Iraq and Gulf Analysis

An Iraq Blog by a Victim of the Human Rights Crimes of the Norwegian Government

Archive for the ‘Basra and southern regionalism’ Category

Nujayfi Uses the F Word Again

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 15 October 2011 12:29

In an interview with the BBC during his recent visit to Britain, parliament speaker and Iraqiyya politician Usama al-Nujayfi once more uttered the controversial “federalism” term. Nujayfi reportedly said that the Sunnis of Iraq feel they are being treated as second class citizens and if no improvement takes place many will feel compelled to call for the establishment of “geographically-based federal regions”.

Nujayfi’s comments constitute a careful modification of his previous reference to federalism (and even partition) as a possible option for the Sunnis of Iraq. In the first place, instead of indicating the possible establishment of a single, sectarian Sunni administrative unit, Nujayfi is foreshadowing calls for multiple federal regions in accordance with the constitutional provisions that enable governorates to transform themselves to standalone federal units or to merge with several governorates to form multi-governorate federal regions. Indeed, Nujayfi says he “favours” the establishment of such entities, which would mean a departure from the official Iraqiyya line which has tended to be sceptical to the establishment of additional federal entities in Iraq, but at the same time, especially more recently, surprisingly prepared to extend concessions to the one existing federal entity (Kurdistan). Secondly, Nujayfi this time emphasises Sunni commitment to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state as a whole, although it should be noted that his whole approach of talking on behalf of the Sunnis signifies a political mindset that nonetheless remains focused on sectarian subdivisions.

Still, on the whole, Nujayfi’s comments mainly add to the string of examples of federalism used as a threat by elite politicians rather than necessarily reflecting any strong popular commitment to the creation of such entities. To some extent, this reflects the exasperation of Iraqiyya leaders who have been unable to get the concessions they are seeking from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, partly thanks to their own haplessness. In this perspective, federalism comes across as a tool of opportunistic politicians, as also seen in some of the recent calls for federal regions by governorate council members in areas that do not enjoy any genuine tradition for making such demands, including Wasit. Unfortunately, the overly permissive law on the establishment of federal regions from 2006 enables such opportunism, since a mere third of governorate council members can call for a referendum on the creation of a federal region. This in turn can lead to useless referendums for initiatives that in reality do not enjoy support anywhere close to the levels needed to win a referendum.

Nonetheless, any growth of such calls for federal regions in the Sunni-majority governorates would create an interesting dilemma at the level of the central government. So far, Maliki has deliberately resisted initiatives for federal referendums initiated by politicians from his own State of Law coalition in several governorates south of Baghdad and most prominently Basra, which does have a consistent pro-federal tradition dating back to 2003. The main reason he has been able to contain these initiatives  (and, indeed, unconstitutionally obstruct them) is precisely the fact that they originate from his own partisans. A multiplication of similar calls from the Sunni-majority governorates would be more difficult to resist, and in turn could create domino effects in the Shiite areas that would altogether threaten Maliki’s ambition as a nominally nationalist and centralist strongman for Iraq.

At the same time, it is interesting that the calls for federalism come at a time with persistent reports about a deepening of the subdivisions within Iraqiyya, with precisely Nujayfi reported as one possible alternative point of gravity to Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiyya and his Wifaq movement. Whether the federalism threat is just a negotiating card in a strategy that ultimately aims at negotiations between Maliki and parts of Iraqiyya remains to be seen.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general | 17 Comments »

Iraqiyya Tries to Clear the Air on Federalism

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 13 July 2011 15:46

During the past few decades, few words in the vocabulary of politics have been more angst-inducing among Arab leaders than “federalism”. Associated with division, colonialism, Israel and other undesirables, “federalism” has long been approached with suspicion by the entire Arab political class. Instead, “administrative decentralisation” – by which was often meant that municipalities would enjoy complete supremacy in such matters as the collection of dustbins – remained the preferred term for contemplating any possible cession of power from the centre.

In this kind of perspective, developments in Iraq during the first part of 2011 have been somewhat remarkable. As is well-known, Iraq’s constitution adopted in 2005 includes flexible provisions for the creation of new, future federal entities alongside the one federal region explicitly recognised in the charter itself – Kurdistan. However, it was generally thought that those provisions largely reflected the wishes of a tiny group of Kurdish (KDP/PUK) and Shiite (SCIRI) politicians who with American help managed to sideline the rest of the Iraqi political establishment: For a long time, real interest in the creation of new federal regions seemed confined to the far south in Basra, whereas pro-federal currents elsewhere remained at the level of rumours. But more recently, even politicians of the secular Iraqiyya alliance have increasingly become associated with various political demands that are federalist, or federalist in everything but the name (as seen for example in the demand by the local council in Anbar to cut separate gas deals with foreign companies). In other words, it seemed as if Iraqiyya was turning its back on everything it had said previously about the virtues of a strong, centralised government.

However, this week, the top leadership in both the secular Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamist State of Law have brought a measure of clarity to the debate. Ayyad Allawi, head of the Iraqiyya alliance, declared that the party is against the creation of more federal entities, while at the same time calling for “greater powers to the governorates on a decentralisation basis”.  Another Iraqiyya leader, Salih al-Mutlak, expressed the view that no governorate should have more powers than others. Coincidentally, the remarks by the Iraqiyya leadership followed similar sceptical comments by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of  State of Law, who has recently seen a string of potential federalist challengers in his “own”, mostly Shiite fiefdoms, including Basra, Wasit and most recently Babel. (At least some of these challengers involve politicians from Maliki’s own faction.) All of a sudden, it looked as if we were back at the well-known configuration of positions known from the past, with Sunni-secularist rejection of federalism and considerable Shiite Islamist opposition to pro-federal tendencies within their own ranks (i.e. by ISCI and some local politicians).

Those latest comments and the reactions to them illustrate the continuing stalemate on one of the more fundamental issues in Iraqi constitutional law. Kurdish president Masud Barzani seemed angry with Maliki for his lack of interest in federal regions outside Kurdistan, despite the constitutional provisions that exist. For their part, some of the participants at the Iraqiyya meeting seemed to condemn federalism as a principle altogether (rather than new federal regions), to the point where media stories about Salih al-Mutlak supposedly rejecting the federal status of KRG began circulating. In this way the whole debate gets polarised: The KRG is actively abetting federal projects outside its own territory and is claiming powers that are not even in the constitution, whereas some Iraqiyya leaders give the Kurds reason to doubt that the federalism granted to them by the constitution is indeed guaranteed. Another complicating factor relates to the discrepancies between the constitution and the provincial powers law of 2008. When Iraqiyya is claiming “more power for the governorates”, do they mean more power than granted to them by the provincial powers law of 2008, or just a proper implementation of that law? In article 115 of the constitution federal regions and governorates enjoy exactly the same residual powers and are arguably created almost equal; in the provincial powers law of 2008 (and the draft oil and gas law) a greater degree of administrative subordination to Baghdad is clearly envisaged.

Many suspect that local politicians in Iraq are contemplating the creation of federal regions for the sake of getting bigger budget shares. Some apparently believe they can ask for anything in the name of the existing governorates as long as they do not utter that “divisive” F word! However, the current practice of allocating a certain share of the budget to the sole federal region (Kurdistan) and exempting it from contributing to other central government expenses than defence and the foreign ministry has no constitutional basis as such, and would become a matter of debate if  more federal regions were created. The bottom line is that unless there is constitutional revision to clear up the distinction between a federal region and a governorate, the discussion about the Iraqi state structure is likely to remain detached from reality and will serve as yet another distraction from the more pressing issue of consolidating a government that can provide services and infrastructure for the Iraqi population.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 7 Comments »

Iraqi Shiites Debate Federalism Again

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 3 July 2011 18:33

Parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi’s recent outburst about potential Sunni separatism has had the side effect of a limited resurgence of discussion of federalism among Iraq’s Shiite Islamist factions.

So far, the contributions to this reawakened debate follow patterns that are familiar to those who followed the previous discussion about federalism south of Baghdad in the 2005–2007 period: The Shiite Islamists remain divided on federalism, with many signalling only limited interest in the concept as such, and most players being explicitly opposed to the idea of a single Shiite region that was propagated by ISCI and the Hakim family from 2005 onwards. Only some Kurds keep calling for a tripartite Iraq made up by ethnic and sectarian regions.

A typical example are recent statements by Shakir al-Darraji, from the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. While correctly conceding that the creation of new federal regions are the prerogative of popular initiatives in the governorates, Darraji warns against any new regions at the current stage given the security situation and the heated political atmosphere. Specifically, he warns against a single Shiite region: Such a region would not be in the interest of the Sunnis and Kurds, Darraji says, before adding that the considerations of Iraq’s interest as a whole should be given due weight in any renewed federalism discussion. Symptomatically perhaps, in his interview, Darraji also gave an erroneous account of the legal framework for forming new regions: By saying that any three governorates have the constitutional right to form a new region he reiterated the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law from 2004 rather than those of the new constitution in 2005 (which allows for any combination of governorates into federal regions, excepting Baghdad, as well as uni-governorate federal regions.)

For his part, Muqtada al-Sadr has commented on the recent threat by Usama al-Nujayfi by challenging the inhabitants of these regions to prove their interest in federalism in a referendum. He added that he was against any kind of federalism that would lead to partition… Also, to the extent that there are departures from this general trend, they relate to Basra – as they always did in the past. In a recent statement Jawad al-Bazuni, a young deputy from Basra affiliated with Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) exhibits this tendency. Echoing pro-federal tendencies in evidence among State of Law deputies who captured the governorate council in Basra in January 2009, Buzuni says the creation of multiple federal regions would be the best solution in Iraq in the context of enduring political tension. Buzuni also highlights the Kurdish experience as a successful case of federalism.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in all of this has come from a “Sunni source” – Nujayfi himself. In media comments subsequent to the latest controversy about his statements, Nujayfi revealed that in addition to the petition by the Basra governorate council for a federalism referendum that was submitted in the second half of 2010 (but has so far remained unaddressed by the government in Baghdad in violation of the law on implementing federalism), a similar petition from the governorate council in Wasit, signed by 16 out of 28 council members, was submitted some 2 months ago. This is interesting because Wasit has not figured prominently in past discussions of federalism among Iraqi Shiites. The existence of an oilfield operated by a Chinese company in the governorate adds to the complexity of centre–periphery relations in this case, as does the fact that the State of Law alliance is severely divided there, with a recent split between the Shahristani and the Maliki blocs (the Shahristani supporters have joined independents and the Iraqi Constitutional Party). The exact political configuration behind the latest pro-federal move remains unclear, but an ISCI politician played a key role in making the first moves in 2010.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general, Oil in Iraq, Shiite sectarian federalism | 19 Comments »

A Daawa-ISCI Alliance Gives Basra a New Governor

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 21 April 2011 18:30

The Iraqi parliament appears to be in a stalemate. Just when rapprochement is needed to get all-important security ministers confirmed, the biggest blocs are moving further apart. Shiite Islamists close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are hinting at the possible replacement of the parliamentary speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya, even though he could potentially be Maliki’s most promising ally for getting things done in parliament. Iraqiyya and most other parties are irritated by the insistence of Maliki to keep Khudayr al-Khuzai as a candidate in an unnecessary and time-consuming contest over three vice-presidencies. Parliament will not meet again until 26 April; as of today, no proper agenda for that meeting has been fixed.

Maybe developments in the provinces can provide a better indication of which way the winds of Iraqi politics are blowing? Basra has just got a new governor after the previous one, Shaltagh Abbud of Maliki’s State of Law alliance, was forced out after popular protests. But just like his predecessor, the new man in charge of provincial government in Basra, Khalaf Abd al-Samad, belongs to Maliki’s bloc. His bio is quite similar to other Daawa operatives with a past in exile: Born in Basra in 1952, he joined the Daawa in the late 1960s and got into conflict with the regime in the 1980s and went into exile. He completed his education in agricultural science at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands in the 1990s and then returned to Iraq after 2003.

The political dynamics behind his appointment are fairly uncomplicated. Maliki’s State of Law alliance won a watershed victory in Basra back in January 2009 with some 20 seats. Their share of seats has since shrunk somewhat to around 18 as the result of defections, and in order to secure victory for Abd al-Samad as the new governor, State of Law formed a new coalition with at least three members of ISCI/Badr some weeks ago. It was this coalition that recently voted for Abd al-Samad as the new governor.

It is noteworthy that there was an apparent attempt to challenge Abd al-Samad by Jabbar Amin of Hizb al-Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq), also from State of Law. Some weeks ago, Amin – who in 2010 was at the forefront of a bid to revive the Basra regionalist project – reached out to independents, Sunnis and Christians in a bid to create a cross-sectarian alliance that would challenge Maliki’s preferred candidate. In the end, Amin failed, but he did get 14 votes against 19 for Abd al-Samad.

Amin’s ability to at least create problems for Abd al-Samad suggests that Maliki is not completely immune to challenges even in the provinces that should be a cakewalk for him as far as the arithmetic of deputy affiliations is concerned. His reliance on an alliance with ISCI in this case creates a contrast with patterns currently seen at the national level, but it seems nonetheless significant as an indicator of State of Law’s behaviour in a context when it needs to secure a majority for a specific vote. It will be impossible for Maliki to postpone a similarly decisive vote in parliament on the security ministries for much longer.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, UIA dynamics | 10 Comments »

The Silent Drivers: The Census, Football and the Basra Region

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 23 September 2010 16:08

Several events scheduled for October might create additional hiccups for the Iraqi government-formation process. At the same time, they serve as an indicator of an unhealthy climate in Iraqi politics where personality issues prevail at the expense of ideological questions, creating illogical alliances and preventing more logical ones from materialising.

The most prominent of these issues is the census scheduled for the second half of October – Iraq’s first since 1997. Holding the census is seen as controversial by many Iraqi nationalists, including Arabs and Turkmens living in northern parts of Iraq that fell to Kurdish control during the chaos that reigned during the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. Their fear is that Kurdish dominance on the ground will create biases in the way the census is conducted, with the potential of results that may be used by the Kurds in their quest to annex some of these areas which they claim as “disputed” ones. Even though the holding of a census in itself is not a political issue, the explicit mention in the Transitional Administrative Law of 2004 of a census as a step towards the settlement of so-called disputed territories means it will be seen as political pending the resolution of those territorial issues.

In terms of policy contradictions, it is the position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that stands out in this regard. Back in 2008, when Maliki turned to Iraqi nationalism, he for a while seemed to challenge Kurdish expansionism in the north and saw his popularity increase among some Sunni Arabs and Turkmens as a result. As late as in 2009, he played a role in delaying the census one year despite Kurdish pressures to have it conducted on time as per the census law adopted by the Iraqi parliament. However, since the autumn of 2009 – as the result of a series of events that led to Maliki’s greater isolation from much of the Iraqi political establishment from the August explosions in Baghdad onwards – the Iraqi premier has been increasingly conciliatory vis-à-vis the Kurds, seeing them perhaps as his best option for a post-election alliance at a time when he was probably inflating the potential for a big State of Law victory in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. During the debate on the election law, State of Law supported “special” but ultimately extremely diluted arrangements for Kirkuk that essentially gave the Kurds what they wanted there, and went on to support the Kurds during their attempt to exploit the veto of the law by Tareq al-Hashemi to achieve a new seat allocation formula more in tune with Kurdish demands. There was some limited but not decisive rapprochement on oil exports, and the Kurds offered some support to Maliki when he came under pressure in the shape of a projected “law on electoral conduct” and the debate on the budget. Now, indications are that Maliki will support holding the census on time.

The big irony of course is that even though Maliki seems to be investing heavily in Kurdish friendships right now, that in itself can not deliver the coveted premiership to him. Just like Iraqiyya in the case of the Sadrists, he is courting kingmakers that aren’t real kingmakers. To become the premier candidate of the would-be Shiite alliance, Maliki would need to improve relations with the Sadrists; alternatively, he could start a more serious kind of dialogue with Iraqiyya with the aim of establishing a bilateral pact with them. Of course, there is added irony because in principle both State of Law and Iraqiyya oppose ceding Kirkuk and other disputed territories to the Kurds, with the Daawa traditionally being less inclined than ISCI to make compromise with Arbil. Nonetheless, Iraqiyya keeps talking to ISCI and their Sadrists friends (their voters should ask whether Ammar al-Hakim is ready to stop the census), whereas Maliki keeps talking to the Kurds (it would be interesting to learn what the more hardliner, anti-Kurdish members of State of Law – like Abbas al-Bayati, Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani and even Hussein al-Shahristani – think about the decision to persevere with the census in the current climate.)

A second possible showdown relates to the standoff regarding the national football committee – delayed for more than a year, but now also scheduled for October. Here, Maliki is facing off against prominent sports personalities that have a background in the old regime and that still receive some support internationally from FIFA, where there is a strong Arab voice within the Asian branch of the organisation. As ever, though, the conflict is not one hundred percent clear cut. Maliki has also promoted sports stars that have a background with the old regime. Rather, there is concern about the ways the government is trying to impose its own candidates to be coaches for important football clubs, as a springboard for eventually taking control of the football association itself. There is an added territorial dimension, too, with the football association and FIFA insisting on holding their elections in the Kurdish areas (“Baghdad is unsafe”), with Maliki of course preferring to have Baghdad as the venue of the elections since in his view it would be more normal for the capital to host such events. Again, the contradictions: Iraqiyya supporters in this case flocking to the Kurds with whom they disagree fundamentally on so many territorial issues; Maliki the centralist appearing to wake up again, if more reluctantly than before.

And finally, there is the reported revival of Basra federalism demands which would create even further contradictions if a referendum gets underway in earnest (such rumours also surfaced last winter).  In this case, Maliki the centralist could face challenges from his own ranks, where State of Law members in the Basra provincial council now express more pro-federal sentiment than they used to only a year ago, when a similar scheme was launched only to fail.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 28 Comments »

The Back Story to the Electricity Protests in the South

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 21 June 2010 17:54

It would be inconsiderate to reduce the recent protests of the Basrawis regarding the electricity situation to politics: From May through September, the weather in the Gulf is often so hot that more basic priorities take precedence. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore certain political dimensions to the crisis that can ultimately help explain, among other things, why it is taking so long to form a new government in Baghdad.

In particular, these aspects relate to internal tensions within the newly declared Shiite alliance that so far has yet to agree on anything other than a common desire to be considered the biggest bloc and hence the supplier of the next Iraqi premier – if they could only agree on that someone. And, as ever, they relate to tensions in the relationship between the Daawa party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) headed by Ammar al-Hakim. In Basra during the weekend this came into play as demonstrators against the electricity situation called not only for the sacking of the electricity minister (Karim Wahid) but also the governor Shaltagh Abbud al-Mayyahi who belongs to Maliki’s State of Law alliance (SLA). Conversely, a principal supporter of the demonstrations and the subsequent criticism of the security forces (at least two people were killed in confrontations during the demonstrations) was Ahmad al-Sulayti, ISCI’s chief representative in Basra. He has been seconded in his efforts by prominent Sadrists and representatives of Fadila, the other main forces of the anti-Maliki component of the new Shiite alliance, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).

This situation, in turn, echoes the recent past in two different ways. Firstly, it is noteworthy that the attacks against Karim Wahid have been a constant theme at pro-ISCI websites like Buratha  headed by Jalal al-Din al-Saghir at least since 2008. Who is Karim Wahid? Born in Nasiriyya (Dhi Qar), Karim Wahid Hassan al-Abbudi is one of those independents within the United Iraqi Alliance that were brought into the Maliki government and gradually gravitated towards Maliki personally. Importantly, he is also an example of a Shiite who made a career and had a high-ranking job during the former regime: Having completed his education in Baghdad and Dundee he returned to Baghdad to work for the government in the early 1990s and was a leading electricity technocrat at the time of the fall of the regime in April 2003. In other words, his inclusion in the Maliki government represented the pragmatic Maliki policy of making use of professionals from the pre-2003 era. This clearly proved too much for Mr. Saghir (who, by way of contrast, spent the 1990s in exile), and the Buratha news agency soon came to involve accusations of Baathism in smear stories about the electricity ministry – and just last week in fact attacked Wahid using exactly the same red cross that had previously been used against Salih al-Mutlak in order to exclude him from the political process. Just to illustrate the current  confused atmosphere across the south, Latif Sayhud, the State of Law spokesman in Dhi Qar, today criticised local demonstrators for alleged infiltration by “Baathists” whereas Iraqiyya supported the demonstrations in Basra and in some of the mid-Euphrates governorates! Once more, it seems, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir has managed to make friends with both anti-Baathists and their opponents by attacking Maliki…

Red Lines: The Buratha news agency attacks Karim Wahid (top) and Salih al-Mutlak (bottom)

The second interesting aspect about the demonstrations concerns the parallel to the situation in Basra in early 2008, before the so-called “Charge of the Knights” security operation. Back then, the immediately precipitating event for the government intervention was also a popular demonstration, which similarly targeted an individual loyal to Maliki, General Mohan (who, among other things, had been critical about Iranian influence in the Basra area). ISCI at the time apparently feared that the Sadrists in Basra were becoming too strong, and on this occasion managed to persuade Maliki to intervene, only to see the alliance collapse months later as Maliki discovered Iraqi nationalism and decided to contest the local elections on a separate, non-sectarian ticket – State of Law.

Embattled Maliki allies: Shirwan al-Waeli and Karim Wahid in crisis talks

The latest news is that Maliki has despatched a ministerial delegation to Basra to investigate urgently. Whether he prefers to save his minister this time remains to be seen.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, UIA dynamics | 29 Comments »

Pathophysiological Aspects of a Dysfunctional Democracy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 2 March 2010 23:49

The last couple of days have seen an outpouring of cheerful comments by optimistic observers of the Iraqi election campaign. The high number of candidate posters, it is argued, is testament to a vibrant democracy!

Perhaps the assessment of the Iraqi political process would become more realistic if observers went beyond counting the posters and started actually analysing what is written on them. And a good place to start is of course the wonderful placard for candidate number 24 on list 316 (Iraqi National Alliance) in Baghdad, Ali Faysal al-Lami. Immediately following Lami’s name, the principal item of his resume is indicated: “Executive director of the accountability and justice commission”, also known as Iraq’s de-Baathification board. At the bottom of the poster is a slogan, “For the sake of preventing the return of the oppressive Baath”.

Lami’s poster highlights the way in which the legacy of the de-Baathification process is deliberately being inserted in the Iraqi election campaign, effectively overshadowing many more important issues in Iraqi politics. And even at this late stage, Lami and his allies have the audacity to shamelessly employ the accountability and justice board – which in theory was supposed to be a politically neutral institution – to keep up the pressure as far as de-Baathification is concerned, all the way to election day it seems. On the last day of February, Candidate al-Lami, this time wearing his hat as de-Baathification director, dramatically announced that his commission would publish the evidence against the excluded candidates “at some point before the 7 March elections”, suggesting a crescendo towards a grand anti-Baathist finale on the eve of the poll.

Also the supposedly more neutral state bureaucracy is succumbing to pressure by Lami and his allies. Judge Abd al-Sattar al-Birqadar, the spokesman of the higher judicial council, recently dismissed as “unrealistic” the attempt by Salih al-Mutlak to mount a legal challenge against the de-Baathification board, claiming that the appeals board constituted by parliament was the highest authority in the matter. What he failed to mention – and what the higher judicial council has so far not responded to in a judicial way– is the problem that neither the de-Baathification board nor the appeals court constituted to deal with its proceedings has any authority to rule on exclusions related to article 7 of the Iraqi constitution. The IHEC and UNAMI seem more focused on how to replace the banned candidates instead of considering the far more fundamental problem concerning the implementation of article 7; the Americans, for their part, now appear to be primarily concerned that it is very important that the losers of the elections behave in a polite manner, i.e. that they go quietly.

The outcome of all this is elections whose legitimacy is in doubt even before the first votes have been cast. The secular and nationalist forces keep asking critical questions about the process (including the much-disputed printing of more than 7 million ballot papers in excess of what is needed) and have signalled that they may boycott the political process in the next parliament if the election is fraudulent.

Isn’t it reductionist to focus so exclusively on the de-Baathification process? Yes and no. Often overlooked in the west is the often Delphic character of the political discourse of Iraqi electoral candidates, even in this new age of democracy. It is for example slightly disconcerting that the number one candidate of State of Law in Nasiriyya in a recent, much profiled interview with an American journalist was unable to proffer any substantial description of his party’s political programme whatsoever. Other agendas that transpire in the election debate are disconnected from national politics altogether. Why don’t we take a look at the activities of the counterpart of Lami in Basra, INA’s number 24 there, Wathib al-Amud. He recently began campaigning for the creation of two new governorates to be parcelled out from Basra itself: Qurna and Mudayna (or Madina; some locals reportedly object to the diminutive form). Candidate al-Amud says the two northernmost portions of the governorate do not receive a fair share of the Basra budget. More than 750,000 people live here, he says, which is more than both Dahuk and Muthanna (which in turn enjoy governorate status). If 100,000 signatures are collected, the Iraqi parliament will have to grant them governorate status! It doesn’t matter one iota, it seems, that no such procedure for sub-governorate secession actually exists anywhere in the constitution (the competing project of a federal region for Basra, which is currently on the backburner after its proponents instead decided to fight for extra revenue in the budget, at least has a legal basis). No, Amud, who is propagating a scheme that first appeared around December 2008 in the sub-governorate council of the oil-rich Qurna area, is making it all up and no one seems to care. Much like the situation at the national level, the Iraqi “democratic” process in Basra is full of fantasy and unencumbered by the tiresome inhibitions of law and due process.

Some observers will no doubt see the Amud phenomen as yet another indicator of the prospering character of Iraq’s new democracy.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 11 Comments »

Decentralisation Bonanza in the Iraqi Budget

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 27 January 2010 10:33

“Pork barrel” may perhaps come across as supremely insensitive in the Iraqi context and yet this very American expression may be the best way of explaining the political compromise that facilitated the passage of the 2010 budget in the Iraqi parliament yesterday.The key to understanding at least some of the underlying dynamic here is hidden in article 43 of the new budget law, which specifies special rates of added income for a number of Iraqi governorates according to their economic structure… Full story here.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Oil in Iraq | 21 Comments »

Once More, Peter Galbraith Fails to Clear His Name

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 14 January 2010 6:59

The Iraqi parliament has already gone on holiday until next Tuesday so we might as well take a look at the most recent attempt by Peter Galbraith to explain to the world exactly what he was up to with his multiple roles in Kurdistan in the period 2004–2006. Whereas his latest contribution does not really contain any significant new information, it has been circulated by the author and his friends with such fervour that a refutation should be available for the record.

Galbraith’s latest version of events appears in the 14 January issue of The New York Review of Books under the headline “A Statement on My Activities in Kurdistan” – and as such cannot fail to generate expectations of a “full and final disclosure”. In that perspective, however, the piece is a rather disappointing affair. With the exception of two minor details there is no new information, just a rehash of the same old story, and the article certainly fails to effectively rebut the key point of criticism against Galbraith: That he continued to stay involved in the Iraqi constitutional process also after he acquired a business interest in the Norwegian oil company DNO and its Kurdistan operations in 2004. The only new pieces that are added to the puzzle are the fact that the Iraqi oil ministry must have known about Galbraith’s interest in DNO (since Galbraith represented the company on a joint committee), and also that the government of the United States was somehow informed.

Today, Galbraith wants us to read his “Kurdistan activities” between 2004 and 2006 roughly as follows. After having been interested in the Kurdish cause during the 1990s (partly on basis of his experience with Kurdish refugees after the 1991 uprising) he in 2004 “helped Kurdistan’s leaders draft a proposal for a self-governing Kurdistan that was submitted to the Coalition Provisional Authority on February 11, 2004, for inclusion in Iraq’s interim constitution”.  Since the proposal also included provisions for regional control of the oil sector, Galbraith’s next step was to help the Kurds start building their oil sector in practice on the ground. Accordingly, he “helped bring DNO, a Norwegian oil company, into Kurdistan”. As part of this process, he was “paid by DNO and entered into a financial arrangement with the company through a Delaware partnership, Porcupine LP.” Later, in 2005, he “advised” the Kurds on their negotiations for a permanent constitution; however Galbraith stresses that their negotiating position was more or less similar to the one “they” had defined in February 2004, “and they achieved virtually all of it”. Galbraith specifically denies having “pushed through” anything during the negotiations, thereby refuting a claim made by The New York Times concerning his overall level of influence on the Iraqi constitutional process.

Galbraith’s account is unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. Firstly, no matter how much he tries to dress things up by referring to the “Kurdish proposal of February 2004” there is no way he can erase what he himself wrote on this subject back in 2006, when he in considerable detail bragged about how almost every single word of that proposal had in fact been written by himself. On p. 167 of The End of Iraq, Galbraith highlighted this fact by dramatically describing the sole change to his own proposal that was introduced by the Kurds: “Kosrat Rasul, the veteran PUK peshmerga who had served as Kurdistan’s second prime minister in 1994, wanted to clarify that deployments of the Iraqi Kurdistan national guard outside the region should not only be approved by the Kurdistan national assembly but should only occur at the request of the federal government in Baghdad. His amendment underscored the Kurds’ reluctance to be involved in Iraq’s wars. With that change, the proposal was accepted.” Galbraith’s five-page proposal, that is, with the single-paragraph amendment by Rasul! In other words, every time Galbraith refers to “the Kurdish proposal of February 2004”, please substitute “the Galbraith proposal of February 2004”. This applies for example when Galbraith writes, “The Kurds…had set the agenda and they pushed through their own proposal”. It was largely Galbraith’s proposal they pushed through.

Secondly, with respect to the supposedly “informal” nature of Galbraith’s involvement with the constitution after he had acquired an “interest” in DNO in June 2004 (at which point the conflict of interests obviously got more pronounced), at least three smoking guns can be found just in the open sources. The first two are again of Galbraith’s own making, and once more can be found in The End of Iraq. On p. 199 in a footnote Galbraith cannot resist revealing how he personally intervened to dissuade a British official from opening a debate about the taxation power of the central government close to the deadline for the constitutional draft. Also, on p. 171 he depicts his own role in staging a semi-official referendum on Kurdish independence on the sidelines of the January 2005 elections. The third significant reference is from his friend, Jonathan Morrow, who on p. 13 of a report entitled Iraq’s Constitutional Process II from 2005 describes how the “Kurdish parties were able to invite into the ad hoc meetings [where Kurdish and Shiite leaders designed the shape of the new constitution] experienced non-Iraqi international negotiators and constitutional lawyers, including former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith and University of Maryland Professor Karol Soltan, to advance the Kurdish case.” Again, what was he doing there, if he had a business interest in DNO? This truly is a “private citizen” extraordinaire, with access to all areas, and clearly so active that even open-source materials attest to his influential role.

One additional aspect that strangely has yet to receive much attention in the American debate is the question of possible disinformation of the US Congress by Galbraith in ways that could advance his own “business interests”. On 11 January 2006, Galbraith, who by that time was still involved with DNO, suggested several policy measures in a testimony to the US Senate called “Acknowledge Partition and Withdraw: A Reality Based Strategy for Iraq”. Among these measures was the idea of a general US withdrawal from Iraq, with the exception of a “small over the horizon force in Kurdistan”, explained with reference to the claim that “the Kurds are among the most pro-American people in the world and would welcome a US military presence, not the least because it would help protect them from Arab Iraqis who resent their close cooperation with the US during the 2003 War and thereafter.” Coincidentally, of course, that small American military force would also protect Galbraith’s “business interests” and the Tawke oilfield to which these interests relate. But Galbraith did not tell Congress that, did he?

Additionally, many of the conjectures by Galbraith in his congressional testimony are inaccurate or misleading. For example, the idea that other Iraqis would embark on some kind of systematic revenge operation to physically attack the Kurds for their cooperation with the Americans since 2003 seems a little exaggerated. (By 2006, vast number of non-Kurdish Iraqis had done exactly the same thing in terms of cooperation.) Galbraith also vastly overplays Shiite interest in federalism when he asserts that “Iraq’s Council of Representatives has already passed a law paving the way to the formation of a Shiite ‘super-region’ in fifteen months” and later goes on to talk about “a Shiite Region likely on its way”. In fact, three years later, few Iraqi Shiites seem to have any interest in a Shiite region whatsoever (even Ammar al-Hakim has left the specific idea of a nine-governorate “Shiite” region and now talks about federal regions more generally). Also, Galbraith failed to mention that the law to which he referred in fact enables several thousand other, non-sectarian scenarios of Iraqi governorates combining into federal regions  (yes, that’s right, thousands, new regions can be everything from a single governorate to 14 governorates coming together and need not be territorially contiguous, so the reservoir of possible combinations of those existing governorates that are allowed to form multi-governorate regions, i.e. excepting Baghdad, is truly mind-boggling).

Towards the end of his attempt at rebuttal, Galbraith does a wonderful job of highlighting the general shakiness of his own position. He writes, “A separate issue arises over what I should have disclosed in connection with my articles in The New York Review of Books… I wrote several other articles in 2004 and 2005, some of which briefly discussed the oil issue, and did not mention my business arrangements. These arrangements were covered by confidentiality agreements, but I should have stated that I had business interests in Kurdistan. I regret not having done so and apologize to the editors and readers of The New York Review of Books. In my later articles, I did state that I was ‘a principal at the Windham Resources Group, a firm that negotiates on behalf of its clients in post-conflict societies, including in Iraq.’ ”

The big issue, of course, is that he did not mention Porcupine and DNO! But to Galbraith that distinction between a consultancy firm and an oil company appears to be unimportant, and he offers the reference to the Windham Resources Group in the hope that this may mollify NYRB readers after his failure to disclose inconvenient truths about Norwegian oil companies and multi-million stakes in the Kurdistan oil industry. As with so many other aspects of his “activities in Kurdistan”, Galbraith is either unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture and the strong and problematic linkages between his private-citizen “business interests” on the one hand and the Iraqi constitutional process and US policy debate on the other.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Oil in Iraq | 3 Comments »

Ahmad al-Sulayti, or, Maliki’s Basra Problem

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 September 2009 12:17

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

The standardised Western narrative on Basra political developments over the past two years is as simple as it is deceptive: For a while, the people of Basra were terrorised by militia rule directed mainly by two “extremist” and “milita-affiliated” groups – Sadrists and the ruling Fadila party – but this sorry state of affairs came to an end in March 2008 by the heroic intervention of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,  variously celebrated as the “legalist”, the “secularist” and the “hater of the Iranians” depending on the writer’s closeness to the Bush administration. The militias disappeared, “the rule of law” was restored in Basra, and Maliki was rewarded by the Basrawis last January with a resounding win in the local elections.

The reality in Basra these days is somewhat different. Since the assumption of power by the new local government last April, reports of increasing Islamisation of Basra’s public sphere have intensified. Growing pressures towards Islamic dress code in public-sector workplaces have been reported, along with increased attempts at gender segregation in public spaces like parks and university areas. In August came a formal ban on the sale of alcohol.

Some of these moves have been championed by the very “secularist” list that Maliki’s alliance was supposed to represent, with the new governor Shaltagh Abbud in the lead. However, by far the greatest enthusiast for imposing strict Islamic order in Basra society – in fact, his zeal is such that other council members have had to restrain him lately – is from neither the Daawa nor the Sadrist camp. Rather, Shaykh Ahmad al-Sulayti is a leading figure of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and a preacher in Zubayr, traditionally a Sunni stronghold but since the 1960s increasingly populated by Shiites. He has been at the forefront of several of the recent legislative initiatives aimed at enhancing the observation of Islamic codes of conduct in Basra. Like many other Shiite activists he refers to the elusive “marjaiyya” as his source of authority; at his website this is operationalised with links to the “four great” top ulama of Iraq – the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the three other leading traditionalists of Najaf.

Basra may be in the middle of a water supply crisis but Sulayti’s current preoccupation is that he wants Basra’s men to grow their beards – to let the beard flow freely, as the Arabs say – a matter in which he is indeed supported by Sistani fatwas. It should be stressed that the way he has gone about this business in itself seems quite innocuous: Last week he introduced a law that would prevent public officials from directing employees to shave their beards, referring to the principle of individual freedom. But if his strategy thus seemed somewhat indirect (and not really different from, say, campaigns by Muslims in Europe for the right to wear the hijab at work), it was considered to go too far by the rest of the council (which had previously approved the ban on alcohol) and was cancelled a few days ago after having first been adopted.

Sulayti’s priorities reflect an interesting focus on rituals and dress code as the key to creating Islamic spaces, not entirely different from Sunni Islamist tendencies, but previously often thought to be the preserve of “radical Sadrists” as far as the Iraqi Shiite scene was considered. And whereas the Daawa-led coalition in Basra right now appears to be in a position to resist pressures from clerics like Sulayti, it is surprising how far in the direction of Islamisation they have ventured already, their rock-solid majority in the local council notwithstanding. More than anything the Basra developments speak volumes about the pressures that Maliki is facing from elements in the Shiite Islamist camp often considered “moderates” by the outside world, and hence the need for him to think carefully through the constellation of his political alliances in the next parliamentary elections. (Not that the Basra regionalism trend is going away either – a Basra member of his list, Mahmud al-Maksusi, recently reminded Iraqi parliamentarians about their promise to give Basra special status as Iraq’s “economic capital”.)

The situation in Basra has wider ramifications that are as fascinating as they are potentially explosive. At some point, members of the Iraqi public with an interest in Islamic law are likely to ask themselves why, given the theoretical oneness of Islamic law, is it legal to sell alcohol in Baghdad and not in Basra? More likely, they will not stop by asking themselves, but may well want to pose the question to other authorities that are supposed to be in the know about these issues, like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or the Federal Supreme Court, or, worse, perhaps both of them at the same time. Even more critically, some may want to know why the ban is not being implemented in the streets of Arbil and other parts of the Kurdistan Region, which just like the rest of the Iraq is subject to the constitutional imperative that no legislation may contradict the fundamentals of Islam. In this battle between Islamic law and secularism lies the conflict that could one day topple the project of Iraq as an Islamic federation, as set out in everything but the name in the 2005 constitution. And if the issue is not raised by the Iraqi public itself, it will under any circumstances force its way onto the agenda once the law on the composition of a new federal supreme court – promised in 2005 but considered a too sensitive subject until now – is to be debated in the Iraqi parliament.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism | Comments Off

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers