Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for October 5th, 2009

Joint Patrols and Power-Sharing in Mosul: Unbalanced Proposals from the International Crisis Group

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 5 October 2009 15:25

In the one corner, a steadily increasing group of Iraqi politicians of all sectarian backgrounds who reject the idea of joint patrols between the forces of the Iraqi central government, the Kurdish federal authorities and the United States in what the Kurds refer to as “disputed territories” in northern Iraq, including Nineveh. The latest addition to this camp is Abbas al-Bayati, a key ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his revamped State of Law coalition. In a statement to the press on 1 October, the day of the re-launch of the Maliki alliance, Bayati made his position on this crystal clear: the governorates of Kirkuk and Nineveh fall within the exclusive sovereignty of the central government, whose responsibility it is to protect the population of these areas with its security forces. In principle, according to Bayati, the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have no legitimate role; any exception to this rule must meet with the full consent of both the central government and the governorate authorities concerned.

In the other corner, there are, of course, the two biggest Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK. Less easy to explain in rational terms but perfectly predictable is the presence of Washington, represented through its commander in Iraq, Ray Odierno, who has apparently invested a degree of personal prestige in the idea of joint patrols and whose army is increasingly in search of some kind of mission that can define its raison d’être in Iraq. And then, something of a surprise: the International Crisis Group. In its latest report on Iraq, “Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa”, the ICG furnishes the most elaborate justification to date for the project of establishing joint patrols in the Nineveh governorate. Singling out the province as one of the potentially most dangerous in Iraq, the Crisis Group also makes recommendations for power-sharing in local government.

To find the ICG in this position is surprising because it has in the past produced a vast number of exceptionally well-researched, empirically based reports in Iraq, often with interesting policy proposals, including a much-quoted “oil for soil” scheme for Kirkuk, released in October 2008. Indeed, most of the analytical aspects of the most recent report seem to conform with the high standards of past ICG publications on Iraq. But some of the policy recommendations are troubling and distinctly less balanced than previous proposals by the group.

The first of these concerns the idea of joint patrols in what the Kurds refer to as “disputed territories” in northern Iraq. The ICG recommends the implementation of this mechanism, despite the fact that it is something that is supported by the Kurds whilst rejected by most other Iraqi politicians. Not only that, the ICG goes on to portray such patrols as somehow constituting a “compromise” position. This is where the logic becomes particularly hard to follow. The keystone of the argument reads as follows: “While Ninewa’s Arab leaders accuse the KRG of expansionist ambitions, one reason the Kurds rushed across the Green Line in 2003 was to protect Kurds displaced under Arabisation and to facilitate their return to their original homes and lands; the effort to incorporate these areas into the Kurdistan region came later (especially via Article 140 of the 2005 constitution).” The report then goes on to make an analytical distinction between Kurdish expansionism (allegedly this “came later”) and the supposedly more humanitarian and basic agenda of “protecting” Kurds living in Nineveh. The ICG separates “protection” from “territorial ambition”, and voila, Barzani is a great philanthropist!

Frankly, in this case, to assume that one aspect of the Kurdish presence can be excised with surgical precision from the other is a way of reasoning that cannot survive for long in the real world. Indeed, the ICG itself has produced a far more level-headed assessment of this problem in one of its earlier reports, writing last July (in “Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line”) that “the Kurds also claim these areas as majority-Kurdish and historically part of Kurdistan, and in reality their presence should be seen as a bid to reclaim them by establishing facts on the ground in advance of a law-based resolution of their status”. In other words, the distinction between “protection” and “expansionism” that forms the basis for the designation of the joint patrols as a “compromise” is in itself entirely artificial, and the ICG knows it. Just a quick glance at Kurdish maps issued long before 2003 should eliminate any doubt about this; they often include an extra “ethnic” line indicating areas claimed as belonging historically to Kurdistan.

Kurdish map from around 1998 showing areas of actual control and ethnic "borders"

Kurdish map from around 1998 showing areas of actual control and ethnic "borders"

In order to understand why Iraqis react so strongly to the joint patrols, it can be useful to revisit the legal basis for the controversy. In particular it is important to take note of how the singling out of areas as “disputed” ones so far has been an entirely unilateral process, controlled by the Kurds and sometimes with the support of the Americans, but never in any systematic dialogue with Baghdad. Thus, the only post-2003 definition of the extent of Kurdistan is that of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) of March 2004 which was also confirmed in the October 2005 constitution, where the federal region is defined as those areas that were administered by the Kurds “on 19 March 2003 in the governorates of Dahuk, Arbil, Sulaymaniya, Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh”, often defined with reference to the so-called “green line” that separated the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of the Baathist era from the central government. And guess what, there is of course an unspoken, logical corollary implicit in the TAL: Every square inch of land south of the green line is the exclusive sovereignty of Baghdad until progress has been made on the settlement of those “disputed territories” that are alluded to (but never defined) later in the document. True, Kurdish militias stormed over the Green Line in 2003, but their expansionism into these areas was coordinated only with the Americans and their continued presence there does not enjoy any legitimacy within the Iraqi constitutional framework.

The Kurdish region as per the TAL

The Kurdish region as per the TAL, indicated in orange; areas with Kurdish population are in green

Areas of Kurdish expansion beyond the Kurdistan federal region

Areas of Kurdish expansion beyond the Kurdistan federal region since 2003, as indicated in the orange area of actual Kurdish control per 2009

In other words, any neutral and balanced international arbitration effort should use the Green Line as its point of departure. Like its namesake in the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Green Line is beautiful simply by virtue of its utter meaninglessness: In the murky world of ethno-nationalism it will prompt nothing but a “syntax error” response. It has no relationship at all to racially based claims and counter-claims, it is just where Iraqi and Kurdish forces happened to stand in March 2003. But whereas in the case of Israel/Palestine the international community has prudently accepted the 1967 lines as a point of departure for negotiations and has generally ignored Israeli maximalism of the “Judea and Samaria” type, in the case of northern Iraq both the ICG and the USG choose to extend recognition to unilateral ethno-national expansionism by the Kurds. In fact, when the Iraqi government asserts control of areas that belong to Baghdad according to the TAL, Washington sees this as a “reckless” challenge to the Kurds, apparently ignoring the fact that Baghdad has judiciously abstained from what would be a logical counter-measure to the Kurdish policy: identifying “disputed territories” inside the KRG-controlled area (where there are many Arab and Turkmen minorities who historically have closer ties to Baghdad than to the Kurds) and sending government forces to “protect” those groups against Kurdish highhandedness.

The second problem in the ICG report concerns the idea of power-sharing in Nineveh. Once more, the empirical basis for the proposed ICG solution is uncharacteristically weak and partial, and appears to have been lifted almost verbatim from an interview with a Kurdish parliamentarian without any critical discussion. Worse, the quoted matter is in itself so full of factual errors that it remains a mystery that the ICG should choose to take it at face value. It goes as follows:

“Abd al-Mohsen al-Saadoun, a Kurdish parliamentarian, articulated the Ninewa Brotherhood List’s perspective as follows: ‘In this last election, both lists won, the Brotherhood List and al-Hadbaa List. What I mean is that governance in all of Iraq is based on muhasasa [ethnosectarian quotas]. The presidency council is decided this way and so are the parliament speaker and his deputies, as well as cabinet ministers, and it also happens in the provinces – except Ninewa. In Ninewa, al-Hadbaa has gone with the idea of absolute-majority rule. This is not in the constitution. By not accepting the Brotherhood in local government, al-Hadbaa carried out a coup against democracy and national consensus.’ Moreover, he suggested, a double standard was being applied: ‘It’s funny that everyone is demanding that the Kurds share power with the Arabs in Kirkuk but fail to make that same demand in Ninewa.’ As part of a power-sharing deal in Ninewa, the Brotherhood List, as runner-up in the elections, says it is entitled to the posts of council president and deputy governor, senior positions in the security apparatus and about a third of the ‘key’ appointments in local government.”

Also, added in a footnote: “Al-Saadoun said: ‘Since they got the governor post, we should have the deputy position. When we say we want the council president post, we say they can have the vice-president position’…” Later on in the report follow the recommendations by the ICG, which are in fact strikingly similar: “A  Brotherhood presence in the top echelons of government, for example as deputy governor and/or council president, would give the Kurds the assurance they seek.”

Let’s deal with these contentions seriatim. The Kurdish representative alleges that local government in all of Iraq is based on muhasasa and that this principle has a constitutional basis. That is simply untrue. There is no specific reference to the composition of local governments in the constitution, just a reference to future legislation. The only law that has materialised so far is the provincial powers law of February 2008, which failed to make any special provisions for power-sharing. Indeed, some of Iraq’s governorates are ruled by simple, minimum-winning majorities (notably Basra), and there appears to be no muhasasa for example for Sunni minorities in Babel or the Shiites of Salahaddin. Indeed, the Kurdish contention in this case distorts the situation in Nineveh itself. The Hadba has of course promoted Kurds to very high positions, except that those Kurds are not politically affiliated with the KDP and the PUK. That is the exact equivalent of what the Kurds did themselves in Nineveh and elsewhere in the north for four years subsequent to the local elections of January 2005, in which the Kurds participated but many parties supported by the largely Sunni Arab and Turkmen majorities of those areas boycotted. Subsequently, the Kurds in many cases installed Arab and Turkmen placemen in the local councils – people who were loyal to themselves but did not represent local interests in a meaningful way. As for “double standards” regarding Kirkuk, it should be noted that local Arab and Turkmen groups there are not calling for power-sharing necessarily as an end goal but primarily as an instrument for creating a more level field, especially to address post-2003 changes to the demographic structure of the city pending final status negotiations.

Finally, at a more general level, the appeal to “constitutionalism” seems particularly hollow in this case. The constitutional approach for “disputed territories” was outlined in article 140, whose implementation was delayed beyond the original December 2007 deadline thanks not least to the inability of the Kurds to make compromise on other areas. The court of first instance here must now be the ongoing constitutional revision process. Hence, when local officials loyal to the KRG make unilateral declarations of “secession” from Nineveh and demand inclusion in the Kurdistan federal region, then frankly that is their problem: They are behaving in an unconstitutional way and are engaged in illegal forms of land-grabbing. At some point, the Kurdish authorities in Arbil will have to understand that they cannot claim the high moral ground of constitutionalism and state-building whilst simultaneously destroying the Iraqi state at the local level, although it is a worry that both the ICG and Washington still seem to acquiesce in this kind of nonsense as if it represented acts of great statesmanship. Indeed, there are reports that US military officials recently took part in functions inside Nineveh where the Kurdish flag was hoisted by the peshmerga forces.

Just for the record, back in 1919, Iraqi officers in Damascus including many from Mosul handed the British authorities a demand for the establishment of an independent Iraq within its “historical borders” from the Gulf to Dayr al-Zur on the Euphrates (in present-day Syria) and Diyarbakir on the Tigris (today in Turkey, historically considered the northernmost area of Arabic-speaking minorities). In more recent history, Iraqis in Nineveh wisely settled for a more pragmatic approach, abandoning their claims to Diyarbakir  and ceding Dahuk to the Kurdish autonomous region that was created in the early 1970s. Today they are focusing on the territorial integrity of the rump Nineveh governorate. But sadly, on this issue, the Kurds, General Odierno, and the International Crisis Group all appear to be stuck in 1919 and its ethno-nationalist way of thinking.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 7 Comments »