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.