Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for July, 2012

The Syrian Crisis and Its Repercussions for Erbil-Baghdad Relations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 July 2012 9:51

One of the interesting aspects of the crisis in Syria is the way Syria’s Kurds are navigating between regional power brokers in Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq. In particular, there seems to be a degree of tension surrounding the relationship between the largely pro-Turkish regional government of the Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds who are seeking the support of Erbil but are not necessarily quite so supportive of Turkey.

So far, no decisive policy seems to have emerged among Syria’s Kurds in this respect. As for the spillover impact on the Iraqi scene, the Syrian crisis has so far served to further strain relations between the Iraqi Kurds and the central government in Baghdad. Due to tension in border areas with Syria, central government Iraqi forces have been seeking access to areas controlled by the Kurds, and this, in turn, has aggravated the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad.

For the first time, the Kurdish peshmerga ministry has now published a constitutional defence of its position. In a letter directed to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Kurds enumerate four constitutional articles that they consider Baghdad are violating when they are seeking access to the Kurdish areas: Articles 9, 61, 111 (some sources say 11 but that makes no sense) and 121.

Article 9 of the Iraqi constitution deals with the Iraqi army. It is one of the few constitutional provisions to specifically demand proportional representation on an ethno-sectarian basis (quotas), and this is conceivably what the Kurds are complaining about, even though there are large numbers of Kurds serving in the Iraqi army controlled by Baghdad.

Article 61 deals with parliamentary powers, and presumably the Kurdish objection relates to the failure of government to have leading military officials confirmed by parliament. This is a real problem, although there are reports that the government has lately sent a list to parliament which is now awaiting approval.

Article 111, if correctly cited, deals with oil ownership (“Iraqi oil belongs to the Iraqi people in all the governorates and regions”)  and is presumably a general criticism of Baghdad regarding the longstanding dispute about whether Erbil or Baghdad should conclude deals with foreign oil companies.

Article 121 specifically gives federal regions the right to organize internal security including “guards of the region” which is commonly seen as the standard reference to the Kurdish peshmerga militia which is now the official internal army of the Kurdish region.

All in all, whereas it seems clear that the central government may need to make some improvements as regards Kurdish representation in the Iraqi army (article 9) and getting parliamentary approval of army officials (article 61), it is hard to see how article 121 could override the exclusive prerogative of Baghdad when it comes to managing national security and external defence  as set out in article 110-2, where “borders” are specifically mentioned. Indeed, article 121 itself at the outset explicitly stipulates that the powers given to the region should not usurp exclusive prerogatives of the central government as specified in article 110.

What this whole issue brings to the forefront, of course, is that whereas Iraq on paper may be a federation, it is in practice a confederacy in which the Kurdish entity appears to be torn between seeking independence and de facto Turkish overlordship. The Syrian crisis is likely to make these tensions more acute, given the apparent greater scepticism of the Syrian Kurds when it comes to accepting the idea of a substantial role for Turkey in deciding their destiny. As a consequence, it is possible that the autonomous Iraqi Kurds, too, will finally have to be more specific and concrete about where exactly they are heading and when.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Iraqi constitutional issues, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Oil in Iraq | 14 Comments »

Political Crisis Cancelled, Provincial Elections Next in Iraq?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 6 July 2012 17:26

During the course of the past month, the move to unseat Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has gradually faded in strength. Within the last week, the top Sadrist leadership formally changed their position on sacking Maliki. For their part,  leading Kurds complain only they and “parts of Iraqiyya” are pressing for a questioning of the premier. True, the concept of “withdrawing confidence” remains on the agenda in the Iraqi press, but increasingly “reform”(islah) is the word of the day.

“Reform” will suit Maliki just fine since it mainly involves giving other Iraqi politicians the chance to bicker forever over the fine print of grandiose declarations that are unlikely to have any practical impact. Iraqi politicians rarely miss the opportunity of engaging in this kind of business.

There is however one item where Maliki needs the support of parliament: Local elections. This is so for two reasons. Firstly, the Iraqi supreme court has ordered parliament to fix the election law and in particular the distribution of surplus seats to better fit a proportional logic. Secondly, Iraq needs to have a new elections commission approved. Partially, this is because the mandate of the current IHEC has expired. From Maliki’s point of view there is also the problem that he sees the current board as hostile and biased against him.

Both votes – i.e. changes to the elections law and confirmation of IHEC – can be done by a simple majority. This makes it easier for Maliki to prevail since he can benefit from the generally low attendance levels in the Iraqi parliament and clinch victories with perhaps no more than 20 to 40 votes from outside his list needed. Any discussion of the election law is also likely to bring up the issue of Kirkuk (which still hasn’t had the elections it should have had in 2009) and recently it is Maliki, rather than Iraqiyya, that has been able to mobilise Arabs in Kirkuk on an Iraqi nationalist basis. It is noteworthy that when Maliki failed to do something similar in autumn 2009, it was apparently the result of strenuous American and international (UNAMI) pressure to keep Kirkuk off the agenda at the time.

The local elections are scheduled to take part in January 2013. Comments by Iraqi legislators to the effect that the needed changes are ready for a vote in parliament and that elections can go ahead around April 2013 seem overly optimistic. Nonetheless, it is a good sign that so far there is no indication that Maliki – who did well in Baghdad and the southern Shiite majority areas in January 2009 – is deliberately procrastinating in the way the leading Kurdish parties are doing in their own federal region, where local elections get continually postponed. It is true that it is Maliki’s political challengers such as the Sadrists that have taken the lead in preparing for the next vote (above all through holding their own primaries), but unlike the Kurdish leaders, Maliki does at least have an incentive for working with legislators on the elections issue since he desperately wants to get rid of the current IHEC board.

In the end, it may well be that the conduct of these next local elections – rather than squabbling over the diffuse Erbil agreement – will serve as the main indicator of which way Iraq is heading as a democracy.

Posted in Iraq local elections 2013 | 37 Comments »