Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January, 2010

System Failure: The Ban on Mutlak

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 14 January 2010 20:50

The Iraqi elections commission (IHEC) has reportedly upheld the decision by the accountability and justice board to bar around 500 candidates, including Salih al-Mutlak, from participating in the 7 March elections, based on allegations of Baathist sympathies. The banned candidates can appeal to a board of seven judges that came into existence only three days ago, and whose names still appear to remain a secret.

It is hard to describe this development as anything than other than complete system failure in the new democracy in Iraq. Almost inevitably, the atmosphere of the elections will now turn into a repeat of December 2005, with escalating rhetoric that can easily turn sectarian. Parliament had the obvious option of marginalising Ali al-Lami, the Iran-connected leader of the former de-Baathification committee; instead they went for the more convenient solution of approving seven judges that now have the delicate and enormous task of dealing with hundreds of appeals in a matter of weeks. Why did they not ask Ali al-Lami to step down instead? Why did not the “independent” IHEC offer any resistance? What are the forces the Iraqi parliament and the IHEC are so afraid of? Mutlak has played a constructive role in Iraqi politics since 2005; the sudden allegation of dangerous Baathist revival plans simply smacks of panic on the part of his political opponents and involvement by forces outside Iraq.

As for the external environment some reports say UNAMI (and possibly also the Americans) pleaded with the IHEC not to follow through on the ban on Mutlak. The recent top-level Arab League visit to Baghdad is widely seen to have had the same objective. Quite inexplicably, the newly-arrived British ambassador to Baghdad chose the hearing on the Iraq War in London to warn against the possibility of a coup in Baghdad, which can only have added fire to the flames. But other than that, only Iran is known to be supportive of the ban. To add insult to injury, the Iranian foreign minister visited Baghdad just days before parliament decided to let the accountability and justice committee have its way.

The future now depends on how swiftly the newly constituted appeals court handles the cases. If the appeals drag on for many weeks then inevitably this issue will continue to dominate the agenda and the elections can easily become a replay of 2005, probably to the satisfaction of the ISCI/Chalabi/Sadrist alliance (Hakim has spent the past two days in Kurdistan talking about a renewed Shiite-Kurdish alliance). Interestingly, however, Salih al-Mutlak this morning actually expressed confidence that the appeals court would deal justly with any appeal by him.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism | 9 Comments »

Once More, Peter Galbraith Fails to Clear His Name

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 14 January 2010 6:59

The Iraqi parliament has already gone on holiday until next Tuesday so we might as well take a look at the most recent attempt by Peter Galbraith to explain to the world exactly what he was up to with his multiple roles in Kurdistan in the period 2004–2006. Whereas his latest contribution does not really contain any significant new information, it has been circulated by the author and his friends with such fervour that a refutation should be available for the record.

Galbraith’s latest version of events appears in the 14 January issue of The New York Review of Books under the headline “A Statement on My Activities in Kurdistan” – and as such cannot fail to generate expectations of a “full and final disclosure”. In that perspective, however, the piece is a rather disappointing affair. With the exception of two minor details there is no new information, just a rehash of the same old story, and the article certainly fails to effectively rebut the key point of criticism against Galbraith: That he continued to stay involved in the Iraqi constitutional process also after he acquired a business interest in the Norwegian oil company DNO and its Kurdistan operations in 2004. The only new pieces that are added to the puzzle are the fact that the Iraqi oil ministry must have known about Galbraith’s interest in DNO (since Galbraith represented the company on a joint committee), and also that the government of the United States was somehow informed.

Today, Galbraith wants us to read his “Kurdistan activities” between 2004 and 2006 roughly as follows. After having been interested in the Kurdish cause during the 1990s (partly on basis of his experience with Kurdish refugees after the 1991 uprising) he in 2004 “helped Kurdistan’s leaders draft a proposal for a self-governing Kurdistan that was submitted to the Coalition Provisional Authority on February 11, 2004, for inclusion in Iraq’s interim constitution”.  Since the proposal also included provisions for regional control of the oil sector, Galbraith’s next step was to help the Kurds start building their oil sector in practice on the ground. Accordingly, he “helped bring DNO, a Norwegian oil company, into Kurdistan”. As part of this process, he was “paid by DNO and entered into a financial arrangement with the company through a Delaware partnership, Porcupine LP.” Later, in 2005, he “advised” the Kurds on their negotiations for a permanent constitution; however Galbraith stresses that their negotiating position was more or less similar to the one “they” had defined in February 2004, “and they achieved virtually all of it”. Galbraith specifically denies having “pushed through” anything during the negotiations, thereby refuting a claim made by The New York Times concerning his overall level of influence on the Iraqi constitutional process.

Galbraith’s account is unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. Firstly, no matter how much he tries to dress things up by referring to the “Kurdish proposal of February 2004” there is no way he can erase what he himself wrote on this subject back in 2006, when he in considerable detail bragged about how almost every single word of that proposal had in fact been written by himself. On p. 167 of The End of Iraq, Galbraith highlighted this fact by dramatically describing the sole change to his own proposal that was introduced by the Kurds: “Kosrat Rasul, the veteran PUK peshmerga who had served as Kurdistan’s second prime minister in 1994, wanted to clarify that deployments of the Iraqi Kurdistan national guard outside the region should not only be approved by the Kurdistan national assembly but should only occur at the request of the federal government in Baghdad. His amendment underscored the Kurds’ reluctance to be involved in Iraq’s wars. With that change, the proposal was accepted.” Galbraith’s five-page proposal, that is, with the single-paragraph amendment by Rasul! In other words, every time Galbraith refers to “the Kurdish proposal of February 2004”, please substitute “the Galbraith proposal of February 2004”. This applies for example when Galbraith writes, “The Kurds…had set the agenda and they pushed through their own proposal”. It was largely Galbraith’s proposal they pushed through.

Secondly, with respect to the supposedly “informal” nature of Galbraith’s involvement with the constitution after he had acquired an “interest” in DNO in June 2004 (at which point the conflict of interests obviously got more pronounced), at least three smoking guns can be found just in the open sources. The first two are again of Galbraith’s own making, and once more can be found in The End of Iraq. On p. 199 in a footnote Galbraith cannot resist revealing how he personally intervened to dissuade a British official from opening a debate about the taxation power of the central government close to the deadline for the constitutional draft. Also, on p. 171 he depicts his own role in staging a semi-official referendum on Kurdish independence on the sidelines of the January 2005 elections. The third significant reference is from his friend, Jonathan Morrow, who on p. 13 of a report entitled Iraq’s Constitutional Process II from 2005 describes how the “Kurdish parties were able to invite into the ad hoc meetings [where Kurdish and Shiite leaders designed the shape of the new constitution] experienced non-Iraqi international negotiators and constitutional lawyers, including former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith and University of Maryland Professor Karol Soltan, to advance the Kurdish case.” Again, what was he doing there, if he had a business interest in DNO? This truly is a “private citizen” extraordinaire, with access to all areas, and clearly so active that even open-source materials attest to his influential role.

One additional aspect that strangely has yet to receive much attention in the American debate is the question of possible disinformation of the US Congress by Galbraith in ways that could advance his own “business interests”. On 11 January 2006, Galbraith, who by that time was still involved with DNO, suggested several policy measures in a testimony to the US Senate called “Acknowledge Partition and Withdraw: A Reality Based Strategy for Iraq”. Among these measures was the idea of a general US withdrawal from Iraq, with the exception of a “small over the horizon force in Kurdistan”, explained with reference to the claim that “the Kurds are among the most pro-American people in the world and would welcome a US military presence, not the least because it would help protect them from Arab Iraqis who resent their close cooperation with the US during the 2003 War and thereafter.” Coincidentally, of course, that small American military force would also protect Galbraith’s “business interests” and the Tawke oilfield to which these interests relate. But Galbraith did not tell Congress that, did he?

Additionally, many of the conjectures by Galbraith in his congressional testimony are inaccurate or misleading. For example, the idea that other Iraqis would embark on some kind of systematic revenge operation to physically attack the Kurds for their cooperation with the Americans since 2003 seems a little exaggerated. (By 2006, vast number of non-Kurdish Iraqis had done exactly the same thing in terms of cooperation.) Galbraith also vastly overplays Shiite interest in federalism when he asserts that “Iraq’s Council of Representatives has already passed a law paving the way to the formation of a Shiite ‘super-region’ in fifteen months” and later goes on to talk about “a Shiite Region likely on its way”. In fact, three years later, few Iraqi Shiites seem to have any interest in a Shiite region whatsoever (even Ammar al-Hakim has left the specific idea of a nine-governorate “Shiite” region and now talks about federal regions more generally). Also, Galbraith failed to mention that the law to which he referred in fact enables several thousand other, non-sectarian scenarios of Iraqi governorates combining into federal regions  (yes, that’s right, thousands, new regions can be everything from a single governorate to 14 governorates coming together and need not be territorially contiguous, so the reservoir of possible combinations of those existing governorates that are allowed to form multi-governorate regions, i.e. excepting Baghdad, is truly mind-boggling).

Towards the end of his attempt at rebuttal, Galbraith does a wonderful job of highlighting the general shakiness of his own position. He writes, “A separate issue arises over what I should have disclosed in connection with my articles in The New York Review of Books… I wrote several other articles in 2004 and 2005, some of which briefly discussed the oil issue, and did not mention my business arrangements. These arrangements were covered by confidentiality agreements, but I should have stated that I had business interests in Kurdistan. I regret not having done so and apologize to the editors and readers of The New York Review of Books. In my later articles, I did state that I was ‘a principal at the Windham Resources Group, a firm that negotiates on behalf of its clients in post-conflict societies, including in Iraq.’ ”

The big issue, of course, is that he did not mention Porcupine and DNO! But to Galbraith that distinction between a consultancy firm and an oil company appears to be unimportant, and he offers the reference to the Windham Resources Group in the hope that this may mollify NYRB readers after his failure to disclose inconvenient truths about Norwegian oil companies and multi-million stakes in the Kurdistan oil industry. As with so many other aspects of his “activities in Kurdistan”, Galbraith is either unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture and the strong and problematic linkages between his private-citizen “business interests” on the one hand and the Iraqi constitutional process and US policy debate on the other.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Oil in Iraq | 3 Comments »

More De-Baathification Antics in the Iraqi Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 10 January 2010 18:55

The Iraqi parliament reconvened again today, and developments there just confirmed the picture of a fragile and improvised political process, vulnerable to the same kind of immature whims that characterised the initial response to the Hashemi veto of the election law.

The roles are a little different this time though. Back at the time of the Hashemi veto, the Daawa party were in the lead in the most savage and least logical attacks on the presidential veto, although they were ably assisted by both Sadrists and ISCI. This time, it is the Sadrist head of the justice and accountability committee, Falah al-Shanshal, that is the loudest defender of the moves by the justice and accountability board to bar Salih al-Mutlak from participating in the March elections (Shanshal apparently seems to think his committee has a role in “supervising” the board, even though no such specific role is prescribed by the justice and accountability law). Unsurprisingly, the Buratha news agency, which caters for the ISCI rank and file, is also ecstatic, as is Al-Bayyina al-Jadida, one of the more sectarian Shiite newspapers which tends to support Maliki (every day it has a new Baathist conspiracy on its front page; this time it alleges that Mutlak is excluded due to money received from former US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad!) On the other hand, Maliki’s own party has been somewhat more subdued in its response, even if  Ali al-Adib today is reported as having accused Mutlak of “exploiting the issue for propaganda purposes (sic)”.

It is interesting that the Iraqi legal authorities today, as a matter of urgency, have also asked the Iraqi parliament to approve its candidates for a special appeals court devoted to de-Baathification issues. Of course, the law that mandated the creation of the new justice and accountability board was adopted back in February 2008, and it does not inspire confidence that a request for an appeals unit suddenly arrives in parliament now, before a new board has even been seated. According to the law, the appeals court for de-Baathification cases will consist of seven judges, to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. The court will make its decisions by a simple majority; apparently the latest move has been made in anticipation of appeals relating to excluded candidates in the forthcoming elections, although in theory it might also  be a pre-emptive move by the court aimed at shifting responsibility for the next difficult decision to parliament.

A minor detail of the justice and accountability law highlights the implausibility of pushing through new arrangements at this point: The appeal court will issue its decisions within sixty days! Even if the court were constituted tomorrow, it might be too late for giving due consideration to an appeal by Mutlak before the elections. All in all, common sense suggests that it is the anachronistic and often secretive justice and accountability committee headed by Ali al-Lami that should now be shoved to the sidelines, and not Salih al-Mutlak – who after all has been a part of Iraq’s democracy for four years.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 39 Comments »

Why Ad Hoc De-Baathification Will Derail the Process of Democratisation in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 8 January 2010 12:31

Considerable confusion has erupted after news began leaking yesterday about a move to bar Salih al-Mutlak, a prominent secularist leader of the Hiwar front which is now part of the Iraqiyya movement and coalition, from standing as a candidate in the March parliamentary elections.

Much of the lack of clarity relates to the essentially transitional character of the Iraqi de-Baathification process. The old de-Baathification committee, created on the basis of ideas from Paul Bremer and headed since 2004 by Ali Faysal al-Lami – a Shiite political operator with particularly close ties to Iran – is supposed to be replaced by a new “justice and accountability board” pursuant to the “justice and accountability act” passed in early 2008. However, Iraqi parliamentarians have been wrangling about who should sit on the new board, with a government proposal for a Maliki ally (Walid al-Hilli) to take over its leadership so far having been rejected in parliament, partly due to internal Shiite opposition. In the meanwhile, Lami, apparently in dialogue with the “justice and accountability committee” of the Iraqi parliament, continues to wield considerable influence in issues relating to de-Baathification.

It is Lami and the committee that appear to be the driving force behind the latest proposal to exclude Mutlak. It may be useful, therefore, to have a brief look at the political affiliations of these individuals. Lami has ties to Ahmad Chalabi, the Sadrist breakaway faction Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (involved in the Qays al-Khazaali case and the abductions and murder of British hostages), and Iran. As for the parliamentary committee, it is headed by a Sadrist, with a Badr member as number two. The other members are from the PUK, Daawa and yet another Sadrist who together form the majority (hence, the “Watani” alliance is stronger on the committee than Daawa as far as the Shiites are concerned). Additionally, there is a minority of two secularists on the committee, plus Rashid al-Azzawi who represents Tawafuq (and who on some issues may well find common ground with the Shiite Islamists rather than with the secularists).

The main problem with the proposal to exclude Mutlak is of course its abrupt, ad hoc nature, and the fact that it emerges in the middle of a period of transition for the de-Baathification bureaucracy. Firstly, why has not this been dealt with earlier? The fact is that Mutlak and his party have been an important part of Iraqi democracy for four years, and that they have played a key role on numerous occasions in furthering the democratic process – for example when they along with other opposition parties demanded a timeline for local elections when the provincial powers law was adopted in February 2008. Mutlak has also been crucial in keeping the issue of Kirkuk on the agenda as a question of national concern, and was talking about “putting Iraq first” when this kind of approach was very unfashionable back in 2006 (of course, in a very predictable way, the Western mainstream media is still today obsessed with him as a “Sunni”). Thus, the very sudden singling out of him as a potential neo-Baathist (ostensibly on the basis of “new documents” that, of course, have not been made public) smacks of a highly politicised decision that can only weaken the public trust in the democratic process. With the exception of some Sadrists (especially locally in Amara), it took more than two weeks before the other Shiite Islamists began reacting in an audible fashion to the Iranian occupation of al-Fakka, and one cannot help wonder whether this latest move may reflect a certain  panic over the way this issue has played into the hands of nationalists like Mutlak. Conversely, Mutlak’s bloc, Iraqiyya, has once more highlighted its non-sectarian, Iraqi nationalist orientation by promptly and strongly rejecting slander by Saudi clerics against the (Shiite) Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

More fundamentally, the question of “selective de-Baathification” comes on the agenda here in a big way. It is a historical fact that Shiites and Sunnis alike cooperated with the old regime in their millions, and it was for example Shiite tribes that cracked down on the “Shiite” rebellion in the south in 1991. Nonetheless, the exiles who returned to Iraq after 2003 have tried to impose an artificial narrative in which the legacy of pragmatic cooperation with the Baathist regime is not dealt with in a systematic and neutral fashion as such; instead one singles out political opponents (often Sunnis) as “Baathists” and silently co-opt political friends (especially if they happen to be Shiites) without mentioning their Baathist ties at all. The result is a hypocritical and sectarian approach to the whole question of de-Baathification that will create a new Iraq on shaky foundations. (For example, the Sadrists have been in the lead in the aggressive de-Baathification campaign, yet it is well known that many Sadrists in fact had Baathist ties in the past.)

The proposal concerning Mutlak now apparently goes to the Iraqi elections commission (IHEC), which is supposed to be more independent, but whose members were in reality also elected on the basis of loyalties to political parties – and with an even poorer representation for secular Iraqis (only one of the nine commissioners is believed to have ties to Iraqiyya). This is going to be a test case not only for the IHEC but for the whole Iraqi political process.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism | 19 Comments »

Roger Cohen and the Sistani-Montazeri-AfPak Fantasy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 5 January 2010 15:56

Taking into account the remarkable mushrooming of outlandish theories about Shiism at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003 it is unsurprising that something similar should occur today, when Iran – home to the biggest Shiite population in the world – is showing signs of an ongoing political revolution.

Back in 2003, neoconservative optimists were in the lead. Among them was Amir Taheri, who in The Wall Street Journal on 7 April – on the basis of an alleged satellite phone conversation with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – declared the imminence of a “schismatic” Shiite movement whereby a Najaf model of Iraqi Shiism that “steered clear of politics and focused on the ethics of the theological discourse”, assisted by the liberating force of “American marines”, would finally bring an end to the influence of Khomeini in the region. Even more optimistic were the adherents of the theory of an “Akhbari revolution”, according to which a few hundred thousand Iraqis of this tiny sub-sect concentrated in the far south of Iraq would single-handedly convert Iraq’s Shiites to a pro-American position.

Today, after the Obama administration inherited the Iraq conflict with its regional entanglements, it is a more heterogeneous set of commentators that cheer on the American attempts at dialogue with the Shiite world. One exponent is Roger Cohen, who in a recent op-ed in The New York Times conjured up yet another vision of a benign Shiite revolution that will supposedly blow through the region with wonderful consequences for American interests. Briefly put, in Cohen’s view, there is a close link between the political thinking of the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri (in Qom) and that of the Iraq-based Sistani. In Cohen’s interpretation, the Iraqi experience gives reason to hope for a diffusion of ideas from Iraq to Iran and a concomitant “reformist” transformation of the Islamic republic whereby the Iran clergy would once more adopt an innocuous position on the sidelines as mere “moral authorities”, without undue interference in politics.

Cohen’s piece is flawed, both for what it says about Montazeri as well as for its assumptions about Sistani. First, Cohen greatly exaggerates the extent to which Montazeri really abandoned the idea of clerical supervision of Iranian politics. According to Cohen, “[Montazeri] later apologised for his role in the establishment of the position [of wilayat al-faqih or the rule of the supreme jurisprudent] and argued that he had conceived of it as exercising moral rather than executive authority”. It is true that Montazeri in 1997 and again in 2000 voiced criticism of the particular way in which wilayat al-faqih had been implemented in Iran under Khamenei after Khomeini’s death. But Montazeri never abandoned the concept as such. Quite the contrary, Montazeri confirmed the idea of clerical supervision to guarantee the Islamic nature of Iranian society (nezarat-e faqih), and as an antidote to Khamenei – whom he considered a scholarly nonentity – he advocated that the traditional clergy should recoup authority through winning back the faqih position (albeit in an office that would be limited by time and confirmed by a popular vote). In a recent interview, Montazeri’s son confirmed that his late father’s position on wilayat al-faqih had remained essentially the same throughout the last decade.

Cohen also suggests that Iran should build on the Montazeri legacy and “look west to the holy Shiite cities in Iraq… from which Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani exercises precisely the kind of moral authority and suasion – without direct executive authority – that Montazeri favoured for Iran.” He even calls for “a Persian Sistani”! The latter, apparently deliberate, use of “Persian” instead of “Iranian” comes across as possibly somewhat more amusing than intended: Surely Cohen must know that Sistani is Persian, and that, by way of contrast, many leading Iranian clerics are in fact Azeri Turks? At any rate, two more basic clarifications are in order here. Firstly, there is a big difference between Montazeri and Sistani with respect to how they view the exact role of the clergy in “supervising” society. Whilst they share the concept of “supervision” (for example, on 27 April 2006, Sistani issued a statement to the effect that he would monitor (raqaba) the performance of the government), Montazeri was always more willing than Sistani has ever been to institutionalise this kind of clerical control. Secondly, Sistani’s reluctance to institutionalise power should not be interpreted as a cession of authority (or, even more implausibly, as a decision to remain aloof from politics altogether). Cohen seems to be unaware about the extent to which Sistani considers himself to be above the law of the land in Iraq and the 2005 constitution, as seen for example in the idea of clerical supervision formulated in April 2006, and again on 18 November 2008, when Sistani suddenly invented a requirement for a special majority in the Iraqi parliament for the SOFA to pass (“approval by all the components of the Iraqi people and their principal political forces”).

Moreover, even if the modalities of Sistani’s interference in Iraqi politics are less specific and not as readily defined as those of Montazeri, the potential of his authority has been clearly shown on numerous occasions – including most recently through the implementation of Islamic regulations against alcohol in some Iraqi cities in 2009.  At the same time though, while Sistani’s preference for giving orders from the sidelines may shield him from the disadvantages of “routinised charisma” in the Weberian sense, it also makes him more vulnerable to exploitation by political forces (who can more easily construe his actions and statements in ways that suit their own agendas). Much like in 2004, there is today evidence that both the Iranian regime as well as some Iraqi parties are still hoping that Sistani may be a useful tool for reunifying the dispersed Shiite parties under a nominally “nationalist” and “anti-sectarian” umbrella – whether before or after the 2010 elections – as exemplified through the latest rush of public statements indicating renewed possibilities for rapprochement between the Daawa and Hakim and Sadr after a visit by Maliki to Sistani in Najaf.

These facts also have wider implications for the overall rosy scenario painted by Cohen in his piece. Westerners often tend to forget exactly what sort of conservative values these venerated clerics would like to see implemented in the countries where they live – and the preparedness of their followers to follow through on their edicts. We have already had a taste of this in Afghanistan, where last April the Western prosecutors of the “good war” rather abruptly discovered that the “progressive” regime of Hamid Karzai (which had defeated the “medieval” rule of the Taliban) in fact counted among its key allies Shiite clerics who wanted to push through laws that gave Shiite Afghan men the unconditional right to sexual intercourse with their wives every four days. The point here is that these Afghan Shiite clerics are not in any sense marginal loners in Shiite jurisprudence. In fact, Sistani’s own website makes it perfectly clear how he sees marital “obligations”, including how the wife should make herself available to the husband for “sexual enjoyment” and also follow his orders when it comes to leaving the house (on the other hand, housekeeping chores are specifically exempted).

In Roger Cohen’s conclusion, “Shiite Iran is not America’s enemy; Sunni Al Qaeda is, whether in Yemen, Nigeria or Pakistan”. Black and white; Sunni is bad and Shiite is good. True, there are many reasons to hope for some kind of change in Tehran. But realistic contemplation of what is likely to replace the current regime and the potential complexities of any future transition – and their possible regional repercussions – should also form part of that kind of exercise.

[Some of the arguments in this piece have been elaborated with full quotations etc. in a previous paper on Sistani available here, and in a recent article in SAIS Review.]

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 15 Comments »