Tag Archives: Secterian

As Iranian commander and Shiite militias spearhead attack on Tikrit, more questions than answers emerge from Iraq

As lines of Iraqi Humvees and trucks jammed the roads to Tikrit with thousands of Iraqi forces looking well-motivated and itching for battle, on the surface this would point to all the positive signs – Iraq was finally ready to banish the Islamic State (IS) from their doorstep.

However, as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, pointed out, eventual recapture of Tikrit is not the burning question. The key issue is the security and political apparatus that is left behind to support Tikrit and other Sunni towns that are retaken.

Whilst Sunni tribal forces play a role in the battle for Tikrit, it is the unmissable presence of thousands of Shiite militia supervised by commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani that speaks volumes.

Kurdistan leaders have repeated warned that without the support of local Sunni tribesman in Tikrit and particularly Mosul, any military offensive will ultimately not have the desired long-term goals.

Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, reiterated warnings this week that “Without the Iraqi army and, more specifically, Sunni elements within these forces, it will not produce the results that we all hope for.” Barzani also lamented the lack of supplies of heavy weaponry to the Peshmerga forces even as Kurds play leading role against IS.

The Tikrit offensive was underscored by a lack of Coalition involvement. It also comes amidst signs of cracks with the coalition over strategy. Where the U.S. openly lauded a looming spring offensive to retake Mosul, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi quickly reminded that Baghdad would determine the timing for any Mosul offensive.

It was Iran pulling the strings in Tikrit and whilst U.S. officials have played this down for now, this has hardly soothed regional anxiety.

“As the Iraqi army stands up more and more, militias and external actors are going to be less and less imperative and needed,” US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to reassure its coalition partners. But for Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Tikrit was example of the Iranian “take over” that they are worried about.

Iraq has been engulfed in sectarian storms since 2003. On paper it built a considerable state force with years of training and US military aid, yet without support from Shiite militias, attacks such as that on Tikrit are simply not possible.

Sunni Sahwa or Awakening Councils that were crucial to previously driving out al-Qaeda have shown that Sunni tribal leaders can be enticed. But many of their demands, such as embedding Sahwa forces into the official security apparatus and greater control of their affairs were not met and increasing sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fanned more Sunni discontent which eventually led to the welcoming of IS in various Sunni circles.

If greater local Sunni support can be attained in Tikrit and Mosul, IS can be much more readily defeated.

Of greater importance is the shape of Tikrit and Mosul that is left behind, if Sunnis can take control of their own security and see humanitarian assistance and reconstruction from Baghdad then stability can be achieved.

If Shiite militias or any semblance of Iranian marks are left behind on these cities or if Baghdad wastes yet another opportunity to entice the Sunnis with greater political and security representation, then a sense of déjà vu cannot be avoided.

One of the conditions for the eventual support against IS was that the new Iraqi premier, Haider al-Abadi, could achieve the elusive U.S. hope of a plural and stable Iraq with cross sectarian and ethnic representation.

In Iraq, there remains as always more questions than answers.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Sunni protests in Iraq reopen sectarian wounds and historic fault lines

The elusive quest of enticing the disenfranchised Sunni population after the fall of Saddam Hussein plagued the Iraqi transition to democracy. The brutal civil war that peaked between 2006-2007 centred on the failure to reconcile with Sunnis and bring them into the political fold after Shiite supremacy replaced decades of Sunni rule almost overnight. The sectarian bloodshed may have declined dramatically from its peak, but realities were merely masked and the political picture never really changed.

The lack of Sunni power in government and their bitter political decline coincided with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s drive to monopolise power, break an already fragile political framework and initiate drums of war against the Kurds.

The Arab Spring has transformed the Middle Eastern political climate, and emboldened by the rise of Sunnis in Syria, Iraqi Sunnis see this as a chance to ignite their own spring and wrest control from Iranian backed Shiite domination of power.

Sentiments around lack of Sunni power in Baghdad have been worsened by Maliki’s failure to deliver basic services, improve living conditions and address high unemployment. Iraq has immense natural resources and a relatively high national budget, yet much of southern Iraq has languished behind.

Mass demonstrations continued in Sunni dominated parts of Iraqi, including in al-Anbar, a hub of the Sunni population and indeed the vicious civil war that beset Iraq. Other provinces that witnessed protests were Salahaddin, Nineveh and Anbar with the cities of Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and Mosul taking center stage.  While the recent wave of protests may be new, Sunni disgruntlement is anything but that.

Sunni passions and anger were evident merely months after the withdrawal of US forces, with the arrest warranty of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, attempts to stifle Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq and more recently the raid and arrest of body guards of Rafie al-Issawi, Iraq’s Finance Minister.

Sunnis clearly perceive anti-terror laws as orchestrated to diminish their power and see the Shiite dominated security forces as sectarian biased.

As the intensity of Sunni demonstrations and its inevitable manipulation by extremists and Baathists increase, so does it role in shattering any chance of reconciliation in the government’s present form. Depending on the response of the Iraq security forces and any hard-handed attempts by Maliki to quell the protests, it may well put Iraq back to square one.

Maliki’s coalition has shown willingness to dissolve parliament and embark upon new elections to coincide with provincial elections in April. However, this is not the real solution nor will it sufficiently appease Sunnis or Kurds for that matter. Iraq has now held a number of milestone elections yet the same problems have continued to hound the Iraqi political landscape.

New elections will not dilute Shiite political domination as the major components of Iraq, nor will it address the age-old question of how to share power in a way that will appease Kurds, Sunni and Shiites. The record time taken to form the present government says it all.

Sunnis, who largely boycotted the first elections, were never happy with the outcome of the second as it meant playing second fiddle to Maliki once more. Far from enacting the Erbil Agreement and power sharing principles, Maliki assigned to himself a number of powerful “caretaker” positions and distrust with al-Iraqiya only depended.

One result is certain, unless Iraqi politics take a drastic turn for the better and Shiite and Sunni moderates as well as U.S. and foreign allies mediate effectively, the ensuing bloodshed will be even worse than before.

Such is the nature of Iraqi politics that even a caretaker government which should be led by the Presidential Council is riddled with difficulties, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is receiving medical treatment following a stroke and Vice President Hashemi is in exile and convicted of murder.

The recent surge of Sunni discomfort clearly shows that it was never just the Kurds who were at great unease over Maliki’s growing centralist tendencies and even Shiites have become increasingly weary of Maliki. The only surprise is that it took so long for all sides to wake up to the realities that have gripped Iraqi for many a year.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani should be lauded for standing up to Maliki while ironically some saw such grave national developments as “personal”. Maliki has come to the brink of war with the Kurds and has been willing to antagonise Sunnis at the same time. At the current rate, not only is war and more bloodshed inevitable but also the breakup of Iraq.

Just where Iraq goes from here is far from certain, power sharing on paper alone will not satisfy Sunni demands, and the Kurds, who have been patient while much of the implementation of the constitution has been neglected, can ill-afford to get sucked into another sectarian mayhem in Iraq or wait indefinitely for Baghdad to enact agreements such as oil sharing and resolution to disputed territories.

With new elections almost a certainty, the intense jockeying for power has already begun. Influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, heaped blame on Maliki and supported Sunnis in their demonstrations and also reached out to Christian minorities.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources:  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.

Recent attacks show the fragility of the situation

It is Ramadan in Iraq. A month of humility, peace, forgiveness and charity. However, a number of deadly coordinated attacks in the past week shattered any hope that even hard-line groups in Iraq may show some semblance of remorse or humanity.

Ironically, al-Qaeda, the group widely believed to be behind the spate of bloodshed, is the self-proclaimed flag bearer of Islam.

The 42 attacks this week did not discriminate its target. It was designed to induce maximum carnage and kill anyone and everyone within its radius.

The attacks that killed at least 89 people and wounded over 300 more evoked a chilling echo of the recent past and provided a stern reminder that in the current fragile and tentative political climate and with Iraq’s painfully slow healing from historic and deep rooted ailments, the dark days of sectarian civil war and mass bloodshed may not just be a tale of the past.

The proof that al-Qaeda is alive and kicking and with eyes firmly  on derailing any chance of a positive American withdrawal at the end of the year, is worsened by growing tension, ethnic killings and evictions in the disputed regions between Kurdistan and Iraq.

Too often deep lying problems in the Iraqi framework have been covered by so-called symbolic milestones and ceremonial political achievements.

The key issues that continue to blightIraqremain as intense as ever. The Sunni population in spite of successive years of reaching out by Baghdad and Washington, still feel marginalised and after  a high-profile fall from grace, look with great suspicion and resentment at their Shiite counterparts who control Baghdad and who they believe is been manipulated by Tehran.

The Kurds, whose existence under the Iraqi banner has been tainted with tears, repression and bloodshed, continue to view Baghdad with animosity and scepticism that has only grown by constant foot-dragging over the implementation of constitutional articles.

Several years after its legal enshrinement, article 140 of the constitution continues to gather dust. Despite decades of Arabisation and forced eviction of Kurds from their ancestral homes, thousands have been denied justice. Ironically, Arabs continue to accuse the Kurds of attempting to change the demography of the disputed regions, for wanting to correct the wrongs of the past.

With the provision of security such a core pillar of the newIraq, Kurds in the disputed regions demand their defence and protection from theKurdistanregional forces. The growing crisis in the Diyala province and surrounding areas has underscored the vulnerability of the Kurdish population under the protection ofIraqnational forces.

Peshmerga forces left the Diyala province in 2008 under an agreement with Baghdad but recent events prove that they are needed more than ever.

Continued reports of murders and the eviction of thousands of Kurds is a stark warning to the KRG. It is the responsibility of the KRG to protect the Kurds wherever they may be. Protection of Kurdish rights and livelihood has no boundary. The lands may be so-called disputed but there is no dispute that the Kurds have every right to live in their homes with full safety and assurance.

While deportations and ethnic cleansing may have been a common part of Saddam’s regime, this is supposedly the new democratic and all inclusive Iraq and a far cry from the dark days of the past.

Escalating tensions between the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi forces was only partially papered-over by U.S. mediation. As the foot-dragging continues over Kirkuk and the disputed regions and as the safety of the Kurdish population is endangered, it would be a great detriment for Kurds to remain idle and hope that one day Arabs will soften their nationalist stance and embrace Kurdish aspirations.

The deadly attacks by al-Qaeda and the growing incapacity of Iraqi forces to provide peace and stability in the disputed regions continue to place al-Maliki under a firm spotlight. As the already fragile political shape in Baghdad is tested further, continued bloodshed will continue to undermine al-Maliki’s grip on power and increase Sunni influence.

Analysts often tie the perseveration ofIraq’s security with an extended American stay.Iraq’s security forces are a far cry from the early post Saddam era. The soldiers and police forces now number in the hundreds of thousands, all armed and trained.

Iraqis security forces are not affective as they are still plagued by sectarianism, distrust, lack of direction, coordination and sense of duty to all of Iraq, not because they are small in numbers or do not have weapons to provide protection. 

Al-Maliki yearns for a U.S. troop extension not because Iraq needs more firepower but because Washington’s continued hand in Iraq fortifies his grip on power. The appointment of a member of his governing coalition as acting defence minister in the aftermath of the recent attacks was seen by many as a move by al-Maliki protect his authority.

Several months after the coalition government was formed, al-Maliki has failed to appoint ministers for the defence and interior portfolios, with rival groups accusing him of harbouring security agencies. Furthermore, the Erbil agreement that ushered an uneasy alliance has not been implemented.

Owed to the fractured nature of Iraq, providing a true national army has been difficult. Sunni Awakening Councils continues to represent a large bulk of the Sunni defence forces. The thousands of Awakening forces have not been properly integrated into the national security makeup and Sunnis continue to look at the predominantly Shiite national forces with unease.

As for Kurdistan, they have rightfully refused to reduce their forces under pressure fromBaghdadand the Peshmerga forces continue to function as the only true representatives of the Kurds.

In reality, until there can be a comprehensive and true national coalition government in Baghdad that somehow appeases the fractured socio-ethnic mosaic, American presence for another 10 years won’t make a difference.

All Washington has done is buy time for successive Iraqi governments and Iraqis have reacted by wasting this time and failing to build bridges. As long as the unity of Iraq, common trust and the political climate continues to be fragile, the security situation will be unstable at best.

As for Kurdistan, Baghdad has squandered years of opportunity in resolving the issues of disputed territories and enacting national hydrocarbon laws through constant failed promises.

Kurds cannot wait for several more years of dithering and inaction by Baghdad especially if the violence against the Kurds continues. Keeping lid on such emotive issues cannot be achieved indefinitely, sooner or later the situation between Kurdistan and Baghdad will come to the boil. As U.S. departs sooner or later, it will become clear that Iraqi misfortune is much more down to Iraqis than Americans, in fact in losing America Iraq loses the glue that has bound Iraqis however loosely in recent years. 

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

The constitution is more than simply a piece of paper

In 2003 after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis had a historic opportunity to rebuild their country, national identity and basis for co-existence but above all placate this in a broad and inclusive new constitution.

The Transitive Administrative Law (TAL) in 2004 was followed by a new constitution in October 2005, on the back of months of gruelling negotiations, intense jockeying and fervent pressure from the US, the result of the arduous tasks of satisfying Iraq’s vast socio-ethnic mosaic.

Significance of a constitution

Just why is a constitution perceived with so much significance? A constitution is a set of decrees, principles and ideals that govern a country. It is the blueprint of the governance of the country and the essential building-block for all political, democratic and legislative particles that formulate a part of that country. As the political heartbeat or DNA of the governance of any country, the constitution is the hallmark and distinction of a country. In other words if any aspect of a constitution is denied or overridden then very basis for the existence of the political and official governing entity in that country is also denied.

For this reason, across the Middle East from Egypt, Libya, Syria and Turkey, real reform is synonymous with popular demands for fundamental changes to the respective constitutions. For example, the real acceptance of the Kurds in Turkey is not through electoral manifestos or mere political rhetoric, it can only be achieved by changing the legal blueprint of that country.

Clear roadmaps in place

For all its critics, the Iraqi consultation is comprehensive and provides a roadmap for many of the major aspects that continue to fuel dispute and animosity today. There is a guideline for the extent of federal powers, regional authority, and powers afforded to executive entities, the sharing and development ofIraq’s immense hydrocarbons and above all else dealing with the issues of disputed territories.

Article 140 clearly outlines timelines, formulas and responsibility for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other associated disputed territories. This made the basis and the method for resolving the Kirkuk dilemma a clear building block of the new Iraq. It is contained in the constitution of the country, the essential framework of its existence, so there can be no clearer argument for the legality and prominence placed on this issue.

This makes the reasons behind the non implementation of a legal, valid and key component of the makeup of the country all the more pertinent.

Simply Arab factions, particularly the Sunnis and neighbouring powers have put more obstacles than solutions to prevent these articles from been implemented and thus thwart what they see as a strategic strengthening of Kurdish hands. It is now almost six years since the constitution was voted in and clearly the appetite for resolving Kirkuk is as lacking as ever.

You may dislike or disagree with articles within the constitution, but this doesn’t make the articles any less legal, clear or enshrined in the makeup of the country. 

Baghdad foot-dragging

Baghdad foot-dragging over article 140 was designed to ensure that the deadline for its implementation of 31st December 2007 would be missed. Yet the same entities that prevented its implementation, now ironically complain that the article is void as the deadline has been passed.

While the Kurds have patiently persisted with the status-quo, the KRG would be unwise to let constitutional articles fester indefinitely and see articles that potentially benefit them to be at a   constant source of obstruction by the Arab and Turkmen sections of the population.

Limiting of Kurdish gains has been the same theme for the lack of a national Hydrocarbon law inIraqand the successive postponement of the census.

The fear with approving Kurdish oil contracts and resolving the status of disputed territories is that Baghdad would lose the little sway it has remaining over Kurdistan and Kurdistan could develop economic, foreign relations and politics unilaterally.

However, the breaking of the constitution is akin to cutting an artery to the heart. There currently exists a voluntary union in Iraq underpinned by constitutional principles. Without these, the legal basis for tying all parts ofIraqis effectively eroded.

Outside interference

Once the deadline for the implementation of article 140 inevitably passed at the end of 2007 and without much progress, the UN was tasked with the responsibility of diffusing tensions, or in the words of UN special envoy to Iraq at the time, Steffan di Mistura, “…stopping the ticking time-bomb”.

Over three years later, the US and UN continue to highlight the dangers that Kirkuk entail to Iraqis future but their commitment has been lacking in breaking the deadlock. The UN in particular was tasked to look at solutions and alternatives to resolving disputed territories. The continued insistence of an international body to bypass a country constitution is remarkable. The mechanism for resolving the status of Kirkuk has long been decided. Ultimately, like any true democracy, it’s the people that should decide their fate, not Ankara, Baghdad, the UN or the alike.

With the Kurdistan government growing increasingly tired and frustrated, top Kurdish leaders have recently warned on the dangers of any bypassing of the constitution.

Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani recently stated, “If this article is dead it means the constitution is dead. And if the constitution is dead it means Iraq is finished.” Such similar sentiments were echoed by Nechirvan Barzani and Kurdistan Parliament Speaker Kamal Kirkuki in recent weeks.

Kurdish warnings

Successive Kurdish warnings must be matched with key timelines and actions. Waiting for Baghdadand regional powers to bolsters their aims and proactively resolve issues that favour them will only end in disappointment. If the constitution is ignored by Baghdad, then the very foundations of the state are in turn ignored.

The Kurds have been persistently pressured by Washington and the UN, amongst others to compromise.  Whilst 250,000 Kurds were kicked and beaten without remorse from their historical homes, “compromise” was not a word uttered by Baathist forces. Now those same Kurds, wishing to return home, are been told their legally-enshrined demands constitute overreaching and they must compromise.

For the Kurds, this is a historical juncture. This is a chance to correct the wrongs of the past in a democratic and legal manner. If Kurds were unwilling to compromise in 1975 overKirkuk, then any deal in the “new”Iraqof 2011 not involving its rightful return would represent a huge setback.

Dispute over oil contracts

The issue over Kirkuk has only been matched by the highly contentious disputes over oil sharing and the rights of regional administrations to develop their own oil fields. The Kurdistan Region has signed over 35 Production Sharing Agreements (PSA) and Production Sharing Contracts (PSC) with foreign oil exploration companies in recent years in what they deem as a natural right under the constitution. This has been hotly contested by Baghdad and particularly former Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani who has frequently labelled such deals as illegal.

Only recently has the deadlock been broken with Baghdad endorsing the oil contracts and authorising limited exports through Iraqi national pipelines. However, the bottom line remains that Baghdad does not want to see the Kurds drive on unhindered with their own national program. The recent pact by Shahristani with the EU to export gas through the southern corridor to Kurdish surprise is testament to this. Kurdistan was long earmarked as a pivot to the proposed Nabucco pipeline in the north, which would have guaranteed it strategic standing and lucrative returns.

Simmering political tension in Baghdad

The nineteen post-electoral demands of the Kurds were explicitly accepted as a condition for their support of the new government. Furthermore, a number of other critical points were agreed between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis that allowed several months of bickering and jockeying to end.

However, the problem inIraqis that often the agreements are not worth the paper they are printed on. The lack of implementation of the Erbil agreement of last autumn, has led to entrenched camps of Iyad Allawi and Nouri Maliki, with relations all but beyond repair. Key points in the agreement including the formation of  Higher Strategic Policies Council that was to be headed by Allawi and the naming of key ministries has continued to falter.

Recent heated exchanges between Allawi and Maliki, underpin the common mistrust and animosity that continues to blight the new Iraq. Allawi accused Maliki of been “a liar, hypocrite and misleading”, who came to power with “Iranian support”, in retaliation for the State of Law of  Maliki aiming to reprimand Allawi for abstaining from parliamentary sessions.

The laboured progress in Baghdad and the ongoing sectarian battles that impinge progress is all the more reason for Kurdistan not to wait, to be held back and destabilised by the south, but to continue in the interests of Kurds and Kurdistan unabated.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Primary Sources of Republication: eKurd, 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.

As kingmakers, ensuring the right king is made is paramount to the Kurds

Months of painstaking preparations for the national elections and weeks of the controversial counting of the votes are finally over. However, before the Iraqi political bandwagon ponders a breather, the real work starts now.

The final election results encapsulated an enthralling, tense and close contest. This was a crucial milestone for the new Iraq and even more so as all sides of the Iraqi ethno-sectarian mosaic turned out in good proportion, striving to make a difference from years of frustrating post-war turmoil, instability, sectarianism and lacklustre living standards. The elections provide hope of a declined sectarian divide in Iraqi politics and the possibility of the establishment of the first all encompassing coalition in Iraq housing the embittered groups.

In reality however, the process of government forming will prove protracted and could well linger for many months longer.

None will be more weary of the future political shape and eager to strike the right alliance than the Kurds. The Kurds will likely be kingmakers again, as the only other distinct ethnic group with power, their support to the remaining Arab political rivals in Iyad al-Allawi, Nouri al-Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim will hold crucial sway to surpassing the all-important 163 seat mark to form government.

As such, their role as “kingmakers” carries enormous responsibility on Kurdish aspirations and the Kurdish people. Been kingmaker is one thing, ensuring the right king is “made” is another.

In the aftermath of the last elections, Kurds were in a more powerful bargaining position than in today. After a Sunni boycott and a larger allocation of seats per population for the Kurdistan region, the Kurds decided to side with Maliki’s Shiite alliance in what initially seemed to good affect.

The Kurds were able to assume the posts of President, Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister. However, as the months and years rolled by, while the Kurds dug their heels in at times to the desired affect and many bills reflected Kurdish jockeying, the key disputes and national goals of the Kurds become increasingly distant and stagnant in resolution.

As Maliki’s influence and credibility slowly rose, especially in light of improving security conditions from the brink of civil war, the Kurds who supported Maliki at key times, become increasingly despondent with the more hard-line government stance and Baghdad’s laboured approach to the implementation of key articles of the constitution.

However, this should not come as a great surprise. While Maliki may hardly be first choice for a Kurdish partner based on the tenuous political marriage, Allawi is hardly the flavour of the month either. The same foot-dragging was employed by Allawi as Interim Prime Minister of Iraq prior to the 2005 legislative elections, which saw slow progress on Kurdish-sided disputes. The growing nationalist stance of Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group, particularly concerning Kirkuk and other disputed territories is hardly an ice breaker either. Although a secular Shiite, the tough nationalistic tone of Allawi and his non-sectarian basis saw his alliance as a new logical platform for the Sunni voice.

This places the Kurds into a difficult predicament, which in theory has been made more challenging by the structure of the elections this time around. Firstly, disunity within Kurdish ranks with Change Movement (Gorran) running on a separate list to the KDP and PUK, potentially cost the Kurds a number of seats. Gorran won over sixty-thousand votes in Kirkuk but ultimately did not meet the necessary threshold to gain seats.

The other crucial factor was the Kurdistan Region receiving a modest rise in the number of national assembly seats which were increased from 275 to 325, with the rest of the south picking up the majority of the allocation of extra seats. Furthermore, bigger Sunni turnouts in the north and north-western provinces also contributed to a dilution of Kurdish power in these mixed provinces, which they had assumed almost by default in the last elections.

Kurdish support should not come cheap, and if its means that the coalition building process drags on for another few months, then so be it. It is better for Kurds to get firm and written guarantees this time around even if they are perceived as stalling the political process and pressured by Baghdad and Washington to “back down”, rather than to wait another four years for the resolution of key issues impacting the Kurdistan Region to be further sidelined and become stale.

The Kurdish alliance won 43 seats with other Kurdish parties claiming another 14 seats in total. The voting was generally well-spread with no party coming through as clear winners. Ultimate victors were Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group with 91 seats but this was only two more than Maliki’s State of Law coalition. As a result, this means that the permutations for coalitions are more ajar and thus the negotiation and bartrering process will be as delicate as ever.

Certainly, marginalising any bloc will come with its own headache, while attaining a broad reconciliation will still prove to be a bitter pill to swallow for the new Iraq.

Adding to the heated mix is the tricky allocation of the key ministerial posts. While the Kurds enjoyed a fair share of key positions in the past government, distribution of key posts to appease Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni sentiments will not be so straightforward. The running for the next President, held by Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, is already gathering heat with some Arab sides proclaiming that the President as a representative of the Iraqi nation should be an Arab. However, more crucially, the Kurds need to focus on positions that will ultimately hold influence and sway within Iraq itself. For example, the posts of Ministry of Oil or the Interior Ministry will be a lot more beneficial to the Kurds than positions that are high on paper but may do little to directly favour Kurdish interests in reality.

Meanwhile, as credible as the newfound opposition is to the Kurdistan Region, this will almost certainly have negative connotations if Kurds enter Baghdad divided. With the rise of Arab nationalist parties, Kurds can ill afford disharmony on the national stage. Disputes over article 140, national budget, status and funding of Peshermarga forces and not to mention the oil sharing, are only going to get fiercer before any resolution becomes more likely.

Attempts by Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani to ensure a united front in Baghdad, and pledges by Gorran leaders to maintain unity on Kurdish national issues is an absolute minimum if Kurds expect any fruit from any prospective alliance they strike.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Hewler Post (Kurdish), Peyamner, Various Misc.

The Iraqi political machine’s tricky path

As the painstaking election process stumbles to a close in Iraq, the intricate political work has just begun.

Resolution of Iraq’s issues not without their “perils and dangers”

Arranging and preparing for the national elections in Iraq was complicated enough. The elections finally held on 7th March 2010 were hailed by western powers and generally observed as successful, however, this was after much wrangling over the election law that saw the elections postponed, a highly contentious decision to ban hundreds of alleged ex-Baathist weeks before the elections and not to mention deadly suicide bombings on Election Day designed to deter would be voters.

However, the convoluted and tricky path for the Iraqi political machine is very much ahead. If the holding of relatively successful elections in the face of a number of challenges was painstaking itself, the formation of a new government to appease embittered Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites against a backdrop of mistrust will be an even tougher task that  will drag on for months longer.

Political jostling, with only handful of ballots left to be counted, has already commenced with the key parties vying for power already well on the path of seeking coalition partners, with no group alone likely to win the 163 seats required to form government. The power for government is augmented with the fight for the key positions of President, Prime Minister and Parliament speaker. The position of President for example has already become heated by remarks in some nationalist circles that since Iraq has an “Arabic” identity, the post should be held by an Arab.

However, even before tiresome negotiations ensue, the Iraqi High Independent Electoral Commission (IHEC) will have its work cut out to address claims and counter-claims of voter fraud and irregularities, particularly in Kirkuk. The IHEC is already under-fire for the laboured nature of announcing the votes, which has aided to claims of electoral mishaps and even to calls for a full recount in some circles.

A different flavour

At least on paper, the elections present a good prospect of facilitating cross-national reconciliation. The political parties attempted to undercut the sectarian divides, with Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and his closest contender and former premier Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya, encompassing a number of political parties across sectarian lines.

With the Sunni turnout showing a marked increased from the boycott of 2005, the competitive nature of the elections was evident with divisions present within traditional Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish alliances.

The race for the hotseat

Whilst Maliki’s hard-line leadership alienated a number of groups, he was equally heralded for installing security in Iraq and possessing the right credentials as the nationalist leader that Iraq required. On the back of the highly successful showing at the 2009 provincial elections, results revealed to date put Maliki in prime position to win a majority once all votes are tallied up.

State of Law coalition is ahead in the symbolic Baghdad constituency, which remarkably represents one-fifth of the overall seats on offer. Al-Maliki was ahead in another several Shiite-dominated provinces with the predominately Shiite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) a close second in a number of these provinces, as well as leading in three southern provinces.

Against the popular view that religious parties have not fared as well, the Sadrist bloc of the INA has gained a credible number of seats and their influence as well as that of neighbouring Iran may well dictate the shape of the future coalitions. A strong showing by Moqtada al-Sadr is particularly bad news for Maliki, who instigated the infamous and bloody crackdown of his militia in 2008.

Whilst Maliki may be a leading contender, his quest to reassume power in Baghdad is far from sealed. His old foes and newly created adversaries will almost certainly jokey ardently to ensure that he does not win a critical second term in office.

In contrast, the surprising contender for the hot seat is Allawi. Results show that the secular and nationalistic agenda of al-Iraqiya bode strongly amongst Sunni voters in north and western provinces, many who remain sceptical at Maliki’s Iranian connections and Shiite control of security forces. Al-Iraqiya gains include Nineveh, which has the second highest number of seats up for grabs. As a result of the strong electoral showing, Allawi is neck-to-neck in the votes counted to date with Maliki. Allawi could well strike a coalition agreement with the Kurdish groups or the INA, as well as other smaller parties.

In this respect, the coalition opportunities on the table have far greater significance than ever before. Depending on who can be enticed into the political fold, a number of coalitions can be struck and thus the jockeying promises to be as intensive as ever.

Kurdish wildcard

The Kurds are widely acknowledged to assume the role of kingmakers once more. With the Kurds looking to achieve between 60-65 seats, this will have significant bearing on who ultimately assumes the premiership in Baghdad.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, if you have the power to make a king, then you have to ensure the “right” king is “made” at all costs.

Any future coalition will almost certainly require the support of the Kurds, and this places great leverage on the Kurdish bargaining position. The Kurdish support for Maliki at crucial times arguably helped to salvage the Baghdad government, especially when Iraq was on a fierce downward spiral between 2006 and 2007.

A number of Kurds grew increasingly sceptical of Maliki, but with al-Iraqiya vying directly for power with the Kurdistan Alliance in Nineveh and especially in Kirkuk, where they have based their support on promises to ward off Kurdish attempts to annex Kirkuk, Allawi is hardly a firm favourite either. Comments from al-Iraqiya liking Kurdish attempts at wrestling control of Kirkuk to Israeli settlements was hardly the right tonic to sweeten the growing bitterness.

Either way, the Kurdish aspirations of peacefully implementing article 140, resolving the issue of disputed territories and agreeing a national hydrocarbon law, will certainly hold fundamental importance to any prospective Baghdad partnership.

With growing pressure from the Kurdish public and political competition at home, the KDP and the PUK under the Kurdistan Alliance umbrella can ill afford to leave Baghdad without Kirkuk and the key Kurdish demands.

Kurds must stay as close as they can to the throne of power to safeguard Kurdish interests and may well support any legislation and lobbying further south, as long as their status quo is maintained and ultimately enhanced.

Race for Kirkuk

If the hotly-disputed race for Kirkuk needed any incitement, the close race between al-Iraqiya and Kurdistan Alliance for the province is increasing in intensity all the time. If the Kurds assume a majority as they did in 2005 and as they anticipate once more, this will aid their claim to annexing Kirkuk to Kurdistan, with many eying the elections in Kirkuk as a de-facto referendum.

While the final figures may well be disputed under contentious guidelines outlined in the election law specific to Kirkuk, the planned census in October 2010 will ultimately serve as the real battle to secure the future status of the city.

Change in Kurdistan

The three provinces that officially make up the Kurdistan Region had the highest turnouts across Iraq. With the new Kurdish opposition Change Movement (Gorran), entering the fray in dramatic circumstances in 2009, the race for votes in Kurdistan took on additional importance.

As expected Gorran faired well in the province of Sulaimaniya, but the contest with the PUK was as close as ever, with the PUK performing strongly in Kirkuk where Gorran was expected to make inroads.

It is too early to say to what extent the fractious nature of the Kurdish vote this time around hindered their quest for influence in Baghdad, but what is clear is that without a united Kurdish voice in Kirkuk and particularly Baghdad, the new political competiveness within the Kurdish scene may well hamper Kurdistan.

Gorran may well use their newfound leverage in Baghdad to indirectly pressure the Kurdistan Alliance for the much hyped “changes” they propose in Kurdistan itself.

Furthermore, with the much higher turnout of Sunnis than in 2005 and with increased number of seats in parliament not resulting in the anticipated number of seats in Kurdistan in proportion to the population, the Kurdish position becomes more tentative as the dust settles on the new political climate in Iraq.

American Withdrawal

Months of protracted negotiations and heated discussions will take place, all the while as the US increases its demobilisation efforts in anticipation of its iconic withdrawal by the end of August 2010.

While the next government will be the first under full Iraqi sovereignty and under relative blanket of security, this does not mask the key constraints and challenges that may hinder Iraqi progress once more.

Progress is very much reversible in Iraq and with emotive and historically entrenched angles on critical national issues, the resolution of these issues will not be without their perils and dangers.

Regardless of any election outcome, entities in Iraq will still decree a significant share of the Iraqi cake. While the system of proportional representation is designed to reflect the overall will of the electorate across the mosaic, the common policy of appeasement will be evident. For example, to keep Sunnis on the political stage, the expectation is they will still assume key posts, key percentage of the armed forces etc. This appeasement policy was a key reason for the decline in Sunni insurgency and the newfound security in Iraq, not necessarily just strong handed tactics by al-Maliki.

The greatest danger for America is that while Iraqis bicker and the US military arsenal wanes, this may yet give the encouragement for insurgents to reassume centre stage.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.