Kurds rubber stamped two Maliki terms of power while Maliki has frequently reneged on agreements and sidelined Kurdish demands. After 6 years in power and frequent accusation of centralist tendencies, is the current situation a surprise?
A sharp escalation in the already tenuous relations between the Erbil and Baghdad after a deadly skirmish in Tuz Khurmato between Kurdish and Iraqi forces was followed by frantic efforts to calm a crisis that had seen an unprecedented military build-up from both sides in the disputed areas.
However, an eventful week after negotiations between Kurdish and Iraqi military leaders and political figures, mediated by Speaker in the Iraqi Parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi and a high ranking American General, ended with talks collapsing and no agreement, despite promise of a breakthrough after an initial 14 point agreement was earlier agreed.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki scuppered the prospect of any deal, unwilling to meet the key Kurdish condition to abolish the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command, the very heart of the conflict.
According to Secretary General of the Ministry of Peshmerga, Jabar Yawar, the federal government reneged on the agreement reached earlier in the week after originally approving 12 out of 14 of Kurdistan’s demands but later only agreeing to three.
The Dijla command was created by Maliki for no other reason than to stoke Kurdish sentiments, win over Sunni support and create an Arab nationalist bandwagon that would allow Baghdad to mask a deep political crisis, corruption allegations and the increasing isolation of Maliki, even amongst traditional Shiite allies.
The Dijla command was a way of demonstrating a show of strength to the Kurds and to highlight the extent of Maliki’s powers. If unopposed the Dijla forces would severely dilute and harm Kurdish interests in the disputed territories. In spite of the current sabre-rattling, it is unlikely that Maliki will call the Kurdish bluff. However, Maliki will not back down until he is pushed to the edge or has achieved his political goals.
A show of force to increase sway over the resolution of disputed territories is also a big nail in the Iraqi constitutional coffin and article 140. Either way, Maliki’s actions show that he is not serious in resolving problems with the Kurds and that he is unwilling to relinquish his growing unilateralist hand. When constitutional violations and consolidation of top positions of power goes unhindered, then this spells the death of democracy in Iraq.
For all of Maliki’s faults, the Kurdish parties must also take blame for the current predicament awaiting Kurdish nationalist interests. They knew as far back as 2008 with deployment of Iraqi forces to Khanaqin and in a number of similar instances that Maliki would resort to force to exert his influence and to achieve his goals. This is the same Maliki that Kurdish politicians had saved at key crisis points in the first government.
Kurds frequently accused Maliki of centralist and dictatorial tendencies in his first term of power, long before Kurds essentially rubber stamped his second stint in power and before ironically he accumulated further power by consolidating control over a number of powerful positions under the pretext of a “caretaker”.
Maliki was a key factor in the continuous foot dragging of Baghdad over the implementation of article 140 and the failure to hold a census decreed by law. Maliki’s government frequently objected to Kurdish oil deals while ensuring that efforts to resolve a national hydro-carbon law were left stagnant. Maliki and his government have violated the Iraqi constitution a number of times when it has served their interests, and refused to pay for the budget of Peshmerga forces while on an annual basis striving passionately to reduce Kurdistan’s share of the budget.
Kurdish support for the latest coalition was on the back of guarantees for the implementation of 19 key points that formed the basis of the Erbil Agreement, conditions that Maliki has paid continuous lip service to.
Kurds can hardly be surprised at the predicament they find themselves in. Key Kurdish conditions as part of their support for the first coalition in 2006 were also largely sidelined.
Yet remarkably, fast forwarding to 2012 and 6 years of Maliki rule, Kurds still managed to miss their opportunity to unseat Maliki through lack of unity and lack of clear political accord when it came to promoting Kurdish interests in Baghdad.
A strong motion spear-headed by Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani was essentially thwarted by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK which ironically has a strategic power sharing agreement with the KDP, while Kurdish opposition forces such as the Gorran movement also failed to support the initiative.
Maliki triumphed even at a moment of great weakness and this political victory by managing to conserve power only served to embolden his quest to solidify his sphere of influence.
The Kurdish leaders must use the current crisis as a wake-up call to preserve their unity and to ensure no matter how varied or passionate disagreements within Kurdistan may reach, disunity in Baghdad is a red-line.
The current stand-off between Iraqi and Kurdish forces saw perhaps for the first time unity amongst all Kurdish divisions and this greatly strengthened the Kurdish hand and galvanised their bargaining power in the crisis.
It has stirred the PUK and KDP leadership and particularly Talabani to readjust their positions, which had seen disagreement over the 2007 power sharing agreement, Kurdistan draft constitution and regional relations with Baghdad.
If talk that Barzani had “lost” Talabani had any grounding, Talabani’s revised position is a welcome step for the Kurdistan President.
Maliki has continuously shown his expertise to muster his way out of tight political corners and it is no coincidence that Maliki’s bold actions in the disputed territories coincides with a key political year fast around the corner. 2013 promises a number of key milestones that will act as a gauge for the alliances within Iraq that have shifted drastically and will no doubt dramatically alter the political landscape.
The first key milestone is the nationwide provincial elections in April, followed by regional parliamentary elections and not forgetting the national elections in 2014. There are also crucial provincial elections across Kurdistan Region in 2013 which will reveal the ever-changing balance of power in Kurdistan.
Maliki is in a race against time to conduct the provincial elections and beat any no-confidence vote. When a smart politician loses friends, he works hard to make new ones.
Maliki needs to rethink his alliances that have shifted considerably since 2010. He single-handedly alienated the Sunni’s this year through the issuance of a death warrant on Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and exchanged fierce rhetoric with al-Nujaifi, ironically mediator in the current crisis between the Kurds and Maliki and a number of other prominent Sunni figures.
His own State of Law alliance is shaky at best and Maliki may well need to reach out to Sunnis to cling to power. His onetime Sadrist ally, Moqtada al-Sadr, is drifting further and further from Maliki and his recent statement spoke volumes, “the Iraqi spring will come against corruption, sectarianism, and those engaged in corruption and terrorism.”
Maliki in a way scarified the trust and support of Talabani by opting to reach out to Sunnis, and Talabani’s angered stance was on clear display when he recently called on the governing Shiite bloc to either apply pressure on Maliki to change his stance or replace him outright. Talabani accused Maliki of effectively announcing a state of emergency through the establishment of Dijla command, which is not within Maliki’s powers.
But such is the unfortunate situation of Iraqi politics, that even if they oust Maliki, it will take them several more months to agree on a new leader and build a new alliance.