Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for August 21st, 2011

Iraqiyya and the Kurds Challenge Maliki on Oil and Gas

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 21 August 2011 19:58

It sounds perhaps more exciting than it is: The oil and gas committee of the Iraqi parliament has presented a rival oil and gas law to the version that has stalled in government since 2007.

The thing is, a superficial reading of the two documents in fact suggests that they are extremely similar – based on the same template, containing the same articles, and mostly also the same language. In fact, only one major difference stands out. In the parliament version of the bill, the president of the oil and gas council (which will make all key decisions) and his deputy are nominated by the parliamentary presidency and confirmed by parliament with an absolute majority, whereas in the government version, the prime minister or his representative is the president of the council. Other than that, the differences seem minor, though with the details of provincial representation on the oil and gas council slightly different (the government version gives the regional representative rank of minister and specifies that the producing-governorate representatives be elected by the governorate councils.)

The remaining features look similar. Just like the original bill introduced in 2007, the oil ministry is deprived of effective power which instead rests with the powerful oil and gas commission. The commission will have veto rights on deals entered into also by federal regions, though unless it manages to make a two-thirds decision on them, they will automatically become valid. Producing governorates are not given the same contracting rights as federal regions, which is a blunt violation of the constitution (which treats governorates and federal regions exactly in the same way as far as energy questions are concerned).

The reason the parliamentary version has got that much attention despite the minuscule differences relates instead to procedure: By doing what they do in this case, the oil and gas committee are challenging the government and the Iraqi federal supreme court on the rules for introducing bills to the Iraqi legislature. The court has previously established that a bill must pass through the government or the presidency before it is presented to parliament, meaning that the Iraqi national assembly has an impaired right of legislative initiative. Last time parliament tried to challenge the ministry in this way (through a law that severed the administrative ties between governorates and the municipality and public works ministries) it ended up with rejection by the federal supreme court and the law in question was subsequently annulled. In other words, the parliament version of the oil and gas bill could easily be struck down by the court on the same procedural grounds.

This in turn relates to the politics behind the move to introduce a parliamentary version of the oil and gas bill. Interestingly, the Kurds and Iraqiyya are seen as the driving forces behind the new bill, whereas resistance to it has been recorded above all by the State of Law alliance headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. That clearly explains the stronger role for parliament in appointing the commission in their version of the bill, as well as the resistance to the bill on both substantial and procedural grounds by State of Law. One interesting feature is that the Kurds are now moving ahead with a bill that will give the central commission veto right over all contracts: It is believed disagreement between the Kurds and Shiite Islamists has been a key reason for the delay in presenting the government version of the bill to parliament.

Perhaps more than anything, the parliamentary version of the bill illustrates the length to which Iraqiyya is prepared to go in order to hurt Maliki personally, no matter what the ideological issues at hand are. Here we have a draft law that was almost uniformly rejected by Iraqi oil experts – mostly Iraqiyya supporters – when it first appeared in 2007. The essence of the law remains pretty much the same, but now Iraqiyya are lending their support to a project that will reduce the ministry of oil to a chamber of pontification and put all real power in the hands of a commission of politicians and a few “independent experts”.

For their part, the Kurds are significantly conceding veto rights over contracts to a centrally politically commission, albeit one with a parliamentary mandate as well as a two-thirds requirement for reaching decisions. But the wider point must be this: The Kurds have managed to persuade Iraqiyya to back yet another commission of politicians at the expense of bureaucrats. The conceptual cousin of the oil and gas commission is of course the national council for high policies, backed by Iraqiyya and the Kurds as well and resisted by Maliki. To an outside observer they both look pretty much like the products of a political science kindergarten, and it is remarkable how the Kurds have managed to convert Iraqiyya with its supposedly Bonapartist ideals to a position that may well contribute to ever greater fragmentation. To add insult to injury, Iraqiyya claim to be “building the institutions of the state”! The only player on the Iraqi scene that seems focused on normal, recognisable state institutions right now is clearly Nuri al-Maliki, but the failure of the two camps to communicate runs the risk of creating growing polarisation and with it a vicious cycle of ever more authoritarianism on the part of Maliki.

It is also interesting that the Kurds in this case are working through parliament (and its speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya) rather than through the presidency and their own Jalal Talabani (who introduced the strategic policy council bill). Could it be that some kind of Talabani-Barzani disagreement on how to navigate between Iraqiyya and Maliki is lingering in the background in this case?

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