Whilst fellow Shiite Islamists are creating plenty of trouble for Iraq’s premier Nuri al-Maliki in Basra these days, the US military in Iraq is doing its part in the north of the country. It was only this week that Western media broke the silence about one of the key issues that have been simmering for some weeks in Iraq now: The proposed patrols whereby forces from the US military, the Iraqi central government, and the Kurdistan federal government would jointly deploy in what the Kurds refer to as “disputed territories” in northern Iraq.
Western commentary on the opposition to the scheme has focused on Hawija in Tamim, often described as a Baathist stronghold. But this portrayal of the resistance to Odierno’s scheme as retrograde mutterings from isolated pockets of Baathist loyalists is clearly inadequate. On 23 August, the Nineveh provincial council headed by the electorally successful Hadba front condemned the scheme. Members of the council have instead called for more central government troops, possibly strengthened by local recruits. On 1 September, Arab and Turkmen members of the local council in Kirkuk similarly rejected the Odierno plan, focusing on its contravention of the broad principles of the SOFA agreement as well as its implicit recognition of the Kurdish view of what constitutes disputed territories (to most non-Kurdish Iraqis, large swathes of the Tamim governorate are not “disputed lands” but rather Iraqi central government territory, period). Yet another Mosul politician with ties to wider Iraqi nationalist circles, Nur al-Din al-Hayali, has criticised the Odierno scheme as a prelude to a Bosnia-like, enclave-based, partition of northern Iraq.
What Maliki and the rest of the Iraqi government think about the proposed scheme is not yet clear. It does come at a time when Kurdish reactions to the recently-announced one-year postponement of the general census – a move presided over by Ali Baban, the Kurdish, ex-Tawafuq minister of planning from Mosul – have been comparatively subdued, and one cannot help wondering whether some kind of bargain could be in the making. What is certain is that any approval of the Odierno scheme by Maliki is likely to cost the Iraqi premier dearly. For one thing, some of his centralist Shiite supporters (such as the editors of the hardline Al-Bayyina al-Jadida newspaper) have staked much of their Iraqi nationalist credentials on a rather rabid form of anti-Kurdish propaganda. Perhaps more significantly – in terms of the upcoming parliamentary elections especially – almost all the constituencies in northern Iraq that Maliki may want to target if he is to run separately from the new Shiite-dominated alliance, including the Hadba list in Mosul and the anti-Kurdish opposition in Kirkuk, are against the scheme.
Back in March this year, it seemed as if Maliki was sincere about reaching out to these forces, cooperating in several governorates north of Baghdad with groups like Hiwar and Iraqiyya (whose electorate is often Sunni, but whose ideology is Iraqi nationalist), but closing the door to Tawafuq and its key component, the Iraqi Islamic Party (these also appeal to many Sunnis, but often in an overtly sectarian way). That potential still remains: The recent sacking of the Tawafuq governor by the Iraqiyya-led governorate council in Salahaddin is a case in point, making the situation there more similar to Diyala where Maliki’s supporters are also allied on a nationalist basis in opposition to the ethno-sectarian alliance of Tawafuq and the Kurds (reportedly, this latter coalition also supports the Odierno proposal, the ony northern provincial council to do so). But if Maliki instead is once more navigating towards compromise with the two big Kurdish parties then in the end the next parliamentary elections may well turn out to be very similar to those held in 2005.