Several events scheduled for October might create additional hiccups for the Iraqi government-formation process. At the same time, they serve as an indicator of an unhealthy climate in Iraqi politics where personality issues prevail at the expense of ideological questions, creating illogical alliances and preventing more logical ones from materialising.
The most prominent of these issues is the census scheduled for the second half of October – Iraq’s first since 1997. Holding the census is seen as controversial by many Iraqi nationalists, including Arabs and Turkmens living in northern parts of Iraq that fell to Kurdish control during the chaos that reigned during the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. Their fear is that Kurdish dominance on the ground will create biases in the way the census is conducted, with the potential of results that may be used by the Kurds in their quest to annex some of these areas which they claim as “disputed” ones. Even though the holding of a census in itself is not a political issue, the explicit mention in the Transitional Administrative Law of 2004 of a census as a step towards the settlement of so-called disputed territories means it will be seen as political pending the resolution of those territorial issues.
In terms of policy contradictions, it is the position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that stands out in this regard. Back in 2008, when Maliki turned to Iraqi nationalism, he for a while seemed to challenge Kurdish expansionism in the north and saw his popularity increase among some Sunni Arabs and Turkmens as a result. As late as in 2009, he played a role in delaying the census one year despite Kurdish pressures to have it conducted on time as per the census law adopted by the Iraqi parliament. However, since the autumn of 2009 – as the result of a series of events that led to Maliki’s greater isolation from much of the Iraqi political establishment from the August explosions in Baghdad onwards – the Iraqi premier has been increasingly conciliatory vis-à-vis the Kurds, seeing them perhaps as his best option for a post-election alliance at a time when he was probably inflating the potential for a big State of Law victory in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. During the debate on the election law, State of Law supported “special” but ultimately extremely diluted arrangements for Kirkuk that essentially gave the Kurds what they wanted there, and went on to support the Kurds during their attempt to exploit the veto of the law by Tareq al-Hashemi to achieve a new seat allocation formula more in tune with Kurdish demands. There was some limited but not decisive rapprochement on oil exports, and the Kurds offered some support to Maliki when he came under pressure in the shape of a projected “law on electoral conduct” and the debate on the budget. Now, indications are that Maliki will support holding the census on time.
The big irony of course is that even though Maliki seems to be investing heavily in Kurdish friendships right now, that in itself can not deliver the coveted premiership to him. Just like Iraqiyya in the case of the Sadrists, he is courting kingmakers that aren’t real kingmakers. To become the premier candidate of the would-be Shiite alliance, Maliki would need to improve relations with the Sadrists; alternatively, he could start a more serious kind of dialogue with Iraqiyya with the aim of establishing a bilateral pact with them. Of course, there is added irony because in principle both State of Law and Iraqiyya oppose ceding Kirkuk and other disputed territories to the Kurds, with the Daawa traditionally being less inclined than ISCI to make compromise with Arbil. Nonetheless, Iraqiyya keeps talking to ISCI and their Sadrists friends (their voters should ask whether Ammar al-Hakim is ready to stop the census), whereas Maliki keeps talking to the Kurds (it would be interesting to learn what the more hardliner, anti-Kurdish members of State of Law – like Abbas al-Bayati, Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani and even Hussein al-Shahristani – think about the decision to persevere with the census in the current climate.)
A second possible showdown relates to the standoff regarding the national football committee – delayed for more than a year, but now also scheduled for October. Here, Maliki is facing off against prominent sports personalities that have a background in the old regime and that still receive some support internationally from FIFA, where there is a strong Arab voice within the Asian branch of the organisation. As ever, though, the conflict is not one hundred percent clear cut. Maliki has also promoted sports stars that have a background with the old regime. Rather, there is concern about the ways the government is trying to impose its own candidates to be coaches for important football clubs, as a springboard for eventually taking control of the football association itself. There is an added territorial dimension, too, with the football association and FIFA insisting on holding their elections in the Kurdish areas (“Baghdad is unsafe”), with Maliki of course preferring to have Baghdad as the venue of the elections since in his view it would be more normal for the capital to host such events. Again, the contradictions: Iraqiyya supporters in this case flocking to the Kurds with whom they disagree fundamentally on so many territorial issues; Maliki the centralist appearing to wake up again, if more reluctantly than before.
And finally, there is the reported revival of Basra federalism demands which would create even further contradictions if a referendum gets underway in earnest (such rumours also surfaced last winter). In this case, Maliki the centralist could face challenges from his own ranks, where State of Law members in the Basra provincial council now express more pro-federal sentiment than they used to only a year ago, when a similar scheme was launched only to fail.