Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The US, Barzani and the Game of Expectations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 17 December 2009 11:47

It has been a confusing couple of weeks for everyone who is trying to spot a US strategy in Iraq. This is especially the case when it comes to the north of the country: First, during the debate over the election law there were unusually loud complaints by the Kurds about “US pressure” being exerted on them. Conversely, more recently, a group of some 85 nationalist parliamentary deputies have signed a protest against alleged American “promises” to the Kurds.

So what are we to make of the latest developments? Essentially, what we are dealing with here are a succession of messages that were all issued by Washington subsequent to the adoption of the election law. The fact that multiple messages are being sent about such a mundane matter is itself a bit out of the ordinary and perhaps indicative of some kind of underlying problem, since a simple congratulation would do the job under normal circumstances. Nonetheless, the first White House statement on these matters was straightforward and balanced enough:

“The United States reiterates its strong support for the Iraqi people and their elected government, and reaffirms its respect for the Iraqi constitution, including Article 140, which addresses the dispute over Kirkuk and other disputed internal borders, and Article 142, which addresses the process for constitutional amendments… Following the 2010 parliamentary elections, Iraq will hold elections in 2013 and 2014 in accordance with its constitution and laws. A current and thorough census will help facilitate the conduct of those future elections, and the United States remains ready to help the Government of Iraq conduct an accurate census next year as one element in support of a stable Iraq with a government that is fair and accountable to the Iraqi people.”

This is reasonably neutral since articles 140 and 142 of the constitution theoretically cancel each other out: 142 on constitutional revision (the focus of attention of many nationalists) can be used to invalidate 140 on Kirkuk (which is preferred by the Kurds). The subsequent paragraph about the need for a census in order to hold local and parliamentary elections in 2013 and 2014 seems a little strained since it is the first time the Obama administration appears to express any particular concern about what the details of Iraqi politics will look like in such a distant future; nonetheless, while one may well suspect that the underlying intention is to reassure the Kurds (who want to have a census as soon as possible because of 140), the statement as such is still impeccably neutral.

However, things appear to have been very different when the defence secretary, Robert Gates, visited Arbil a few days later. At least according to a KRG press release, Gates said,

“We have made three commitments: 1. To use our influence to ensure that the outstanding disputes between the KRG and the Iraqi government, including the Kirkuk dispute and other disputed areas and the sharing of oil revenues, are resolved based on the Iraqi constitution and Article 140; 2. We will continue with our military efforts with the Peshmerga forces as well as with the Iraqi army and security forces within the framework of our joint security architecture; 3. We will offer our support and assistance for a census to be conducted in Iraq next year.”

No DoD version of these events appears to be available, and the way in which the Kurdish media spun the first White House statement out of every possible proportion does not inspire confidence. Nonetheless, this is a quote, and the Americans have not distanced themselves from it. Here there is no mention of 142 at all, and the census is referred to with a 2010 timeline: Both of these will be welcomed in Arbil and will raise eyebrows in Baghdad, especially the former.

In fact, Robert Gates is not the only external player in Iraq that has got things to say about the passage of the election law and the Kurdish position. UNAMI, the UN agency in Iraq, has a past record of sometimes siding with the Kurds in a rather blunt way in internal Iraqi disputes, most notably during the dispute about the 2004 election registers for Kirkuk. More recently, on 12 December, the UNAMI website reported that “the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq Mr. Ad Melkert, met today with representatives of the Kurdish Alliance Bloc in the Council of Representatives. During the meeting both sides touched upon discussions that took place last week to finalize the Election Law. They reaffirmed that the Kurdish Alliance Bloc’s acceptance of the seat allocation was based on the understanding that the allocation would be used exclusively for the 2010 Council of Representatives elections.  Both sides have reiterated the importance of holding a census in 2010.”

So UNAMI “reaffirms” that the Kurds meant the law was only for the 2010 elections? That really is a strange statement. If it is merely a case of UNAMI taking note of the Kurdish position then it is so inconsequential that it seems out of place in an official press release. But if it signifies UNAMI sympathy with this stance, then it is problematic, since nowhere in the law or the amendments is there any limitation with regard to the applicability of the law for future elections. It is noteworthy that the idea of limited applicability did form part of a previous US statement on the elections law back in October, but that statement, too, was highly problematic, chiefly because it failed to realise that it was above all the composition of the next Kirkuk batch of deputies that was at stake. And even if the words “no precedent” from the American statement somehow did make their way into the final version of the bill, they did so only in a qualified way: The elections will not serve as precedent before the completion of any investigation related to “unnatural population growth”. Ironically, of course, at the time this language was intended to mollify Iraqi nationalists; it is now apparently being evoked in order to reassure the Kurds.

Some observers say Washington is just desperate to stay out of potential trouble in Iraq, especially before the elections, and may have found it necessary to console the Kurds a little because of the reduced proportion of Kurdistan seats in the next assembly. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that people like Gates do not appear to understand that by doing so they are repeating the mistakes of the Bush administration: By choosing to cajole those with the most radical demands and agendas in the Iraqi constitutional process, they are systematically fanning the flames of extremism instead of promoting compromise. Surely Washington had already seen how Masud Barzani had painted the perfectly neutral first White House statement as a “historical victory” for the Kurds? Did they not realise what he would do with the second, and less neutral statement? Such reassurances to Barzani are an exact parallel to what Bush did with Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim in 2005, when he thought Hakim represented all Shiites with his radical federalism scheme. At a critical stage of the constitutional negotiations, Bush telephoned Hakim because of concern about the direction the constitution was taking – and thereby achieved absolutely nothing except to boost Hakim’s ego.

A very similar situation can be seen in Kurdish politics: Barzani is in reality but one of several players, but consistently the one with the most radical demands – and also with a past record of consistently creating false and exaggerated expectations among his followers about what they can realistically hope to achieve in negotiations with Baghdad. Currently his party, the KDP, is critical of its rivals, the PUK, and what is seen as a failure by the latter to properly defend Kurdish interests in Baghdad. Conversely, researchers familiar with the situation in Kurdistan say other Kurds take a different view and tend to see the KDP as a radical relic of the past, based partly on tribal values and partly on almost cultish sentiment related to the peshmerga era. For its part, by creating the impression that Barzani has once more gained something – however fictional that interpretation of US policy may turn out to be – Washington is making a compromise over disputed issues in Iraq a lot more difficult to achieve, not least since this latest “triumph” will feed directly into the internal Kurdish political process in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

3 Responses to “The US, Barzani and the Game of Expectations”

  1. “the United States remains ready to help the Government of Iraq conduct an accurate census next


    Is this a promise? I don’t think so. Bremer during the Bush era (promised) a census in 2004: In a year or 15 months..×376902

    I think this statement is significant because it names the GOI, not the UN, as the agency for

    conducting a census. In a way it is a response for people like me who call for a UN run census.
    On the surface it seems negative, there is also a phrase floating around in official statements

    nowadays: Internationalization must be the option of last resort, said in the context of

    international tribunals for major acts of terrorism but can be extended to running a census and

    the elections under UN mandate, which constitutes a further No to the likes of me.
    On the other hand, I could be optimistic and see this as an acknowledgment that internationalization is being considered as an option and the statement may also be a warning to Barzani in order to avoid meddling in the next elections ( the Turkemen site SOITM warned agains such fraud recently: ).

    I hope the US will keep an open mind towards UN run census and elections, events may show that it will be the only option if we get an Iranian or Afghani type elections in March.

  2. Salah said


    Do you this part of “a confusing a US strategy in northern Iraq” is may directed to Iranians? and the Kurd in Iran are the biggest minority in Iran, they also keeps close eye on their brother in Iraq?

    Faisal Kadri
    UN run census and elections

    With due respect of your view you give too much to UN, the recent Afghani type elections showed what UN and US can do even they are gave assurances before the election and turned been mess.

  3. Saleh,
    The corruption, bias and administrative inefficiency of some UN agencies are obvious, but the project I call for is temporary and open and involves multilateral cooperation, which means different nationalities observing each other. As a fellow Iraqi I think you will agree that no Iraqi party alone can be trusted with running the elections. Like you say, Afghanistan’s recent elections is a mess, the Afghani government ran the elections, not the UN.

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