Iraq and Gulf Analysis

What Exactly Is UNAMI Up To in the Iraqi Parliament?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 28 October 2009 18:22

Claims and counterclaims have abounded for a couple of days with regard to the fate of the election law in the Iraqi parliament. In the early hours yesterday it seemed there was consensus on a package with a limited number of alternatives that could easily be voted on; however during the course of the day it became clear that this deal had in fact disintegrated. Today, there is once more talk of tomorrow (Thursday) as the decisive day for a vote, but so far there is no news about any new draft that is ready for submission to the full assembly of the Iraqi parliament.

One of the remarkable aspects about yesterday’s developments is that the UN’s agency in Iraq, UNAMI, appears to have played a key role in derailing a deal that was in the making. In the early hours of the morning, a press statement was released by the Iraqi government to the effect that the “tri-lateral meeting of the presidents” (this time referring not to the presidency council but the three “presidents” (ru’asa’), i.e. Maliki for the council of ministers, Talabani for the presidency, and Samarraie for the parliament) had agreed on a “limited” draft of the election law. But around midday the parliamentary proceedings began, featuring among other things a meeting where UNAMI and representatives of the elections commission were present. And whereas this external presence has totally drowned in Western news reports on the developments (where the Iraqis are invariably blamed for the failure), remarks by some Iraqi politicians make it perfectly clear that UNAMI had indeed tried to shoot down at least two and possibly all the three alternatives for Kirkuk that had emerged earlier in the week during the meeting of the political assembly for national security. Referring to “technical problems”, UNAMI rejected one of the more innovative proposals on the table, which apparently originated from ISCI’s Adil Abd al-Mahdi and therefore also constituted something that should have a greater chance of being accepted by the Kurds:  The idea of subdividing the city into two constituencies, not on the basis of sect or ethnicity but instead with reference to residency status. This seems like an elegant proposal that would differentiate between long-established residents of Kirkuk on the one hand and recent arrivals and more fictitious “residents” on the other, thereby creating space for Kirkuk identity without tying it to any specific and wider ethnicity other than “Iraqi”. Instead, UNAMI reportedly objected on technical grounds and advocated the adoption of the solution that is only favoured by the two Kurdish parties, i.e. relying on the 2009 registers of voters, perhaps with some kind of extra scrutiny across the country, but without any special treatment for Kirkuk.

This is what it looks like at the surface. There may well be other explanations, but as long as UNAMI remains so uncommunicative about its activities in Iraq, it is really difficult to tell. And, in fact, the few UNAMI press releases that exist on this topic seem to suggest that the UN sometimes fails to appreciate the extent to which politics in Iraq has changed since the current constitution was adopted under chaotic circumstances back in October 2005. For example, in a statement to the press on 21 October, Ad Melkert, the new boss of UNAMI (who arrived in Baghdad only this summer), commented on the elections law as follows: “It is equally important that Iraqi parliamentarians recognize that the focus should remain on the national process and overcome any narrow considerations that could be the source of the current stalemate.” The reference to “narrow considerations” in that context seem pretty clear: It refers to the demand by a large number of Iraqi parliamentarians for special treatment of Kirkuk. This is a perfectly logical demand for a more level playing field, given that Kirkuk is the only Iraqi governorate to have experienced large-scale demographic changes in the post-2003 period with the specific aim of changing its political status (and annexing it to Kurdistan). Moreover it is emphatically a national issue, and not something that can be plausibly reduced to “narrow considerations” and the “obstinate” demands of Arabs and Turkmens native to Kirkuk, as UNAMI (and some Iraqi politicians) like to think.

To many Iraqis, Kirkuk, with its multi-ethnic nature, is the real heart of Iraq, and to dismiss the issue as a local problem, as UNAMI seems to do, is simply an insult to Iraqi national sentiment. In fact, whereas the political council for national security produced three options that all studiously avoided the concept of ethno-sectarian quotas (which would only reify ethnic divisions), UNAMI’s only known proposal that even considered special arrangements in Kirkuk reportedly followed precisely that kind of narrow quota logic – apparently oblivious to the fact that the Iraqi federal supreme court many months ago rejected this approach as unconstitutional. Does UNAMI really believe Kirkuk is a perfectly ordinary Iraqi governorate and that all that has happened there after 2003 is irrelevant? On the whole, whereas pre-2003 injustices are amply covered in the TAL of 2004 and the constitution, problems in the post-2003 period are inadequately addressed and this should not be glossed over by the international community.

This is not the first time UNAMI intervenes in the Iraqi political process in a rather abrupt manner. It has already tried to instruct the Iraqi parliament to keep the current line-up of the elections commission, saying any changes would mean technical problems and delays. Previously, during the reign of Staffan de Mistura, UNAMI was busy proposing detailed arrangements for “disputed territories” in the north. What seems to be lacking is an appreciation of the growing tendency among Iraqi politicians to see the 2005 constitution as a framework for a process rather than an eternal truth that should be approached in a scriptural fashion. Even Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has bravely described the circumstances in which the constitution was adopted as desperate and chaotic, thereby highlighting the special provisions for a one-off constitutional revision where everything is up for negotiation. Despite this reality, UNAMI staff keep approaching concepts such as federalism and disputed territories much in the way they were understood by the alliance of PUK/KDP and ISCI which introduced them during the hectic summer of 2005.

What we are dealing with in the case of Kirkuk is a governorate where there are allegations of systematic institutionalised fraud (aimed at changing the political status of the governorate) even before the voting process gets going. This makes Kirkuk into a unique case in Iraq, but also a case in which the whole country has an interest. So when comments by Iraqi politicians leave the impression that UNAMI actually overrode proposals on Kirkuk by the triumvirate of Maliki/Talabani/Samarraie – a collection of individuals among whom consensus is normally in short supply – then some further public clarification of the UN role is the very least Iraqis can ask for. UNAMI and the elections commission are supposed to offer assistance to the evolving democratic institutions in Iraq and to be their servants – not the other way around. The proposed solutions for Kirkuk  may not satisfy the UN technical experts in every possible way, but they seem to reflect a growing consensus in the Iraqi parliament on an election law that features both open lists as well as some kind of special status for Kirkuk.

The latest rumours suggest that at least one of the original proposals on Kirkuk (probably the one involving the 2004 registers) will be included as an alternative in the bill that hopefully will be voted on tomorrow.

6 Responses to “What Exactly Is UNAMI Up To in the Iraqi Parliament?”

  1. Reidar,
    Thank you for shedding light on the politically non-neutral role of UNAMI.
    I wonder how close is the position of the Obama administration to UNAMI’s, and particularly if Ms. Susan Rice will ever clarify.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, I would say that to its credit, in this particular case – and judging from the travel patterns alone – the Obama administration seems to have a better grasp than UNAMI at least of where the problems lie and who needs to be persuaded to come along towards a compromise. The upsurge of high-level US meetings with the Kurds lately has been quite remarkable, and it is not unlikely this has been intended as signal that the US is indeed scaling down in Iraq and that the time of maximalist demands framed in an ethnic language is over.

  3. Alexno said

    I am unclear as to why UNAMI should have a right of influence over the decisions of the Iraqi parliament.

    It sounds as though UNAMI has believed the Kurdish narrative. This is outrageous for a UN organisation, which should remain neutral.

    But it demonstrates the point I’ve been making, that the Kurdish narrative is a real problem for the future of Iraq.

  4. Joel Wing said

    Thanks for clearing this up. This morning when I scanned the papers, a bunch of them were talking about the U.N.’s role in the election law proposals, and I didn’t know they had one!

  5. Sam said

    In addition to heading up the Arab-Kurd/DIBs process, UNAMI is also the key provider of technical support to IHEC. IFES also plays a role but I think they’re subordinate to the UN. The UN is certainly the public face on the more political issues like the commissioners and the various electoral laws. Since early 2007 the U.S. has pushed these two issues, both controversial and in which the U.S.’s role to be an honest broker is in doubt, over to the UN with the idea that 1) they had more legitimacy and 2) the U.S. would still be actively involved behind closed doors and able to push things in a direction consistent with U.S. interests. Reidar and the nationalists are challenging Point 1. Point 2 used to be true in the Crocker/Bush days, not sure about now.

  6. IFES is definitively subordinate to the UN, and UNAMI elections controls the election law interactions with the CoR. IFES has at best a bit part in the “political work” on an elections law, which of course chafes.

    From this perch, the USG sees withdrawal as inevitable, and the absence of any agreement on Kirkuk as potentially delaying withdrawal. There is also a growing realization that the to-be-expected delays in forming a government — assuming January elections go swimmingly — can also push the withdrawal timeline back as well. This is why Kirkuk/disputed territories is getting steadily more attention. However, as Sam points out, they seem to want to support UNAMI efforts and play a behind the scenes role — for now.

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