent and commonly accepted domestic vision or strategy yet alone a national foreign policy and divisions are becoming more paramount.

While Iraq threatens Turkey as relations have nose-dived, the Kurds are growing ever closer to an economic and political alliance with Ankara. As the Kurds, favour an overthrow of Assad and have helped their ethnic brethren, Baghdad sought to the secure the Syrian border to avert any steps against the regime.

Baghdad remains ever weary of looking too far west by striking a new alliance with Russia and strengthening its ties with Shiite regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Sunnis remain wary of Shiite domination and naturally look towards their Sunni neighbours.

All in all, resolutions on Kirkuk, disputed territories and oil sharing become even more difficult to resolve.

Just this week, Exxon-Mobil was mooted to sell its interests in the West-Qurna field in Southern Iraq, seemingly removing itself from the political chaos between Baghdad and Erbil. Exxon was affectively asked to take sides and it is appearing to do so in favour of lucrative returns in Kurdistan.

More than ever, Kurdistan and Iraq are two distinct and distant entities and the policies of Baghdad and Maliki should assume a lion’s share of the blame.

Maliki continues to act as a Shiite leader rather than a leader of Iraq and recent arms purchases raises doubts on whose security Maliki is trying to boost.

Iraq national budget in 2013 is set to be a record, but where are the billions of dollars been spent as Iraqis continue suffer from a lack of services and infrastructure? While Iraqi oil and defence budgets dramatically grow, Kurdistan is asked to cater for all its expenses, including defence forces which should fall under the national budget, out of its own portion of the budget.

Baghdad has set aside billons to develop oil field further south, but criticises the Kurds for any moves to bolster its oil industry.

Kurdish leaders have emphasised their adherence to the constitution and have warned repeatedly that they will not accept violations or neglect of constitutional principles. This is the same message that the Kurdish delegation will convey once more and it is time to show whether these warnings are just empty rhetoric or the basis of real intent.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd.net, Various Misc.


The regional fear of the disintegration of Iraq is out-dated, it has already happened.

The fear of the disintegration of Iraq is hardly breaking news. A persistent theme of the past 9 or so years of the new Iraq has been how to preserve unity and bring about true national reconciliation amongst a climate of deep mistrust.

Iraq in its transition to democracy may have achieved historical junctures but it has often stumbled to its milestones as opposed to a painless arrival at its new dawn.

More often than not, the major achievements in Iraq were underscored by heavy US pressure and much political jockeying and drama in Baghdad. As successive crisis”s have brewed, a semblance of calm were somewhat reinstated in the short-term by last minute dealings but too often at the expense of any long-term benefits. A policy of brushing key issues under the political rug always ran the risk of haunting the Iraqi political arena at some stage and just days after the US symbolic withdrawal from Iraq, another explosive crisis reared its ugly head in Iraq.

If the issues are been assessed at the surface then one can argue that current turmoil was instigated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki”s issuance of an arrest warrant against Iraq”s Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi and the subsequent ploy to sideline Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak from power. However, the water has been boiling on the sieve for several months and for one reason or another, it wouldn”t have taken much to tip sentiments over the edge.

Just take the current brittle coalition that was remarkably concluded after 11 months and set an unwanted world record. That in itself sums up all that is needed to explain the current upheaval and instability.

Even though Iyad Allawi”s predominantly Sunni-based al-Iraqiya group were the ultimate victors at the polls, they were threatened with been marginalised by al-Maliki”s Shiite Coalition. Months of wrangling ensured agreement on power-sharing but more through gritted teeth than true brotherly reconciliation.

Once al-Iraqiya didn”t get the empowered it demanded and real decision making authority, it was always a question of time before the political landscape would be rocked once more. Almost 2 years since the national elections, a number of key positions remain unfulfilled and still in the hands of al-Maliki in what was supposedly a temporary basis.

Turkish anxiety has dramatically increased by unfolding events, leading Ankara to go back and forth between Baghdad and Washington in recent weeks and warning about the dangers of an Iraqi disintegration. Although Turkey may have chosen to ignore reality for a while, the writing has been on the Iraqi wall for decades and particularly these past 9 years.

There is no danger of Iraqi fragmentation. It is already fragmented and now it”s only question of just how far the disintegration will go and regional countries must accept that reality sooner or later. Democracy has been fraught with difficulty in Iraq with voting along heavy sectarian and ethnic lines. Voting has been almost akin to a de facto national census than a true national voice gathering exercise.

While Turkey and neighbouring countries seemingly worked to promote national harmony and reconciliation in Iraq, ironically they have been responsible for the entrenchment of camps in Iraq.

Successive Shiite governments have swayed heavily towards Tehran, whilst Sunni groups, essentially marginalised from power from their heyday under Saddam Hussein, have worked to force a hand at the political table through the threat of insurgency or through jockeying in the political chambers. Turkmen have used the big brother threat, calling on the support of Turkey to ensure their cards on the table are not ignored, while for the Kurds it has been a case of not letting the rest of Iraq drag the prosperous Kurdistan Region down with them and at the same time building strategic ties to boost their autonomous status and growing economic clout.

How regional sectarian influence continues to grip Iraq can be seen with al-Maliki”s persistent support of the much maligned and under fire Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

This week al-Iraqiya kept up their boycott of Iraq”s parliament and cabinet accusing al-Maliki of monopolising power and not abiding by the terms that led to the eventual breakthrough of the current coalition.

Accusations of the centralising of power by al-Maliki is hardly new, it was a frequent criticism throughout the last election term.

With the importance of upholding calm and dialogue seemingly at large, a national conference has been proposed that should be held sometime this month. A national conference may save the day in the short-term as did the Erbil agreement but true concord may prove elusive once more.

No amount of political manoeuvring at the end of the day can paper over deep mistrust and animosity.  Even if national elections were held early, the end game would be the same. There is no guarantee that Iraq would not end up at the same juncture after new elections are held whilst the key ingredients that continuously poison the political atmosphere remain.

As for now, it is unlikely that al-Maliki will relinquish his firm grip on power. While al-Maliki has been under intense domestic and regional spotlight, he may escape this current escapade largely unscathed. Al-Iraqiya have used the threat of boycott but with so many Sunni”s in their ranks badly scarred from the boycott campaigns of the previous campaigns, it is unclear just how far the loyalty of their MPs stretch.

The current political tension may have hurt al-Iraqiya further with 11 politicians already revoking their ties to the alliance.  Al-Iraqiya MPs are mindful that further boycotts or spotlight may see more positions of power been relinquished to the powerful Shiite alliance.

The biggest danger is a coalition without al-Iraqiya altogether where al-Maliki musters support from Kurds and al-Iraqiya dissidents, a scenario that would certainly place sectarian tensions into overdrive. The recent spate of initiatives towards autonomy by predominantly Sunni provinces is an indicator of growing Sunni fear that preservation of local power aside, the may be confound to a running battle to avoid been sidelined in Baghdad.

The Kurds, who have attempted to remain neutral, once again find themselves with all the aces. Only with Kurdish support could al-Iraqiya spearhead a new government and only with Kurdish support could al-Maliki be ousted from government.

Logic would dictate that after many failed promises by al-Maliki towards the Kurds, including the lack of implementation of the vast majority of conditions that he signed up to as a prelude to Kurdish support, the Kurds would side with al-Iraqiya. However, the new crisis and the key Kurdish role of calming tensions, gives the opportunity for the Kurds to preserve al-Maliki”s seat and the current coalition, but no doubt with much sterner warnings and conditions for the Shiite Alliance and al-Maliki.

The fact remains that all too often al-Maliki has boldly reneged on agreements with Kurds and has simply gotten away with it, even as the Kurds have saved al-Maliki”s political skin on more than occasion. The issue of disputed territories remains as open and pertinent as ever, Baghdad remains at loggerheads with the Kurds on oil sharing and Baghdad has been hardly provided a positive endorsement of growing Kurdish strategic clout and prosperity. It is time for the Kurds to use their aces wisely.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Latest disappointment with oil draft gives Kurds spur to break an already fragile coalition

Oil has unenviably proved as the paradoxical treasure and curse of the Mesopotamian plains. With the third largest oil reserves in the world, Iraq has the potential to become one of the most solid and prosperous economies in the world and bring with it a great standard of living for it people.

However, the gift of nature has seen it empower and finance brutal dictatorial regimes and facilitate a centralisation of power that has been used to forcefully bind Iraq’s disparate social mosaic. Whoever controlled oil had the keys to the gates of Iraq. In this light, the Sunni’s used their control of oil revenues to underpin their power and influence.

Kurdistan was severely affected by policies of exclusion and systematic negligence that saw a very limited amount of its legitimate portion of Iraq’s oil revenues spent on infrastructure. Free from the clutches of dictatorship, the Kurds were able to progress from a standing start by building new roads, hospitals, universities and various facilities.

Given a unique chance to shape the new Iraq, Kurds and Shiites were keen to leave their imprint on the Iraqi oil sector. Ironically, while Sunni’s used oil to consolidate power, the majority of Iraq’s oil wealth is actually located in the Kurdish and Shiite regions, one of the contributing factors to a sense of Sunni despair in post-Saddam Iraq.

Sharing of the cake

Iraq has had a number of significant political handicaps to overcome as it has stumbled on the transitional path to democracy. The format of a new hydrocarbon oil law has proved the most strenuous of laws to agree.

The sharing of the Iraqi cake amongst a number of diverse and embittered groups has had ramifications in a number of spheres, but none more so than in the oil law that has come to epitomise the difficult challenge of keeping all sides happy.

Striking concord on the law oil law has implications on a number of other thorny issues plaguing Iraq such as federalism, balance of power and status of disputed territories

Over four years since the original draft was rejected amidst a highly charged and animated parliament, the task of formulating a draft that would appease all parties appears as elusive as ever.

Kurdish rebuke of new law

Any hope for ratification of the new oil draft that was passed by the Iraqi cabinet and submitted to parliament, were quickly dashed as the presidency of the Kurdistan region condemned efforts to usher the new draft in parliament.

Discussions around the oil law continue to place Kurdistan and Baghdad at loggerheads with the Kurds denouncing the current draft as contradicting the principles of the constitution.

Baghdad has refused to relinquish its historic grasp on the oil industry while the Kurds are keen to explore and develop their immense hydrocarbon potential. According to the Iraqi constitution there is a clear delineation between control of new oil fields and existing oil fields.

As a largely unexplored entity, almost all of Kurdistan’s newfound wealth can be considered as newly discovered.

As the gulf between both parties has grown over oil sharing, Kurdistan has continued a unilateral development of its oil sector with the awarding of dozens of oil contracts to foreign firms to the annoyance of Baghdad that has repeatedly deemed any deals without its consent as illegal.

The stalemate has gathered pace as a number of smaller oil exploration companies have struck black gold in spectacular fashion. As further oil wells are drilled, more flow tests prove successful and more seismic data is undertaken, the strength and potential of Kurdistan swells by the day.

Gulf Keystone Petroleum (GKP) is one British company that has benefited hugely from its eagerness to jump the queue. The potential recoverable resources has seemingly increased by billions of barrels as each new well has proved a success and GKP alone stands to have anything between 7-11 billion barrels of oil on its books. Other companies have included DNO, Genel Energy, Western Zagros and Heritage Oil with degrees of success.

While Kurdistan’s rise as a respectable oil power has been historic, its quest is greatly restricted by the noose that is Baghdad.

Issues over payments to third parties, revenue sharing, transportation of oil and Baghdad’s refusal to recognise any oil contracts signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threatens to derail Kurdish aspirations and at the same time deepen the animosity between Arabs and Kurds.

Kurdistan has been allowed to make limited exports but payment issues have quickly limited throughput.

Whilst Kurdistan is enjoying increasing attention from major global oil giants, threats by Baghdad to blacklist firms signing contracts with Kurdistan have deterred many parties. Only recently Iraq’s Oil Ministry excluded U.S. oil firm Hess Corp from competing in the 4th round of its auction of oil fields.

Basis for political concord

Such is the Kurdish sentiment on the enactment of a balanced oil law that it has formed a key prerequisite for Kurdish support of the current coalition.

However, much like the many promises over the implementation of article 140, the lack of reconciliation on oil law has served to only antagonise the Kurds.

While Baghdad has criticised the Kurds over the awarding of oil contracts, it has continued to encourage development of its oil industry with a number of contracts already signed and a fourth round of bidding currently on the table and scheduled to be finalised by January. This is in addition three major natural gas fields that were auctioned to foreign firms last year.

Baghdad has continued to encourage major oil films while at the same time the national oil draft has gathered dust. Iraq currently produces around 2.7 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) and has an ambitious target to multiply this to 12 million bpd in less than 6 years.

Grapple for power

Although pluralist governance and federalism was a key cornerstone of the constitution, Baghdad’s attempts of solidifying central control and diluting regional powers have been evident in recent years.

As the autonomy of the Kurdistan Region has continuously strengthened, one of the remaining ‘sticks’ to wane Kurdish advancement is Baghdad’s hegemony over oil.

Many countries have welcomed the potential role of Kurdistan as a core supplier to the long-awaited Nabucco gas pipeline but it was ironically Iraq that condemned and jeopardised such motions.

Potential deals by the Iraqi oil ministry to supply gas to Europe places a further cloud on Kurdish ambitions.

At the end of the day, billions barrels of oil are facts that speak volumes. As the economic and wealth of Kurdistan expands so does its influence and strategic power. One of major factors that saw the once unthinkable visit of a Turkish prime minister was the growing economic ties between Turkey and Kurdistan as much as a political thawing.

The likes of Turkey may have been weary of Kurdish oil been used to power its independence in the past but the reward as many foreign investors have discovered is too good to miss.

In the meantime, it could be a while yet before a draft oil law is passed by parliament. The new dispute over the hydrocarbon law may at the same time strike a fatal blow to an already sick political alliance in Baghdad.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd, Various Misc.

The mutual necessity of extending the US stay in Iraq

Owed to the great commotion surrounding the second Gulf war and the subsequent public fall-out, the US liberation of Iraq may always be remembered as a dark moment of US foreign policy akin to Vietnam. However, in the midst of the hostilities, violence, squabbling amongst Iraqi factions and stumbling steps towards democracy, the significance of theUSinvasion is often forgotten.

As the US suffered a tainted foreign policy image and a general deterioration of perception amongst the Muslim community whilst becoming vilified for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is easy to paper over the failings, deep-rooted animosity amongst Iraq’s socio-ethnic patchwork and misdealing and underperformance by successive Iraqi governments as US errors of judgment.

Iraq became an Achilles heel of George W. Bush and a great handicap for the US at home and abroad and both politically and economically. However, as the months wind down towards the end of 2011, where the remaining 45,000 or so US troops are set to withdraw from Iraq as part of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), there are increasing voices within the Iraqi political spectrum calling for an extension of this deadline, realising the stability that the US presence provides and the fragile nature of Iraq.

Whilst Iraq’s transition from brutal dictatorship to democracy has not been perfect, it is nevertheless a remarkable milestone. Iraq has made great strides in recent years particularly in the field of security but reconciliation has been as difficult as ever owed to the fragmented Iraqi socio-ethnic mosaic and the entrenched mistrust amongst disparate groups that has made the sharing of the Iraqi cake all that more difficult.

It is often overlooked that not only did the current government formation set a world record but that the cabinet is still not formally concluded months after the deadlock to form government was broken. Whilst politicians entered the agreement through gritted teeth and under a cloud of compromise there are growing signs of fractures amongst the current alliance. Simply put Iraqi politicians have spent more time squabbling within the political chambers than delivering services to the people on the streets.

Ayad Allawi of Al-Iraqiya, who won the majority vote at the elections, has made a number of threats to leave government and has been critical of been treated “not as a partner but as a participant.” Allawi refused to take the post as the head of National Council for Strategic Policy owed to disputes with Nouri al-Maliki around powers that he would be afforded, with al-Iraqiya demanding more than just symbolic posts with no real power but with al-Maliki unwilling to relinquish his executive decision making status.

The current predicament in Baghdad is overshadowed with a number of disputes with the KRG which have festered over many years through constant foot-dragging, side-stepping and half-hearted approach to resolution from Baghdad.

Kirkuk continues to be at the top of the contentious issues over disputed territories. In spite of a clear road map for the resolution of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, it has been continuously put on the shelf and the constitutional articles have not been implemented. Furthermore, althoughKirkukwas a key condition ahead of the agreement of Kurdistan parties to back a new coalition in Baghdad, in reality practical steps have not been undertaken to finally diffuse this long-time ticking time-bomb.

Devastating bombings in recent weeks have highlighted the tentative nature of Kirkuk. Al-Qaeda and insurgent groups continue to try and ignite ethnic strife and fuel animosity amongst the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. The sensitive climate was further highlighted with the Arab uproar when Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to Kirkuk in March under the pretext of protecting the Kurdish inhabitants ahead of mass protests that were organised. Whilst the situation was quickly diffused, it showed how sentiments can explode at any time and where ethnic loyalties clearly lie.

The US has highlighted Kirkuk as biggest danger toIraq’s stability post withdrawal. Friction between the Erbil andBaghdad, fragile coalitions, a loose national partnership and with questions around the effectiveness and logistical readiness of the Iraqi security apparatus, this has bolstered the case for a US stay beyond 2011.

The Kurdish support for such long-termUSpresence and indeed permanent bases inKurdistanis nothing new and where recently reaffirmed by Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

However, al-Maliki’s openness to extending the US stay is a sign of the importance most Iraqi’s increasingly pin to an extended US presence on their soil. Officially, al-Maliki has stated that he will proceed with national dialogue with rival blocs to reach consensus on extending the SOFA agreement, but almost certainly secret talks have been ongoing behind the scenes for several months with US military officials.

The top officer of the Iraqi army, General Babaker Zebari, previously stated that US forces will be needed until 2020.

Clearly, after the enormous sacrifices in preserving a stable Iraq and indeed a stable Middle east, the US will not want to walk away all too easily.Iraq was never a short-term project, regardless of the presence of troops on the ground. Influence and interest in a region or country is not just about the number of troops, the web of intelligence and entanglement is much deeper. The US will want to be seen to respect Iraqi sovereignty from a public perspective but in the background will be pressuring to maintain a strong hand in the direction of the Iraqi government, defeat of radical forces and ensuring equilibrium in the region not least because ofIran.

US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates has openly admitted that other than maintaining stability inIraq, the priority for troop extension is to send a strong warning toIranthat the US will not pull out of the Middle East. Iranian and to a lesser extent  Turkish and other Sunni Arab meddling in Iraq is already a key handicap for reconciliation and any hasty US withdrawal when the Iraqi project is clearly not complete will only enlarge the ethnic and sectarian divide and increase interference by neighbouring countries.

Iranian influence on Baghdad is evident and has somewhat contributed to the divided political lines. The US hand in Iraq, is not just designed to keep the Iranians at bay in Baghdad, but to ensure Iranians are hampered in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and beyond.

It is somewhat unsurprising that the main group who vehemently oppose US presence is the pro-Iranian group of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who has threatened to recommence violence if US forces stay beyond the deadline.

Aside from providing critical security over the years, Washington has had an instrumental hand in forcing the Iraqi hand to end a number of political impasses. In fact many symbolic agreements where only achieved with frantic American jockeying in the background.

It is increasingly acknowledged that the same mediation will be needed to ensure political stability inIraq, especially if the current government breaks down. Whilst progress has been achieved at a painstaking pace, it can unravel and unwind at a much faster pace. Progress inIraqis very much reversible.

Keeping US troops in Iraq will not only have repercussions in Iraq. It will also highlight a major u-turn for US President Barack Obama, whose key election pledge was to withdraw forces fromIraqas quickly as possible.

The top priority of the US should no longer be security but ensuring the establishment of a strong political and economic foundation. Pushing for the implementation of roadmaps for resolving disputed territories, sharing of natural resources, affective power sharing formula and bridging sectarian divides is the only long-term answer.

The US needs to apply pressure to finally force the Kirkuk issue and seek long-term resolutions to the increasing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad. Too many critical differences have been too often brushed under the political rug for the sake of short-term gains at the time.

It must not be forgotten that the significant US surge strategy was to only provide Iraqis with “breathing space” to reconcile their difference and find political concord. However, this was far from achieved with many of the measurements set by the US all those years ago still not met.

Without resolving the true underlining issues that continue to plague Iraq and the establishment of am affective power-sharing system via loose federations, US presence for decades more will not solve core issues.

 While the US was a long-time scapegoat for the Iraqi downward spiral, it is time for Iraqi politicians to shoulder the responsibility of tackling corruption, unemployment and security and build rebuild their house for the future.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Now deadlock is over but hard tasks are ahead

A political breakthrough is finally reached but after eight months of tiresome political jostling, in what shape does the new government get to work?

It was an arduous, protracted and tiresome journey at the best of times, but Iraqi politicians finally brokered a deal to form a new government. The announcement came as a result of days of intricate negotiations both in Baghdad and Erbil, were an elusive power-sharing formula that satisfied all sides was finally reached.

As it has became widely expected in recent weeks, Nouri al-Maliki would retain his position as Prime Minister, with the Kurds retaining the presidency. Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya would assume the Speaker of Parliament position, along with the heading of the newly established National Council for Strategic Policy.

Although the basis for the new government is crucial, distribution of key ministries and the makeup of the new cabinet are still to be confirmed. Either way, the likes of al-Iraqiya and the Sadrist will exact a price for their support of al-Maliki with key roles in the new cabinet.

With a new journey that weary and dejected politicians must now assume, the crucial milestone of agreeing on the basis of a new government may soon be eroded by the many political cracks that Iraq will need to taper. The maintaining of such a delicate balance may prove more difficult than the onset of any agreement itself.

Facts speak louder than words. Any country that sets the world record for the longest period of time without a government after an election speaks volumes about its socio-political handicaps.

Eight months and twenty parliamentary session minutes later, the MPs have plenty of work to get started on. For every day the MPs bickered and the government forming stalemate ensued, the very people that these politicians were elected to serve suffered. Much progress remains to be made in Iraq and as far as the government is concerned the real work has yet to begin.

The problem in Iraq, a disparate country fuelled by historical mistrust is the thirst for power. No side is easily willing to relinquish power to another. And finding a power-sharing solution that will satisfy each side is much easier said than done as the facts clearly prove.

Amidst the current political frenzy, it is often forgotten that protracted negotiations and political stalemates is hardly a new phenomenon in Iraq. Often at critical junctures in the past, fervent pressure from the US ensured political progress and compromise amongst the main factions. As much as the US has encouraged and attempted to help muster an inclusive government, their lack of influence this time round is clear, as Kurds, Shiites and Kurds stuck to their guns.

As kingmakers, the Kurds had clear demands for their inclusion in any coalition and if all their preconditions have been met, then this serves to solidify the Kurdish strategic standing both in Iraq and the Middle East. In recent weeks, the Kurdish leadership has played a key role in facilitating negotiations and acting as the political raft in a gulf of political tension. This illustrates the vital role that the Kurds play, both in terms of commanding a share of seats that affords them the role of kingmakers but also as the key balancing piece in the jigsaw between the Sunnis and Shiites.

In theory, the biggest breakthrough for the Kurds was the commitment of other parties to the constitution. Whilst Baghdad often look to find solutions to political rifts, the constitution which already provides a roadmap for resolving a number of key issues such as disputed territories, hydrocarbon law and federalism is sidelined.

Simply put, as long as Baghdad abides by the constitution and acts on its promise in practical terms, then the vast majority of the Kurdish wish list is already covered.

Although, a number of breakthroughs had been prematurely announced in recent weeks, it became increasingly clear that Nouri al-Maliki had won his challenge to retain the premiership. His pan Shiite alliance already made formidable reading on paper and the strategic enticement of the Kurdish coalition was all that was needed to cross the line. With the Kurds mustering a tight grip on the demand for the presidency, it left al-Iraqiya with the Speaker of Parliament position.

The heart of the problem ultimately lies with the appeasement of the al-Iraqiya group and the idea of establishing an all inclusive government. Allawi held the view to the last moment of negotiations that as the victor at the polls, his group should play the lead role in government formation. In light of this stance, convincing him firstly to accept a role under al-Maliki and secondly as a “second” party was not going to be easy.

Ultimately, the application of democracy to Iraq is often like applying square pegs to circle holes. Regardless, of the elections results and the number of seats that parties are afforded, no side is happy to take proportional power in line with the seats attained.

Although on paper, al-Iraqiya came out on top at the polls, it was under a misleading reading. State of Law only came second as the major Shiites groupings initially failed to form a coalition. Once the Shiites groups announced a new alliance to create a Shiite super-party, this sent ominous danger signals to the Sunnis. However, the timing of Moqtada al-Sadr’s backing of al-Maliki was the real hammer blow to Allawi. Thus Allawi’s instance on a government which reflects the results of the elections is not so accurate, once the real votes in parliament are tallied up.

Whilst foreign powers have tried to push Iraqis along and have lamented the time taken to form government, ironically they have been at the core of the problems. Turkey, Iran, America and Sunni neighbours have each had their own ideals on a future vision of Iraq and the basis for power-sharing. For neighbouring Sunni countries and the Washington administration, a new Sadrist backed al-Maliki premiership tipped the scales firmly in Tehran’s favour, and they worked tirelessly to readdress this balance.

It may well have been pressure from Tehran above all other external parties that led to the current deal between the main parties.

The real question for a parliament who will get to work based on power-sharing and national unity on an undoubted bitter taste, where do politicians with an over flowing “in tray” of tasks go from here? Any compromise or power-sharing formed on delicate foundations or through gritted teeth will be prone to future splits and ultimately collapse. For example, one of Allawi’s conditions was that no political decision could be made without its agreement.

As a price for his inclusion, Allawi wanted roles with real power but this is in many ways in contradiction to the constitution. Any position that can rival the role of prime minister in executive powers spells trouble. However, the backdoor manoeuvring that has taken place to appease Sunnis comes from an evident desire to avoid a return of the dark days of insurgency. By the same token, although Allawi remained steadfast on his quest for power, other elements within his ranks could clearly see the reality of a new al-Maliki leadership and wanted to avoid the bare-cupboard nature of political exclusion that they witnessed before and as a result showed increased willingness to work with al-Maliki.

Either way, it appears that Allawi and al-Iraqiya commanded a high price for their endorsement. The presidency of the National Council for Strategic Policy was designed to keep Allawi in the frame as a key Iraqi leader. However, Allawi was far from happy with consultative or ceremonial roles and demanded real power in this role. It is still unclear how much authority this council will really have.

How al-Maliki will fare in an environment were his wings are essentially clipped will make interesting reading, especially as al-Maliki has often been criticized in the past for monopolising power and having too much of a direct influence on the security forces.

One thing is clear. The new government of 2011 will certainly be weaker and not stronger than the government of 2006, and in reality this new national partnership may pose more questions than answers.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd, Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

After eight months of intense political tussling to form a government, the real work has yet to begin

Whilst the advent of democracy in Iraq has often been hailed as historic, politicians embroiled in an ongoing and tense stalemate to form the next government, continued to set other unwanted records with the longest period of time taken to form a government after an election.

Fast approaching eight months since the Iraqi national elections were held, politicians gripped with deep mistrust and personal grudges have failed to negotiate their way to a new government, desperately needed to bring stability and security to Iraq.

With a closer view of the Iraqi track record, this is hardly a surprising or unexpected phenomenon, even if Iraqi politicians have outdone themselves by their own standards.

The national elections were first delayed by two months, followed by results that took another two months to ratify, and since then another five months or so have passed for Iraqis to make somewhat of an inroad into selecting a prime minister to spearhead government formation. Before the US or Iraqis get ahead of themselves, it may take well into 2011 to agree on the formation of a cabinet.

Democracy in Iraq has been painstaking at the best times owed largely to the fractured and historically tainted nature of the Iraqi socio-political horizon. However, with the promise of a first fully sovereign government in light of the US withdrawal and the need to plug the security gaps that the might of the US army have crucially covered at great expense for so long, these elections and a successful national unity government which has been a reoccurring and elusive pillar of Washington policy, were understandably seen as a major barometer of the things to come.

With Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya list narrowly winning the majority of seats to incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, the scene was already set for a turbulent battle in the Iraqi political chambers.

As soon as the final votes were ratified, the jockeying for political alliances and coalitions began. The very arduous, bitter and intense nature by which political groups have failed to find common ground speaks volumes about the very characteristics that have continually blighted the Iraqi transition to democracy.

The maths in principle is easy. A coalition with 163 seats is needed to form the next government. With al-Iraqiya on 91, State of Law on 89, Iraqi National Alliance on 70 and the Kurdistan list on 57, the permutations are varied but the denominations required to obtain the key threshold clear.

Once the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and State of Law joined forces in the aftermath of the elections to create a seemingly new Shiite super party, at least on paper the formalities seemed obvious. Their combined total gave them 159 seats, thus leaving them only 4 seats short.

However, this is easier said than done with many personality clashes, historical animosity and different agendas even within existing alliances to factor in.

With the surprising decision of Moqtada al-Sadr’s list to back al-Maliki for the premiership, it was widely but prematurely hailed as the breaking of the deadlock.

However, as Iraq often takes one step forward and two back, the Sadrist’s stance all but fractured the Shiite coalition, with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SIIC) and Fadhila hesitating to follow suite and grant al-Maliki a second term that many Shiite actors deeply oppose.

Much like pieces of a chessboard, the permutations and tides of power shifted once again.

The Sadrist’s move and the breaking of the Shiite coalition have more or less left the door widely open to the Kurds. With the SIIC still in the frame to form a counter coalition with al-Iraqiya, this has left the balance very finely in the Kurds favour with either of the major groupings.

There was initial hope that Allawi and Maliki could work together but given the ill feelings and growing disillusionment between the arch rivals, the chances of a direct al-Iraqiya and State of Law coalition remains bleak. This is increasingly leading to two entrenched camps with the yet undecided Kurds waiting on the wings to decide their fate.

From a Kurdish point of view, not only is this a position they have become accustomed to but also alleviates the danger that they could have been sidelined by a pan-Arab alliance. Given the strained nature of relationships between Erbil and Baghdad over the past years over a number of key issues including article 140, the status of disputed territories, oil sharing and revenue distribution, factors that are from a Kurdish perspective augmented with a bitter taste of broken promises emanating from the last Kurdish and Shiite alliance, this provides a valuable opportunity for the Kurds to tips the scales towards Erbil once more.

Many of the 19 points put forward by the Kurdish alliance as their key demands are hardly new and stem from the Transitive Administrative Law period as well as from the first coalition in 2005. Yet it begs the question why after all these years have these key demands, largely accepted in principle from the outset and reflected in the constitution, been continuously neglected?

The Kurds find themselves in a powerful bargaining position again and no matter how long it takes or what pressure they come under from the US, Baghdad or neighbouring countries to back down and compromise, their key points should be firmly etched in the political chambers.

After all, the Shiites bickered amongst themselves for many months were compromise was scarce, so why shouldn’t the Kurds be as ardent and persistent in their own goals?

Although, the Kurds could still strike accord with an Allawi boosted by an theoretical backing of SIIC and Fadhila, the chances of a Kurdish alliance with al-Maliki seem more likely.

It must not be forgotten that a number of al-Iraqiya political parties vied aggressively with the Kurdish parties in the key disputed territories including Kirkuk and the opposition to article 140 became almost one of the cornerstones of Allawi’s campaigning.

However, assuming al-Maliki musters the required majority to lead Baghdad once more, any Shiite deal with the Kurds particularly over the disputed territories at the doorstep of al-Iraqiya will hardly be the right tonic to soothe Sunni sentiments.

In fact, this is Iraq and regardless of electoral results, coalitions and agreements, any motion that does not cater for the appetite of all major groups will spell disaster.

Iraq is a disparate and historically scarred nation and any sharing of the Iraqi cake that does not satisfy all parties will almost certainly implode in violence.

Therefore, regardless of any future coalition, any sidelining of Allawi’s party will unleash certain doom. In the same way that if the Kurds were sidelined with a more unlikely Allawi and Maliki partnership, the Kurds could well have withdrawn from Baghdad all together.

This effectively means that while any agreement on the candidacy of Prime Minister would be a key milestone, it is essentially just another step. The actual formation of a cabinet will be even more delicate, as al-Maliki will almost certainly have no choice but to cede a number of key cabinet positions to al-Iraqiya and the Sunnis. Simply put, the chances of Allawi’s party accepting to play second fiddle to the main Shiite bloc having ironically been victors at the polls is next to zero.

To placate the stance of al-Iraqiya, they still firmly believe according to their interpretation of the constitution that they have the right to attempt to form government first as the party with the most votes.

On top of this, the Sadrist’s vote of confidence for al-Maliki will hardly come cheap and that they may yet demand at least 6 of the 34 positions on offer.

If the jockeying for the premiership was hard enough, getting the balance right in the sharing of the cake will be even more perilous.

Eventually a new government will be formed, but one with crumbling foundations, bitter taste in the mouth of politicians or parties who believe their returns were disproportionate, and the new Iraqi government will only stutter into a new political chapter. Such delicate alliances are always susceptible to problems and disintegration.

As political tussling, personal battles and ill feelings continue to run rife, politicians have seemingly forgotten the very people they have been elected to serve.

Violence in Iraq is steadily on the rise, reconstruction has all but been stagnant and much essential work to resuscitate Iraqi from years of sanctions, insurgency and economic ruin continues to linger.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Will Iraq experience ‘withdrawal symptoms’

A sight of departing US forces was a long-time dream for sections of the Iraqi population opposed directly and indirectly to the American occupation. However, as the remaining US combat forces trickle over the desertous border, ahead of the 31st August deadline as per their strategic agreement with Baghdad, what kind of an Iraq will they be leaving behind?

Back in April 2003 amidst short-lived euphoria, the ambition and vision for the new Iraq was bold and inspiring. Not only did the US overthrow a brutal dictator but aimed to induce a sense of western values and democracy to Iraq that at the same time would serve as a model for the greater Middle East. 

Seven battle-hardened years later with over 4,400 troops dead, 30,000 wounded and not to mention war costs that now run into trillions of dollars, the Iraqi adventure will always remain a blot on US foreign policy and one that will symbolise the contentious tenure of George W. Bush.

While the US was seemingly bogged in a quagmire and stuck in a vicious cycle between insurgents on the street and bickering politicians in parliament, the situation in Iraq was averted from a total failure with Iraq finally turning a corner, the appeal of sectarianism slowly waning and security improving dramatically.

However, the situation in Iraq is by no means irreversible and the crunch period for the stability and future of Iraq is yet to be seen. No better way sums up the continual frailties that remain than the current circumstances that encompass the US withdrawal.

Almost six months after the milestone national elections that was hoped to foster the first genuine post-war national government, Iraqis still bicker on the choice of prime minister lest forming a new government to deal with the decisive issues that loiter on the parliamentary shelf.

While Iraq may not necessarily make the front pages of the news as it used to, this shouldn’t mask the fact that Iraq is still tentative and has great strides to make. As such, even as Washington can breathe a sigh of relief after almost a decade of two brutal wars that stretched even the might of the world’s greatest army to its very limits, Iraq is far from a “job done”.

While certain circles have been all too frequently keen to highlight US deficiencies in Iraq, Iraqi politicians must take a lion share of the blame for protracted progress and slow reconciliation. The US is hardly responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and the controversy over the US occupation merely masked key issues on the ground that was tapered for decades by totalitarian rule.

The huge US presence particularly in the aftermath of the surge campaign was designed to offer Iraqis crucial “breathing space” that was hoped to cement political progress. However, much of the benchmarks set by the US failed to be achieved by the Iraqi government.

Even as Baghdad has progressively moved towards full sovereignty in recent years and become more confident to stand on its own feet, the same fundamental handicaps continued to undermine the Iraqi mission.

Iraq is a disparate nation with a deep history of mistrust amongst its ethnic and sectarian mosaic. Too often direct US influence in the Iraqi political chambers allowed key legislation and government forming to ensue. More strikingly, whilst progress and milestones were often hailed over the years to showcase Iraqi path to success, many achievements could only be ushered by brushing key political hot-potatoes under the political rug.

For example, seven years later, enmity and ideological divides on the running of the country plague relationships between Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite camps. The Iraqi oil industry, which on paper has the power to propel Iraq to great economic heights, continues to linger behind with a lack of a census amongst groups on a true way to share its immense oil wealth.

Years after the onset of the constitution, the implementation of key terms such as article 140 continues to gather dust. While for many years, the spotlight was on the Sunni-Shiite showdown resulting in almost all out civil war, the strategic differences between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad were not as relevant. However, one of the greatest dangers that continue to gather pace is the simmering tension in the disputed border regions in the north, particularly in Kirkuk.

Although, relatively calm for now, the growing issue is yet to bear its full fruit owed to years of foot-dragging in resolving key standoffs between Arabs and Kurds.

In reality, the US has invested too many lives, money and foreign policy to wave good bye just yet. Far from the end of an era, the presence of 50,000 full armed US soldiers is hardly a meagre figure. The US with its eyes on the growing menace of Iran and its ongoing war in Afghanistan, can not afford an Iraq that slips into deeper infighting and insurgency and drags the rest of the Middle East down with it.

In essence from the 1st September 2010 under its new label of Operation New Dawn, all that may be happening is a rebranding of the American escapade. Remaining “non-combat” troops have the legal jurisdiction to continue counter-terrorism operations, assists Iraqi forces and act in self defence.

Owed to the fractured nature of the state, Iraqis are very much susceptible to foreign meddling and without a strong government in Baghdad Iraq may well play a role of a client state for neighbouring countries in the years to come. Iran continues to exert strong influence on Shiite parties, Turkey continues to build and strengthen its ties with Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan observe diligently to ensure that Sunni interests do not succumb to a new wave of Shiite revolutionaries on their eastern borders.

Political frustrations aside, security in Iraq is hardly clean-cut. One only has to point to the notion that there are now “only” 50 or so deaths a week. That is still 50 lives too many that Iraqi families have to endure. Although, Iraqi forces numbering over 600,000 are formidable on paper, by their own admission they are not ready to assume full responsibility for all aspects of security without US assistance.

Furthermore, just where loyalties lie within the forces is open to question. Until the security forces broadly comprise all three groups, sentiments will be cautious to the effectiveness and impartiality of the forces.

Above all else, as at least a phase of the US adventure comes to a close, people have lost sight of the overall picture. The new Iraq and foreign actors must realise that a brutal dictator, who killed thousands of his own civilians with chemical weapons, launched deadly wars, drained national resources and repressed three quarters of the population was removed thanks to the US. Just ask the Kurds in north at their gratitude towards the Americans.

The new Iraq can in theory excel economically and strategically. However, as the US has come to terms over seven years, they can only push Iraqis so far, the rest of the journey only Iraqis can assume whilst Americans anxiously watch. Iraqis must start to look at key differences that continue to blight progress and realise only they can muster a new dawn. There is nothing the US can do but hope that their grand and costly excursion in Iraq comes to fruition.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Epoch Times, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Balancing the ethno-social political triangle in Iraq

Four months after the much anticipated national elections in Iraq that was hoped to foster the first all encompassing government in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians continue to jockey, debate and pursue tense negotiations with view to assembling the required majority to form government. Giving the Iraqi track record, a lengthy period of government forming is hardly surprising. However, the process was exasperated with contentious delays to the election itself, controversy over banned politicians on eve of political campaigning and then bitter disputes over the final election results.

In many ways, Iraq has made a lot of progress since the previous elections marred by Sunni boycotting, not least on the security and sectarian front. However, as the democratic process has become stalled in recent weeks, this has afforded a chance for insurgents to relay the road of instability and sectarianism. 

The critical government forming process has been giving added bite with the expected withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of August. While the departing of foreign forces may have been a welcome sight for many Iraqis, the presence and influence of the U.S. all too often masked political and security cracks, and this has now become more evident than ever.

At critical times over the past several years Washington has used its substantial sway on Iraqi politics to ensure the Iraqi democratic bandwagon rolled on. Stability and success in Iraq shortly after the nightmare that ensued post-2003 became an American obsession. After all, in such an aftermath, anything short of peace, relative democracy and stability in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences, especially with neighbouring predators already circling with intent.

U.S. military presence will drop significantly from a peak of 170,000 just a few years ago. While the sheer U.S. military expenditure and involvement in Iraq may have been taken for granted in recent years, as the democratic journey continues to remain frail, the readiness, loyalty and impartiality of Iraqi security forces will be put to a firm test.

Government shaping has been further complicated with the lack of a clear winner at the polls. Although Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group won the most seats, it was marginally ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, and debate continues to rage on the party that has the legal jurisdiction to attempt to form government. Although Maliki did not win, he strengthened his claim to form government with an alliance with the religious based Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, meaning that his party was only seats away from attaining the majority needed to form a new government.

The Kurds, who continue to hold a key card in the formation of the new government, have taken their time over the selection of any alliance this time and aim to seek written guarantees on nationalistic issues before committing to bring another power in Baghdad. The natural and preferred alliance of the Kurds will be to work once more with their Shiite counterparts. However, persistent foot dragging on key Kurdish interests by Maliki put doubt in the minds of many a Kurd, especially as Maliki’s dominance and political standing solidified. However, the predominantly Sunni umbrella of Allawi is hardy the tonic that weary Kurds seek either. Al-Iraqiya was direct in competition to the Kurds in the tense oil-rich province of Kirkuk and has often voiced its intent against Kurdish attempts to annex disputed territories.

If Kurds do join the mainly Shiite coalition of Maliki, there is a danger that they may not receive their first choice government posts, as may have been the case a few years ago. However, more critically a Kurdish-Shiite alliance without the key Sunni parties and the ultimate victor of the polls, Allawi, will sow a new chapter of democracy in Iraq on shaky foundations.  After all, it was the sidelining of Sunni’s after their decades of near dominance that triggered Iraq to the brink of civil war. For years Baghdad and particularly the U.S. have sought to appease Sunni’s and bring nation reconciliation in Iraq.

While in theory US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments this week that Iraqi politics was “not a lot different” from other countries, may speak true on the surface. Unlike some other countries, democracy in Iraq produces brittle results. This is owed to the ethnic and sectarian disparity of Iraq. Regardless of election results, Kurds, Sunni or Shiites will still demand power in government. The ‘triangle’ can not always be massaged based on election results. Shiites will always form a majority in Iraq and Sunni’s will always refuse to succumb to all-out Shiite dominance, especially with the proviso of a strong Tehran hand in Baghdad. At the same time, Kurd will never submit to Arab dominance and influence, due to their autonomous existence, history and national interests.

This means that key posts must be divided carefully regardless of the election outcome. The sidelining of any major group will only spell trouble.  The elections themselves are generally formulaic, Kurds will always vote for Kurds, Shiites for Shiites and so on, even if the elections this time around swayed from a sectarian underpinning compared to before.

The triangle became more interesting in recent weeks with the thawing of relations between Allawi and Maliki, raising the prospect of what seemed an unlikely political marriage. A coalition of such proportions may seem a dramatic gain for democracy but this may also mean that key positions such as President and Prime Minister will go to Shiites. Furthermore, this has raised anxiety in Kurdistan that they lose political sway and key posts in Iraq to Arab coalitions.

The US has largely stayed out of the political manoeuvring this time around. However, Biden’s visit was a clear indicator that Washington is getting itchy feet. While their forces may withdraw, their high stakes in Iraq will not dwindle. Stability and prosperity in Iraq has become a keynote health gauge of the Middle East.

As for the political process itself, it is still better to endure more months of protracted progress and frustrations in hope of genuine gains, than short-term achievements under US pressure as witnessed too often, that may lead to shaky coalitions and more fundamental Iraqi issues been swept under the political rug.

It is these real issues such as oil sharing, broadly represented security forces, federalism and resolving of disputed territories that often become sidelined for the sake of progress on the surface. Any new government must make firm commitments to these aforementioned principles and critically to the implementation of the constitution that is after all meant to be the blueprint of the democratic existence in Iraq.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Not to save the day alone

As the US aims to save the day again in Iraq, the reality is that further underlying issues are being swept under the political rug.

All too frequently democracy and reconciliation in Iraq has been hampered with the reality of taking one step forward and two steps back. Throughout the past several years US meddling and intervention have played a crucial part in ensuring key political and constitutional breakthroughs as Iraqis struggled to overcome their historical differences.

However, while pressure and influence is nothing new, it does however mask the cracks that continue to undermine long-term Iraqi unity. For the US, which has expended billions, lost thousands of lives and tirelessly sought an elusive exit strategy, the perception of Iraqi concord, national stability and democratic progress has become an obsession.

This has meant that while the Iraqi political chambers have become accustomed to bickering, jostling and protraction, the US has often been racing from group to group to find compromise. But the long-term strength of many of those agreements is open to question – often real issues have been swept under the political rug, rather than the establishment of compromise and harmony between the embittered groups.

The US was yet again tirelessly jostling in the background these past weeks to resolve another potential political landmine ahead of the national elections. Not only was the election delayed by almost two months, and the election law grudgingly passed with US handing out promises and carrots, but before Iraqis could breathe a sigh of relief yet another row threatened to derail the elections.

Washington at stake

For the US, what is at stake in Iraq is clearly extortionate. While it can not indefinitely keep the same level of commitment and sacrifice that it has in the past several years, it can ill afford to leave an Iraq on the brink either. The regional ramifications alone are too grave to even contemplate.

Security and political gains these past few years have not come easy and unless comprehensive national elections can be held on March 7, 2010, where all parties and sects keenly participate, there is every chance that Iraq may end up back at square one, along with the US goals of withdrawal by August of this year.

Baathist banning row

US knows a repeat of Sunni bitterness, boycotting and anger that blighted the last elections in 2005, will undo much of their hard work of the past five years, which has been aimed specifically at enticing Sunnis into the political fold and ensuring they receive a reasonable piece of the Iraq cake to appease sentiments.

Therefore, a decision to ban some 500 candidates from parliamentary elections by the Justice and Accountability commission, for suspected links with Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist regime, rang alarm bells in Washington.

A new raging debate just weeks after the US and UN were catching their breath from the last furor to save elections in Iraq, threatened to pit the Sunni population and the Shiite majority just weeks from the elections with campaigning still not underway.

While the list of banned candidates was not exclusively Sunni based, with many being Shiites and some Kurds, it was drummed up and manipulated by certain parties as a direct attack to undermine Sunnis ahead of the elections.

External meddling evident

While Iraq has been technically sovereign for a long while, it is clearly hampered by regional jockeying and foreign interference. US meddling has been clear to see but with Iran throwing its weight around as a regional superpower, along with neighbours such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria who are more akin to support the Sunnis, it becomes evident that these neighbours have become entrenched in the Iraqi machine, both directly and indirectly.

The Accountability and Justice commission itself is spearheaded by several prominent Shiite figures, with the one time US darling, Ahmad Chalabi, in particular with close ties to Tehran.

US political arm-twisting by both Vice President Joe Biden and US Ambassador Christopher Hill was heavily behind the decision by the Iraqi Appeals Court to overturn the ban on the candidates until after the elections.

Divisions within Iraq were discernible as uproar ensued in the Baghdad government, which deemed the overturning as “illegal and unconstitutional”. As emergency parliamentary sessions were hastily arranged, clearly the goal was one of overriding the decision of the appeal courts. The US was rather predictably overjoyed with the decision of the appeals court, to a motion that they themselves had promoted. However, this motion itself was plagued with contradiction – specifically, what would be the affect if after the intended post-election review a candidate was removed against the wishes of the electorate?

Twist in the tale

If the current situation was not marred by enough controversy, this was further clouded by an announcement that effectively meant that all but 37 of the appeal candidates had their cases disqualified as it was deemed that they did not submit their cases properly.

During the ongoing row, a lot of banned candidates were duly replaced by their parties while some had their bans lifted, which had left 177 cases in the appeal process. Sceptics would point to government manipulation of the appeal processes to dilute the chances of banned candidates participating.

Bitter after taste

Regardless of moves to find compromise and allow a number of banned candidates to participate, this episode hardly leaves a sweet taste in the mouth ahead of a critical national milestone.

Key Sunni politicians and Shiite rivals of current premier Nouri al-Mailki have pointed to a ploy to undercut their support ahead of decisive balloting and mask inefficiencies and negative sentiment towards the current Baghdad government.

Baathism, an ideology of pan-Arab nationalism, was not purely embraced by Saddam Hussein. It has popular weight in Sunni circles in the region and contrary to some opinions its support is not exclusively Sunni based. Naturally many have pointed to Iran’s Shiite hands in Iraq, with the apparent aim of stifling Sunni Arab renaissance, as the reason behind Maliki’s stance.

Baghdad has in turn blamed many of the recent deadly bombings in Iraq squarely on ex-Baathists and their affiliates.

Keeping problems in perspective

As problems in Iraq typically get blown out of all proportion, it is easy to lose sight of the argument. The first de-Baathist commission was actually setup by the US provincial powers in 2003 and was later formerly superseded by the current legal entity. The idea was to formulate a new Iraq based on justice and democracy that would never allow previous perpetrators of the brutal regime a chance to return or hold power in any capacity.

On the surface, such a motion should allow for historical wounds to heal and for politicians to build a new national unity away from the dark chapters of the past. It is only right that having waited decades to expel the evil, and with thousands of mass graves later, that they would never allow a chance for such roots to regrow.

For those with proven links to the Saddam apparatus, they should not be allowed to participate in any shape or form. Cries of injustice by such individuals are ironic as they denied the same rights and freedoms to thousands of Iraqis.

However, the process should be clear and transparent, and not riddled with contention. For example, why did the relevant legal bodies wait until just weeks before the election to ban such a large number of candidates? Why weren’t those candidates banned well before? The criteria for the banning and associated evidence to underpin such decisions should be undisputed.

Such publicity over this debacle threatens to turn this political charade into a sectarian showdown. With wounds just healing from the previous civil war, Iraqis can ill afford another two steps back.

As for the US, its pressure and influence should be all about the future of Iraq. While it can clearly jumpstart the Iraqi political vehicle at key times, why the US hasn’t directly supported article 140 and other key constitutional articles is questionable.

Continuous feuding in the political chambers has merely masked the other fundamental milestones that have not been achieved – the settling of disputed territories with the Kurdistan Region; the advent of a national hydrocarbon law; and cross-sectarian mix of the security forces including long-term integration of the Sunni “Awakening Council” militias.

Whatever government is installed next in Baghdad, without resolving these historical handicaps, Iraq will weave from side to side but will struggle to move forwards.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.