Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January 12th, 2012

Talabani, Maliki and the Disputed Territories

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 12 January 2012 19:58

Certain comments by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over the past week have failed to receive the attention they deserve. As the political scene in Iraq quietens down for the Shiite Arbain festival and a long weekend, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look at Maliki’s statements regarding disputed territories and the creation of new federal regions that may well reflect his negotiation strategy over coming months.

The most sensational aspects of Maliki’s comments are as follows. Firstly, they seem supportive of a plan by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to introduce a bill to parliament that would adjust by law the boundaries of governorates that comprise so-called “disputed territories” and have boundaries that were modified during the Baath. This would be done prior to a final settlement of the disputed-territories issues by referendum. Secondly, in practical terms, Maliki revealed that with respect to Salahaddin governorate, which was created by the Baath in 1976, the plan would involve transferring parts of that governorate with Turkmens and Kurds to Kirkuk and parts with Shiites to Baghdad. Thirdly, Maliki used these arguments against any early referendum for a Salahaddin federal region, indicating that the Talabani plan would have to be implemented prior to any decision on federal status.

The Talabani plan, or law proposal, has not been published in its entirety. Nonetheless, there is sufficient information in these comments by Maliki to identify both theoretical and practical problems related to its potential application.

On the theoretical level, we know the desire of Talabani and the Kurds more broadly to reverse any administrative changes to governorate boundaries that they interpret as having flowed from racist and anti-Kurdish motives. In particular, Kirkuk’s loss of a solid chunk of territory to Salahaddin in 1976 is seen as something that needs to be rectified. The Kurds appear to believe that the number of Kurds and possibly pro-Kurdish Turkmens in the area will work in their favour as far as aggregate numbers for a reconfigurated Kirkuk governorate are concerned, and also maintain that it would be more difficult to make these changes if Salahaddin was to receive federal status prior to a final territorial settlement. To some extent, chronology works in advance of the Kurdish claims in this regard, because the creation of Salahaddin in 1976 was one of the last major changes to the administrative geography of Baathist Iraq, potentially making it a convenient cut-off point. Other major changes, such as the creation of the Muthanna governorate and the separation of Dahuk from Nineveh both antedated 1971. Clearly, the Kurds do not want to go back to 1971 since they probably see the creation of Dahuk as a virtuous move whose reversal is undesirable (it was in fact part of the peace negotiations between the Kurds and the Baath at the time).  

But exactly at the same time as the creation of Salahaddin in January 1976, another new Iraqi governorate came into existence: Najaf. This in turn has similarly created cases of “disputed territories” with respect to neighbouring and more well-established governorates like Karbala. Presumably Talabani does not aim to abolish the Najaf governorate. Presumably, too, his law proposal contains impenetrable arguments for abolishing Salahaddin but not Najaf!

At the practical level, there are problems too. Why should the Shiite parts of Salahaddin plus Samarra revert to Baghdad but not Sunni Tikrit? All of these lands belonged to Baghdad in the early 1970s, reflecting administrative realities that date back at least to monarchical times. If the Talabani proposal involves attaching Shiite but not Sunni parts of Salahaddin to Baghdad it will no doubt be seen as sectarian, perhaps in resonance with the idea of a “smaller Iraq” from Basra to Samarra that has been in vogue among some exiled Iraqis.

Iraq administrative map 1971

It is interesting that Maliki is flirting publicly with ideas that will be seen by many Iraqis as typically post-2003 partition-oriented discourse – precisely the sort of thing Maliki has tried to steer away from since 2008. On the other hand, we should perhaps not exaggerate the importance attached by Maliki to these ideas as end goals in themselves. Maliki knows perfectly well that whereas giving him the premiership was completed in a single parliamentary session, fulfilling all his promises to the Kurds and others depends on further legislation in parliament. Each legislative initiative comes with at least three crucial junctures (first and second reading before a vote), each of which offers opportunities for unexpected drama that can easily consign a legislative project to the growing catalogue of on-hold items awaiting political consensus.

This may well be Maliki’s real intention in flirting with the Talabani initiative on disputed territories. The Kurds will see it as a concession of sorts. Sectarian Shiites will like the idea of a bigger Baghdad extending to Samarra. None of it is likely to come into existence anytime soon.

Meanwhile Maliki governs.

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