Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The Territorial Dimension of the Nukhayb Tragedy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 17 September 2011 15:52

The recent terror attack at Nukhayb in Anbar province killing several Shiite pilgrims en route to Syria has deeper political dimensions.

First there is the jurisdictional issue. Shortly after the incident, a security force from the neighbouring governorate of Karbala crossed the provincial border and detained a number of alleged suspects who were then taken back to Karbala for questioning. This prompted loud protests from politicians in Anbar who complained there had been a breach of jurisdiction since Nukhayb lies within the border of Anbar governorate.

Second, there are some more fundamental territorial questions related to the recent altercations between these two Iraqi governorates. Since at least 2005, various Shiite politicians – in particular the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Ahmed Chalabi but also local politicians in Karbala close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – have claimed that the territory of Nukhayb should be “returned to the governorate of Karbala”. Subsequent to the recent attacks, those claims have been reawakened. By way of example, Abd al-Hadi al-Hakim recently called for the “return of Nukhayb to Karbala as it was before the former regime transferred it to Anbar”.

The Karbala claims to Nukhayb rest on shaky historical foundations. It is true that for a short period in the 1970s, Nukhayb was transferred to Karbala by the former regime (it can be documented that it was part of Ramadi in the 1960s) and then transferred back again in 1979. But for the overwhelming part of the twentieth century, Nukhayb has been administratively affiliated with Ramadi (or, before that, with the special desert police force) rather than with Karbala.

Map of Iraq in 1966 showing Nukhayb as part of Ramadi province

More fundamentally, the Nukhayb claim relates to the much bigger issue of “disputed territories” that threatens to polarise Iraqi politics along ethno-sectarian lines in years to come. This vexed idea of collective ethno-sectarian entitlement to land (as distinct from the right of individuals to seek redress for misdeeds and confiscations of land by the former regime) was unfortunately included in the US-sponsored Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, from where it made its way into the current Iraqi constitution. Exactly like the Karbala claim to Nukhayb, many of the claims under the “disputed territory ” heading have scant historical basis, but if granted, they could set the stage for a perpetual debate about real and imagined “disputed territories” across Iraq in the next years.

So far there are some positive signs that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to rise above the claims of his partisans in Karbala in the Nukhayb case and will work for the transfer of those arrested to Baghdad and indeed for the release of some of them. The more important question is however this: Will he have the guts to come out loud and clear against the murky attempts by other Shiite Islamists to play the opportunistic territorial card in Nukhayb?

33 Responses to “The Territorial Dimension of the Nukhayb Tragedy”

  1. observer said

    Maybe a better solution is to return all borders to the original 8 Alwia, instead of gerrymandering the borders.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Not sure your Kurdish friends would like that so much Observer! If I remember correctly, that would mean among other things mean abolishing Dahuk, which was part of Mosul until around 1970.

    Look, with the exception of some areas in the north that could justifiably be transferred to the KRG in a one-off operation, most Iraqis seem pretty happy with existing arrangements, so why not bury the whole concept of “disputed territories” instead?

  3. Kermanshahi said

    These Ba’athist borders are being treated as if they are holy, but no they are not and they were made to create problems. All of these borders should be redrawn, particulary in Kurdistan.

  4. Reidar Visser said

    Ehem, Kermanshahi, many of them are actually Ottoman borders rather than Baathist borders. The Baathists jmodified some of the details, but there is a surprising level of continuity if you look at administrative maps of late Ottoman Iraq and compare with today’s situation.

    If I remember correctly, you are interested in ethno-sectarian borders. Remember that the Ottomans who ruled for centuries rather sought to ignore ethnicity and sect altogether.

  5. Santana said

    “Baathist Borders”??????!!! is this a new term??

    You know what- I am not gonna argue with you cuz it is worthless but I must hand it to you as the only one on this blog that I can honestly say I completely disagree with on just about anything you write, any opinion you give and any analysis you attempt……except your loath for Maliki- we can agree on that -but then I am sure it is for different reasons.

    I can’t see how anyone can consistently defend Iran’s evil government and try to portray them as angels………….and still claim to be pro-democracy !

  6. observer said

    If you have seen the maps of KRG, you would see that all of Musil (including the large gas reservoir area) within the borders… 😉 all the way down to the Gulf too. :D. Yes My Kurdish friends are dreaming of course…. But the point remains that in a globalized world, all of these “border disputes” are nothing more than a debate about economy (tax and Natural Resources harvesting). It has little to do with “ethnicity”. Divide the cake justly, and the problems disappears.

  7. Kermanshahi said

    Santana, I’m not saying the Iranian government are angels, no they are not (who in the Middle East are?) but what I’m saying is that this racist hatred which some Iranians and some Iraqis (like you) have for each other, which resulted in the death of over a million Iranians and Iraqis in the 80s, is completely useless and unnececary. I understand some people like Saleh al-Mutlaq like to use the same boogie man as Saddam used to scaremonger Iraqis with, and there are alos plenty of Iranians which dislike Arabs. I disagree with them as muchas I disagree with people like you. Iran and Iraq are neighbours and both countries would greatly benefit from good relations, so it’s stupid for people to try hurt both countries over some irrational old grudge which some people would still like their governments to hold.

    As for these borders Reidar, the Iraqi provinces today are a lot different than in 1920, but I don’t care who drew them, if it makes life difficult for people than they should be changed. See if the people of northern Ninawa want to be in Dahuk, or the people of South-East Anbar want to be in Karbala (and I’m not saying they do – but this could be checked in a referendum) or if the people of Kerkuk want to be in Kurdistan, than why should people which don’t live there, which are not from those regions, force their will upon them? And the same goes for national borders.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Just to be clear, the people of Nukhayb are mostly Sunnis and have to the best of my knowledge never expressed any desire for unity with Karbala. In this case, the annexation issue is being pushed by Karbala politicians who want to annex Nukhayb mostly for its strategical value through its position on multiple pilgrimage routes. There are also some oil-deposit rumours I think.

    As a general principle, I think the lesson from history is that modifying borders generally tends to be accompanied by unnecessary loss of human life and that it should only be used as an option of last resort.

  9. Santana said


    For the record- I do NOT hate Iranians at all- I have many, many Iranian friends and they are wonderful people…..maybe that’s because all the Iranians I know are seculars ,very educated and hate the Mullahs and the Ahmedenejad Government more than me.

    I haven’t had any interaction with the bearded “revolutionary guard” types- not too many of them in DC….LOL

    I agree with Reidar that there also may be some natural resources behind the Karbala claim.

  10. Kermanshahi said

    Santana, Actualy you will find that it’s mainly secular Shahi Iranians which are racist towards Arabs, and which look down other races because this Aryan supremacism is part of Pahlavi ideology. But you will not find any of the Hizbullahi Iranians to be racist or have any hatred towards Iraqis or Arabs, they don’t believe in the principle of race or nationality, only Islam and Islamic brotherhood. These people are transnationalist, you know initialy Khomeini even wanted to take the word Iran out of Islamic Republic. These Shahis think the Mullahs are Arab lovers who are trying to Arabize Iran with Islam, meanwhile the Ba’athists claim the ISCI/Sadr/Dawa are to pro-Iranian, and so you have these two sides trying to create hostility while governments of Iran and Iraq are trying to create good relations.

    As for this city in Anbar, look, put it to the people. Do they want Saddam’s Anbar-Karbala border, or do they want the old border? Same with Kerkuk, give it to the people to chose, do they want to be under KRG authority or under Maliki control. Problem is there are certain politicians who refuse to allow people their democratic rights, because they know they will loose at the ballot box.

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Kermanshahi, again, there is no “old” border that places Nukhayb in Karbala! During the monarchy era, everything in the western desert was a separate administrative sphere. Most maps from the period typically draw the lines from the riverine governorates and then a little into the desert. On a few specimens where borders have been drawn all the way to the Saudi/Najd border I suspect this reflects the actions of the cartographer rather than real administrative geography.
    As far as I am able to see, the period when Nukhayb was firmly under Karbala was between 1978 and 1979, meaning that both acts of changing the border in the 1970s were done by Baathists. You are actually calling for the restoration of a Baathist boundary line!

    But this is typical of the opportunistic claims under the “disputed territories” heading. Even the “historical” Kurdish claims to Kirkuk go back mainly to the 1960s as we have debated here ad nauseam previously. Many of their other claims are even flimsier.

  12. robinson said

    So this is wrong?

    Also, I guess the dream is over for the non-sectarian region of Anbar-Karbala…or at least on hold!

  13. Reidar Visser said

    Yes, I’m pretty sure it is wrong. Most original Iraqi maps from the 1990s show a far smaller Karbala governorate.

    As for Abu Risha and his non-sectarian two-governorate scheme, let’s put it this way: He seemed pretty angry at both the Karbala governor and Maliki over the latest arrests!

  14. bks said

    Good collection of historical maps of Iraq:


  15. JWing said

    Here’s a rundown of maps of Iraq’s provinces from 1958-2005. The borders of the provinces along with the districts were in constant flux during that period.

  16. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, you are missing the point. Borders don’t nececerily have to be old, they need to reflect the will of the people living there.

  17. Reidar Visser said

    Jwing, the Izadi map from 1958 basically supports what I’m saying above about a separate desert jurisdiction for the area west of Karbala in the monarchy era. It also supports the broader point that there is considerable continuity from the late Ottoman sancak (sub-province) administrative entities to the modern situation, even though the details have been modified.

    As for the Izadi map from 1990 showing a greater Karbala, as said above, I would like to see it backed up with some primary sources. I have never come across any discussion of Nukhayb focusing on the 1990s and have not seen it discussed in the 140 committee, where the focus has been on the 1970s as far as I know. Here is the original presidential order from 1979 that transferred Nukhayb back to Anbar after it had been within Karbala for a short period in the late 1970s:

    رقم 408 فك ارتباط ناحية النخيب والحاقها بقضاء الرطبة

    استنادا الى أحكام المادة (الرابعة) من قانون المحافظات رقم (159) لسنة 1969 المعدل، وبناء على ما عرضه وزير الداخلية، وبموافقة مجلس قيادة الثورة.
    رسمنا بما هو آت :

    فك ارتباط ناحية (النخيب) التابعة لقضاء (عين التمر) بمحافظة كربلاء، والحاقها بقضاء (الرطبة) بمحافظة الانبار.
    على وزير الداخلية تنفيذ هذا المرسوم.
    كتب ببغداد في اليوم الثامن من شهر رمضان لسنة 1399 المصادف لليوم الحادي والثلاثين من شهر تموز لسنة 1979.

    صدام حسين
    رئيس الجمهورية

    By the way, the answers in your interview are littered with glaring factual mistakes and seem unreliable. Dating the creation of Dahuk to the 1990s is but one of several examples (it was created by secession from Mosul in the early 1970s as part of the peace agreement with the Kurds). Also the separate desert administrations vanished in the early 1970s.

    Kermanshahi, if it is about the people, then in this case it is the people of Nukhayb rather than the people of Karbala, right? To the best of my knowledge, they have never declared any desire to join Karbala; it is the politicians of Karbala who say they would rather like to annex this lovely little piece of territory. At any rate, if we should change borders every time there is a popular movement favouring secession, we would have little else to do for the remainder of the 21st century.

  18. JWing said

    Reidar, I think your misreading the interview a little bit. It didn’t say that Dohuk was created in the 1990s. The question was what were the changes between 1970 and 1990, and one of those was the creation of Dohuk. Same thing with the end of the desert region.

  19. Reidar Visser said

    I’m just reading the excerpt below, which seems pretty unequivocal to me:

    The significant changes in the 1990’s were:

    (1) The creation of Dohuk

    (6) There were no more Desert Territories after the 1990s

    At any rate, just to make clear, the criticism merely relates to what your interviewee said.

  20. observer said

    this is about natural resources harvesting. Divide the income justly and the problems disappear. No need to go into historical documents and census data, ethnic and sectarian divisions, etc.

  21. Santana said

    This was on Sumeriah news- The Karbala leaders accuse Iran and the Quds Force behind the Nukhaib murders-

    ممثلون لعشائر بكربلاء يتهمون إيران ومجلس المحافظة بتنفيذ عملية النخيب وليس تنظيم القاعدة
    السبت 17 أيلول 2011
    السومرية نيوز/ كربلاء
    اتهم ممثلون لعشائر في محافظة كربلاء، السبت، مجلس المحافظة وبالتنسيق مع المخابرات الايرانية وفيلق القدس فيها بتنفيذ عملية النخيب التي راح ضحيتها 22 من أهالي كربلاء والفلوجة، وليس تنظيم القاعدة، وأكدت العشائر توفرها على معلومات تفصيلية عن العملية، وأن “الأسرار ستنكشف قريباً”.
    وقال بيان موقع من ممثلي عشر عشائر في محافظة كربلاء وتلقت “السومرية نيوز”، نسخة منه، “نحن نمتلك معلومات تفصيلية عن الشهداء، وعن أسباب اغتيالهم من قبل مجلس محافظة كربلاء تحديداً، وبالتنسيق مع الإطلاعات الإيرانية وفيلق القدس الإيراني ويعرفها كل أبناء محافظة كربلاء الشرفاء”، مؤكداً أن الاسرار “ستنكشف عن قريب إن شاء الله”.
    وأبدت العشائر في بيانها تضمانها مع الانبار في قضية اعتقال ثمانية من سكان قضاء الرطبة، “نحن شيوخ ووجهاء أبناء محافظة كربلاء.. نعلن تضامننا مع أبناء عمومتنا في الانبار حول الاعتداء الصارخ وغير القانوني وغير الأخلاقي والإنساني الذي قام به نفر ضال غير معروف الهوية والانتماء ممن ينتسبون إلى ما يسمى بمجلس محافظة كربلاء، هؤلاء الغرباء على العراق وعلى أبناء كربلاء وعشائرها ممن تربوا على يد مخابرات النظام الإيراني وفيلق القدس الإيراني وتدربوا بأشراف السي أي أيه”، بحسب البيان.
    واعتبر البيان أن “هؤلاء يعيثون في كربلاء الخراب والفساد والقتل والتهجير والتدمير والتمييز العنصري والقومي والمناطقي، يحاولون إثارة الفتنة الطائفية بين أبناء العراق العظيم ويجعلوا من كربلاء رأس حربة بمخططاتهم الطائفية، وخاصة بين أبناء العمومة والإخوة التاريخية بين الانبار وكربلاء من خلال عمل إجرامي هم من قاموا بتنفيذه في منطقة النخيب.. وبعدها بقيامهم بالدخول إلى الانبار الحبيبة دون موافقة وإذن..والقبض على مواطنين أبرياء لا علاقة لهم بالحادث لا من قريب ولا من بعيد، ولمجرد أيهام الناس بأن من قتل الشهداء هم من أبناء الأنبار، وأن الأنبار تأوي الإرهابيين”.
    وحذر البيان من تداعيات الموضوع، داعياً “جميع الشرفاء للانتباه من المؤامرة، والانتباه لمن جركم إلى معارك داخلية ضد أبناء وطنكم وجلدتكم”، مبيناً أن “هذه الجريمة مكشوفة للقاصي والداني من يقف ورائها وأسباب اقترافها، حيث لا علاقة للقاعدة لأي جهة أخرى بالعملية غير فيلق القدس الإيراني ومن يمثلونه في مجلس محافظة كربلاء، من الذين قاموا باختطاف الأبرياء من منطقة الرطبة بزعم أنهم من المشتبه بهم بالحادث في حين ان مجلس المحافظة هو من نفذ هذا العمل الإجرامي”، وفقا للبيان.
    وحمل البيان توقيع عشائر، إل سيد جثيير، و أل مسعود، و آل شعبان، و آل طفيل، وخفاجة،والسادة الموسوية، و السادة آل ياسر، وآل منصور، وآل بدير عشيرة الكراكشة.

  22. Reidar Visser said

    Thanks Santana. It is always difficult to evaluate the significance of such tribal declarations. Who exactly signed? The statement gives the list of tribes rather than specifying which individual tribal leaders signed. I do not know enough about the tribal geography of Karbala to opine on this. I think Khafaja is a substantial unit, but then again, who signed for them? Saddam used to do the same thing in the 1990s. For example, some very prominent members of the Banu Malik in the south (same tribe as Nuri al-Maliki) were Baathists and featured prominently in propaganda for Saddam Hussein.

  23. Kermanshahi said

    Again, Reidar, I am not saying that the people of Nukhayb want to secede from al-Anbar, what I am saying is that if they do, they should have the right to. Now the argument I have heared from Karbala side is that this area is neglected by al-Anbar government, so if the people in Nukhayb feel the same way and think they would be better off in Karbala, then why not? I know for a fact though, that the people of Kerkuk, of northern Ninawa and Khanaqin, do want to secede from their provinces and join Kurdistan, their democratic rights are however being prevented by authoritarian figurs like al-Maliki. Iraqi provincial borders have been changed only about a million times, so I see no reason why since 2003, they can never be changed again.

    I forgot to add that, if the people of Nukhayb don’t want to secede, which is very likely, than the governor of Karabala should shut up and leave the issue to rest, but I guess that was obvious from my post?

  24. Reidar Visser said

    Kermanshahi, I understand what you mean; I just think you underestimate the potential number of Nukhaybs in Iraq, the Middle East, or the developing world at large. If each existing case of sub-provincial secessionist sentiment should be listened to, I fear these countries would have little else on their hands than arranging referendums in many decades to come.

  25. Sumerian said

    Well, why focusing on the borders of the 1960s or even the 1940s? Why not talking about the borders of 1918? Those who refuse to stop considering the British creation of Modern Iraq as a holy cow play a major role in all the tragedies in Iraq today.

    Recreating Iraq in a healthy manner just like what the Europeans did after the collapse of Communism in Europe, will solve the problem or at least will be something new to try after the failure of all the other “methods” to create a unified identity for the so-called Iraq!

    Wiyyalat Mosul can be retuned to Turkey or allow the Kurds to determine their future. The historical Mesopotamia (the Ottoman Basra and Baghdad) can create a state with the option of allowing the Sunni areas to determine their future: they can remain in Iraq, join an Arab Sunni state like Jordan or Syria or even have their own independent state.

    It’s tough but it will work eventually. Baghdad will be an issue but having more than %75 of the population in Baghdad as Shiites is certianly the answer to the problem. Let us move forward and get done with this endless stalemate!

  26. Reidar Visser said

    Sumerian, I have tried to debunk the notion of the “artificial” Iraq in many books and articles, some of which are not available online (but see for references). Here is a short summary, focusing on territorial and administrative contiguity from Basra to Mosul in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

  27. Kermanshahi said

    Sumerian, Kurds would rather remain in Iraq or even be turned over to Iran (and I daresay even Syria) than to be turned over to Turkey. You try tell an Iraqi Kurd (or any Kurd infact) that you think all of Kurdistan should go to the Turks, well, that’s not gonna go down well…

    But should Kurdistan secede from Iraq to become an independent state? Well to make matters easy for everyone, yes. Because until this happens, Kurds are going to continue sabotaging Iraq. See you can’t force people into a country and then expect them to be patriotic aswell.

    Reidar, ofcourse there would have to be proof first that a significant amounth of the population would want a referendum. I believe the rule was you had to collect like 10% of the population’s signatures to apply for an autonomy referendum? I think the same could be applied here.

  28. Reidar Visser said

    The law on forming federal regions allows for governorates to seek transformation to federal regions either on their own and together with others in referendums based on a 10% popular request or a 33.3% governorate-council member request.

    However, neither the law on forming regions nor the constitution contains any procedures for changing sub-governorates boundaries on the basis of popular initiatives.

  29. Kermanshahi said

    I know it doesn’t apply to cities/sub-governorates, ect. what I was saying is that a similar law should be made for such cases, also including 10% populair request as condition for referendum.

  30. T.j. said

    The issue is not one of governorate borders – the CPA statute establishing the Central Criminal Court gave it nationwide jurisdiction, then a later Iraqi law establishing its successor, the Serious Crimes Court, established branches of the court in all provinces, all with nationwide jurisdiction over terrorist crimes. So it’s probably permissible that an investigative judge in Karbala could issue a warrant for people in Anbar.

  31. Reidar Visser said

    T.j., thanks, as far as I recollect I think the problem in this case, at least as it was perceived locally, was that the governor of Karbala (rather than a judge) made the order for the arrests to take place.

    Of course, Maliki seems to have played a key role in the subsequent release of some prisoners and the transfer of others to Anbar, so it appears the judiciary has been generally marginalised in this case!

  32. T.J. said

    Yes, it’s either the judiciary is completely pliable, or Maliki issues orders directly to officials in the Ministry of Interior police or Ministry of Justice prisons directorate to arrest or release people.

    Of course, provincial police chiefs are subject to the authority of provincial councils, except when the PM trumps them. Political muscle trumps the law.

  33. Sumerian said

    The Europeans have the right to reshape their future but the poor nations in the Mid East have to live with what the colonizers created. I will be the first to celebrate the Kurdish Independence in Northern Iraq. It’s just that they need to take Kirkuk and Mosel with them. It is going to be the first step towards destroying the old Iraq and creating a new future for the people in the South. Whether the artificial Iraq notion is real or not, the current Iraq is not real.

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