Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for August, 2009

ISCI Media Say Ammar al-Hakim Will Assume Political Leadership

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 31 August 2009 23:54

Yesterday, Humam Hammudi, considered an influential power broker within the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), said Ammar al-Hakim would be the sole candidate for the leadership of ISCI after the death of his father, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. Today, news outlets close to ISCI such as Buratha News carry a story to the effect that the leadership council of ISCI has decided that Ammar will be elected to succeed his father tomorrow. The decision is portrayed as a “blow to the American and Baathist media who were talking about a succession crisis in ISCI”.

What is often forgotten in discussions of the succession issue in ISCI is that ISCI itself is a sort of coalition, or even a confederation. It was originally intended as an umbrella organisation when Iran created it in 1982, but as more and more Iraqis defected from its pro-Khomeini line, its membership became more restricted and the Hakim family came to dominate its leadership. However, since the 1990s, and especially since 2003, this flexible structure has been used to admit new members, including “Hizbollah in Iraq” (headed by Hasan al-Sari) and the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement. This dynamic organisational chart may in itself also help ISCI through a succession crisis, since potential discontents, for example in the Badr Organisation, still retain their semi-autonomous spheres of operation.

ISCI “family picture” from 2007 featuring members of ISCI the mother party, the Badr Organisation, “Hizbollah in Iraq” and the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement

ISCI “family photo” from 2007 featuring members of ISCI's main branch, the Badr Organisation, “Hizbollah in Iraq” and the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement. At the time, Ammar al-Hakim represented the Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 8 Comments »

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim Dies in Tehran

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 26 August 2009 14:12

After a long battle with lung cancer, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), has died in Tehran.

More than anything, through his political career, Hakim became a symbol of the chaos, the contradictions and the opportunism that have characterised Iraq in the post-2003 period. Having abandoned religious studies at an early level, Hakim made a professional career in the 1980s as a political-military operator in what was then called the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Khomeinist outfit created by Iran in 1982 in order to maximise its control of the Iraqi opposition during the Iran–Iraq War. He returned to Iraq from Iran after the start of the Iraq War in 2003, and in August that year, after the death of his brother Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in a terrorist attack in Najaf, was propelled to the top leadership position in SCIRI. Hakim had earlier lost all his other brothers in confrontations with the Baathist regime; this experience probably explains his subsequent transformation to a hardliner in issues relating to national reconciliation in Iraq.

It was during 2005 in particular that Hakim would make his mark on the post-2003 politics of Iraq, through a series of remarkable policy initiatives. Ever since the first pre-war opposition conferences in 2002, SCIRI had managed to wrestle itself to the unlikely position as the preferred partner of the United States in “dealing with the Shiite community of Iraq” (a strategy that in itself was predicated on a belief in Washington that the complexities of Iraqi politics would be best approached through sectarian lenses), and it consolidated this position between 2003 to 2005 by appealing to sectarian identity as a basis for political power. Then, in August 2005, Hakim dramatically launched a bid to create a federal region that would comprise the nine Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad – an overt projection of sectarian identity onto Iraq’s administrative map that had hitherto been the preserve of Israelis, Kuwaitis and pro-Kurdish American senators, and a scenario so radical and divisive that its sheer presence on the political agenda added a major obstacle to Iraq’s process of national reconciliation.  Later, in October 2005, SCIRI was the moving spirit behind the Iraqi constitution that was adopted by the Iraqi electorate in a chaotic referendum. Voters had apparently been unable to acquaint themselves with the details of the new Iraqi charter, but in the sectarian atmosphere that prevailed ended up giving their consent to a document that took away almost all governmental power from the capital and gave it instead to the provinces and the federal regions.

During 2007, as US Democrats led by Joe Biden intensified their campaign for “pro-active federalisation” of Iraq, Hakim and SCIRI discovered that the idea of Shiite region appeared to be highly unpopular even among the inhabitants it was supposed to appeal to. Nevertheless, Hakim’s party held on to its strategic alliance, on an ethno-sectarian basis, between Shiites and Kurds, and continued to preach a message of general decentralisation (even if there was now a move towards a greater focus on the existing governorates rather than the creation of a new Shiite federal region). This message did not go well with Iraqi voters either; Hakim’s list performed poorly in the 2009 local elections.

Throughout the post-war period, Hakim masterfully managed to balance US and Iranian pressures and was successful in creating the impression in Washington that SCIRI was on course to liberate itself from Iranian overlordship. This involved theatrics such as a name change in May 2007, where SCIRI became ISCI (without the “revolution”) and where the rumour was circulated (but never officially confirmed) that ISCI would henceforth take its orders from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf in Iraq, instead of from Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Simultaneously, Hakim, who himself was never an Islamic scholar of repute, managed to create the impression of religious authority among Americans by focusing on his status as the son of a Shiite luminary (the Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim) and as a sayyid (descendant of the Prophet), thereby prompting many international journalists to describe him as a “leading cleric” and one of the most “powerful” politicians of Iraq. It was only gradually since 2008 – and more pronouncedly since the local elections in January 2009 – that the idea of ISCI as a loyal ally of Iran returned to US policy-making circles in earnest.

Hakim’s health began to deteriorate several years ago, but he remained a vital policy-maker until his death. Since May 2009, from his convalescent home in Tehran, he presided over a series of meetings with Iraqi politicians that prepared the ground for the revamping of the Shiite political alliance (UIA or the United Iraqi Alliance) that he had been instrumental in crafting back in 2004. Responding to experiences from the local elections, the newly formed Iraqi National Alliance (INA) now accords greater rhetorical emphasis to the idea of Iraqi national unity, but its programme still remains remorseless towards former Baathists (who are to be “cleansed” from the Iraqi state), and ISCI still keeps focusing on an ideology of radical decentralisation which many Iraqis believe contradict the idea of national unity.

Hakim chose to be treated for cancer in Iran and it is remarkable that the United States was unable to correctly interpret his physical movements as the most revealing indicator of his true political loyalties. Since 2003 and until today, Hakim, SCIRI/ISCI and members of the Badr brigades have travelled in and out of Iran without any restriction. It was Iranian territory that was used to orchestrate the new INA. It is inconceivable that the authorities in Tehran would have allowed these processes to go on within their own borders had they not felt that right until his death Hakim was pursuing a policy that was in Iran’s best interests. Instead, however, Washington for a long time clung to a rosy scenario in which ISCI was seen as a potential convert to the American cause; ultimately it was the contradictions in this policy that would create the space for Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s peculiar political career.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 6 Comments »

The Second Licensing Round for Iraqi Oil: Political Aspects

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 25 August 2009 19:01

Iraqi oil ministry officials have returned to Istanbul for another road show promoting a bouquet of Iraqi oil fields for international oil companies. In contrast to the previous licensing round, the fields now on offer include partly developed and previously undeveloped “green fields”. The actual bidding is expected to take place in December.

The legal problems concerning the proposed deals are the same as those involved in the first licensing round: Iraq has no oil and gas law, and the constitution has still not been revised in accordance with the one-off revision mechanism that was added to the new Iraq charter in the last minute to make it more palatable for voters in the October 2005 referendum.

On the other hand, there could be greater support for the proposed contracts in at least some circles within the Iraqi oil sector (which formed an important part of the opposition to the first licensing round). Many Iraqi oil experts are not opposed in principle to a degree of foreign involvement in the country’s oil sector. Rather, in the case of the first licensing round it was the particular constellation of cornerstone oil fields and a very long timeframe that drew substantial opposition even from high officials inside the Iraqi oil ministry. Also, since the first licensing round, the oil ministry has apparently employed a stick-and-carrot approach towards the South Oil Company (where much of the opposition was based), involving the replacement of its head (the new chief is Dhiaa Jaafar) but also the withdrawal of two gas fields from the ongoing stoppage-time phase of the first licensing round, and the exclusion of the Siba field near Basra from the second round – all of which are now likely to be developed with Iraqis rather than foreigners in the lead.

But the main headache for foreign companies contemplating prospective contracts with Iraq must be that they cannot possibly know what kind of Iraq they are entering, and what the parameters of the country’s oil industry will be in the future. Why? Because people at the highest level of power in Iraq evidently don’t know. Recent (15 August) comments by Daawa politician Ali al-Adib illustrate this point. In an interview with the Akhbar al-Iraq news agency he reportedly stated that the position of the Daawa party on the contested status of Kirkuk is crystal-clear: the province should be transformed into a standalone federal entity (i.e. the existing governorate should have its status elevated to that of a federal region). This is a highly specific but also a highly controversial stance. While it is supported by voices in the international community (notably the International Crisis Group), much like the various Biden plans for Iraq it is problematic in several different ways – partly because it implicitly posits an elite hijack of provisions for federalism in the Iraqi constitution that originally were supposed to guarantee a bottom–up process based on local, popular initiatives, and partly because it would involve a multiplication of federal entities in Iraq at a time when the popular trend appears to be towards limitation of the concept of federalism to Kurdistan only.

It seems unlikely that Adib enjoys the full support of the entire Daawa party in this proposal, and it is interesting that his statements should transpire at a time when he was said to be involved in a leadership struggle within the Daawa, possibly as a challenger to Maliki (ISCI media made much of this during the last-minute negotiations of the new, “national” Shiite alliance). But first and foremost this all serves to underline the problematic nature of the recent assurances by the Iraqi oil minister, Hussein al-Shahristani, to the effect that international oil companies should expect the next Iraqi government to take an identical approach to the current one when it comes to the oil sector. Quite the opposite appears to be the case: Even within the circle of centralisers around Maliki there seems to be fundamental disagreement on how key issues like state structure and “disputed territories” should be approached in the future. The oil ministry itself, normally considered part of this centralist trend under Shahristani’s leadership, recently reiterated its non-recognition of deals cut between the Kurdish regional authorities and foreign firms, threatening to exclude China’s Sinopec from future deals in Iraq after its purchase of the smaller company Addax which is operating in Kurdistan.

Few international oil companies know more about the business implications of this kind of problem than the Norwegian company DNO which is also involved in controversial deals with the Kurdish regional authorities. In a recent statement to the press, the company revealed that its operations in Kurdistan are going according to plan, with increasing exports, except for one small problem: So far no one is paying them a dinar for their efforts.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Oil in Iraq | 3 Comments »

After Sadr–Badr Compromise in Tehran, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) Is Declared

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 24 August 2009 13:54

After a bit of juggling with adjectives and word order, the formation of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA, in Arabic referred to as al-Ittilaf al-Watani al-Iraqi) was declared in Baghdad today. Essentially, the new coalition consists of the two largest blocs of the previous Shiite alliance (the United Iraqi Alliance or UIA) – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists – plus elements from the wing of the most pro-Iranian of the two Daawa factions, known as the Tanzim al-Iraq branch, as well as Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s breakaway faction. Full story here.

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Launch of Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 24 August 2009 13:02

The blog Iraq and Gulf Analysis is an occasional supplement to the Iraq website which specialises in issues related to national reconciliation and state structure in Iraq. The blog will feature intermittent news stories related to the Iraqi political process, often of a more speculative nature than the main articles published at An archive of old articles from has been reconstructed and is available from the sidebar , but the comments feature has been closed for these postings .

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

The Shabak React to the Atrocities of Khazna Tepe

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 10 August 2009 17:57

The latest series of violent attacks against Shiite targets in Iraq has prompted the usual outpouring of stereotypical readings by international media, with the dynamics at play invariably described as sectarian “Sunni-Shiite” or ethno-sectarian “Shiite-Kurdish” in character.

This tendency is at its most pronounced in the case of the Khazna Tepe village in Nineveh governorate, where the largely Shiite Shabak minority was targeted and suffered some of the heaviest human and material losses seen in Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops from urban areas on 30 June. The Shabak are a minority with a distinct language that combines elements of Kurdish, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic; in terms of religion they are majority Shiite with a minority of Sunnis. But while leaders of the Shabak aspire to treatment as a separate ethnic minority within Iraq, numerous other communities have tried to impose their own preferred narratives in dealing with them, and it is to these dominant discourses most journalists covering the latest developments now turn.

For example, there is the practice of labelling the Shabak as “Kurds”. This reflects a conscious strategy by the Kurdish regional authorities to assert control of the Shabak (who inhabit a series of villages in what the Kurds consider “disputed” parts of the Nineveh governorate), partly by assimilating them and partly by trying to co-opt their leaders. A competing narrative emanates from certain Assyrian Christian leaders inside and outside Iraq (not least outside it), who through highly imaginative readings of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 want to prepare the ground for the establishment of a federal “minorities region” in those parts of the Nineveh governorate that are known as the “Nineveh plains”. (The strategy refers to article 125 of the Iraqi constitution which guarantees the “administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”; to read this as a green light for a second federalisation track is far-fetched in the extreme but some of these people are taken very seriously in Washington, D.C.) The idea of a separate “Assyrian” nation is in itself something of an imposition on the majority of indigenous Iraqi Christians (many of whom prefer to refer to themselves as “Iraqis of the Chaldean religion”) by an elite with ties to the Nestorian refugees from Hakkari in present-day Turkey who arrived in Iraq as late as during the First World War, but some of these leaders nevertheless think in even bigger terms by construing the demand for a “minority homeland” within Nineveh as a “shared project” between the Christians, Shabak and Turkmen of the region. Shiite Islamists of central Iraq, for their part, will doubtless portray the recent attacks as acts committed by Sunni al-Qaeda and/or remnants of the old regime against Shiite victims.

In this cacophony it may be useful to listen to what Shabak leaders themselves are saying about the attacks. So far, their key demands have been the restoration of control by the central Iraqi government, as well as the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the Nineveh governorate. Shabak leaders decry the lack of Iraqi government influence which has enabled the Kurdish Pesh Merga forces and secret police (asayish) to dominate; in the past the Shabak have repeatedly accused the Kurds of enabling these terror attacks, either turning the blind eye to the local situation or even by orchestrating the attacks themselves. A second feature of their demands has been a call for local forces to form part of the security arrangements, but in making this demand Shabak leaders are not resorting to the federalism model favoured by Assyrian activists in DC and their friends on Capitol Hill, but by evoking the concept of tribal “support councils” (majalis isnad) which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki introduced in 2008 as part of the domestic security agenda of the central government.

In these and most of their previous public statements, Shabak leaders seem to be at one with the dominant Sunni Arab forces of Mosul as represented by the Hadba list and its leader Athil al-Nujayfi – whose own demand that military forces of the (Shiite-dominated) central Iraqi government take control in all of Nineveh represents a remarkable rebuttal of the sectarian paradigm for understanding Iraqi politics. First and foremost, the Shabak are seeking to define themselves as an ethnic minority wihtin an Iraqi nationalist framework, with a neutral position on sectarian issues.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | Comments Off on The Shabak React to the Atrocities of Khazna Tepe

One Shiite Aliance, Two Shiite Alliances, or a Real Inter-Sectarian Alliance?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 9 August 2009 18:35

The amazing range of divergent public statements about the revival of the UIA between May and today seems to suggest that no one is completely in control of the situation. For several weeks, Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) members have been circulating rumours to the effect that the 2005 line-up minus Fadila would come together again and that a new political programme had already been agreed upon. Last week, two different Sadrist statements emerged, one suggesting that the re-establishment of the UIA under a new name (the National Iraqi Alliance) was imminent, another saying more negotiations were needed. Predictions about the exact timing of the process have also varied: Some participants in the process have been adamant that a joint declaration would emerge during last week’s Shaabaniyya pilgrimage; others maintain that nothing will be made public until November or at least will have to wait until there is an election law.

Meanwhile, intra-Shiite relations have been disturbed by the $7 million bank robbery in Baghdad’s Karrada district last month. Initially the affair was blamed on “insurgents” but it has since emerged that people rather closer to the centres of power were involved as offenders, including a member of the security detail of Vice-President Adil Abd al-Mahdi. This has once more caused tensions in the Daawa-ISCI relationship, with opponents of ISCI even suggesting that the robbery was part of a scheme to boost the party’s finances ahead of the next parliamentary elections. ISCI, for their part, are reportedly furious with the interior ministry (headed by independent Jawad al-Bulani and considered closer to Maliki) for having “exaggerated” the role of Adil Abd al-Mahdi’s people in the plot, by blaming it “exclusively” on his guards instead of admitting that “only one” of them was involved… While the incident has not received a lot of attention in the Western press, it was certainly a serious one, with seven Iraqi security guards killed.

Today, a previously unknown political movement fronted by one Khalid al-Yawir and claiming support in the Sunni-dominated governorates says it has formally allied itself with Maliki. At the same time an ISCI statement suggests that the “new” UIA coalition will be announced on Thursday and will include “some Turkmens and Kurds”. In their current configurations, neither of these two schemes seems particularly promising in terms of real inter-sectarian rapprochement between established political heavyweights, although the Maliki-Yawir alliance could be interesting if it should translate into more widespread cooperation with the awakening forces.

Posted in UIA dynamics | Comments Off on One Shiite Aliance, Two Shiite Alliances, or a Real Inter-Sectarian Alliance?