Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for April, 2012

Parts of the Arbil Agreement Are Published: So What?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 April 2012 13:41

As if any reminders were needed, the leak of some outstanding issues related to the Arbil agreement over the weekend only served to underline the essentially utopian and completely unimplementable character of that whole concord. The published list is not an “agreement” at all; rather it is a schedule of legislative priorities that includes several items seen as particularly difficult, including the law on the supreme court which constitutionally requires a two-thirds majority. Also, it should of course be emphasized that the released points are not the full Arbil agreement, which also includes a more limited trilateral document which is the only thing signed by PM Maliki, Allawi of Iraqiyya and the KRG’s Barzani (and which among other things deals with the intention of establishing a strategic policy council).

Only emphasizing the amateurishness of the whole thing, some points released from the Arbil agreement amount to de facto rewriting the Iraqi constitution. This includes the ridiculous “consensus” file, which stipulates 100% consensus for certain “fateful” issues including constitutional reform. Never mind that constitutional procedures with lower thresholds are already in place. Another dubious item that comes to light is the concept of “constitutional balance” (tawazun dusturi) – code for ethno-sectarian quotas and supposedly to be implemented for such positions as deputy ministers, ambassadors and governmental commissions. In fact, the Iraqi constitution merely stipulates such quotas for the armed forces/security forces and the constitutional review committee. The only other constitutional balance requirement is in article 105 and relates to the formation of a committee that will make sure governorates and regions (not ethnicities) are given “fair” participation in government.  Again, this depends on future legislation and cannot be implemented by fiat of the political leaders. All in all, the Arbil agreement is simply too big and ambitious – a classic case of political bulimia and nothing more.

Thus, despite these supposedly fateful revelations, the only truly interesting question in Iraqi parliamentary politics these days remains whether the Sadrists are prepared to sack Maliki or not. Everything else – including lofty agreements to implement every iota of Arbil – will play into Maliki’s hands by letting him procrastinate the many proposed pieces of legislation ad infinitum. Meanwhile he will continue along the lines of his preferred strategy: Nominal power-sharing and de facto minority government, reflected in an accumulation of acting ministers lacking parliamentary approval. As long as his enemies appear unable to unite in sacking him, why would Maliki do anything else?

A word on the international approach to the ongoing Iraqi power struggle is also in order. Those who want to get rid of Maliki – especially in Iraqiyya but also in some American circles – tend to portray him as an Iranian stooge. They should keep in mind that it is Muqtada al-Sadr that commands the swing vote in this matter. Whatever Sadr decides is probably what Iran sees as being in its best interest. Consequently, if the Sadrists should after all line up with the others to vote out Maliki, this will probably reflect an Iranian desire to see him go, perhaps in order to have him replaced with a “weaker” Shiite premier. This is why it is so hard to understand those arguing for the sacking of Maliki from an anti-Iranian perspective.

As for the US, two contradictive tendencies are seemingly at work. Some months ago, the Obama administration was accused of promoting a “split Iraqiyya” policy aimed at deeper integration of some Iraqiyya ministers and other government officials while shutting out those parts of Iraqiyya that don’t cooperate with Maliki. The merits of those accusations are disputed. But in any case, it deserves mention that if there is in fact such a policy by Washington, it gets constantly contradicted by the US government’s own insistence on keeping the Arbil agreement as the key to better integration of the government. This is so because as long as Arbil remains on the agenda (instead of, for example, a more limited but implementable deal on security ministries), key “centrist” people in Iraqiyya like Usama al-Nujayfi – the parliament speaker – will continue to take the positions of Allawi and the Kurds and the wide gap to Maliki will remain, without any meaningful integration of secularists and Sunnis in the current government.

There are reports that Barzani, the KRG president, is travelling to the United Arab Emirates today for a high-level meeting, supposedly to heap even more pressure on Maliki. The truth is that Barzani can travel as much as he wants but it doesn’t matter much unless he makes Muqtada al-Sadr actually withdraw confidence in Maliki.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 58 Comments »

Maliki’s Meeting with Shahrudi in Iran

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 24 April 2012 14:04

If you look at the website of Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s premier, it offers ample coverage of his two-day visit to Iran completed this week. One item is however not reported: His meeting with Mahmud Shahrudi, a member of the Iranian guardian council of Iraqi origin.

The meeting, which was covered by the Iranian news agency IRNA, was different from the string of other meetings held by Maliki in Tehran. Meetings with key Iranian leaders like Ahmadinejad, Jalili, Larijani and Khamenei could plausibly be construed as bilateral meetings between the Iraqi premier and key Iranian officials. Shahrudi, however, has a strictly domestic role in the Iranian government focused on internal power-broking. True, Shahrudi is in some ways an Iraqi exile living in Iran, but then again there are thousands of other Iraqis living in Iran with whom Maliki could have plausibly met.

Inevitably, the meeting between Maliki and Shahrudi will fuel speculation about the links between Maliki’s Daawa party and Shahrudi. Historically – and unlike other Iraqi Shiite Islamist parties – the Daawa has been reluctant to impose adherence to a particular Shiite cleric on its members, leaving this as an individual choice. However, since autumn 2011, rumours about a move by the Daawa to adopt Shahrudi as a collective marja have  mushroomed. Indeed, at times this has been linked to a reported attempt by Shahrudi to establish a presence in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf with a view to contesting the successor struggle expected when the current leading cleric, Ali al-Sistani, passes away.

Any such move would be of momentous significance for Iraqi politics. Unlike Sistani and the Najaf scholars, Shahrudi belongs to the school of the Iranian revolution and advocates a leading role for the clergy in government. If Shahrudi should succeed in emerging to prominence in Najaf with the help of the Daawa it would transform the outlook of the city entirely. Indeed, it would change Iraqi politics more broadly: Those arguing  that Maliki is moving towards ever greater coordination with the Iranian clergy would feel vindicated, and rightly so.

For the time being, numerous factors militate against such a scenario. In the first place, historically, the Daawa has been more reluctant than other Shiite parties in Iraq to embrace the Iranian doctrine of clerical government (wilayat al-faqih). After all, this was what prompted its split from SCIRI as an umbrella organization in the 1980s and the relocation of several Daawa leaders from Iran. Even very recently, it is being reported that Maliki’s parliamentary bloc alongside the Kurds and Iraqiyya are resisting attempts by ISCI and Fadila to impose a federal supreme law clause that would provide clerical veto on Iraqi laws on the Iranian model. And of course, historically, Najaf has a record of posing resistance to Qum in Iran as a centre of Shiism.

These tendencies may well prevail in Iraq. But by visiting Shahrudi yesterday Maliki did nothing to kill the rumours about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest centre of Iraqi Shiism.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics, Uncategorized | 38 Comments »

IHEC Gets Extended Tenure; Maliki Gets One More Problem

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 19 April 2012 18:46

Amid bombs and dust storms in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament today exhibited some of the key features that help explain the political paralysis of the country.

On the one hand, there were signs that critics of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are in the ascendancy within the assembly. It was ISCI, Iraqiyya and “some Kurds” who reportedly left the chamber in protest against a proposal to have a no-confidence vote on the Baghdad mayor (an ISCI member) by electronic voting (instead of a show of hands). That radical change of procedure had apparently been supported by the Sadrists and possibly by Maliki’s State of Law who had played a key role in the campaign against the mayor – the intention behind the “invisible vote” presumably to allow Shiite deputies to break sectarian unity to settle some internal differences. The vote was however postponed. Also, an important measure supported by Iraqiyya, ISCI and the Kurds was adopted: The tenure of the current board of the Iraqi electoral commission (IHEC) was extended with three months or until the formation of a new one, “whichever happens first”.

It is no big secret that Maliki has opposed the IHEC extension and is pressing for a new board to be confirmed by parliament before any new elections take place. IHEC is very much a relic from the period in Iraqi politics that antedated his own rise to real power – i.e. 2005–2007 when Shiite parties like SCIRI/ISCI, Fadila and the Sadrists dominated Iraqi politics along with the Kurds and the Sunni Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party. Those parties still remain influential in the current IHEC, and the recent allegations of politicized arrests of IHEC members are but the latest in a string of apparent attempts by Maliki to get rid of or undermine the credibility of the commission.

Last summer, Maliki even made an attempt at sacking IHEC via parliament, which failed. Back then, he managed only to obtain the support of a handful of deputies outside his own State of Law alliance. Today made for a similar situation, with the Kurds, Iraqiyya and ISCI prevailing.

Muqtada al-Sadr recently presented a rather fierce criticism of Maliki with respect to his alleged “dictatorial” handling of the IHEC member arrests. For his part, Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi is continuing to push alternatives to Maliki – although most of them remain unconstitutional, including the idea that the Shiites can just agree on a replacement PM without sacking the entire cabinet.  But here is the perhaps most important snag: Whereas Kurds, Iraqiyya and ISCI are talking tough about unseating Maliki these days, it really doesn’t matter that much whether they win battles in an Iraqi parliament that is less than two-thirds full (as it was today with 197 deputies according to the official report). Withdrawing confidence in the prime minister requires an absolute majority of 163 deputies and the anti-Maliki forces have some considerable way to go before they reach that level.

Maliki is travelling to Iran to Sunday for consultations, ostensibly to do with Syria and “border issues”. He may be under pressure at home, but has just been handed yet another major event that will likely keep distracting his enemies: The meeting of the P5+1 with Iran in Baghdad now scheduled for 23 May.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election | 19 Comments »

As Paul Bremer Wanted Them To Be

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 13 April 2012 14:17

The Iraqi parliament marked the 9-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad this week by approving a human rights commission, made up by 11 members. The legislation relevant to the commission was passed back in 2008, so it has taken a long time to agree on those 11. And,  in an indication of continued dissension as to the legacy of the war that unseated Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are already divided regarding the significance of the new commission and the legitimacy of the process by which it emerged.

The concept of a human rights commission is in itself an important innovation, both in Iraq and in the Gulf region more broadly. The idea is that citizens can contact the commission directly whenever they wish to have cases of human rights violations heard. The commission, in turn, can decide to hand over cases to the judiciary. It is however important to note that the commission does not possess any judicial power of its own. Accordingly, it cannot be described as a fully-fledged oversight body vis-à-vis the police and the security forces.

At any rate,  while the idea behind the commission may be beautiful, the way the commission emerged has already prompted some criticism among Iraqis. Hardly had the names of the 11 new commissioners been agreed by parliament before angry voices began shouting a well-known term of abuse: muhasasa!

Muhasasa means quota-sharing in Arabic. In the Iraqi context, it has become associated with the particular formula of ethno-sectarian power-sharing government that was established by the US occupation administrator Paul Bremer when he instituted the new Iraqi governing council in 2003.  One of Bremer’s key concepts was that national decision-making institutions should reflect Iraq’s ethno-sectarian demographic balance proportionally. Bremer took this imperative quite literally: His memoir recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis for being unrepresentative due to the presence of only a single Sunni Arab, and how he in another context nixed the participation of a Christian representative on the governing council based on the reasoning that the Christian representation on the council would become disproportionally high if there were two Christian members rather than one. Another consequence of Bremer’s thinking is that in most institutions of post-2003 Iraq, there would be a preset Shiite majority, mostly in line with their 60-65% share of the total Iraqi population.

Are the accusations of quota-sharing correct when it comes to the new human rights commission? Yes and no. To take the positives first, most of the new commissioners do have legal expertise and have worked within the field of human rights for many years –  in NGOs, government or academia. Many are lawyers by training whereas a few are medical doctors who have made careers within the field of human rights.

But are these therefore the 11 most suitable human rights commissioners in Iraq? Are they the ones that would have prevailed in a competition that was blind to ethnicity and sect? After all, human rights are supposed to be a supremely universal field of practice where such considerations should count for nothing.

This is where the quotas come into the picture. Hardly had the vote in parliament been finished before hardworking AFP reporters had established that the ethno-religious balance of the new committee was 6 Shiites, 4 Sunnis and 1 Yazidi. That would be broadly in tune with the Bremer approach (though he might have insisted on one Christian as well). Ethnically there were 8 Arabs, 2 Kurds and 1 Turkmen, again roughly reflecting Iraqi demographics proportionally. These very predictable findings do suggest that quota factors may have played a stronger role in selecting the 11 than their ability alone. The contrast is another team of eleven –  the Iraqi soccer team, which uniquely remains something of a quota-free oasis in the new Iraq.

If we look more closely, it is equally clear that political-party affiliations also played a role. Hayman al-Bajlani has ties to the Kurdish KDP, Bushra al-Ubaydi was once a candidate for the Unity of Iraq list (now part of the secular Iraqiyya), Falah al-Yasiri is connected with the Sadrist movement and Salama Khafaji has links to the Shiite alliance. Among the prominent bureaucrats in the Shiite-majority governorates – examples include Fadil al-Gharawi in Najaf and Maytham al-Ghazzi in Dhi Qar – there are likely some allies of the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But there are also a few representatives who do not lend themselves easily to this kind of neat classification, whether on ethno-religious or political basis. Some quick searching on Fathi al-Hayani and Ahmad Muhammad Baqir al-Attar failed to provide decisive clues about their pasts. In other words, not all of the new commissioners come from politicized or ethno-sectarian activist backgrounds, and this in itself could be a sign of good news.

Importantly, the composition of the human rights committee does not reflect a legal or constitutional imposition – the explicit muhasasa requirement in the Iraqi constitution mainly applies to the military, the security forces and the constitutional review committee. As for the law on the commission from 2008, it is noteworthy that the stipulated female quota – one third of the members – has not been fulfilled (2 women instead of 3). The Yazidi commissioner satisfies the legal requirement of 1 minority representative.

In other words, the proportional representation in this committee is to some extent a Paul Bremer legacy. It is just something Iraqi politicians of the post-2003 generation continue to do, again and again. And it is spreading rather than going away: Lately, the once secular Iraqiyya party has been an ardent supporter of a Kurdish idea of counting Sunnis and Shiites in government ministries in the name of national “balance” (tawazun). What Iraqis should ask themselves is the virtue of continuing to make appointments along these proportional lines. One of the most perfectly proportional institutions in this respect is in fact the Iraqi federal supreme court. Has it not easily succumbed to the dominance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki despite having been appointed with such Bremerian precision?

Sadly, some of the critics of the appointment procedure are themselves visibly infected by the muhasasa virus. For example, the Kurdish “opposition” parties that are independent of the Kurdistan Alliance in the Iraqi parliament criticized the appointment procedure for being subjected to political pressures. Their main grievance, though, was that their own parties had not been represented!

The United States fought many fights in Iraq – some good and some bad, and with some losses and some victories. The definitional battle of Iraqi politics is perhaps Paul Bremer’s least recognized victory, but a very resounding one. It deserves mention that the US embassy in Baghdad promptly declared the appointment of the human rights commission “historical”.

Only when Iraqis have the courage to come up with a commission that is surprisingly unrepresentative of the Iraqi population simply because of the high quality of its members will they truly liberate themselves from both Saddam Hussein and Paul Bremer.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 19 Comments »

Where Is Izzat al-Duri?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 8 April 2012 13:34

The sensational video of Izzat al-Duri released yesterday on the occasion of the 65 year anniversary of the Baath party isn’t getting quite the airplay it deserves. Not that the content of the hour-long speech in itself is particularly interesting, but the sheer fact that, despite rumours of ill health, the most senior Baath leader to survive the Iraq War  is confirmed to be alive and well is an important development. This is, after all, the person seen as the rightful successor to Saddam Hussein by the remaining Baath party faithful. Additionally, towards the end of the speech, Duri reveals some interesting perspectives on the broader regional situation that provide clues as to this possible whereabouts, which for a long time has been something of a riddle.

First of all: It looks real. Duri has a characteristic appearance and does not easily lend himself to impersonation. Even though the Baath party specialized in this kind of thing, it seems unlikely that this video is the work of a double.

Above, screenshot of Duri in video released yesterday; below, archive photo

The Iraq-related part of the speech takes up most bandwidth and is the least interesting one. It is a predictable outpouring of anger concerning supposed Iranian influences penetrating everywhere in Iraq and spreading across the Arab world. Not only that, Duri repeatedly describes this as a conspiracy of Persians/Safavids, Americans and Israeli Zionists. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Duri – at 70 and despite conflicting stories about his health situation – had the stamina to gesticulate his way through an hour of these grand theories.

The more interesting and newsworthy parts of the Duri speech are towards the very end. Here, he comments on broader regional developments, including the situation in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Regarding Libya, Duri clearly sees developments there as a deplorable parallel to what took place in Iraq in terms of “foreign intervention”. With respect to Syria, there is praise for the “legitimate” and “peaceful uprising” of the Syrian people, though there seems to be concern that foreign (Western) intervention can ensue if things get out of hand. Most remarkably, though, there is much praise for the Saudi king with reference to his efforts to help solve the situation in Yemen.

Beyond verifying the relative recency of the video, these remarks help explain the worldview of Duri, which seems to be one in which Iranian and Western interventions in the Arab world must be fought at any cost. Unsurprisingly, given his own religious background, there is more positive praise for the ulama in the Arab world than one would perhaps expect from a Baathist leader, even after a decade of state-led “Islamism” in Iraq in the 1990s.

Above all, though, Duri’s remarks on the regional situation may help address that lingering question of where he currently lives. For a long time, it was thought he was in Syria, but the praise for the Syrian uprising suggests he is not there anymore. That leaves the Gulf states as his most likely current location. Given the criticism of the Libya intervention, Qatar can probably be ruled out. On the other hand, the praise for the Saudi king seems to be a credible indicator that he might be there already or is applying for a permanent residence permit.

For many years after 2003, the Iraqi Baathist presence in Syria served as something of an anomaly for those seeing grand sectarian schemes and a Shiite axis projecting through the region from Iran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The realignment of Duri and the Iraqi Baath towards the conservative Gulf monarchies makes both themselves and the Syrian regime – now deprived of another Sunni-secular card –  look a little more sectarian than before. The more sectarian Shiite media outlets in Iraq will lose no time in seizing on this; as ever, though, the question is whether the majority of Iraqis will allow hyperbole articulated from outside the country to aggravate their own political problems.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Sectarian master narrative | 21 Comments »

Qatari Jets, KRG and Iraqi Airspace Sovereignty in the Hashemi Case

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 13:28

There are many interesting aspects to the recent departure by Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi from Erbil in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area of Iraq to Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Among those aspects is one that has yet to receive the attention it deserves: The means of travel used by Hashemi – who is sought by the central government in an alleged criminal case – from Erbil to Doha.  Most accounts simply state that Hashemi arrived in Doha on 1 April en route from Erbil. Some Kurdish interior ministry officials even went on record saying they had no knowledge about Hashemi’s departure.

The picture of Hashemi arriving in Doha, published by the website of the vice-president, is clear enough. It shows Hashemi stepping out of a Qatar Airways jet, apparently onto a red carpet and with ministers waiting to welcome him.

So, Hashemi arrived with Qatar Airways. It is true that they have announced plans for an Erbil–Doha service. But that service will not commence until May. Also, it will be operated by Airbus 320s. The aircraft on the picture looks slimmer than an Airbus, perhaps more like a Bombardier?

The question of Iraqi airspace sovereignty has received some attention lately, both with dramatic declarations that Iraq would “close its skies” for the Arab League summit, and in relation to reports that Iran is continuing to send weapons and fighters to Syria on flights crossing Iraqi territory.  What this picture seems to indicate is that a foreign country, Qatar, can in fact send its aircraft in and out of Iraq with impunity, even on missions perceived as hostile by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Whether the jet actually flew straight down to Gulf (as is most likely) or headed via Turkey and Jordan to avoid “central government” territory is somewhat academic. Guarding Iraq’s borders is a central government prerogative anyway and it seems entirely unrealistic that the Qatari jet landed in Erbil without the express permission of the Kurds.

On top of persistent conflicts related to Kurdistan in the oil sector and the judicial extradition battle for Hashemi, the latest Qatar Airways episode once more raises questions about the true nature of the so-called Iraqi federation. It is becoming increasingly unclear whether the country is anything more than a very loose confederation.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraq international relations | 46 Comments »