Tag Archives: Maliki

Stuck between an uncompromising Baghdad, well-equipped IS enemy and lack of funding and oil exports, Kurds left to suffer Baghdad’s mess

As the unfolding humanitarian crisis intensified in Kurdistan, the world can ill-afford to become bystanders once more to massacres against the Kurds or fail to match mere rhetoric with tangible support.

Under great pressure, US President Barack Obama, finally authorised air strikes against ISIS forces threatening the Kurdistan Regional capital of Erbil and the thousands of desperate Kurds from the Yezidi community stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Yet Obama’s reluctance to get involved was all clear to see. Obama hesitated to get involved in what he deemed would be taking sides in a sectarian war as the Islamic State (IS) first took Iraq by storm in June.

However, the IS phenomenon is anything but a local crisis, it’s now a major global concern. The US support of their Kurdish allies has been lukewarm as their obsession of keeping a united Iraq and fears of a Kurdish drive towards independence has led to disconnect with realities on the ground.

“When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

Unfortunately, it is no longer about preventing genocide. With thousands of Yezidis and Christians brutally killed and thousands more Yezidis dead due to thirst and starvation on Mount Sinjar, genocide and massacre has already been committed. It is now only a question of preventing further genocide.

Kurdish suffer from oil exports, Baghdad and IS

The more that Washington treats Iraq as a whole piece, the more that the Kurds suffer. Obama added, “The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces,” making it clear that intervention would be limited.

Obama needs to distinguish between Kurdistan and the general term “Iraqi”. IS was not a problem created by the Kurds but due to years of marginalisation and centralist policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Even under the current IS whirlwind that has taken Sunni rebels to the doorsteps of Baghdad, Maliki was reluctant to reach out to Sunnis and stubbornly refused to relinquish yet another term as Prime Minister. Iraq is broken and the Kurds are facing the greatest blow-back for failings of the state or policies of Baghdad.

A great example is the controversy over Kurdish oil exports. In the hope of preventing the collapse of Iraq, the one-sided US policy that frequently favours Baghdad, continues this notion of Iraqis resolving their issues without assessing the situation on the ground.

The Kurds are owed billions of dollars of payments for their share of the national budget since January. Deputy Spokesperson for the US State Department, Marie Harf, recentlystated “There is no US ban on the transfer or sale of oil originated from any part of Iraq…Our policy on this issue has been clear, Iraq’s energy resources belong to all of the Iraqi people. These questions should be resolved in a manner consistent with the Iraqi constitution.”

The same Iraqi constitution that the US refers to is already clear, it doesn’t need negotiation but implementation.

Now Kurds are deprived of much need oil revenues with a tanker anchored off the shore of Texas, no budget payments and are then expected to fight Baghdad’s war with a lack of weapons or support. “Stronger Iraqi forces” should also translate to stronger Kurdish forces.

Obama stated that the US and its allies had failed to “appreciate” the weakness of the Iraqi security forces. The problem was never a lack of arms but a lack of will tied to growing sectarian splits in Iraq. Funnelling yet more US advanced weaponry is not a solution.

The phobia of keeping Iraq united and not bolstering the Kurds for fear of seeing them breaking away, will lead to more to more massacres under the hands of extremists.

Even as Kurdistan was under great threat, Baghdad was quick to undermine Kurdish leadership with Amer al-Khozai, adviser to Maliki, stating they were “pay(ing) the price for the negative positions it took against Baghdad”. Al-Kohzai urged Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani to “correct his mistakes against the federal government so as to face the terrorism threat that has started to threaten the region.”

Kurdistan has to contend with an uncompromising Baghdad, a determined and well-equipped enemy in IS and lack of international support.

International response

Following US commitment to limited air strikes, the response of EU powers was initially limited to support of humanitarian operations before sentiment within the EU rapidly turned in favouring of arming the Kurds.

France was one of the first EU powers that promised to support the Kurds. In discussions with Barzani, French President François Hollande “confirmed that France was available to support forces engaged in this battle,” before later confirming plans to supply arms to bolster Kurdish forces.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted in a statement that “It is clear that (humanitarian aid) is not enough and we have to see what we can do beyond that.” Referring to “new horrors”, Steinmeier added “We condemn these despicable crimes, targeted at entire communities, in the strongest terms.”

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, strongly condemning the “barbaric attacks”, backed US military action as he insisted on the need to help the Yezidis in their “hour of desperate need”. While the UK quickly ruled out military intervention, momentum in recent days has strongly turned to arming the Kurds.

There are growing calls from MPs to bring the matter to UK parliament. Prominent Labour MP, Mike Gapes, voiced criticism of UK government’s response and urged recall of parliament to debate the issue.

UK Labour MP, Tom Watson, stressed that the sovereign view of the parliament was need than unilateral decrees and warned that “We cannot abandon Iraq to the black flags of Isis any more than we could leave Europe to the Kaiser or to his black-shirted inheritors 22 years later.”

Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, warned that history will be their judge and believes that UK has a “moral obligation” to join the air strikes on Iraq and even station troops to create a safe area. Dannatt urged “Parliament needs to be recalled and the West needs to face up to its responsibilities.”

Kurdish need arms not sympathy

The Kurds are more than capable of defending their territory, however, no sheer will or numbers will ever win a war. The Kurds need advanced firepower. The IS is anything but a militia. After taking huge amounts of advanced US sourced military gear from the Iraqi forces, they are now a formidable force.

Kurdistan Head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa Bakir, stated “Christians and the Yezidis must be protected. We do not wish to face this war alone. The international community must act and the US should take its responsibility. We need advanced weapons and ammunition to fight the terrorists.”

Sharing an immense border with IS, Kurdish forces are spread across a wide area. Jabar Yawa, chief of staff and spokesman for the Ministry of Peshmerga, stated “It is a vast area…We need a lot of troops to protect and cover almost 40 kilometres of land.”

In a response to Iraqi Yezidi MP, Vian Dakhil’s passionate cry for help, Obama declared “…today America is coming to help”. It is not just today but the needs of tomorrow that Kurdistan must be provided.


First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Amidst sectarian flames, Iraqi security and marginalisation policies should be in the limelight, not Kurdish oil exports

As the Islamic State (IS) with the help of several Iraqi Sunni groups waltzed into Iraq seizing large swathes of territory, the goalposts in Iraq completely changed. Iraq as we know it ceased to exist.

Yet amidst the grave crisis in Iraq that Iraqi forces have failed to extinguish, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed more intent to turn focus away from the security nightmare and to increase the already wide gaps in the relations with the Kurds into an unsurmountable gulf.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad have been at loggerheads for years over control of oil including revenue sharing and oil exports, however, matters took extra significance with IS breaking the status-quo.

Baghdad has threatened foreign companies dealing with KRG over oil for many years, but this has not stopped oil majors flocking to the region. Last month, Baghdad issued yet another statement threatening legal action against such foreign companies  “Any company that deals with or handles the cargo, we will not deal with it…Any discharge authorities, any port authorities, any party at all dealing with the cargo coming from Kurdistan without approval from the federal government, the oil ministry will take action with them.”

Only this week, the United Kalavrvta tanker, carrying 1 million barrels of oil, was anchored in international waters off the port of Galveston, Texas, after Baghdad launched a petition to a US court to seize the oil.

The US judge could not take any action as it lacked jurisdiction. In the meantime, the KRG launched its own counter legal proceedings to the Texas court warning “There is no merit whatsoever to the allegations of the Ministry of Oil; to the contrary, it is the federal government of Iraq that has acted wrongfully and that will have to answer to the KRG’s substantial counter-claims.”

KRG Minister of Natural Resources, Ashti Hawrami, further warned “The federal government cannot win, because our crude is legally produced, shipped, exported, and sold in accordance with the rights of the Kurdistan Region as set forth in the Iraqi constitution.”

After Baghdad threatened foreign companies with legal action for dealing with Kurdish crude, a determined KRG had threatened to sue buyers of Iraqi oil on the basis that they are complicit in violating the Iraqi constitution with Baghdad failing to pay the KRG share of the budget.

Meanwhile, in light of the latest dispute, the United States has maintained the same out- dated rhetoric. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated “Our policy certainly has not changed; we believe that Iraq’s energy resources belong to the Iraqi people and certainly have long stated that it needs to go through the Iraqi government.”

Even as Iraq has unravelled before their eyes, the US has clung to an outdated belief in the unity of Iraq without judging the disputes between the KRG and Baghdad in its historic context and the changing realities on the ground.

Deputy Spokesperson for the US State Department, Marie Harf, recently stated “There is no US ban on the transfer or sale of oil originated from any part of Iraq…Our policy on this issue has been clear, Iraq’s energy resources belong to all of the Iraqi people. These questions should be resolved in a manner consistent with the Iraqi constitution.”


The US one-sided policy that favours Baghdad in the hope of preventing the collapse of Iraq, fails to acknowledge that the Iraqi Hydrocarbon law has been gathering dust on the Iraqi political shelves since 2007. Furthermore, fundamental articles in the same Iraqi constitution that US constantly refers to have been ignored or neglected since 2005.

The Iraqi constitution does not need to be negotiated, only implemented and the US should support the Kurdish view as they have not gone beyond the legal terms stated in the constitution and it is Baghdad that has been unlawfully withholding the KRG budget entitlement.

The key question remains, what resolution over oil rights can be applied between the KRG and Baghdad after years of disputes and protracted negotiations? Kurdistan cannot remain idle with no funds for months upon end waiting for sentiment to change in Baghdad.

The disputes have been hastened by IS  but it often gets overlooked in international circles that the Kurdish share of the national budget, that Kurds allege now amount to $7 billion, have not been paid since January.

Tankers carrying Kurdish crude at times receive coverage like it is exported via the black market. This is the same crude that is pumped via official pipelines to the port of Ceyhan with full support of Turkey.

This is the same crude that would see Baghdad receive a lions-share (83%) under the terms of the constitution.  The matter is not a lack of revenue for Baghdad but the strengthening of the Kurdish hand with their new independent oil infrastructure and economic self-sufficiency.

The buyer of Kurdish crude becomes the object of much controversy and mystery, which is especially ironic giving that Iraq, is engulfed in sectarian flames and since it was same marginsational policies that Maliki attempts on the Kurds that reignited the latest Sunni insurgency.

In a blow to the KRG, LyondellBasell, recently confirmed that it had purchased the oil off Texas but would not accept delivery of the contested cargo. Their statement fell in line with the rhetoric of Washington, “We have cancelled further purchases and will not accept delivery of any of the affected crude until the matter is appropriately resolved.”

However, ultimately as more oil tankers are prepared for shipping, the Kurds will not back down and export Kurdish crude cannot be halted. The road ahead will have its own fair share of bumps, but when the Iraqi constitution is judged on its own merits, not just on the basis of Baghdad threats and the economic embargo on Kurdistan by Baghdad is taken into account, even the US will fail to justify its actions against Kurdish oil exports.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

A Marriage of Convenience: The Many Faces of Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have stolen the limelight, but the current Sunni insurgency in Iraq is dominated by a number of Sunni groups, with ISIS forming possibly less than a third of rebel forces. Each group has its own reason and motivation for siding with ISIS, but far from sharing ideology or a common end goal, the main binding factor is hatred of the Shiite government and Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki (Middle East Monitor, June 17; Rudaw [Erbil], July 7).

The key to ousting ISIS and arriving at a peaceful solution ultimately lies in the hands of the Sunni tribes and the local Sunni population, not in the guns of the Shiites. It was the Sunnis that turned the tide against al-Qaeda once before, but wary Sunnis may not bail out Baghdad so easily again. The danger now after 11 years of bloodshed and Sunni marginalization is that Baghdad may find it impossible to resurrect the notion of a united Iraq, let alone heal the gulf of sectarian mistrust and animosity.

A number of the Sunni armed groups currently fighting Baghdad are remnants of the previous insurgency against U.S. occupation. Many of these groups have formed alliances and grown in strength since the revitalized Sunni uprising evolved from popular protests at the end of 2012 to renewed armed conflict and sectarian war. Indeed for this reason, many Sunni tribal leaders discount ISIS as the spark of the revolution and accuse them of taking advantage by jumping on the Iraqi Sunni bandwagon.

  • · General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR)

One of the main groups that fought alongside ISIS is the GMCIR. This group was formed in early 2014 from an alliance of various other military councils or tribal revolutionary groups with the aim of establishing a unified command as a result of renewed fighting with Baghdad (al-Ahram Weekly[Cairo], March 20). The GMCIR includes a large number of former officers of the disbanded Iraqi army and has the general aim of establishing a Sunni autonomous entity without compelling any break-up of Iraq. The group is associated with the Muslim Scholars’ Association led by the influential Shaykh Harith Sulayman al-Dhari. GMCIR has an uneasy cooperation with ISIS that saw large areas of northern Iraq slip from the control of Baghdad, but differences between the groups are discernible in their approach to governance in Mosul and the issue of ISIS’ dominant role on the ground (al-Akhbar[Beirut], June 16).

Days after the occupation of Mosul, GMCIR spokesman and former general Muzhir al-Qaisi described ISIS as “barbarians” (BBC, June 14). Distancing themselves from ISIS’ extremist ideology, the GMCIR has tried to emphasize a non-sectarian agenda and a political solution to the crisis.

  • · Military Council of the Tribal Revolutionaries (MCTR)

The MCTR is the largest non-ISIS force and is believed to include a coalition of approximately 80 Sunni Arab tribes and 41 armed groups, including former officers from the Saddam era. Its presence is especially strong in Fallujah, Ramadi and parts of Nineweh and Salahuddin (al-Araby al-Jadid [Beirut], June 14).

  • · Military Council of Anbar Tribal Revolutionaries (MCATR)

One of the main military councils, the MCATR was formed in early 2014 (Journal of Turkish Weekly, June 25). The MCATR has pressed the remaining Sahwa (Awakening) forces to fight for their cause – many of the groups that comprise MCATR today relinquished their Sahwa allegiance after key demands were not fulfilled by al-Maliki and the prime minister ordered a violent crackdown of sit-in protestors. However, in the battles for Ramadi and Fallujah earlier this year, it was clear that remnants of the Sahwa forces battled insurgents on the side of the government.

Shaykh Hatim al-Sulayman is the leader of the MCATR and chief of the powerful Dulaim tribe in Ramadi (with significant influence in Anbar). The Dulaim tribe, including the al-Bou Nimr, al-Farraj, al-Bou Issa and al-Fallaha sub-tribes as well as gunmen from the al-Jamilat, al-Jabour and al-Janabat clans, has played a central role in the uprising since last year (Al-Monitor, January 8).

Al-Sulayman, like many other tribal leaders, is hardly full of praise for ISIS but sees al-Maliki as more dangerous. Pointing out various disagreements with ISIS, he signalled that the inevitable fight against ISIS was merely postponed (Rudaw [Erbil], July 7). For al-Sulayman, ISIS came only to take advantage of the Sunni revolution and their quest to win back Sunni rights.

  • · Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandia (JRTN – Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Path)

Another major group, with particular influence in the provinces of Nineweh and Kirkuk, is the JRTN, which has a close alliance with the GMCIR. The JRTN, spearheaded by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy, Izzat al-Douri, is based on a mix of old Ba’athist pan-Arab secular nationalism and Naqshabandi Sufi Islam (see Terrorism Focus, July 28, 2008).

The goals of the JRTN are the return to power of the Ba’ath party and the safeguarding of Iraqi sovereignty through the simultaneous end of the strong Iranian influence in Baghdad. Their key aim is to “fight for the unity of Iraq’s land and people to preserve the Arab and Islamic identity.” [1]

  • · Al-Jaysh al-Islami fi’l-Iraq (JII – Islamic Army of Iraq)

The JII was particularly potent at the height of the initial uprising against U.S. military occupation (Telegraph, June 20). The movement went from being a thorn in the side of the Americans to being a key player in the Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) councils that turned the tide against al-Qaeda before later turning full circle by re-joining the anti-Baghdad insurgency.

Shaykh Ahmad al-Dabash, founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq and an influential imam from the Batawi family, is determined to accept nothing less than the removal of al-Maliki and has noted his movement’s common interest with ISIS in removing the Shiite prime minister (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 27). Its demands, like those made by the majority of Sunni groups, include a political solution to the ongoing crisis, the establishment of a Sunni federal region and the removal of al-Maliki.

  • · Jama’at Ansar al-Islam (JAI)

JAI is a jihadist group from the post-2003 era that shares the general ISIS goal of a caliphate, but rejects a leading role for ISIS in an Islamic state (BBC, July 1).

  • · Jaysh al-Mujahideen (JAM)

JAM is another group that dates back to the early post-Saddam era with an anti-Shiite agenda and the goal of overthrowing the central government (BBC, July 1). It is known to have disagreements with ISIS and the Islamic Army of Iraq.

  • · Kata’ib Thawarat al-Ashrayn (KTA – 1920 Revolution Brigades)

Named for an anti-British nationalist uprising during the British mandate in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades is a lesser known Sunni militia originally formed in 2005 to fight the American occupation (al-Jazeera, June 27).

There is a growing unease between Sunni tribes and ISIS. ISIS recently executed 30 people, including a tribal leader and his son, after they refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and pay “royalties” (Shafaq News [Erbil], July 10).

Most of the Sunni groups have insisted that they are in control of key areas and facilities and have pushed back ISIS where necessary. For example, the Islamic Army of Iraq prevented ISIS from entering Dulu’iya after they took control of it due to ideological differences between the movements (al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 11). Al-Maliki has tried to manipulate Sunni tribal anxiety by encouraging Arab tribal leaders in northern areas to fight ISIS (BasNews [Erbil], July 8). There have been skirmishes between these tribes and ISIS militants but for any real impact on the ground Sunnis must turn against ISIS in much greater numbers.

What is clear, however, is the increasing tension between former the Ba’ath party, JRTN factions and ISIS. These groups have already been involved in deadly clashes in the Kirkuk area with reports of JRTN assassination campaigns against ISIS leaders in the Diyala region (al-Sumaria [Baghdad], June 22; Shafaq News [Erbil] July 9). There are other reports of generalized clashes between tribal forces and ISIS in Mosul, Salahuddin and in other areas (al-Mustakbal [Baghdad], July 12; al-Estiqama [Baghdad], July 11).

With so many groups and varying end games, the danger of Sunni infighting can only grow. Furthermore, the more Sunni groups in the field, the more difficult it becomes to establish a negotiating partner. Sunni tribes have to find a solution to ISIS, but are more likely to deal with that problem when al-Maliki is removed from power and a Sunni region is endorsed under an agreement. Either way, Sunni tribes have learned their lesson from the disappointments of the first Awakening initiative and Sunni support to expel ISIS or offer Baghdad any respite will not come cheap this time around.

First Published On: The Jamestown Foundation

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Unsatisfied with a raging war with Sunni militants, Maliki launches new front against the Kurds

Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad were already at a historical low. Yet for those who thought that ties could not get any worse, a series of events last week saw the line redrawn.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a fierce attack on the Kurds on national television, warning “We will not resort to silence while Erbil is a headquarters for Isis, Ba’athists, al-Qaeda and terrorists.”

Such strong remarks drew the inevitable ire of the Kurdish leadership, with Kurdish MP’s soon boycotting the Iraqi parliament with Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani hitting back at a Maliki who he deemed to have become “hysterical” and “lost his balance” and who he urged to stand down.

The Kurds have frequently warned that a third-tenure as Prime Minister for Maliki would signal curtains on Iraq.

On Friday, Kurds moved to secure the strategic oil fields in Bai Hassan and the Makhmour area to defend the oil infrastructure from what the Kurds deemed “politically motivated sabotage.”

KRG Ministry of Natural Resources released a statement confirming the Kurds had “moved to secure the oil fields after learning of orders by officials in the federal Ministry of Oil in Baghdad to sabotage the recent mutually-agreed pipeline infrastructure linking the Avana dome with the Khurmala field.”

A furious Baghdad had already gone as far as banning cargo flights to Kurdistan and even moved to halt international flights. At the same time it replaced Hoshiyar Zebari as Foreign Minister with Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani.

The escalating rhetoric and tit-for-tat moves would be bad enough in any normal day in Iraq with Baghdad and Erbil governments bordering each other.

Anyone observing last weeks would be forgiving for thinking that the Iraqi problem is limited to the Kurds and the Maliki government. Yet there is a not so small dilemma of an Islamist State in the middle.

Over a month since Mosul, Tikrit and large swathes of territory was taken over by ISIS led Sunni insurgents, Iraq is gripped in violence. Despite military aid from Russia and Iran, Iraqi forces have largely failed to dislodge the militants.

While the militants have not made advances, what they have done is essentially entrench their new borders and with it Iraq’s partition into 3 separate entities.

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been involved in fierce battles with ISIS militants, filling a crucial security vacuum and housing hundreds of thousands of refugees. But it seems that Baghdad is intent on creating more enemies in the midst of a deadly sectarian war.

The sharp escalation of tensions between Kurds and Baghdad may jeopardise Kurdish support against ISIS – why battle insurgents and risk lives for a premier that is essentially accusing you of collaborating with them anyway?

Ironically, it was the Kurdistan Region that once protected a Maliki on the run from Saddam Hussein. Shiites at the time fought Saddam against centrist Sunni repression and many sought to establish an Islamic state at the time akin to Tehran. In 2014, the tables have merely turned with Sunnis on the attack.

In the midst of tension between Kurds and a raging sectarian war, the Iraq political chambers are getting increasingly empty. August 12th is the new date set to reconvene parliament, why such a laboured political process if there is real intent to heal national rifts and at a time of national emergency?

Unless Maliki steps down and a reconciliatory stance is adopted in Baghdad, the Kurds will assume the next gear in their independence drive.

Baghdad authorities may be furious with the Kurds but then what repercussion is left to hit the Kurds? Oil exports were already halted, share of national budget withheld, no government exists, Kurds stripped of ministries, and cargo flights are suspended.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Latest Sunni insurgency threatens to put final nail in the Iraqi coffin

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have continued to assume centre stage with more towns and borders crossings falling in dramatic fashion.  However, the lines have been blurred between a Salafist-Jihadist and a Iraqi Sunni insurgency. It is no longer acts of terrorism on show. This is a powerful, motivated and determined force that will be hard to extinguish without major concessions to the long disenfranchised Sunni minority.

Influential Sunni tribes do not approve of the extremist ideology of ISIS but their disapproval with Shiite rule particularly under Nouri al-Maliki is much greater.

In the meantime Shiite militias parade the streets of Baghdad in a show of force with thousands more joining the battle against the Sunni insurgency pumped up by their spiritual leaders.

As Iraq slides into sectarian anarchy and inevitable partition, the future of Iraq as an integrated nation is looking increasing bleak.

Sunni insurgent revival

In 2008, the Islamic State of Iraq (as it was known at the time) in a leaked communication deemed itself as being in a state “extraordinary crisis”. So how did a diminishing Islamist movement regain such ascendancy in Iraq?

Although, the widely acclaimed surge strategy of US president George W. Bush is credited with largely defusing the sectarian civil war in Iraq, it was the establishment of the Sahwa or Awakening Council’s that really turned the tide.

Influential Sunni tribes, fed up with violence and al-Qaeda dominance, turned against the movement. This was not going to come cheap and the Sunnis expected a larger share of political cake, integration of the Sahwa militias into official forces and decentralisation of power. This was a unique opportunity for Baghdad to solidify gains but was missed.

Today, Sunni sentiment is hardly different to that of 2003 or at the height of the original Sunni insurgency. Long the rulers of Iraq, the Sunnis suddenly played second fiddle to the Shiites by virtue of the fact that Shiites had higher numbers.

The simple fact remains, just as the Kurds will never succumb to been ruled by Baghdad, the Sunnis will never accept rule under Shiites.

Even if the US and Iranians supported the Baghdad government and quelled the Sunni uprising. Another one will simply spring up. You can cut the branches of the Sunni resistant but without addressing the root it will never vanish.

This branch is ultimately the division of Iraq into 3 autonomous components.

Sectarianism in Iraq is hardly new and dates back many centuries. The public especially the youth, are particularly influenced by religious leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr and influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Indeed, it isn’t an “Iraqi” fightback that is holding off ISIS on the doorsteps of Baghdad but a Shiite one.

The influence of spiritual leaders and Fatwas was clearly on display as truckloads of young Shiite volunteers heeded Sistani’s call to resist.

The fact that Iraqi security forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands needed to be rescued by militias tells its own story about sectarian allegiance.

Iraq vs. terrorism or Shiites vs. Sunnis?

The US has hesitated to intervene realising that as former US commander in Iraq, David Patreus, warned it is effectively the Shiites that they will be siding with, thus further adding fuel to the fire.

Sistani in a recent statement urged on the creation of “an effective government” and one “that enjoys broad national acceptance [and] that reverses past mistakes.” This was a thinly veiled reference to the failings of Maliki marginalisation policies.

From an initial Shiite call for resistance, a more cautious Sistani is now insisting on an Iraqi identity by putting “all Iraqis on the same level” to stand against the insurgency.

The danger is that after 11 years of bloodshed and marginalisation, can Baghdad muster the notion of a common “Iraqi”?

For that to happen, the real influence is in the hands of the Sunni tribes and the local Sunni population not in the guns of the Shiites.

The Sunnis drove out al-Qaeda once and conceivably can do to the same to ISIS, but why should they? A loose alliance of ISIS militiaman, armed local tribes and ex-Baathists has a common goal and at least for now can serve the goals of each other.

If the Sunni tribes ousted ISIS, what guarantee is there that this time Baghdad will take heed and implement their demands? At the same time, by losing ISIS, the Sunnis risk losing the spear to their arrow.

Sunni tribal influences

The Sunnis are composed of a number of influential tribes including Dulaim, Shamma, al-Jaburi, the Ubaydis, the ‘Azza and the al-Bu Nasir.

The founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq, Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash, and influential imam from the Batawi family and for many years a thorn in the side of US, acknowledged in a recent interview that thousands of his men are participating in the ISIS-led insurgency.

al-Dabash, whose demands like many other tribal leaders will not stop short of an autonomous Sunni region,  stated “Is it possible that a few hundred Isis jihadists can take the whole of Mosul?…No. All the Sunni tribes have come out against Maliki. And there are parts of the military, Baathists from the time of Saddam Hussein, clerics, everyone came out for the oppression that we have been suffering.”

Other tribal leaders have joined the fray in outlining their position.

The leader of the political wing of the Tribal Revolutionary Council, Sheikh Zaydan al Jabiri, in a similar vain to al-Dabash doesn’t endorse ISIS ideology but highlighted their common enemy, the Shiite dominated government

Ali Hatim Al-Suleiman, an emir of the Dulaim tribe echoed the sentiment of other tribal leaders, “It is the tribal rebels who are in control of the situation in Mosul. It is not reasonable to say that a group like ISIS, which has a small number of men and vehicles, could be in control of a large city like Mosul. Therefore, it is clear that this is a tribal revolution, but the government is trying to force us all to wear the robe of the terrorists and ISIS.”

Sheikh Khamis Al Dulaimi, a tribal leader in the Anbar Military Council of Tribal Revolutionaries, exclaimed “This is a revolution against the unfairness and marginalization of the past 11 years.”

A common them among these tribal leaders is their fear of ISIS and Sheikh Bashar al-Faidhi, Association of Muslim Scholars, was no different, “We’re terrified of them. They are a problem. But we have to have priorities.”

The tribal leaders were the key to recent snow-balling of ISIS influence and they are the key to any move to oust ISIS.

Growing sectarian divide since 2003

Animosity, hatred, fanaticism and revenge are a vicious cycle that is hard to break. The sectarian bloodshed since 2003 will be hard to ever heal let alone the deep history that entrenches the divide.

Passions are so high that even the slightest damage to any Shiite shrine will see the battle morph into all-out war (not to mention thousands of enraged Iranians joining any bloodbath). Just look at the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in 2006 to see the 2 years of sectarian mayhem it unleashed.

Many of the youth, who are in now in their teens, grew up in a cycle of sectarian terror. It is these youth than joined the ranks of Shiite militias such as that of the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and vehemently opposed US occupation.

Indeed, the sectarian landscape has changed immensely since 2003.

One look at makeup of the neighbourhood of Baghdad tells its own story. The city has segregated greatly along religious and to a lesser extent ethnic divisions.

The continuous demarcation of ethnic and sectarian divisions across Iraq put into focus the only real solution – Iraq’s breakup. Even then, sectarian and ethnic cleansing in such a scenario will run rife.

Shiite insurgencies in the past

The Sunni insurgencies against Baghdad are in some ways not too dissimilar to Shiite insurgencies against Sunni ruled Baghdad. Al-Da’wa al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Call), was established in 1967 by Shia clergy and activists against the Baathist rule.

The Da’wa was a revolutionary movement with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Iraq and fought through its al-Badr Brigade. Grand ayatollah Muahhamd Sadeq al-Sadr and his two sons including Muqtada al Sadr’s father and elder brothers were killed in 1999. It’s no secret which events Moqtada drew his anger.

However, in a similar way to how Sunnis were originally appeased to fight al-Qaeda, sometimes the bonds of tribal affiliation are older and stronger than religious affiliation, and Shiite tribes were affectively influenced to protect border regions in the Iran-Iraq war.

Ultimately, religious passions do not rule the head or heart of every Sunni or Shiites. But with lack of jobs, inclusion in society and government and a bleak future, a lot of Iraqis have little to hold onto.

First Published On: Rudaw

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

How the seeds of Sunni insurgency were sown long before ISIS came to town

Does the US bail out Maliki, who ignored frequent US push for national reconciliation?

The dramatic and rapid advance by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have caught many by surprise but it was a long time in the making.

The seeds of the sectarian mess that has gripped and paralysed Iraq were sown long before a few thousand ISIS militiamen scored mighty gains against an Iraqi force multiples of its size.

An increasingly desperate Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sought US airstrikes as the ISIS militants’ arrived at the doorsteps of Baghdad and now after initially successful counter-attacks the Iraqi forces are struggling to dislodge rebels from the symbolic town of Tikrit.

Does a US who has seen Baghdad pay lip service to their frantic attempts to promote national reconciliation and enticing of the Sunnis into the political fold for the past several years, bail out Maliki?

Even then, are US bailing out the Shiites against the Sunnis, or Iraqis against Islamists?

The US congress apprehension in taking action when policies of Maliki and Baghdad have stoked sectarian fires tells its own story. They hesitated to take military action in Syrian, even with thousands dead, a raging sectarian slaughter and even use of chemical weapons. It seems highly ironic that they jump in to rescue a Baghdad who deemed unnecessary to have even a residual US force upon US withdrawal in Iraq and who brought this mess upon themselves.

Sunni militants were already in effective control of Fallujah, large parts of Ramadi and the Anbar province since the turn of the year and always threatened to expand their campaign.

From the onset of the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. had an obsession of building a democratic, pluralistic, sovereign and inclusive Iraq. Reinforcing the unity of Iraq or indeed that of national reconciliation have been frequent themes that saw the US invest trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

It is no surprise that US President Barrack Obama, in weighing up ways to counter the swift ISIS and Sunni militant drive towards Baghdad, emphasised the political measures and national reconciliation that must accompany any US support.

Such a line is no different to that of former US President George W. Bush who on condition of the greater surge strategy in 2007-2008, set a number of benchmarks for the Iraqi government. Amongst such benchmarks were a representative national government, a national hydrocarbon law, provincial powers and above all national reconciliation that can entice the disenfranchised Sunni’s into the political fold.

Such US wishes often proved illusionary and were never implemented on the ground.

It is not the first time that key cities such as Mosul and Fallujah and large parts of the volatile Anbar region are in the hands of the Sunni militants. Indeed ISIS may have gained strength from the Syrian war but the birth of ISIS has roots in the original insurgency in Iraq.

Furthermore, the media coverage may be dominated by ISIS, but many other Sunni rebel groups and Baathists have bolstered the current advance. It’s hard to believe that a force of a few thousand rebels can make such rapid progress without local support and sympathy on the ground.

While Bush’s surge strategy was credited with ending the bloody insurgency that crippled Iraq, ironically it was the Sunnis themselves that were at the forefront of driving out al-Qaeda through Sunni Sahwa councils established at the time.

Arming the Sahwa councils were akin to a ticking time bomb and the support of key Sunni tribes was expected to be matched with real concessions from Baghdad, including a bigger slice of the political cake, the inauguration of the Sunni militias into the Iraqi security forces and ultimately an overhaul of the constitution.

A relative lull in sectarianism was not matched by practical steps to entice and appease the Sunnis and centralist tendencies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slowly drove a larger wedge between the Sunnis and Shiites with a shaky coalition government soon falling apart.

Maliki’s second term in particular saw many key Sunni figures sidelined or exiled from the political fold further antagonising moderate Sunnis

Iraqi forces may be large on paper but are often viewed with great suspicion by the Sunnis and deemed as Shiite dominated with sectarian agendas. It is not for a lack of training or firepower that they wilted away, those Iraqi forces simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight in Sunni heartlands. Any Sunnis within those forces did not want to stand in the way of a new Sunni ascendancy.

Sectarianism breeds loyalty in Iraq and ISIS will face a completely different picture in Baghdad and Shiite strongholds.

Much like the general Sunni sentiment that drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni neighbourhoods at the height of the insurgency, it is not that all Sunnis welcome ISIS or endorse their tactics or ideology. But for many their despise of the central government and Maliki is greater.

After decades of power, Sunnis were suddenly frozen out in 2003 and affectively played second fiddle to the Shiite majority and this is a fact that most Sunnis still fail to stomach.

The US simply could not comprehend the fierce rivalry and sectarian passion that underpinned the gulf between the factions in Iraq. Sectarian animosity lasting hundreds of years cannot be healed in a matter of years.

US obsession with the unity of Iraq aside, Iraq was a fractured society and a divided state from the first moment it was stitched together artificially.

Iraq had a de-facto partition into three state lets since 2003, with the Kurds enjoying near independence in the north, the Shiites control of the south and with the Sunnis in the west. The only difference was that while the Kurdish partition and Shiite dominated Baghdad and the south had political power and economic clout, the Sunni side didn’t.

ISIS looks to change all that with a more powerful Sunni region that stretches not only in Iraq but well beyond the borders of Syria and with it key oil producing areas.

The US can intervene, Iraqi forces can launch a fierce counter offensive or the Iranian revolutionary guards can add their weight to the battle but like a yo-yo that has already plagued the sectarian divide, the Sunni headache will not go away. The branches can be cut but as we have seen through a number of Sunni insurgencies since 2003, the root firmly remains intact.

If Iraq saw a soft-partition into 3 federal entities as many in Washington and the international community deemed as the only solution at the time of US occupation, and away from the fixation of elusive national unity, there would have been a greater chance of fostering a more moderate Sunni slice.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Counting on the Kurds

Large shockwaves are reverberating across Iraq and the whole Middle East as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its sweep through large parts of northern Iraq. While city after city falls, from populous Mosul to largely Ba’athist Tikrit, best known as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and now to Tal Afar, a strategic town west of Mosul, all the Iraqi armed forces have been able to muster so far is a faltering defense.

In contrast, in only two days the Kurds took control of some ISIS-threatened territories—ones that had been constantly disputed between the autonomous Kurdistan Region and the central government for the eleven years since Saddam Hussein fell from power. In the case of Kirkuk, the symbol of the Kurdish national struggle, the Iraqi forces hastily retreated and Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, assumed control in a matter of hours. With Kurdish interests at great risk and a security vacuum to be filled, the Kurds were not about to remain idle.

The seeds of Sunni insurgency were sown long before ISIS came to town, and it is hardly the first time that the volatile Sunni plains and cities such as Mosul and Fallujah have been under the control of Sunni insurgents. Neither is it the first time the Kurds have had to step in to restore security. Indeed, it was the Peshmerga who helped bring control and stability to Mosul and the surrounding area between 2004 and 2005, and again in 2008, when the areas were threatened by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the groups that would eventually merge to become ISIS.

Now, much like they were in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003 that transformed Iraq’s sociopolitical landscape and sparked the fierce sectarian showdown that followed, the Kurds could yet become the main victors of the latest turmoil that has plagued Iraq. As the Kurds face off against ISIS on their doorstep, the Peshmerga are increasingly being viewed as key players against ISIS rebels and a main factor in the battle to secure stability. The price they could demand from Baghdad for this support in beating back an insurgency, however, could permanently alter the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s borders, its political status—and its fortunes.

Bailing out Maliki?

The ISIS attacks could not have come at a lower point for relations between Erbil and Baghdad. For years, there has been a fierce dispute between the autonomous region and the central government in Baghdad—over oil exports, the status of disputed territories, and the Kurdistan Region’s share of the national budget. Now, facing this growing insurgent threat, administering newly captured territory with significant minority populations, and hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the crises in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds must ask themselves if they should rush to bail out Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. After all, it is Maliki’s policies the Kurds blame for stoking this latest sectarian fire.

The Kurdish leadership has long issued warnings about what in its view were divisive policies pursued by Maliki and his government. Instead, recurring themes in the Kurds’ post-2003 rhetoric were calls for national reconciliation and moves to bring Iraq’s Sunni community, which was feeling increasingly disenfranchised, back into the fold through political incentives and greater representation.

But if anything the sectarian divide only grew larger, especially during Maliki’s second term, when many Sunni political figures were exiled or ousted from government. Eventually, major Sunni protests in Anbar province at the end of 2013 were met with a violent crackdown. Now that those protests have mutated into a sectarian conflict exploited and exacerbated by ISIS militants, there are calls for all concerned—from Shi’ite militias to the Kurds and international parties such as the United States—to step in and help preserve the unity of Iraq.

The Kurds, however, have long aspired to the opposite of a united Iraq: they want an independent country for their nation formed, at least in part, out of the area of northern Iraq currently administered as the autonomous Kurdistan Region. As the ISIS crisis looms larger, they are not likely to step in to preserve anything other than their own interests—and certainly not to rescue Maliki or Baghdad from the mess that, in the Kurds’ view, they have created. Only a few weeks ago, after all, Erbil and Baghdad were at loggerheads about oil sales and arbitration, and Baghdad has failed to pay the Kurds their share of the national budget since January.

Now, if Baghdad wants the Peshmerga to step in as they have done in the past, it will have to promise something in return. Even if Baghdad met key Kurdish demands—for greater control over oil exports from the region, payment of the overdue portions of the national budget, and formal recognition of the territories the Kurds currently hold as part of the Kurdistan Region—it would likely not secure more than limited support from Kurdish leaders in the battle against ISIS.

While the contentious US invasion of Iraq in 2003 created something of a sectarian whirlwind that today continues to rip through Iraq, for the Kurds it marked the beginning of a national renaissance and the creation of a Kurdistan Region a world away from the dark years of oppression and genocide under Saddam. Their strong economy is underpinned by a rapidly growing energy sector and control of billions of barrels of oil that is serving as the fuel for independence—literally—and in recent fighting their security service has proven itself to be among the more effective and better-organized forces operating in Iraq.

Between economic growth and the longstanding pursuit of complete independence, the Kurds’ goals have been lofty. It is Baghdad that the autonomous region’s Kurds deem as the major impediment to their continued progress, with the ongoing oil dispute proving particularly damaging to the relationship.

Control of oil revenues and oil exports was in many ways the last umbilical cord that Baghdad had over the region. By agreeing lucrative energy contracts with Turkey, the Kurds called Baghdad’s bluff and pressed ahead with an independent oil sale, to Baghdad’s vocal consternation. The Iraqi government even filed for arbitration against the Kurdistan Region over the oil sale issue—in part because economic self-sufficiency would help propel Iraqi Kurdistan to greater autonomy and eventual independence.

But while even two weeks ago Kurdistan’s first independent oil sale, through the Turkish port of Ceyhan, was highly controversial, the tone has certainly changed now that Iraq is swept up in sectarian bloodshed and seemingly dependent on the Peshmerga for security support. It would be a bit rich for Maliki to dictate the terms of oil sales while he is fighting an enemy only the Kurds have won against so far.

On that platform of relative economic success, Kurdistan has prided itself on its rapid advancement and relative stability. At the same time, Iraq as a whole has suffered. But, the goalposts for the “Other Iraq” have now shifted substantially, due to the Kurds controlling territory outside their official autonomous region and with substantial minority populations. They must incorporate a large Arab minority and a number of smaller minorities, not to mention the many refugees, inside territory with a border shared not with the Iraqi state, but with a region now controlled by ISIS militants.

The price of an army

If they manage all this, the Kurds stand to gain a great deal, not least of which is control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region. They saw Kirkuk slip through their hands in 1991, the year of the Kurdish uprising against Saddam that saw their autonomous region first established. Again in 2003, Kirkuk fell just beyond their grasp as they succumbed to US and Turkish pressure. Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution aims to deal with Kirkuk and other disputed territories, and it should have been implemented by the end of 2007. Much to the frustration of the Kurds, Baghdad has had no appetite to address the issue, and even a national census—an important first step in dealing with the disputed territories—has been repeatedly put off. Today, the Kurds are not about to forego yet another golden opportunity to seize Kirkuk, said by many to be the “Kurds’ Jerusalem.”

To keep Kirkuk—and the entire Kurdistan Region—safe, the Peshmerga have formed what for now has been an effective security barrier against ISIS and its allied forces. For now, the Peshmerga are in defensive mode only: While there have been skirmishes, ISIS do not have endless forces or firepower, and it is unlikely they could wage and win a war against well-prepared Kurdish forces. And, where the Iraqi forces, which were organized along sectarian lines, swiftly retreated, the Peshmerga have stronger ties of loyalty—and would likely defend Kurdish lands to their last breath.

Perhaps even greater than the prospect of more territory in Iraq or greater control of oil revenues is the chance for increased unity with Kurdish populations living outside the autonomous region, namely in Syria and Turkey, and for improved ties with old enemies such as Ankara.

Amid cries that the Middle East’s borders are eroding, Syria’s Kurds have carved out their own autonomous territory in the northeast of that war-torn country, and in a symbolic move the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces fought side-by-side with the Peshmerga along the Syrian border in the effort to drive out ISIS rebels. At the same time, Syrian Kurds, bolstered by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have built strong ties with the Turkish Kurds—and, of course, there is the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent unilateral oil sales could not have come without the cooperation of Turkey.

The Turkish government has fast realized that, far from being a threat, the Kurds are its natural partners and a newfound strategic player Turkey needs and can rely on in stormy regional waters. The ISIS onslaught has undoubtedly changed Turkey’s Iraq calculus, pushing Ankara closer than ever to Erbil. In a bizarre twist of fate, the US spent years and much effort bringing Ankara and Erbil closer together. Now that Turkey and Kurdistan are enjoying strong economic, political and strategic ties, they are viewing the developments with great caution. While in 2003 the Kurdish occupation of Kirkuk caused an outcry from Ankara, Turkey may now actively support it, especially with the protection it affords the Turkmens living in Kirkuk and the potential benefit to Ankara if Iraq’s Kurds control even more oil resources.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the Kurdish population has long been complete independence. As the Iraq crisis continues almost unchecked, the Kurds could be getting closer to outright independence. The short-term goal for the Kurds is about consolidation and stability. ISIS forces may not invade the newly demarcated line between the territory they hold and the expanded Kurdistan Region, but they can certainly wreak havoc on Kurdistan and its interests. The immediate goal for the Kurds, then, is to preserve the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdish populations in the greater Kurdish area.

The Kurds will keep a close, diligent eye on developments, and once Kurdish interests are secured, they will not jump in with both feet into the Iraqi quagmire. Depending on how the Iraq crisis unfolds—and the staying power of an alliance of ISIS, armed locals and old Ba’athists—the Kurds may well need to strike a deal with Baghdad in order to keep their own peace. Either way, the Kurds will need to maneuver carefully between Sunni militants and a weakened Maliki administration.

First Published On: Majalla (part of Sharq al-Awsat newspaper)

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As Iraqis mark 3rd national elections and yearn for change – reconciliation, national unity and progress remains as elusive as ever

With a high turnout amidst an ongoing threat of violence, the 2014 Iraqi parliamentary elections, the first since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq, were met with an air of optimism by Baghdad and international powers alike. However, any positive sentiment on the surface has to be taken with a big pinch of salt.

With the latest national elections marking the third such occasion, parliamentary elections are hardly new for Iraq and it has already surpassed 11 years since the overthrow of Saddam.

Fed up of rampant corruption, lack of public services, continued threat of terrorism and high unemployment in spite of the billions of dollars Iraq receives from oil revenues, people voted in high numbers with an eagerness for change and a new passage.

The burning question is whether Iraqis, with the exception of the Kurdistan Region, really enjoy a better standard of living and better services since 2003 and whether a new government will mean a change to their fortunes.

It says much about the escalating bloodshed in Iraq that Baghdad deemed it a success that “only” 14 people were killed on polling day.

A frequent theme of the post-Saddam period, especially under the taxing tenure of the US, was national reconciliation, enticing the disaffected Sunnis into the political fold and an effective sharing of power that would appease Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike.

In 2014, Iraq is probably as far as ever from national unity or reconciliation. Iraq was built around three distinct segments and effectively will always be fractured. It is a question of how to “glue” the constituents the best way possible knowing that there will never be a perfect fit.

For a start national unity governments based on a quota system are always going to fail. Due to the fragmented nature of the Iraqi ethno-social picture elections can feel like a national census than a real democratic passage.

For example, Shiites clearly form a majority of the Iraqi population and will dominate Iraqi elections even if you held the elections another 10 times over. Sunnis and Kurds will always dominate their local sphere but never at a national level and thus remain at risk of marginalisation.

Effectively, this mix makes a very protracted and arduous task of satisfying all parties.

Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a prime example of the Iraqi divide. He is reviled by Sunnis for sidelining them from politics, promoting a sectarian agenda, failing to address Sunni discontent and fuelling the revived Sunni insurgency. At the same time, he is been heralded in other circles as the strongman that can overcame the insurgency and keep Iraq intact.

The Kurdistan Region on the other hand has been at loggerheads with Baghdad right from day one and has frequently accused Maliki of centralist tendencies and policies that set to deliberately undermine Kurdish progress and keep the lifeline of the Kurds within Baghdad hands.

Yet, Maliki’s State of Law is likely to be triumphant at the polls.   Of course, he has is far from securing the 165 seats majority needed and his third tenure as Prime Minister is far from certain but he will start in the driving seat. Maliki’s first move would be to entice the other weary and cautious Shiite coalitions in the Citizen Coalition, led by Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim, the Ahrar coalition of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr and the National Reform Alliance led by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The four main Shiite coalitions alone represent 42 political entities, many with differing views and agendas, highlighting the disjointed and difficult nature of Iraqi politics.

With the Shiite alliances representing a significant portion of the seats, add to the considerable Sunni and Kurdish vote, the number of possible permutations to form government are considerable.

This inevitably means that political jockeying and negotiations may well run into many months as in 2010.

The Kurds were deemed the kingmakers at the past elections and are likely to muster close to the 57 seats secured in 2010. Having supported Maliki’s two tenures as Prime Minister in spite of numerous failed promises and Maliki’s continued stand against Kurdistan, the main Kurdish political parties will need to be certain that whoever they rubber stamp in Baghdad can give them their key demands of oil exports, share of the national budget and seemingly forgotten resolution to disputed territories.

If Maliki continues as premier and centralist policies against Kurdistan continue, or conversely if the Sunni insurgent fire is not contained, Iraqis may not see another national election come 2018.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

With Iraqi 2014 elections, security and national unity already under the strain, Iraqis may not see another election come 2018

When the first free elections took hold in Iraq under the auspices of the U.S., it was certainly a milestone in the history of Iraq. Washington, hands deep in the Iraqi political and security picture at the time, accepted that the transitional road to democracy and national reconciliation was going to be rocky and protracted but hoped that with time Iraq would see much light under the tunnel.

In 2014 as Iraqis prepare for their third national elections on 30th April 2014, close to 11 years since the ouster of Saddam, Iraqi stability, security and national reconciliation remains dormant at best but certainly not a far cry from 2006.

Iraq is currently locked in the worst sectarian violence since the height of its crippling civil war. There were over 9000 deaths in 2013 and already 2000 this year. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has used an iron fist to quell a new Sunni insurgency, clearly reinvigorated by the Syrian conflict next door that has seen Sunni militants roam in large parts of the Anbar province and occupy the flashpoint town of Fallujah, on the doorstep of Baghdad.

Maliki’s response to mass Sunni protests at the political marginalisation by the Shiite led government drove a wider wedge in the sectarian divide but more importantly alienated moderate Sunni factions. It must not be forgotten, it was the Sunni Sahwa or Awakening Councils that ultimately drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni heartlands at the height of the sectarian insurgency in 2007-2008, not direct American fire-power.

Maliki has even reverted to Tehran to purchase weapons, at the dismay of Washington, which threatens to extend the regional Sunni-Shiite battle clearly on display in Syria.

If the historic Sunni headache was not bad enough, Maliki has hardly created many friends in Kurdistan. Discontent between Kurds and Baghdad is not new especially over oil exports, national budget and disputed territories, but on the eve of the elections and with Maliki effectively putting Kurdistan under an economic siege by withholding national budget payments and refusing to compromise on Kurdish oil exports via Turkey, this is already making a future national unity government an arduous if not impossible task.

If this wasn’t proving a difficult enough backdrop, the entire members of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) presented their resignation last week. If accepted by the government, it all but ends any chance of holding elections on schedule even as most parties insist on it been held on time.

Some Sunni groups have illustrated the IHEC position and the poor security condition in Sunni-dominated areas as reasons why polls should be delayed. If Sunnis are not adequately represented at the polls as in 2006 when they largely boycotted the vote, it will strike a blow to the credibility of any government before it has even started.

Ultimately, the IHEC will not be allowed to stand-down but such a move by the commission owing to their great frustration over political interference sums up the negative mood surrounding these elections.

The UN supported the IHEC and praised them for been technically well prepared and for their integrity. This sentiment was echoed by the US government.

The IHEC complained that it was caught in the middle of conflicting rulings between the legislative and judicial authorities particularly around the validity of certain candidates from the election.  A vague provision in Iraq’s electoral law that requires Iraqi candidates to be of “good reputation” has been manipulated and interpreted to suit political agendas. Critics of Maliki have waged that this provision has been abused to bolster Maliki’s quest for a third term in office.

At a local level in the Kirkuk province there was a similar divide over holding of elections in the province. Arabs have sought to delay elections with Kurds and most Turkmen groups insistent that it must be held on time.

Iraqis broke a world record to form a government after elections in 2010. Even then many of the agreements that underpinned the eventual breakthrough have not been implemented. Forming a government in 2014 will be even more difficult.

Either way, if the declining Iraqi political, economic and security spiral continues into the next government with Kurdistan and Baghdad failing to bridge the growing divide and Sunni-Shiite polarisation deepening, there may not be another election come 2018.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Maliki’s economic siege of Kurdistan shows that the only true friend of the region is the Kurds himself

As the Erbil-Baghdad crisis reached new lows, Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani warned that the actions of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amounted to “a declaration of war against the people of Kurdistan.”

With an increasingly independent oil infrastructure, all that remains between practical independence is control of oil revenues. Baghdad knows this very well and has displayed this leverage it still possess by refusing to pay share of Kurdistan national budget and even refusing to let two small airlines operate from Kurdistan, until Kurdistan agrees to Baghdad control of revenues.

This shows that while the rise of Kurdistan, particularly since 2003 has been phenomenal, until the Kurds can truly control their own destiny and become self-sufficient, they will always be at the mercy of Iraqi and regional rulers.

The famous Kurdish saying once reverberated that “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. While this saying doesn’t hold true as before, after all there are dozens of consulates, hundreds of foreign companies and several oil majors operating in a booming area with Kurdistan enjoying growing strategic importance, it does remind the Kurds to keep their guard up, not take anything for granted and hold the view that the first friend and guardian is the Kurd himself.

This is certainly true of ties with the US, who under Barrack Obama has not only taken a step back but has hastily retreated from Iraq and the region. As events in 1975 and 1991 have shown the Kurds, US foreign policy (and indeed foreign policy in general) can be fickle and cruel.

Kurds sought strong ties with Washington and the US was all for working with the Kurds but with their focus on Iraqi sovereignty and not alienating or upsetting Baghdad. The US is no stranger to resolving many crises since 2003, many with the help of the Kurds, but has stayed out of recent disputes between Erbil and Baghdad even as the Maliki’s economic siege on Kurdistan threatens the livelihood of Kurdish families and the region.

The Kurds believed that the strategic relationship with the US was there to stay but ironically Washington hasn’t even removed the KDP and PUK from their terror list. With an obsession of keeping a united Iraq, the US has grown uneasy at the new closeness between Erbil and Ankara – yet they initially encouraged stronger ties after years of tension and mistrust between the two sides.

As for Baghdad, the Kurds regrettably endorsed a second term for Maliki in 2010 in spite of numerous failed promises. The fact that many of the 19 points of the Erbil Agreement that allowed Maliki to come to power remain unresolved tells its own story.

With the Iraqi elections just months away, Maliki wants new leverage among defiant Sunnis and disenchanted Shiites and the show of strength against the Kurds is one tactic. But let it be no doubt that sooner or later, Maliki will need the Kurds and once he has finished his sabre-rattling, he has to reconcile with the Kurds and seek a resolution for the current crisis.

In return, Maliki is attempted to politically blackmail the Kurds into a third term. But the Kurds have to wisely avoid repeating the mistake of trusting Maliki or any other power in Baghdad.

The Kurds must show that they are not at the mercy of Baghdad, if Maliki wants to play hardball and hold the region to ransom, then the Kurds must have and play their own card and leverage.

Kurdistan can ill-afford to have their future tied to the goodwill of Baghdad but even that of Ankara and Tehran.  The Kurds have had their rights and a freedom abused and withheld and 2014 is not the time, with the Kurdish national renaissance and newfound prominence, to be revisiting days of hold.

This is all the more reason for Kurdish leaders to finally form an elusive new cabinet, work in unity and put aside individual interest for the sake of the greater nation – after all, if the Kurds won’t help themselves, then certainly external forces cannot be trusted to come to their rescue.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc