Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for November 1st, 2009

They Don’t Give a Damn about Kirkuk… But They Don’t Want to Vote Either!

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 1 November 2009 23:05


Procrastinator-in-chief: Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, ISCI’s parliamentary whip

Media reports on the delays in passing an election law have so far focused on Kurdish resistance to language that would give a special status to the Tamim governorate pending a settlement of its political status. However, the Kurds should not be given all the blame for the delay: Even if the Kurds are unwilling to move an inch, with their 50 plus representatives they simply do not have the numbers alone to deny the Iraqi parliament a quorum, as is sometimes claimed in the press. (Earlier, in other contexts, 30 Sadrists have also been mislabelled as potential obstructionists in their own right in this way). There are still some 220 representatives left from which the 138 parliamentarians required for a vote can be recruited.

This should bring into focus an interesting segment of Iraqi MPs whose stance on the elections law has so far largely escaped scrutiny: Those non-Kurdish representatives who say Kirkuk is a minor or even “constructed” issue but who nevertheless seem distinctly unwilling to press for a vote on the law. One example is Ayad al-Samarrai (IIP/Tawafuq) who on 24 October in a statement on the Iraqiyya television station condemned parties and representatives “from outside Tamim” for complicating the issue and for using criticisms such as “the selling of Kirkuk” – the latter reference making it clear that he was talking about Iraqi nationalists.  Another instance is Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), who on 30 October said that the mixing of the question of Kirkuk with the elections law was problematic, and that the “Arabs and Turkmens [of Kirkuk] make exaggerated demands.” He elaborated: “We are only talking about two or three seats”. The same tendency of portraying the Kirkuk as essentially a local issue was evident even before the summer vacation when Salim al-Jibburi (another Tawafuq MP) blamed “Arabs and Turkmens of Kirkuk” for creating trouble over the elections law on 21 July.

The basic thrust of all these three examples is that they deny any national aspect to the Kirkuk issue. They deplore the attempts by others to see Kirkuk as a question of national concern and construe those who make demands for a special status for Kirkuk as parochial recalcitrants and/or Iraqi nationalists fishing in waters outside their proper jurisdiction (“Kirkuk has a Kurdish majority”, Hakim maintains, again choosing to see only the ethnic sub-identities). Forgotten is apparently the argument put forward by Iraqi nationalists (often from Hiwar and Iraqiyya) that Kirkuk is a truly national question. Ignored is the fact that there is a direct link between the next parliamentary election and the fate of Kirkuk, since it is for the next parliament to create a new committee to finish constitutional revision (in which the settlement of Kirkuk is likely to come to the fore again). In that perspective, it does matter whether the representatives of Kirkuk favour to stay with the central government in Baghdad or instead want annexation by the Kurdish federal government.

The big question is, of course, when their position is in practice identical to that of the Kurds, why are these MPs so reluctant to press for a vote? If the problem consists only of a couple of local hardliners, what is all the fuss about? There could be two alternatives, one with no special status for Kirkuk and another involving a postponement of elections there, and if Kirkuk is really so insignificant then they would easily win! After all, in the past, ISCI and the Kurds had no qualms about trying to bulldoze their opposition, as seen in October 2006 during the vote on the federalism law (even if they barely managed to win the vote back then). And yet each time someone in the Iraqi parliament has pressed for a vote, ISCI has been at the forefront of the calls for more talks and more consensus, or they have not been present in the chamber at all. One just cannot help wondering whether for some this all has to do with the fact that an early vote in parliament on the elections law would also produce an open list – a prospect about which many of the current parliamentarians are distinctly uneasy. Or is the reluctance there because these politicians know somewhere deep inside that many Iraqis are concerned about Kirkuk and for this reason the MPs do not want to have too much focus on their dealing and wheeling within the safe confines of parliament? Perhaps they might even be worried about accidentally triggering a revival of the 22 July trend inside parliament?

This paradox also puts the recent discovery of the alleged “loss” of the registers of voters for Kirkuk for 2004 (central to many of the compromise proposals so far) in a strange light. Yes, those registers have apparently been lost. Or so says the Iraqi elections commission (IHEC). Except that it adds – just to be on the safe side it seems –  that “even if the registers are found, they cannot be used”. Why? Because they were compiled by the United Nations and not by an Iraqi commission! That was the explanation offered by Qasim Hasan al-Abbudi of the IHEC. Abbudi, a high-ranking member of the commission, has an interesting background. His resume says he graduated from law school in Baghdad in the 1990s, but little detail is offered before he emerged as a judge in post-2003 Iraq. However, in 2008 additional information came to the fore as Sadrists accused him of strengthening the control of ISCI and the “Iranian security services” within the IHEC, among other things describing him as a past employee of Al-Alam, the Iranian television station. And so, while the proposal by Adil Abd al-Mahdi (another ISCI figure) to use the 2004 registers for a two-constituency system seemed genuinely creative when it emerged a week ago, its rejection one week later by the member of the IHEC that is closest to ISCI makes you wonder what is going on while the clock is ticking. By far the two most prominent IHEC persons in shooting down any attempt at introducing Kirkuk compromises in the election law have been ISCI’s friend Abbudi as well as Faraj al-Haydari, a former KDP politician.

Meanwhile, today, there are reports of another attempt by UNAMI to mediate, apparently without giving any consideration to the fresh proposals on constituency sub-division along administrative (not ethnic) lines that were contributed by Iraqis last week. As usual, there is no word from UNAMI itself about what it is doing, but if correctly reported by Iraqi television the latest proposal does involve a slight improvement of the previous position which was basically identical to that of the two Kurdish parties and therefore badly suited to reach out to the Iraqi nationalists. According to Al-Baghdadiya, the new scheme would mean establishing a quota guarantee for Arabs and Turkmens from Kirkuk; however these seats would belong not to the seats for Tamim proper but to the “compensatory” seats that are distibuted at the end to enhance proportionality at the national level. (Reportedly, there would be a minimum fallback position of one seat for “Arabs” and one for “Turkmens”, but it is unclear how this quota would be affected by any representation obtained directly by “Arabs” or “Turkmens” in the Kirkuk constituency (i.e. outside the quota arrangements), and there would be the perennial problem of imposing crude ethno-sectarian order on a highly complex reality: How do you count a seat won by an Iraqi nationalist with a Turkmen mother and a Kurdish father, for example?) Additionally there would be a one-year process of scrutinising the Kirkuk elections registers (the 2009 ones would be used in January 2010, despite objections by Iraqi nationalists, but the re-investigation would involve looking at older rolls of voters), followed by new elections for Tamim one year into the new parliament.

The new proposal seems weak in that caves in to the primitive ethno-sectarian logic that many Iraqis feel are undermining their whole nation. “Arabs” and “Turkmens” may get reserved seats, but what about those forces in Tamim that want to define themselves through civic forms of identity, like “Kirkuki” or “Iraqi”? Another problem is that key appointments to the next committee for constitutional review – to which the entire Kirkuk issue will be intimately connected – will likely take place before the foreshadowed one-year period has come to an end, thus probably producing representatives for Kirkuk whose legitimacy will be disputed. Despite these weaknesses however, this is at least some kind of compromise in the sense that it is so diluted that there can be no good reason for the Kurds to reject it, whereas at the same time it satisfies the nationalist demand for a special status for the Tamim governorate, albeit a highly symbolic one.

The main problem now is whether Iraqi politicians really want to have a new election law.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 5 Comments »