Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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?

19 Responses to “Iraqiyya and the Kurds Challenge Maliki on Oil and Gas”

  1. “another commission of politicians at the expense of bureaucrats”
    Reidar, There Are No Longer appreciable bureaucrats in Iraq. Laws and policies which were seen at first as centralist and efficiency driven were interpreted in a twisted way in order to bolster Maliki’s authority. It’s the interpretation, not the law. And the only way to challenge the interpretation is to offer alternatives by independent institutions.
    Like the Policy Council, the parliamentary version of the Oil and Gas bill is another attempt at creating an institution which is independent of the PM’s office. The question is: If both institutions are truly powerless then why is there strong opposition to their creation by the government?

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, no one disputes that the oil and gas commission will be powerful. The difference between the two versions of the bill is that the PM chairs the council in the govt version whereas the chair is elected by parliament in the oil & gas committee version.

    The tragedy as I see it is that Iraqiyya has given up seeking power through ordinary ministries and instead are embarking on convoluted power-sharing schemes that are likely to end up with frustration (in the case of the strategic council) or will weaken Iraq’s bureaucracy (in the case of the oil commission: I think you are just too simplistic when you dismiss the bureacratic class as a whole).

  3. Santana said

    Reidar, You are right- Iraqiya will end up in frustration but I’m sorry to say that applies to BOTH options- you can clearly see that we are not getting anywhere in seeking power thru Ordinary Ministries as you suggest nor can we get it thru “convoluted power-sharing schemes”…what Maliki, Daawa, Ahrar, ISCI,Fadheela, Talabani and White Iraqiya(thrown in now) altogether decide on (and backed by Iran)is what goes…Barzani and Iraqiya are screwed bud. Realistically-I have no idea what can be done. I have yet to see Iraqiya get their way on anything so far.

  4. The bureaucrats are outside Iraq or out of jobs, the oil bureaucrats are overruled by the politicians, no simplistic here. We have plenty of oil bureaucrats and experts to spare, instead of giving them high paying jobs in the oil fields the politicians are dishing out contracts for quick money in their pockets.
    I don’t think Iraqiya has given up seeking power through ministries. No tragedy here.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Santana, if Barzani truly feels let down by Maliki right now then that is at least a beginning. Didn’t the latest elections confirm that Talabani’s influence within the KRG is on its way down? But Allawi must let Barzani understand that if he keeps calling for a tripartite Iraq etc then it will be impossible for Iraqiyya to explain the strategic alliance with him to their own electorate. That’s why I meant earlier when I said the Kurds should consider the potential advantages of a bi-national federation instead of aggressively promoting federalism in all of Iraq. It would be far easier for Iraqiyya to build a durable relationship to the Kurds if they reverted to their pre-2003 vision of federalism in Iraq. The upside could be less Iranian influence, which after all at least some of the Kurds are increasingly unhappy about.

  6. Santana said

    Thanks Reidar- Yes, you are right and it is a beginning and I have supported and endorsed Bi-National Federation to Iraqiya leaders after the elections as a the right compromise to the Kurds and so we don’t end up where we are today….there were many mixed emotions about it at the time. I fear that the Kurds have raised their expectations since then-and it may not be enough anymore…they want their flag at the UN alongside Southern Sudan and Palestine now. I gather this from talking to many Kurdish friends in the U.S. and the general feeling is that the Chaos in the Central government is in their favor. They are lobbying heavily for an “out” . Saving Iraq by siding with Iraqiya means autonomy plans will have to wait or be scrapped alltogether.My current hopes is the following domino effect- with Qaddafi gone, Asad next God willing, followed very quickly by Hezbollah and shattering the Supremacy plans of Iran and will cause turmoil within the Iranian government. So-with the regional weakening of Iran maybe….just maybe..the more Nationalistic shiites of Iraq will not shake and shivver at the mention of Iran anymore…and they will -for once in their lives- think about what is good for Iraq …but that loaded gun to the back of their heads must be removed first. I truly cannot find any Country on earth with better potential for an exponential increase in per capita than Iraq.

  7. John Measor said

    Reidar, interesting post and I think that you have certainly begun to pull at the proper string within this ball of yarn … though it is most-likely difficult for many to follow the linkage between ‘type’ of federalism and the role of seemingly independent ‘technocrats’ within the Iraqi state both are of the same origin IMO. Simply, the dynamic baked into the Constitutional cake by the occupation is manifesting both the problematics of *any* “post-conflict” reconstruction – and yes I recognize that Iraq is not truly “post” – and longstanding Iraqi political culture (especially the destruction of civil society and the fear and mistrust promoted by Ba’thist authoritarianism).

    If I thought they knew what they were doing I would admire American Machiavellian efforts to undermine the return of a strong Iraq – even if I’d despise them for it. However, though they have certainly played a leading role, they have amply demonstrated their own cluelessness time-and-again. Simply, no effort has yet been made to devolve power away from a select political elite; establishing technocratic ministries’ with narrow mandates would still see such institutions remain ‘political’, but would expand the actors involved and promote not only diversification but parameters within which Iraqi institutions of state could operate (i.e. whatever oil decision-making body that is established works outside both Parliamentary and Executive authority and is tasked with maximizing petroleum income for the general revenues of the state). This requires Maliki – and everyone else – to see the project of a strong Iraqi state as the task at hand rather than seeing a strong Iraq as an entity that they alone captain.

    KRG efforts to reify ever-expanding committees constituted of the same circle of actors will only (as you state) promote ineffectiveness and discord. Is this not in their interests (assuming autonomy and even independence *is* their goal)?

    Prior to democratization the process requires greater inclusion as well as ‘loyal’ opposition; currently the actors remain largely those elites returned through the invasion/occupation and the opposition is by its nature and its incentives not in any way ‘loyal’. I’m not attempting to insult any individual or faction, merely pointing out that the game is seemingly rigged as presently constituted. If the aged leaders currently occupying such positions of power cannot put aside personal ambition and develop a greater whole, how will the next generation be expected to? Given enough time to muddle through perhaps things would work themselves out … but, I fear that the regional dynamic will not allow for such an eventuality. Iraqis will not be consulted by the circling wolves (as I believe Santana called them) and certainly not by the U.S. which has never consulted with them from the beginning of U.S. involvement in the 1950s.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too pessimistic … but, IMO Iraq needs either a transformative figure or a meeting of the minds between patriots. Neither seem imminent.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    John, my take is that prior to 2004 few Iraqis south of Kurdistan were thinking about federalism except for a tiny group of Basra politicians. Then during the TAL negotiations, Adel Abd al-Mahdi of ISCI made a big point of ethno-sectarian symmetry between Shiites and Kurds (“everything the Kurds have, the Shiites shall have”) and then in summer 2005 the late Hakim launched the 9-governorate all-Shiite federalism initiative, which remained floating at least until early 2009.

    I’m just surprised that Iraqiyya is not taking a clearer lead in this question, by convincing the Kurds that they may actually gain more from concentrating on their own region (and their pre-2003 vision of a bi-national federation), and by making the ultimatum to ISCI: Either you publicly distance yourself from this fancy idea of a Shiite region which has absolutely no roots in Iraqi history whatsoever, or you’re out of future coalition planning.

  9. Observer said

    i do not see naything wrong with difusion of power. Furthermore, it is healthy for demcoracy to have the parliament take its proper role and balance the power of the PM. As for the Kurds – well, they do deserve their own country and I do not blame thema bit about dreaming of independence. Whehter it is realistic or not is a separate issue altogether. The people of Kurdistan want an independent state and the leaders, if they are true leaders, must try to give the people what they dream of. If they do not succeed then the next best thing is self governance within a federal Iraq – but it is a second best and not a first option. That said, and from the practical (if not pragmatic) point of view, the Kurds are better off with 17% of the inclome of oil of Iraq than a 100% of the oil of Kurdistan – not to mention the “tax” to be charged by either Iran or Turkey on the exportation of “Kurdish” oil.

  10. Reidar Visser said

    Santana, here is a story suggesting a State of Law deputy will defect to Iraqiyya after the Eid… Not sure if it is just a silly season item:

    So who could it be? It’s the sort of co-option we talked about above.

  11. Nathaniel said

    Reidar, do you have a link for a draft of this as well? I have a .pdf but that format is harder to work with. Thanks in advance!


  12. Reidar Visser said

    Sorry, me too, I only have PDF. I’m not even sure if I’m at liberty to distribute it widely, hence the absence of any link.

  13. Santana said

    Hi Reidar-

    I will find out around noon tomorrow and let you know.I am sure it is no big secret.

  14. Santana said

    Hi Reidar- I asked three trusted sources who might be defecting from SOL to Iraqiya and they all said Ali Al-Dabbagh ! We shall see…

  15. Reidar Visser said

    Suppose he is disgruntled after having lost his ministry, but nonetheless interesting. If he can, who says there can’t be more defections of a similar kind?

  16. John Measor said


    My apologies for the delay in my reply … last few weeks prior to the new school year 🙂

    I agree with your take on the ‘rootedness’ of federalism; in fact, I believe your writing on this has been both quite clear and shown to be more than accurate. The edited collection with Gareth Standsfield elucidated such issues well IMO and your blogging and other writings have fleshed it out even further.

    The position of the KRG-leadership is increasingly perilous IMO. They have enjoyed being kingmakers and would dearly love to continue in such a role – for the elites of the KRG it is probably even better than outright independence. However, it is largely untenable over the medium- to long-term. Most importantly they are facing increasing pressure from below as Goran and Kurdish-based civil society increasingly calls for the democratic reforms and good governance so long promised. While I don’t see any alteration or assault on the power of either the KDP or the PUK per se, their extra-constitutional aspects of control could well be controlled.

    Moreover, at the ‘federal’ level they are caught: the development of a Shi’i federal unit would cement and normalize their own regional position within the new Iraq – but, such normalization would definitively end their chances of independence as well as the exceptionalism of post-2003 autonomy. However, if they remain the sole federal region it maintains the ethnic tensions as long as they maintain their claims on territories outside their current remit.

    This is why your characterization and critique of Iraqiyya is so well-founded IMO. Could it simply be that Iraqiyya isn’t mature enough as an organization to be so coherent and its members ‘on message’? This is not a slight, it is a vast coalition and a relatively newfound political cohort. Is Iraqiyya merely incoherent – or as you suggest not interested in cemented a leading position on such a central issue (might it splinter the coalition)?

  17. Reidar Visser said

    John, many thanks. It is certainly true that Iraqiyya is a sprawling coalition with many different views. Even among the commenters on this forum, we have at least three different currents of Iraqiyya supporters represented. I think the main tension is between the assumed, nationalist ideology of Iraqiyya associated with people who may have worked for the Baathist regime in the past, and the surprisingly flexible views developed among Iraqiyya leaders who worked with the Kurds in exile. Many of the latter are pro-Kurdish and open-minded towards all sorts of federalism and devolution adventures. Add to that the anti-Maliki cult that has emerged as a number one priority for many in Iraqiyya over the past two years, especially among those close to Allawi, and it may become easier to grasp at least some of the apparent contradictions in the stance of Iraqiyya.

  18. John Measor said

    Again I can’t but agree – and as much as I’d like to get a grasp of Iraqiyya and its positions the current period is (understandably) so fluid that I can only push forward in my attempts to meet with, listen to, and try to accurately portray these many different voices in my own analysis and writing.

    I think you should be applauded for the website and the emergent community it has developed. I’ve been following you via rss from the first days you began posting and always wish to contribute more – if for no other reason than to take advantage of those posting here by asking questions and to have them educate me. I’ve been engaging Iraqis on the politics of their homeland as a scholar for some 13-years now and read everything I could for the decade prior when I was in the private sector. Since the demise of the CASI site I can’t think of a place more interesting for to engage in within cyberspace.

  19. Reidar Visser said

    John, feel free to keep the comments and question coming, that’s the best way of making the forum interesting.

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