Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for March, 2012

After the Baghdad Summit: Implications Regionally and in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 30 March 2012 13:55

The Arab League summit in Baghdad is over and it is time to take stock.

Given the essentially international character of the summit in Baghdad, it is natural to start with the regional implications. And, in many ways, the degree of representation at the level of heads of state is a useful indicator of how things went. Altogether, 10 countries were represented by their rulers: Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Comoros, Palestine, Lebanon and Kuwait in addition to Iraq.

In one way, those who came to Baghdad can be crudely summarized as the “Maghreb Spring” countries (Tunisia, Libya), the very poor in need of any help they can get (Comoros, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Palestine), and “others” not so easily classified (Kuwait and Lebanon). The absence of most of the GCC leaders can be attributed to continued aversion to the Maliki government in Iraq, whereas the failure of the rulers of Egypt and Yemen to show up may reflect the messiness of their own domestic situations as much as any clear policy on Iraq.

But there is more to this than the apparent preference of poor republics for building ties with the new Iraq. True, the gap between Iraq and the Gulf countries remains wide, but if the Iraqi government can build ties with non-GCC countries, it could form an alternative regional bloc within the Arab League.  The one obvious disappointing absence for Iraq in this respect must have been that of Algeria. Nonetheless, the net outcome of the meeting was a dilution of the GCC interventionist policy on Syria. Thanks to their own lack of initiative and boycott, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had to yield to Arab states that prefer softer language on regime change in Syria. The massive wealth of the GCC states was in itself not sufficient to buy a particular Arab policy on Syria.

Also, it is significant that a growing number of Arab states are prepared to interact with Iraq as a perfectly normal Arab state. This is so despite continued attempts by Gulf states to dismiss the Iraqi government as Iranian marionettes. The Arab heads of state who did come to Baghdad probably realized that the town wasn’t full of Safavids after all and that attempts to reduce regional politics to a clear-cut Sunni–Shiite sectarian struggle are futile. (An AP piece claimed “Sunni rulers” shunned the summit whereas in fact 8 “Sunni rulers” were present!) Growing number of Arab rulers realize it is normal for Iraq to have leaders who may or may not be Shiites.

The second implication of the Baghdad meeting relates to the level of internal Iraqi politics. Only weeks ago, both the Kurds and Iraqiyya talked tough about bringing Iraqi domestic problems onto the summit agenda. Schemes for unseating Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemed to garner more interest than ever. In the end, though, the domestic situation in Iraq was kept off the summit agenda, and neither Ayad Allawi of Iraqiyya nor the Kurdish president, Masud Barzani, attended the meeting.

What Allawi and Barzani need to realize is that their position is increasingly analogous to that of the GCC states within the Arab League. The GCC countries who boycotted Baghdad saw their forward policy on Syria reversed. If they persist in boycotting Maliki, Allawi and Barzani may well experience something similar with their own ambitions domestically in Iraq. Importantly, other Iraqiyya leaders like Usama al-Nujayfi (parliament speaker) and Rafi al-Eisawi (finance minister) showed up at the summit. Their presence highlighted how a letter of protest from Qatar which attempted to speak on the behalf of the “Sunnis in Iraq” was just too unsophisticated to fit the complex Iraqi situation. Even the Bahraini foreign minister opted to have a meeting with Maliki.

Perhaps the best indication of the state of affairs in Iraq was the simultaneity of the summit and a mortar attack near the Iranian embassy. The two happened at the same time, but the attack did not derail or even interrupt the meeting of the Arab leaders. These attacks will continue to happen, but they are unlikely to create the collapse of politics in Iraq sought by their perpetrators. Similarly, Iraqi opponents of the Maliki government – who have many valid reasons for being critical – should realize that a policy of dialogue with him stands a better chance of achieving something in the real world. The alternative may well be growing irrelevance, both in the Iraqi political process as well as in the Arab world at large.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Sectarian master narrative | 16 Comments »

The Baghdad Gamble: Maliki Brings the Arab League to Town

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 26 March 2012 11:33

Last Tuesday, a week before the scheduled Arab League summit in Baghdad, a wave of terror attacks killed more than 50 people across central Iraq. Security forces had been put on high alert in the run-up to the summit, yet terrorists were still able to strike key cities such as Baghdad, Karbala, and Kirkuk with impunity. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility, a deliberate attempt to derail the Arab League summit and undermine the fledgling Iraqi government.

Successfully bringing the Arab League together in Baghdad – the first such gathering in the Iraqi capital since 1990 and only the second in the country’s history – would signal the return of a modicum of normalcy to a state still emerging from years of intervention and civil war… Full story here. Discussion/comments section open as usual below

Posted in Iraq international relations | 24 Comments »

Separatism and Sectarianism in the Barzani Speech

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 17:15

So, finally, Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has delivered his much-anticipated speech on the occasion of the Nowroz festival that marks the beginning of a new year in the extended Persian cultural sphere stretching from Kurdistan to Afghanistan.

Much of the content of the speech was predictable simply because it involved reiteration of previously stated positions, if perhaps in somewhat more pitched variants than before. This included strictures on the concentration of power by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (including numerous erroneous descriptions such as saying Maliki “is” the defence minister etc.) as well as not-so-veiled threats about Kurdish secession if the problems persist (“we will turn to our people”). As usual, there are numerous problems in the way the Kurdish leadership appeal to the Iraqi constitution whenever they are in conflict with Maliki, including the contradictive statement  “the Iraqi constitution is constantly violated and the Erbil agreement, which was the basis upon which the current government was formed, has been completely ignored.” With its creation of extra-constitutional institutions and its attempts to change the Iraqi state structure by fiat when in fact referendums are constitutionally required, the Arbil agreement is itself a veritable violation of the Iraqi constitution!

Whether Barzani will make any progress with these threats remains unclear. As regards an actual move to unseat the government by withdrawing confidence in Maliki, the numbers are more or less as they were in the summer of 2010, when Barzani similarly talked tough but ended up supporting Maliki for PM anyway. The Kurds and Iraqiyya alone do not add up to reach the critical mark of 163 deputies needed to withdraw confidence in the government. Conceivably, there may be a slight gain in that some Badrists have defected to ISCI during their latest split (ISCI being the most pro-Kurdish Shiite party); conversely, though, we should not forget that fractures in Iraqiyya come prominently on display each time someone in the alliance talks about taking drastic action against Maliki. In that perspective, it is hard to see any difference between this threat from Barzani and his previous ones.

However on another and arguably deeper level, Barzani is scoring some successes. Specifically, this relates to the contest of defining the parameters of Iraqi politics.  What Barzani always does in his speeches is to portray Iraq as a triad of Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. In his commentary on the Hashemi case, Barzani has complained about how the Kurds are being dragged into a conflict supposedly being fought between Sunnis (pro-Hashemi) and Shiites (anti-Shiite) – entirely disregarding the fact that the head of the Iraqiyya party to which Hashemi belongs is in fact a Shiite! This theme was also present in yesterday’s talk, in which Iraqi politics was once more reduced to a struggle between sects.

Importantly, Barzani is winning not only the definitional battle over Iraqi politics. He is also transforming the character of the once-secular Iraqiyya party. Increasingly, whether voluntarily or not, Iraqiyya comes across as a pro-federal, Sunni party more than a secular and nationalist  movement. Recently, in attempts to address the so-called “balance” problem in government – another Kurdish invention – Iraqiyya leaders have been counting Sunnis and Shiites in ways they themselves described as unthinkable just a few years ago. For his part, if he feels sufficiently threatened by Barzani et al., Maliki will probably turn to the Sadrists as his option of choice, something which again would underline sectarian polarisation.

In a way, Barzani and the Kurds are honest. They often articulate their independence dreams. Similarly, that a Shiite party like ISCI sometimes talks like this is perhaps not so suprising either, since its sectarianism is often expressed very clearly. The more remarkable aspect in all of this is the constant fraternization by an avowedly secular and Iraqi nationalist party – Iraqiyya – with these basically separatist forces.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative | 25 Comments »

A Plan for Baghdad? Iraq and the Arab-Russian Peace Initiative for Syria

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 19:23

With an Arab foreign minister meeting completed, a website launched and an official emblem designed, it now seems the Arab League meeting in Baghdad on 29 March may actually become reality.

The significance of that fact, in itself, is not to be underestimated. Only months ago, few analysts found the idea of having the Arab summit realistic. The notion of substantial high-level representation was certainly dismissed.

On the surface, one can easily get the impression that a Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement has enabled the summit preparations to go ahead in recent weeks. However, the appointment of a Saudi non-resident ambassador to Iraq and the articulation of the word “change” in Iraqi discourse on Syria are long overdue baby steps. And one could also argue that these moves are above all cynical tactics: Iraq wants the summit simply to celebrate its return to normalcy after the US withdrawal, whereas Saudi Arabia is eager to maintain momentum in multilateral cooperation on the Syria issue.

Nonetheless, one should not dismiss the slight improvement in the regional climate as necessarily a transient phenomenon. When Iraqi Sadrists deliberately tone down their criticism and say AL summit participants should be welcomed to Baghdad, that in itself is a significant move which takes away some of the punch in the “Shiite crescent” theory as a framework for understanding the regional behaviour of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt has recently settled debt issues with Iraq; Wednesday this week Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is headed to Kuwait with a similar objective.

One of the most interesting recent developments in this respect is the joint Arab–Russian initiative for Syria. This is so because Russian influence has taken the AL in the direction of a plan for Syria that Iraq, too, might sign up to. The emphasis on non-interference and the focus on an impartial supervisory mechanism for Syria, in particular, are things the Iraqis can approve of. It does not matter in this respect that nobody knows exactly what the supervisory mechanism will look like: Cynically disregarding the plight of the Syrians, as far as regional diplomacy is concerned the process is to some extent an aim in itself.

Of course, the Russian-Arab plan is a far cry from what countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar wanted for Syria. Perhaps the more important aspect is the fact that it did come into existence despite objections from some GCC countries. Going forward, the key question for Iraq’s return to the Arab fold may well be how it interacts with other Arab states that are less hawkish on Syria than Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Sectarian master narrative | 45 Comments »

The Budget Aftermath: Another Quasi-Decision in the Iraqi Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 March 2012 18:51

Iraqi parliamentarians have been on a week-long holiday since they passed the annual budget for 2012. Meanwhile, Iraqi media have given Iraqi politicians a chance to vent their anger regarding items in the budget about which they had second thoughts.

The first days after the passage of the budget, the debate was dominated by signals that some in the government, especially those close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, were unhappy with the failure of parliament to pass article 36 of the budget which would have given the government greater freedom with respect to spending money. There were even suggestions that the government would bring the matter before the supreme federal court – based on the argument that the annual budget is a special case of legislation for which article 62 of the Iraqi constitution imposes limits as to how much parliament can do in terms of editing (basically nothing much beyond moving money from one post to another). Furthermore, it has emerged that it was the financial committee headed by Haydar al-Ibadi, a Maliki ally, that played the leading role in abruptly adding articles to the budget on the day of voting subsequent to the cancellation of article 36, including some that seemed nonsensical or out of place (for example, a stipulation that scholarships abroad be distributed evenly between governorates). Was some of this last-minute added matter a deliberate move to make the budget vulnerable to challenges in the supreme court so that the government could regain article 36 if it wanted? One can wonder, especially since the cancellation of a single article on spending hardly goes beyond what the constitution allows for in terms of transfers (i.e. the equivalent of nullifying something), and also since it has been done before (in the 2011 budget, article 22 cancelled the “social spending” of the three presidents also through a last-minute change).

More recently, it is the earmark for armoured cars for Iraqi parliamentarians that has come to the forefront. The massive public criticism of special protection for politicians is understandable given the continuing security problems affecting the poorest of Iraqi society. Nonetheless, the question is how parliament can make changes to the whole budget it just passed.

Today, that issue came up for debate as the Iraqi parliament reconvened. It was decided that in order to make changes to the budget, a new, ordinary law has to be passed. The committees for finance and legal affairs were charged with preparing a draft law, which supposedly will go through the usual two readings before a vote. Thankfully, parliament did not opt for the (perhaps more logical) solution of amending the entire budget.

Politically, it is noteworthy that members of Maliki’s State of Law bloc were in the forefront among those demanding a new law to cancel the spending on the armoured cars. That, alongside the fading of the calls for a supreme court review of the budget, might indicate State of Law ended up concluding that the glass is at least half full and that there is a political net advantage of having negotiated the budget hurdle without any major showdown. Certainly, opening up once more the whole parliamentary debate on the budget would be risky, and even the Iraqi supreme court would probably find it difficult to go ahead with what Maliki perhaps might prefer – reinsertion of article 36 and keeping the rest unchanged.

As for the Iraq parliament as an institution, despite what the media says, today’s “decision” on the budget was essentially a non-decision. The deputies “agreed in principle” to press for a law to cancel the armoured cars. That “agreement in principle” is not a law, but with parliament so often unable to do what it should do (i.e. pass laws) there has been an inflation of this kind of quasi-decisions  that can help mask the ineffectiveness of the deputies. A recent, interesting case in point is the little-noticed “decision” that preceded passage of the budget on 23 February – about “balance” (ethno-sectarian quotas) in the armed forces (as per article 9 of the constitution) and special representation of the federal regions and the governorates at the level of state (article 105). This is however not a law (and article 105 specifically calls for a law), and whoever demanded it as a prerequisite for passing the budget (presumably the Kurds) has in fact signed up to yet another mini Arbil agreement unlikely to see implementation any time soon.

In the weeks leading up to the Arab summit scheduled for the end of March, focus in parliament is likely to move to the amnesty law (with another attempt at a second reading on Thursday). Generally speaking, Sadrists and the secular Iraqiyya have people in their constituencies who would benefit from a liberal amnesty law whereas Maliki’s State of Law are pressing for more restrictive definitions of who should be eligible for pardon. The law has been at the level of a second reading for several months, exemplifying the kind of long-term stalemate that has become so characteristic of Iraqi politics.

Maybe Iraqi parliamentarians will understand that one day, armoured cars may not be sufficient to protect them from the anger of an unhappy electorate fed up with parliamentary inefficiency?

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues | 34 Comments »