Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for September, 2009

The Elections Law: Who Will Stand Up for Kirkuk?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 28 September 2009 12:12

Iraqis are heading towards parliamentary elections early next year where most parties are likely to tout identical messages: “Yes, yes to Unity”, “No, no to Sectarianism”, “No to Division”, “No to Quotas”… Additionally, voters will discover that politicians who for years have been declared enemies now suddenly run on the same lists, forming the most unlikely mega coalitions. Indeed, these days even some of the past architects of Iraq’s partition are likely to employ unity rhetoric. So how can Iraqis be expected to find out who is sincere about their Iraqi nationalism and who is merely posturing?

Well, they could get an excellent opportunity over the next couple of weeks. The reason is very simple: For practical reasons, the Iraqi elections commission has asked the Iraqi parliament to come up with an elections law (or a revised version of the existing one) before 15 October; if they are unable to do so the existing law from 2005 will have to be used if elections are to go ahead on 16 January 2010. In line with this, the Iraqi government has prepared a draft for a revised version of the existing law which incorporates new elements from the legislation for the January 2009 local elections – including a popular open-list system giving voters greater say in deciding which politicians will benefit from their vote, as well as a ban on the use of places of worship and images of religious leaders for election propaganda purposes. Consensus on all these issues has been achieved and only one significant question remains: what to do with Kirkuk, also known as the Tamim governorate.

Why should anything be done about Kirkuk at all? After all, back in 2005 Kirkuk was treated as if it were an ordinary Iraqi governorate. However, the mood in Iraqi politics has shifted a great deal since 2005. When it comes to Kirkuk, Iraqi public opinion has gradually coalesced around the view that Kirkuk is an integral part of the Iraqi state and even constitutes an Iraqi microcosm through its multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian demographic character. In turn, the shift towards stronger Iraqi nationalist currents has led to greater criticism of the post-2003 Kurdish attempts to define Kirkuk as a “disputed territory” and its policies to strengthen the Kurdish population presence in the city centre, which historically had a closer connection to the Iraqi plains and was culturally dominated by Turkmens. (The Kurdish migration to Kirkuk accelerated in earnest only during the 1960s; while some of the post-2003 Kurdish immigration certainly rectified Baathist attempts to manipulate the urban demography in the 1980s and later, it is widely acknowledged that this has now gone far beyond a return to the status quo ante.) According to this logic, doing nothing about Kirkuk would be the same as tacitly recognising all the changes to the area’s demographic and political balance that have taken place since 2003.

Reflecting this greater concern for Kirkuk’s status in Iraq and the perceived need to protest the policies of Kurdification (and specifically the possibility of elections being manipulated), a group of nationalist parties known as the 22 July trend last year secured the insertion into the provincial elections law of special clauses that excepted Kirkuk from the local elections pending agreement on interim arrangements that could ensure a more just procedure for choosing the governorate council. The attempt to find a solution stalled, but the point had been made: For the first time since the fateful mention of Kirkuk as a “disputed territory” in the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law, Iraqi politicians had effectively managed to reverse some of the tendency towards ever greater fragmentation in post-war Iraq.

That’s why the debate on the upcoming elections law is important too: In a similar fashion it can differentiate between those parliamentarians who think Kurdish policies in Kirkuk are perfectly acceptable and those who really disagree with the Kurds on this issue. Of course, an exact replay of 2008 and the provincial elections law is unlikely. That would be deeply unsatisfying to everyone concerned, as no parliamentarians would be elected from Kirkuk at all and it would be somewhat pathetic to put both local and parliamentary elections on hold for an indefinite period. Alternative solutions have been proposed, but so far they have not been particularly inspiring. Unfortunately, several Iraqi nationalist parties (including some with links to the now more scattered 22 July trend) have become hopelessly attached to a proposal for four separate, ethnically defined electoral constituencies – a scheme that would only undermine, and quite fragrantly so, the very Iraqi nationalist ideals these parties say they believe in. The Kurds, for their part, reject any idea of special arrangements and seem prepared to stick to this position even if it would mean that no new legislation is passed at all.

Here the party politics kicks in. In the past, the Kurds have been supported primarily by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), many of whose members stormed out of parliament alongside the Kurds in protest against the provincial elections law last year. But this time, ISCI is facing a quandary. Its newly formed Iraqi National Alliance, just one month old, includes a strong Sadrist contingent. The Sadrists are arch-nationalists when it comes to Kirkuk, having fronted anti-federalism demonstrations there since early 2004 and even issuing an unusual expression of support for Maliki during his confrontations with the Kurds in neighbouring northern areas last year. As recently as last week, Talib al-Kurayti, a Sadrist from Karbala, told media that the anti-federal position of his movement remains the same as before. Accordingly, by supporting the Kurds once more, ISCI could end up seeing its newly formed coalition being ripped apart less than two months after it came into existence (Ibrahim al-Jaafari, too, has in the past been much more assertive in the Kirkuk question than ISCI) .

Indeed, ISCI politicians seem to worry over this. Hamid Mualla told Al-Hayat over the weekend that he feared a repetition of the quarrel seen last year during the provincial powers law, and expressed his hope that something similar could be avoided this time. But for those who are truly prepared to put action behind their Iraqi nationalist rhetoric, precisely this kind of a repetition would of course be highly desirable. In other words, through forcing a vote on some kind of special arrangements for Kirkuk, Iraqi politicians could make it clear for everyone to see what position different parties take on a highly specific issue, thereby cutting through the crap of empty unity rhetoric. This should be particularly interesting in terms of the ongoing coalition negotiations, because just like the Sadrists, the secular Iraqiyya list – lately reported as being involved in negotiations with ISCI – would normally take an anti-Kurdish position (as they reportedly did on 22 July 2008 as well.) Similarly, the Kurdish issue is one where the Daawa party in the past has held a position which dovetails with many of the Iraqi nationalist parties in the northern parts of the country. It would also be interesting to know the exact stance of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party, whose prominent representative Ayyad al-Samarraie is visiting Iran these days, technically in his capacity as speaker of the Iraqi parliament, but reportedly scheduled to hold talks at pretty high levels (including President Ahmadinejad and the national security chief Said Jalili in addition to Ali Larijani, his Iranian counterpart and apparently an increasingly important figure in Iranian policy-making on Iraq).

Of course, there remains the possibility of a presidential veto by the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. Indeed, this kind of veto has been used earlier, back in February 2008, when Talabani and his ISCI counterpart, Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, both felt unease at the prospect of early local elections and threw out the first version of the provincial powers law; in that case both gentlemen promptly changed their minds subsequent to a quick visit by Vice President Dick Cheney. But whilst similar action by Joe Biden over coming months seems both undesirable and unrealistic, this kind of scenario would at least demonstrate clearly to the whole world where the priorities of the Iraqi president lie: Does he favour ethno-nationalist expansion over giving Iraqi voters a more progressive elections law?

Exactly what can be done still remains unclear. Iraqi nationalists will probably stultify themselves if they persevere with the idea of separate electoral constituencies, and a repeat of their initial demand from last year of a governorate-level distribution formula for seats (32+32+32+4 for Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians) would be a non-starter for the Kurds. There has been talk of a somewhat odd-looking proposal by Abbas al-Bayati (a Turkmen close to Maliki) whereby the political parties would create a single list with agreed quota representation for the various communities; the voters would then apparently vote for this particular list (and none other)! If quotas are to be used in the first place, it would probably be better to set a quota at the governorate level (perhaps with certain adjustments to the previously-proposed formula in order to make it more acceptable to the Kurds) whilst at the same time finding ways to keep voting competitive and potentially cross-sectarian. But even though this would have a certain affinity to the Lebanese system, the Lebanese block vote (voters vote for as many representatives as there are seats) would not be a good option, since in practice it often means majority groups imposing their preferred “minority representatives” without any real proportionality. So perhaps the most promising solution is one that would involve no quotas at all: It has been suggested that a roll of voters prepared back in 2004 enjoys greater legitimacy among Turkmens and Arabs than updated registers from the period since 2005. At the same time, this would involve a compromise on the Turkmen side, where some actually propose going as far back as the 1957 census.

Whilst the best mechanism for handling this remains open to debate, there can be no doubt that it would be enormously clarifying to Iraqi voters and a step forward for a more mature form of politics in Iraq if parliamentarians dared to take an open debate on the issue of Kirkuk’s representation. In the past many such debates have remained behind closed doors in consultations between “political leaders” trying to find a “consensus”, but in this case it would be useful to push the limits a little and force a vote in the parliament, and then leave the consensus issue and the pressure that comes with it to the presidency council.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 40 Comments »

Hassani Goes after Hawrami in the DNO Dispute

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 27 September 2009 16:55

DNO, a relatively small Norwegian oil company, has hit the headlines again because of its investments in the Kurdistan region. This time, the focus of attention is a three-way quarrel involving DNO, the Oslo Stock Exchange and DNO’s Kurdish patron, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with accusations from the Norwegian bourse that the KRG minister for oil, Ashti Hawrami, has been involved in non-transparent trade with DNO shares in ways that might possibly suggest corruption – a charge vigorously denied by the Kurds, who in turn have penalised DNO by suspending its Kurdistan operations and demanding compensatory measures to address reputation damage allegedly suffered by the KRG.

The current media focus on the DNO operations has in other words been caused by changes to the relationship between KRG and DNO, which normally is a quite harmonious one. It is nevertheless interesting that Baghdad politicians have lost no time in weighing in on the affair. Yesterday, a leading member of the oil and gas committee in the Iraqi parliament, Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani from Basra, called for the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the possibility of unlawful involvement of a Kurdistan minister in the trading and ownership of shares in a foreign company operating on Iraqi soil. Hassani is a senior lawmaker with the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Daawa party, representing the wing of the party that still remains allied to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his efforts to establish a nationalist electoral ticket separate from the new Shiite-led alliance. Iraqi media, such as the Baghdadiya television channel, have also given ample coverage to the affair.

It is uncertain whether Hassani’s intervention will prompt any kind of serious follow-up once the Iraqi parliament reconvenes on Tuesday. The national assembly already has plenty on its plate to consider, including key pieces of legislation relating to the upcoming parliamentary elections, and indeed charges of corruption or misconduct against several high officials at the federal level of government.  Nevertheless, the remarks by Hassani serve as a useful reminder of the importance of the Baghdad–Arbil relationship to foreign investments in the Kurdistan region, such as that undertaken by DNO and other international companies like Addax. So far, the debate in the international media about these investments has been surprisingly insular and Arbil-centric, and apparently oblivious to the one macro driver that seems truly significant in the long term: the changing nature of the relationship between Arbil and Baghdad. With Iraqi nationalism on the rise since the last local elections it would be prudent of the Kurds to gradually climb down from the maximalist policies that brought DNO and other smaller foreign oil companies to Kurdistan in the first place. There may still be a role to play for foreign companies in the north, but it seems increasingly clear that any such project will need a green light from Baghdad in order to be sustainable.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Oil in Iraq | 8 Comments »

Muhammad Rida Baghban, Consul Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 25 September 2009 13:40


Consular affairs are sometimes considered the most boring aspect of international diplomacy. Not so, however, in Basra. Its Iranian consul, in particular, seems to have a wide-ranging field of activity. Put briefly, his authority seems to go somewhat beyond issuing emergency passports to pilgrims on their way to Iraq’s holy Shiite shrines.

A recent episode illustrates this point. Earlier this week, the head of the Daawa-led Basra provincial council announced that a solution for Basra’s freshwater crisis was in the making. Specifically, he had signed a deal with Iran’s consul in Basra, Muhammad Rida Baghban, according to which Iran will supply Fao with 1,000 tons of drinking water on a daily basis to compensate for changes the Iranians made to the river flow of the Karun (which empties fresh water into the Shatt al-Arab near the head of the Gulf and thereby affects the saline content of the water.) The water supplies will be shipped to Basra by Iranian vessels.

Whereas the vast range of political activities of the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hasan Kazimi Qummi, have been the subject of much speculation, there has been less focus on Baghban in Basra. However, Baghban, too, reportedly has a revolutionary guard background, and like Qummi he often seems to be able to intervene in politics at a rather high level. Last January, his attempts to enter a polling station in Basra during the local elections caused much consternation locally as well as in Baghdad. In 2008, shortly before Maliki’s security sweep in Basra, he advocated in a media interview that local authorities should be better armed to deal with the security challenges.

The episode in Basra also illustrates how Iraq’s governorates increasingly deal with outside forces on their own, not necessarily coordinating with Baghdad. Just a week ago there was talk of a Basra delegation travelling to Iran to settle the water issues. Similarly, most other local councils in Iraq have embarked on unilateral investment discussions with foreign powers. Many of these activities may have been initiated with the best possible intentions on both sides, but their net effect is often forgotten: they tend to further weaken Iraq’s already fragile central government as an institution. But on this issue, both Iran and Western countries seem to follow the same course.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues | 3 Comments »

Why an Allawi–Hakim Alliance Would Mean Retrogression in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 21 September 2009 13:52

[Updated 24 September 2009 with additional related news at the bottom of the article]

The rumours are so persistent that they are getting quite difficult to ignore: Ayad Allawi, leader of the Wifaq movement and the Iraqiyya coalition – the most sizeable, enduring and electorally successful secularist entities in post-2003 Iraq – keeps spending time talking to Ammar al-Hakim and other leaders of the newly (re)formed, Islamist and Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Alliance with a view to possibly joining their ticket for the upcoming 2010 parliamentary elections. Or rather his lieutenants in Baghdad keep these discussions going; Allawi himself has actually spent parts of Ramadan in the United States.

Some Iraq watchers are likely to construe any such alliance as a wonderful sign of progress in Iraqi politics. Is it not great that Allawi, a secularist, can get together with Shiite Islamists in a businesslike manner? Is this not proof that sectarianism is on the decline, since Allawi, whilst himself a Shiite, is popular among many secular Sunnis as well?

Alas, no. Political maturation requires a little bit more than people of different backgrounds getting together on the same coalition list. In particular, it would be nice, especially for voters, if the components of that kind of list had a minimum of ideological coherence and common issues on which they agreed. But unfortunately, such coherence is in short supply when it comes to the Iraqi National Alliance. Already, there is pronounced tension between the two main components, the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The former subscribes to the vision of a strong, centralised Iraqi state; the latter has been the main protagonist of the decentralisation in Iraq and giving concessions to the Kurds. Where the two agree is with regard to the need to Islamise Iraqi society, as seen for example in Basra where Sadrists and ISCI figures have been trying to outbid each other in imposing Islamic dress codes and Islamic behaviour. Also, they are unified in their desire to keep Iraq free of Baathists and what is described as remnants of the old regime more generally. In fact, this is probably the single issue where there seems to be perfect agreement inside the alliance: Among the few specific points offered in its programme is a promise to voters to “cleanse the institutions of the state of Baathist and Saddamist elements”.

This anti-Baathism was the unifying theme in the previous Shiite alliance (the United Iraqi Alliance or UIA), and ISCI preacher Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji – the figure who communicates with the popular base of the party – has promised that it will be central to the new alliance as the 2010 elections approach. And so it seems clear that to add Allawi to this mix would turn things into a complete parody. In fact, such is the antipathy towards Allawi (himself a former Baathist) in the core electorate of the Shiite coalition that the first UIA elections poster featured pictures of him as well as Hazim al-Shaalan with the text “the Baath is coming back – will you allow it?” In other words, it was believed that dislike of Allawi would be the best way to mobilise UIA voters. Remove the anti-Baathism issue and it becomes incredibly difficult to define what the Iraqi National Alliance really stands for.

Allawi has been on the same elections poster as the Hakims earlier...

Allawi has been on the same elections poster as the Hakims earlier...

That exposes the only remaining glue in the Shiite-led alliance: thirst for power, without the slightest regard to ideology. Over the past weeks, the alliance has signalled readiness to include anyone who is willing to sign up, including other past foes like Wail Abd al-Latif from Basra who antagonised ISCI with his drive to make Basra a standalone federal entity and his constant criticisms regarding their ties to Iran. As for Allawi himself, it is easy to contemplate his fate if he should sign up to the new alliance. The Iraqiyya movement would break apart – you just cannot fool all of the people all of the time. (In fact, this kind of outcome may well be exactly what the alliance leaders are hoping to achieve.) And even in the unlikely event that this trick succeeds among the Iraqi public, Allawi will likely end up as a disillusioned casualty of unbridgeable ideological divides, at best rewarded with a honorary ministry in the next Iraqi government. In short, the ascendancy of this kind of alliance would signify a return to the nonsense of 2003, a Paul Bremer logic with oversized, non-technocratic and corrupt governments in which each powerful player is accorded a ministerial vantage point from which to scavenge on the decaying Iraqi state.

Allawi's new allies? Image published by the Badr organisation from last week's Quds Day celebrations in Basra, featuring posters of Iran's Khomeini and Khamenei

Allawi's new allies? Badr pics from Quds Day in Basra, featuring posters of Khomeini and Khamenei

From the point of view of political maturation, there are in today’s Iraq two or three promising tendencies. The first is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition. In contrast to the Iraqi National Alliance, it has ideological coherence, focused on the vision of a strongly centralised state and reversing some of the excessive concessions accorded to centrifugal forces in the post-2003 period – and it has tried to adhere to this programme during its coalition negotiations. The second is the remnants of the 22 July trend, which was instrumental in pushing forward many of the legislative projects that enabled Maliki’s emergence as a distinctive centralist in 2008, such as the provincial powers law and the provincial elections law. Today it survives for example in the Independent Nationalist Trend headed by Mahmud al-Mashhadani and Nadim al-Jabiri. Thirdly, there is the collection of newly empowered forces that came to the fore after the last local elections, again often on the basis of Iraqi nationalism and criticism of Kurdish expansionism. This has been seen among Arab and Turkmen politicians in Kirkuk and through the Hadba list in Mosul. The recently-declared alliance between Yusuf al-Habubi of Karbala and Ali Hatim al-Sulayman of Anbar – the “Flags of Iraq” – appeals to cross-sectarian and tribal sentiments in its iteration of Iraqi nationalism and could also be seen as belonging to this group of new constellations that involve new faces or people who have been out of government for many years.

Ideologically speaking, both Allawi’s Iraqiyya list as well as the Hiwar movement of Salih al-Mutlak have a lot more in common with these forces than with the Iraqi National Alliance. For the sake of political maturation in Iraq and a concomitant move away from sectarian politics, it is to be hoped that these forces understand how they all need each other (and maybe Allawi’s flirtation with Hakim is just posturing intended to maximise his leverage in negotiations with Maliki). Unfortunately, there may be a tendency among Iraqi politicians to think that on their own they can repeat at the national level the “Habubi phenomenon” in Karbala (Habubi came from nowhere to win the greatest number of votes last January). What they forget is that those forces that were on the defensive in the last local elections have now devised their counter-strategy in the shape of the Iraqi National Alliance. It seems likely that another aspect of this counter-strategy is to make things as difficult as possible for Maliki in his ongoing negotiations with Iraqi nationalists – it is for example remarkable how media close to ISCI (which have been pushing the anti-Baathist and anti-Syria message for a long time) suddenly stand back a little while allowing Maliki to get trapped by going so strongly after Damascus.  Nevertheless, with his greater degree of ideological consistency Maliki should still be taken seriously by forces eager to consolidate the signs of improved political atmosphere in Iraq seen over the past year or so.

UPDATE 24 September 2009

Maliki’s declaration today that the State of Law coalition will run separately and not as part of any other alliance is the clearest indication yet that he will not join the Iraqi National Alliance. However, the key question remains, namely, what will be the exact composition of the Maliki alliance? On this issue we are still waiting for a formal announcement,  expected in the near future. Until it materialises, the flurry of contradictive statements and rumours concerning possible alliances (and now also super-alliances between coalitions) is likely to remain essentially a non-story.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 23 Comments »

The Second Biden Mission to Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 17 September 2009 19:18

Writing about the Iraq policy of the Obama administration is difficult these days. There is a dearth of policy statements, and what little exists in the public domain is either rather bland or involves a continuation of the policy of the late Bush administration as defined by the SOFA framework of 2008: To withdraw all US forces by the end of 2011, and then to resume normal bilateral relations.

Perhaps the most logical interpretation would be to take this at face value: Obama will stay faithful to the SOFA arrangements, period. However, the hectic travel activity of Vice President Joe Biden over the past three months, with two visits to Iraq in the middle of the hot summer season, suggests that there is also an attempt to influence the Iraqi political process in a more detailed way. Biden’s second visit started two days ago and roused Iraqi politicians from their end-of-Ramadan modus.

Identifying the more detailed US agenda in this is however quite difficult. There is of course the red thread of promised but unspecified “reconciliation assistance” that can be traced back to Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune last February. That theme was repeated during Biden’s previous visit to Baghdad in July, when Biden stated his intention to “re-establish contact with each of the leaders among the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites”. This time, however, beyond the rather lame cut-and-paste descriptions of the trip in newswire reports which say more about the previous Biden visit than the current one (Biden came to help Iraqis “fractious sectarian groups” sort out their “rows” over “oil revenue distribution” etc.), statements of specific goals have been hard to come by.

Someone who certainly has not got his analysis right is Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who days ago described Biden’s previous visit as follows: “He read them the riot act, and he had the most credibility of anybody in the administration to do that”. If anything, what these visits have demonstrated twice is that US leverage is quickly disappearing from Iraq. Biden today informed the press that no further “benchmark legislation” would be passed this side of Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for 16 January 2010 (hopefully that statement was offered as a prognosis, since this issue supposedly is for the majority of the Iraqi parliament to decide!), whereas Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki used the opportunity of his joint press conference with Biden to coolly steer clear of any reference to national reconciliation issues. (The rather meek nature of Biden’s own reference to “efforts of [Maliki’s] government to strengthen national unity” suggests that Maliki during their meeting stuck to his previously-expressed policy that with the possible exception of the Arab-Kurdish track, no American assistance is called for.)

Biden’s frank assertion that he expects no major national reconciliation initiatives prior to the elections is useful in two ways. Firstly, it is good news in itself. It is often not realised that to leave these issues in suspense during the elections could actually have a positive impact on Iraqi politics in that voters may get the opportunity to discuss basic constitutional issues in Iraq in a less sectarian and confused atmosphere than that which prevailed during the two 2005 elections and ahead of the constitutional referendum that year. There have been certain rumours to the effect that the current parliament will make an attempt to push through a limited package of constitutional reforms, without addressing the deeper issues but instead seeking to perpetuate some of the ethno-sectarian power-sharing features that originally had been limited to the first parliamentary cycle (such as the tripartite presidency). Hopefully Biden’s comment means that no US support for this kind of sham constitutional revision will be forthcoming. A repeat of the Bush administration’s meddling in August 2005 – which led to a premature constitution and a flawed process – would be a disaster.

Biden’s comments are also useful in that they highlight the limited window that remains for the Obama administration to exercise diplomatic influences in Iraq’s internal political process. If Biden is correct, not much more will be attempted this side of the 16 January 2010 elections. On that day, it is possible that the Iraqi people will reject the SOFA in the referendum that will coincide with the parliamentary elections, in which case the Maliki government will notify Washington that they have one year to leave the country and the logistics of getting out will likely become the preoccupation of the Obama administration. But even if the SOFA is accepted by the Iraqi people, the time that remains for the US between January and the end of 2011 is in practice highly restricted. Combat forces must be out by August 2010, and Washington has already factored in a couple of months in the post-election period to secure a stable transition – meaning that by the time a new government has been formed and serious discussion of national-reconciliation issues can recommence, probably no earlier than April 2010 if past experience is anything to go by, the mechanisms of withdrawal will probably occupy most of the Obama administration’s attention. On top of this, the first batch of constitutional revisions will be passed by a straightforward majority decision in the Iraqi parliament; any crisis over Kurdish objections will erupt only after a subsequent referendum, probably in late 2010 at the earliest.

So, if this was not a desperate and totally unrealistic attempt at triggering some major national-reconciliation initiative prior to the elections (which Iraqi politician would want to give too much to Arbil before the elections?), what was the objective of the latest visit by Biden? Two issues stand out. The first is an apparent attempt by the Obama administration to underline its support for multiple centres of power in Iraq (as opposed to the Bush administration’s more unconditional backing of Maliki), with an itinerary that featured as many people as possible in addition to Maliki – including the president, the vice presidents, the deputy premier and the president of the Kurdistan federal region. This seems to reflect a Washington phenomenon which tends to materialise almost automatically as soon as there is a degree of stability in Iraq: the fear of power becoming too concentrated. The neo-conservative iteration of this has been laid out bluntly by Ken Pollack in a recent policy paper that called for changes to the SOFA; equally important, however, is the liberal variant that was articulated by Senator John Kerry during the recent Senate hearing on Iraq, where he, too, found it necessary to bring up the issue of the danger of “concentration of power” in Iraq. (Biden himself has signalled this kind of stance earlier, for example last year when he told reporters that although Maliki did not like the “Biden plan” of a federal Iraq, “the rest of the government liked it.”) But whereas it seems prudent to try to counteract semi-authoritarian tendencies in the new Iraq, it is depressing that in doing so most senior US policy-makers seem to fall back on Washington’s old friends as the only alternative, as if there had been no maturation of Iraqi politics since 2005 (for example, during the Senate hearings, both Kerry and Ambassador Chris Hill still seemed to concentrate on  the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq as a key player).

The second plausible issue where there may have been an attempt at exercising influence is the elections law, due to be debated as the Iraqi parliament reconvenes after the Eid al-Fitr holiday which ends next Wednesday. For the elections to go ahead on schedule, the new law (or modifications to the existing one from 2005) must be adopted by 15 October. Agreement  has apparently been reached on most contentious issues (including the principle of open lists), but everything will hinge on the Kirkuk issue. For practical reasons, any failure to pass new or amended legislation by the deadline will mean that the 2005 law will be used, with closed lists and no special arrangements for Kirkuk. It is however unclear how the US could inject any new ideas into this debate. So far, the fronts have been quite hard between a group of Iraqi nationalists headed by Arabs and Turkmens from Kirkuk who have insisted on four, ethnically defined electoral constituencies in Kirkuk, and the Kurds who want no changes (or an extension of the quota principle to Diyala and Nineveh). Neither suggestion seems particularly promising: Separate constituencies would only reify divisions in Kirkuk, whereas keeping the status quo would extend legitimacy to the Kurdish position in a one-sided way. So far, perhaps the most constructive compromise alternative involves a critical examination of the existing register of voters.

Finally, it is interesting to see how far Biden has travelled from his erstwhile ideas about national reconciliation in Iraq. Whereas he previously believed Sunnis and Shiites needed “separate federal spaces in which to breathe”, he now considers that the prospect of a sectarian conflict has diminished (even if the state has become more centralised). Similarly, a year back ago, he stressed over and again the need for “a political settlement” as the key to a US withdrawal, without which “we’re going to be back there in another year or two or three or five”. He now seems to accept that national reconciliation will likely be carried out in the dying days of the US military presence in Iraq.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 15 Comments »

The Battle of the Coalitions Is Heating Up

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 14 September 2009 13:44

Fronts in the intra-Shiite competition over political pre-eminence in Iraq have hardened perceptibly over the past few weeks. Media supportive of the newly formed Iraqi National Alliance have been highlighting negotiations between Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Kurdish leaders about a possible future alliance (in other words, the ISCI–Kurdish axis in a new incarnation), whereas commentators close to Nuri al-Maliki have openly condemned these manoeuvres as a plot to exclude a second Maliki premiership.

Now the Buratha news agency has pulled out all the stops by openly threatening to destroy Maliki’s coalitions in the Shiite-dominated governorates south of Baghdad. After the local elections last January Maliki generally formed provincial councils with the support of all other political forces except ISCI. But now, ISCI supporters say, Shiite Islamists like the Sadrists and the Jaafari breakaway movement from the Daawa, are once more on their own side. If Maliki perseveres with his plans to run separately from the Shiite-dominated list – or so the argument goes – ISCI and its new allies will withdraw confidence from Maliki’s governors in all governorates except Baghdad, Basra and Karbala (in these places it is conceded that Maliki’s majority is unassailable.)

The Buratha news agency hasn’t got its math quite right though. Or rather, its commentators have forgotten that Maliki’s strategy last spring was two-pronged and featured not only an exclusion of ISCI to the advantage of Sadrists and Jaafari but also an attempt to reach out to secular forces such as the Iraqiyya list and local parties. In fact, by consolidating his alliances with these latter forces, Maliki should be able to fend off any challenge by ISCI in Wasit, Qadisiyya, Babel (each of which has three secularist representatives) and possibly even Muthanna (which has an unusual high proportion of local lists represented). Only Najaf, Dhi Qar and Maysan seem to be irretrievably lost for Maliki under the new scenario. It is often forgotten that Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition itself emerged relatively unscathed from the process that led to the formation of the new Iraqi National Alliance; some press reports erroneously claim that the Tanzim al-Iraq branch joined the alliance but so far it is only the Anizi breakaway faction of the Tanzim al-Iraq that has joined.

Even if the threat may be exaggerated, this new development can perhaps help jog Maliki’s mind as he goes about putting the final touches to his own coalition which is expected to be announced either shortly before or after the Eid al-Fitr holiday later this week: He needs broader alliances if he is to succeed. It is not correct, as some commentators continue to maintain, that the new Iraqi government needs a two-thirds majority behind it; this was a special feature of the 2005 constitution that was expressly limited to the first parliamentary cycle. However, Maliki still needs to come in first in the sense that he must obtain the largest number of representatives in order to get the job of nominating the next government. To achieve this, he must do better than the Kurds, among whom the probability of a unified ethnic identity vote remains strongest right now. So far there are signs that Abu Risha (of the Anbar awakening movement) is on track to join him, and last week the new party of Mahmud al-Mashhadani and Nadim al-Jabiri publicly said they would run with Maliki. One of Maliki’s news outlets also carried a report to the effect that Maliki and the minister of interior, Jawad al-Bulani, who heads the more secular Iraqi Constitutional Party, were once more on good terms and that Bulani would likely join Maliki’s alliance. But the recent threats concerning the provincial councils do suggest that Maliki would be a lot safer if he entered into formal cooperation with at least one major secular party, like Iraqiyya, Hiwar or both.

Meanwhile, there are rumours that Allawi still remains in dialogue with virtually everyone (including ISCI: such an alliance would be an insult to voters as the two parties disagree on almost every significant constitutional issue in Iraq). For his part, Muqtada al-Sadr has introduced a bit of confusion in the Iraqi National Alliance camp by issuing detailed instructions about what sort of candidates should be supported, including a requirement that they should not belong to a political party and not don clerical robes (although there should be “representatives” of the higher clergy). In the context of an open-list system (which is now expected to be adopted) this could prove especially interesting. Also, this is a noteworthy stance on the relationship between the clerical hawza and the legislative branch of government, where Sadr now marks a clearer distinction to the Iranian model than his new partners in ISCI have done so far. It should be remembered that both ISCI’s last leading cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim,  as well as Sadr’s own father, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq, supported the concept of the rule of jurisprudent or wilayat al-faqih, but unlike Hakim (who never challenged Khamenei) Sadr emphasised that it should be based in Iraq. In typical fashion, as part of their dalliance with ISCI a couple of years ago, many Western diplomats took at face value the narrative that Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim held no executive office in deference to an “Iraqi” rejection of wilayat al-faqih; this interpretation is however flawed since Hakim was not recognised as a mujtahid or higher-ranking cleric (which is the crucial distinction in “clerical rule” as per the Khomeini model. In fact, Iraq saw several junior clerics rise to executive office during the period of the monarchy). However, several turbaned ISCI members of the lower-ranking clergy – including Hakim himself – had no reservations about accepting positions in the legislative branch of the Iraqi government (i.e. as members of the Iraqi parliament); it is on this issue there now seems to be a competing Sadrist interpretation of what the rules of the game should be.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 20 Comments »

Identity Carved: How the Policies of Iran and the Obama Administration Converge in Surprising Ways in Northern Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 10 September 2009 10:22

In an op-ed published in August, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius – whose work is often a bellwether of prevailing moods in Washington – expressed concern over his recent discovery that the government of Iraq was “desperately vulnerable to pressure, especially from neighbouring Iran”. Citing defected Iraqi security officials who believe that Iran secretly orchestrated the recent bombings in Baghdad to put pressure on Nouri al Maliki, Ignatius went on to suggest that Maliki was so firmly in the hands of the Iranians that “the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel”.

There are good reasons to scrutinise the Iranian role in Iraq, but any serious discussion of Tehran’s influence must also acknowledge the ways that American actions have helped open the door for Iran, whether deliberately or not… Full story here.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 35 Comments »

Maliki’s Northern Headache, and How General Odierno Is Compounding It

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 9 September 2009 13:58

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.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 4 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 on Ahmad al-Sulayti, or, Maliki’s Basra Problem

Al-Hadba Goes Regionalist?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 14:17

In an interesting statement, Usama al-Nujayfi, brother of Athil al-Nujayfi who did spectacularly well as leader for the local Hadba list in Mosul in the last provincial elections, has announced that a nationalist alliance linked to the Hadba will contest the next parliamentary elections in some but not all of Iraq’s governorates. The targeted constituencies are Nineveh, Salahaddin, Anbar, Baghdad, Wasit, Diyala and Kirkuk.

Some will of course construe this as an attempt to maximise a (Sunni) sectarian vote within a nationalist framework, similar to what many Shiite Islamist parties did in other parts of Iraq in the last local elections (where many ran everywhere except Anbar where there are very few Shiites). However, the inclusion of Shiite-majority Wasit (and the omission of places with important Sunni minorities like Babel and Basra) could suggest that regional identity may also play a role (i.e. in a wider sense than in the local elections where the Hadba was also regionalist, but more narrowly focused on the Nineveh governorate). An even clearer indication of this approach was recently highlighted by the Tawafuq politician Nur al-Din al-Hayali, whose National United Trend has stated it will fight the elections as an independent entity in three governorates – Baghdad, Salahaddin and Nineveh – thus leaving out what the Americans have always thought of as “Sunni heartland” (Anbar) and instead focusing on a zone from Baghdad to Mosul where Arab nationalism traditionally has been strong.

Hayali’s alliance is interesting also because in addition to running as a local list in three governorates, it intends to join with others elsewhere – with reports that negotiations are ongoing with the cluster of nationalist forces that have yet to agree on formal cooperation: Iraqiyya, al-Hiwar al-Watani, the Independent National Trend (Mashhadani/Jabiri), the Iraqi Constitutional Party (Bulani) and possibly splinter elements of Tawafuq. These new signals from Iraq’s north-eastern region are interesting as a possible indicator of the shape of alliances to come in the next parliamentary elections, with a potential for hybrids involving both nationalism-oriented local/regional lists and nationwide parties. Recently, the significance of such alliances became painfully clear to the Iraqi Constitutional Party which bravely tried to take the Iraqi nationalist approach to its logical conclusion by fielding candidates in Kurdistan’s local elections (it was also one of the few to run lists in all the 14 governorates in the local elections last January). It was the only non-Kurdish party to do so, and it received less than half a percent of the vote.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general | Comments Off on Al-Hadba Goes Regionalist?