Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for December, 2011

In Washington, a Window-Dressing Exercise; in Diyala, another Federalism Bid

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 12 December 2011 19:55

The arrival in Washington of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has been accompanied by considerable media hype.  A key talking point for the Obama administration is the idea that Iraq is facing a more positive future as 8 years of occupation are coming to an end.

Among the indicators of progress cited by President Barack Obama today are the statistics of violence in Iraq, which currently stand at an all-time low. Obama also mentioned a series of “indicators” that strictly speaking relate to the future rather than the present, such as the “expected” increase in Iraqi oil production and the “scheduled” meeting of the Arab League, to be held in Baghdad. Additionally, much attention has been given by the US media to recent statements by Maliki to the international press that all emphasise the idea of Iraqi sovereignty towards its neighbours.

Opponents of the Obama administration, on the other hand, are trying to highlight possible indicators of Iranian hands working behind the scenes. Previously, the so-called special groups and the Sadrists more broadly have received attention; recently, the fate of the pro-Baathist Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq, still camped in Iraq, as well as the pro-Iranian suspected terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq – currently in US custody in Iraq – have been suggested as bellwethers with relevance for the coming period and possible test cases re continued Iranian clout in Iraq.

Some will also ask about the realities of the “non-interference” concept that seems to be the current Iraqi foreign policy doctrine: Iraq will not interfere in Syria, and will not let Iran interfere in Iraq. What, then, are we to make of rumours that Iraqis, including Sadrists, actively (and militarily) support the Syrian regime these days? If that is the Iraqi interpretation of non-interference, can we be assured that informal Iranian “support” will not continue to characterise Iran–Iraq relations?

The critics of the spin-doctoring are right, but they could in fact have painted a far more dramatic and wide-ranging  picture of the precarious situation in Iraq. Just look back at the formation of the second Maliki government that was finished one year ago almost to the day. Among the features highlighted by commentators in the international community and especially the US government at the time (and criticised by others as unrealistic) was the agreement to create power-sharing through a national council for high policies as well as through distributing the security portfolios to the biggest political blocs. But where are we today? One year after the formation of the government, all the elements of power-sharing highlighted by optimistic commentators back then remain unimplemented. The strategic council is hardly at the drawing-board stage and even optimists within the Maliki government suggest that any agreement on security ministries is many months ahead.

The composition of the Iraqi delegation accompanying Maliki to Washington very much reflects this state of affairs. Maliki is assisted by one adviser and two Shiite Islamist ministers with close ties to Iran, two Kurds, one long-exiled, nominally Sunni defence minister who enjoys only limited support in Sunni-majority areas, as well as two technocrats. Glaringly absent is any representative of the Iraqiyya coalition that won most votes in the March 2010 parliamentary elections.

If that is not sufficient to raise doubts about the realities of power-sharing in today’s Iraq, perhaps developments in Diyala today can serve as a better reminder. Reportedly, Iraqiyya figures played a key role in launching a request for a referendum on federal status for that governorate – interestingly with at least some Kurdish support (some say in exchange for the acceptance of Kurdish claims to the disputed territory of Khaniqin). There was rejection from some Shiite parties including ISCI as well as in the Khalis sub-governorate, plus reports that a Kurdish local politician in Diyala was arrested today by a force from Baghdad. Nevermind that the whole federalism bid to some extent was accompanied by illegality in the way it mimicked the “declaration” of a federal region attempted by Salahaddin in late October!

When you have the resources of a superpower, safely withdrawing military forces is in itself not exactly a major accomplishment. True, violence in Iraq is down, but in the big picture the critical reduction of violence antedated 2009. Maliki does things in the name of Iraqi nationalism that Iran doesn’t like, Obama told us today, but when was last time that actually happened? Probably in autumn 2009, when he decided to try to run the State of Law alliance separate from the other Shiites in the upcoming parliamentary elections – and failed. Sunni interest in federalism – virtually non-existent in 2009 – is a sign of the disintegration of national politics rather than a positive development.

The inescapable truth is that much of the current pathology of Iraqi politics dates back to the 2009–2011 period, precisely when President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in charge in Washington.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iranian influence in Iraq, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 32 Comments »

The Economics of Federalism in the Iraqi 2012 Draft Budget

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 9 December 2011 13:28

The Iraqi government has presented its draft for the annual 2012 budget law.

In light of the recent surge of interest in federalism in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq, the government’s approach to federalism issues in next year’s budget is of particular interest. The allocation of money to central government ministries, ordinary governorates, and federal regions can tell us a lot about the facts of Iraqi federalism in a setting where the legal and constitutional frameworks remain hazy.

What is clear from the 117 trillion Iraqi dinars budget is that it is the existing federal region – the Kurdistan Regional Government – that continues to get the best deal from the allocation of money. The budget envisages that Kurdistan oil exports will amount to 175,000 barrels per day in 2012, which is about 6.7% of the anticipated total Iraqi daily production of 2,6 million barrels. By way of contrast, the KRG will receive a 17% allocation of the expenditure budget (around 16 trillion ID) after the deduction of so-called “sovereign” spending covering mainly external defence and foreign diplomatic service. By increasing its exports, the KRG contribution to the national income is up from about 4.5% in 2011, but it is perfectly clear that the Kurds remain dependent on a big subsidy from Baghdad.

Compare the 16 trillion ID Kurdish share of the budget with what goes to the ordinary governorates. The oil-producing governorates will continue to get their one dollar per exported barrel fee, but this is not expected to make up more than 1.7 trillion ID in total, or just a tenth of the total Kurdish budget share. This despite the fact that a governorate like Basra contributes the lion’s share of Iraq’s total 2.6 million bpd production. Similarly, the pilgrimage fees that were introduced in 2010  will produce a mostly symbolic contribution to the governorates of Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Salahaddin. (In 2011 budget this income was given to the border governorates instead.) Additionally, the investment headings for all of Iraq amount to no more than 30 trillion ID in total for the entire country.

It should be clear that in seeking a federal status, many governorate politicians outside the KRG (such of those of Salahaddin) are probably envious of the generous allocations to the KRG in the budget. This in turn highlights the numerous problems related to the discrepancies between how centre–periphery relations are described in the Iraqi constitution and how things actually work. Constitutionally speaking, there should be a central government role in areas of shared government such as health and education. However, in these areas the Kurds actually maintain full sovereignty and do not pay for central government services. They are able to do this because their autonomy (and institutional capacity) has evolved gradually since 1992. If Salahaddin and Basra were to become federal regions in the near future, they would have to build their own health and education sectors from scratch if they were to maintain the Kurdish argument about paying for “sovereign expenses” only.

The budget signals a central government intention to deliver more of the same in 2012: Generous allowances to the Kurds and a relatively centralised government formula for the rest of Iraq south of Kurdistan. Is it realistic to predict the secession of Kurdistan when their current 6.7% of the Iraqi oil production gets closer to the 17% rate with which their share of the expenditure budget is currently determined?

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 5 Comments »

Maliki, Allawi, and the Sunnis That (Still) Reject Federalism

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 December 2011 13:22

Perhaps one of the most interesting dimensions to the recent surge in federalism interest in Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas are those Sunnis that still don’t like the idea of federalism.

We have been in a similar situation before, with the Shiites. Back in 2005, when SCIRI suddenly declared its interest in a big Shiite region and the Western mainstream media promptly announced a general pro-federal tendency among Iraqi Shiites, it was internal Shiite opponents of federalism that ultimately torpedoed the whole project. Back then, at least to some extent, it seemed that popular resistance against sectarian federalism had prevailed.

Since Iraqi Sunnis began discussing federalism in earnest in late 2010, there have been three distinctive rounds of reactions.

Firstly, in the autumn of 2010 the provincial council in Anbar adopted a stance on the development of the Akkaz gas field that in practice amounted to federalism – and at least some local politicians openly advocated federalism. At the time, however, there were plenty of prominent, dissenting voices within Anbar itself.

Second, when parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi seemed to embrace something tantamount to Sunni sectarian separatism in late June 2011, there was also no lack of internal critics. Leading politicians from both Mosul (Nujayfi’s hometown) and the Iraqiyya coalition (Nujayfi’s political party) criticised the move.

Thirdly, there has been a separate wave of reactions to the latest bid by the governorate council in Salahaddin to request a federal referendum.

In the case of Salahaddin, perhaps the most prominent feature is that it has been somewhat difficult to identity leading Sunni local politicians opposing the bid. Vocal opposition has mostly taken the form of threats about sub-governorate separatism, which in turn has a (Shiite-minority) sectarian dimension.  One of the few publicised signs of local opposition was a meeting between the Shiite premier, Nuri al-Maliki, and a number of unspecified tribal shaykhs of the governorate. For what we know, they may well have been Shiite Dujaylis.

Outside Salahaddin, however, negative Sunni reactions remain numerous. There have been anti-federal tribal conferences in Anbar (Dulaym,) and Nineveh (the Jubbur tribe). Also in Kirkuk, Diyala and Mosul, many Sunnis remain sceptical of federalism more generally. Urban politicians in Mosul still call for the intervention of the (Shiite-led) Iraqi army to counter Kurdish assertiveness in the oil-rich disputed territories where Exxon recently signed deals. It is however true that there is some Sunni-led sub-governorate separatism underway as well, for example in the demand that Falluja be separated from the rest of Anbar in a reaction to perceived dominance by Ramadi.

There are signs Maliki is reaching out to the long-exiled amir of the Dulaym tribe, Majid Sulayman, in order to counter the pro-federal current in Salahaddin. The problem with Sulayman (and other exiles) is that he may well be out of touch with local sentiment in the Sunni areas. Symptomatically, perhaps, Maliki’s detractors made a big point of the fact that Izzat al-Duri, the exiled Baathist leader, shared his criticism of the federal project in Salahaddin!

If Maliki is smart, he will reach out to those local politicians on the ground in the Sunni areas that still reject federalism. If he is to maintain some semblance of democracy in Iraq, he will need more than Sunni figureheads from White Iraqiyya or Tawafuq and tribal sheikhs – Saddam Hussein, after all, had excellent relations with many Shiite shaykhs, including Maliki’s own Banu Malik. In Anbar, the deputy governor, Hikmat Jasim Zaydan, recently expressed scepticism towards federalism as a step towards sectarianism and partition. That is an example of the kind of politician to whom Maliki could try to reach out.

Interestingly, Ayyad Allawi, the leader of the secular Iraqiyya has come out with exactly the same position as Maliki: The time is not right for more federal regions. Of course personal relations between him and Maliki are notoriously bad. Allawi could use this situation for two different purposes: Either he could embark on the unlikely project of reconciling with Maliki, or he could exploit the situation to win more support on the ground in a situation when the Nujayfi camp appears to be betting on the federalism option. Are we still convinced that the current Sunni pro-federal trend is really more than SCIRI’s call for a Shiite region in 2005?

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq | 16 Comments »

VP Biden and the Great American Reposture in the Middle East

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 2 December 2011 19:35

So, it’s over, or mostly so. The visit to Iraq by US vice-president Joe Biden this week marked the symbolic end of the US-led Iraq War and the beginning of a new era in which a so-called Strategic Framework Agreement will govern US-Iraq relations.

First, don’t get fooled by that impressive framework term (yes, it’s called the SFA in US government parlance). This may sound fancy, but to Iraq it means simply a normal bilateral relationship between two independent countries. Other countries may have their own SFAs with Iraq as well, formal or informal, and in the long run it’s the realities on the ground – not how US government media advisors choose to spin it – that will count.

But the vice-presidential visit this week was of course mostly about spin. Basically, it was the usual Biden menu of gaffe, humour and pomposity delivered with unmistakable self-confidence and no particular regard for the facts on the ground. Biden even referred to US hospital-building in the great Iraqi city of Baku!  (The Transparent White House© was courageous enough to publish the little hiccup as delivered, with a tiny sic inserted not so gently within the flowery prose of the VP).

More substantially, the remarkable feature of Biden’s speeches was that he is finally beginning to talk about Iraq as a nation, instead of the compulsive references to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that characterised the public Iraq diplomacy of the Obama administration in 2009–2010. Instead of references to the sub-categories of Iraqis, Biden now talked about “this great nation”. Those who talk about civil war and fragmentation, according to Biden, “not only misunderstand the Iraqi politics, but they underestimate the Iraqi people”! Apparently, this time around Biden even forgot to visit his old favourite, Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI, a Shiite sectarian party that for a long time enjoyed access to most areas in Washington.

Too bad it’s too late to talk like that now. Biden’s remarks come at a time when Iraq as a nation appears to be in far greater danger than back in 2006 when Biden himself prophesised disintegration and advocated controlled devolution. Biden would have realised this had he focused on qualitative instead of quantitative indicators in his speech: The number of violent incidents may be down, but Sunni-majority areas of Iraq are showing an unprecedented interest in self-rule and even separatism from what they see as a Shiite Islamist monopoly in Baghdad. When Biden says, “we were able to turn lemons into lemonade”, refers to “a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law” and even highlights “Iraq’s emerging, inclusive political culture… (as) the ultimate guarantor of stability”, he is simply making things up.

It is perhaps symptomatic that Biden’s exit from Iraq – probably the last top Washington official to leave the country prior to the full withdrawal – should take place via Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Even though rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from Biden’s erstwhile predilection for sects and ethnicities, it has never backed this up consistently in its own policies. Nothing symbolises the contradiction in US policy better than the tension between a rhetorical focus on the national whole and the constant pandering to centrifugal forces: US state visits to Spain do not always include Catalonia and the Basque Country as separate ports of call, so why should Iraq – another federal country – be any different?

Biden closed by saying that “oil’s the glue that’s going to hold this country together”. That’s an optimistic forecast at a time when Biden’s own Kurdish hosts are considering using oil as a weapon to dismantle Iraq as a country, and increasingly enlist US oil companies as part of their efforts.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 12 Comments »