Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for February, 2014

The Biden Plan for Iraq Re-Enters US Policy-Making Debate

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 6 February 2014 7:02

With Iraqi political turmoil once more making headlines in the United States, an article in the National Journal has appeared with the headline, “Turns Out, Joe Biden Was Right about Dividing Iraq”.

The article uses as its point of departure the claim made by former defence secretary Robert Gates that Biden was wrong about every single important issue in US foreign policy. It then goes on to counter this by referring to the various “plans for Iraq” that Biden propagated as an oppositionist during the days of the Bush administration, particularly between 2006 and 2008. These plans are difficult to characterize because they changed a good deal over time as Biden’s ideas developed, and as a consequence they have also been misrepresented. In their minimum version, the plans involved an internationally sponsored conference that would somehow use the framework of the Iraqi constitution to subdivide the country into federal provinces. Biden claimed he kept an open mind about the eventual number of provinces. He “guessed” it would be three (a Kurdish, a Shiite Arab and a Sunni Arab one) but he gradually became more open-minded regarding the exact number and has often been misrepresented on this. Rather, the most noteworthy characteristics of the Biden approach to federalism in Iraq was that he expected a settlement that would take place as a one-off conference of political elites, and that it would be “comprehensive”, thus subdividing the entire country in federal entities.

Among the many problems with the Biden plan back then was that it usurped the provisions for federalism outlined in the Iraqi constitution adopted with US support in October 2005. The whole point of the federalism clauses in the Iraqi constitution is that development towards federal entities will be an uneven process, with different timelines for different parts of the country according to their level of economic and institutional development. It is specifically envisaged that individual provinces may prefer to continue to be ruled from Baghdad within a unitary state framework and with a degree if administrative decentralization. Biden’s plans would have violated all of this, meaning it would in practice be tantamount to rewriting the Iraqi constitution if implemented.

The argument that Biden was right after all, penned by James Kitfield,  doesn’t occupy itself with such trivialities as the Iraqi constitution. Instead it asks whether not the best way to stop the current violence in Iraq is “separation”, by which the writer is clearly thinking of a three-way federalization involving Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.

How such an approach would achieve internal peace in the three regions is left largely unanswered. Does Kitfield really mean that if the Iraqi army hadn’t brought troublesome Shiite soldiers into Anbar, the Sunnis would have got along much better with foreign fighters and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) organization? If so, is that a positive scenario? Wouldn’t a Sunni canton that had largely cut ties to Baghdad be immeasurably more susceptible to pan-Sunni propaganda emanating from Syria? Wouldn’t Anbar security forces – on the regional guard model from Kurdistan, controlled exclusively by Sunni commanders loyal to figures in a regional authority that would have earned their positions on basis of Sunni sectarian propaganda during the process of federalization – be an easier target for ISIL cooption than the current Iraqi army, with its mix of Sunni and Shiite commanders? Also, let’s not forget that Biden’s original proposal came as an alternative to Bush’s “surge” and would have meant a US withdrawal from Iraq around 2008, at a time when Al-Qaeda was on the rise.

It seems far more realistic to consider a Sunni canton in Iraq as a potential ISIL asset and a factor that might cement the ascendancy of ISIL in the Syrian opposition. It certainly seems a little reductionist to dismiss Sunnis willing to cooperate with Maliki as an “older generation”, as a former CIA officer commenting in the article seems to do. What about Anbar provincial council members that continue to work with Baghdad, or new political coalitions in the upcoming April parliament elections that feature substantial Sunni representation and are still signaling an interest in cooperating with Maliki?

Still today, eight years after the Biden plan for Iraq was launched, it remains difficult to comprehend what its proponents envisage in terms of specific changes in Iraq. The notion of “a natural Sunnistan” occurs in Kitfield’s article, although history has never seen such a thing. We’re just left with the primitive assumption that Sunnis will go along better simply because they are of the same sect.

If we look at developments in Iraq over the past few years historically, it is clear that before the sectarian pull of the Syria crisis became too overwhelming, there were always plenty of Sunnis prepared to deal with Maliki and put sectarian considerations in the background. Sunnis with such an orientation still exist, but their chances of political prominence decreases each time an article with a sectarian paradigm for understanding Iraqi politics of Kitfield’s calibre is published.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition | Comments Off on The Biden Plan for Iraq Re-Enters US Policy-Making Debate

Everyone Wants to Be a Governorate: 17 Iraqi Districts Demand Status Upgrade

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 4 February 2014 6:30

Iraqi districts that have been slated for governorate status (green) and districts that demand governorate status (red).

The recent announcement by the Iraqi cabinet that a number of existing district (qada) administrative units will be upgraded to governorate status (muhafaza) has prompted intense discussions across Iraq. As of today, beyond what the cabinet has announced, around 17 additional districts have in various ways been promoted as candidates for governorate status.

The lists that follows is supposed to be up to date as of the time of writing, but this is clearly a moving target, with the situation quite literally changing by the hour. Nonetheless, it can be assumed that the most eager candidates for governorate status have made their voices heard by now. Also, to some extent, there are a few common characteristics between these would-be governorates that seem to explain their candidacies. In particular, in many cases, they form the second most populous area of their current governorate, but not the seat of the provincial government. Furthermore, distinctive minority populations are important in some areas (Yazidi in Sinjar, Shia Arab in Balad and Dujayl, Kurdish in Khanaqin). Some of the districts involved stand out for their natural resources (Qurna and Zubayr in Basra). Generally speaking, it is worth noticing that whereas the new governorates proposed by the cabinet were mainly Shiite minority and other minority areas in the north that are scheduled to be separated from mainly Sunni Arab majority governorates, most of these “bottom-up” demands for governorate status are Shiites wishing to separate from Shiite majority governorates (Dujayl and Balad in Salahaddin being the exception, but Shiite politicians have been talking about plans for the attachment of these to Baghdad at least since 2011).

Here is the complete list, with population estimates from 2003 in parentheses:

Basra: Madina(159,000), Qurna (137,000) Zubayr (277,000), Garma, (106,000)

Dhi Qar: Rifai (280,000)

Muthanna: Warka (n/a), Rumaytha (213,000)

Najaf: Kufa (275,000)

Babel: Musayyib (280,000)

Wasit: Suwayra (162,000), Aziziyya (113,000)

Baghdad: Sadr City (n/a), Mahmudiyya (250,000)

Diyala: Khanaqin (160,000)

Salahaddin: Balad (167,000), Dujayl (n/a)

Nineveh: Sinjar (166,000)

Methodological problems aside, it is noteworthy that according to population estimates from 2003, most of these districts have smaller populations than the districts recently upgraded to governorate status by the cabinet: Tell Afar was estimated at 301,000; the Nineveh plains governorate formed by the 3 districts of Hamdaniya, Tell Kayf and Shaykhan at around 392,000; Falluja at 426,000. The exception is Tuz Khurmato, estimated at only 153,000 in 2003. There aren’t that many districts that had more than 300,000 inhabitants in 2003 without at the same time being the provincial seat of government – Shatra in Dhi Qar is the main exception at around 315,000.

Simultaneously, some more news about the thinking of the Iraqi government on the issue of new governorates has  emerged. Regarding Baghdad, the legal adviser of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made the claim that the city is indivisible because of the capital status enshrined in the Iraqi constitution with reference to its governorate borders (article 124). More generally, in a statement to the press, an inspector general of the ministry for municipalities and public works says that the legal procedure for creating new government is modelled on the old governorate law no 159 from 1969, but then goes on to (rightly) admit that the old law has been replaced by a new law (of 2008, which does not provide any particular framework for such changes). Nonetheless, the inspector general seems to think there are specific criteria that govern the selection of candidates for upgrade to governorate status, including population size, existing institutions of government and distance from the existing provincial centres. He goes on to mention difficulties of investment in places like Halabja and Tal Afar which he attributes to the crimes of the Baath regime and more recent terrorist activity.

All in all, frankly, this does not serve as a legal clarification. Of course, in theory, the Iraqi government can introduce a bill on just about any subject under the sun, but in a modern democracy it is expected that matters such as administrative jurisdictions are governed by a uniform legal framework.

In any case, maybe the multiplication of demands for governorate status was to be expected. Maybe the Iraqi cabinet had calculated this would happen, and that the impracticality of admitting all these candidates – and especially the inevitable debate about the capacity of governance related to such wide-ranging transformations – would kill off the whole idea of changing Iraq’s administrative map in its infancy. The only thing that is certain is that none of these plans will come into existence before the 30 April parliament elections, meaning that much of the debate relating to it must be studied in relationship to those elections first and foremost.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general | Comments Off on Everyone Wants to Be a Governorate: 17 Iraqi Districts Demand Status Upgrade

IHEC Publishes the List of Constituent Elements in Coalitions Contesting Iraq’s 30 April Elections

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 2 February 2014 20:44

At long last, following publication of certified entities as well as the numbers of entities and coalitions, the Iraqi electoral commission has released the list of the constituent elements of the 39 electoral lists in the 30 April Iraqi parliamentary elections that are coalitions of more than one party. The list is to some extent helpful in forming a more precise picture of the strength of the various lists and the competition between them.

With regard to the big and well-known lists, there aren’t that many surprises. The core line-up of the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is confirmed as the two main Daawa branches, the Shahristani bloc and Badr. The new list confirms that the Risali movment of ex-Sadrist Adnan al-Shahmani is also on the State of Law ticket. The Turkmen minister for the provinces who played a central role in the recent announcement of new governorates is also on Maliki’s list. Another noteworthy minority representative is a Shabak politician, Hunayn al-Qaddo. Qaddo was previously an advocate of the territorial integrity of Nineveh governorate in the context of Kurdish expansion. He has however congratulated the Shabak on the news of the establishment of the Nineveh plains governorate.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect regarding the Shiite Islamist Muwatin alliance associated with Ammar al-Hakim and ISCI is the inclusion of a former Maliki ally, Ali al-Dabbagh. Ahmad Chalabi is also here (rather than with the Sadrists, whose election alliance with ISCI in 2009-10 he played a key role in forging), and Fawaz al-Jarba of the Shammar tribe constitutes a mostly symbolic Sunni representation. Basra is particularly well represented in the ISCI alliance, with the party of Shaykhi leader Amir al-Fayiz alongside businessman Tawfiq Abbadi and others.

None of the other main Shiite “coalitions” (the Jaafari branch of the Daawa; Fadila; the Sadrists) offer much in the way of complexity. Jaafari has picked up Muhammad Kazim al-Hindawi who was formerly with Fadila, as well as the Hizbollah party of Abd al-Karim al-Muhammadawi (not to be confused with the other Hizbollah parties in Iraq that originated with Iranian sponsorship). One interesting thing that does emerge from the list, however, is the overall Shiite strategy (or lack of such strategy) in the Shiite minority provinces of Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin, where each governorate seems to present a solution of its own. Firstly, there is Diyala, where all the main Shiite parties except ISCI are represented on what amounts to almost a pan-Shiite ticket (coalition C10). Note however, that this list was not given a proper election number in the lottery, so it may have disintegrated in the last minute! Conversely, in Nineveh, every Shiite party is on the Shiite list except Daawa, and this list is definitely running as number 227. But in Salahaddin, things are even more complicated, because there are two Shiite tickets with more or less the same name (variations of the National Alliance, tickets 222 and 249). The first of these two Shiite lists, 222, consists basically of the Sadrists and the party of Ahmad Chalabi. The second list includes most of the other parties, including, uniquely, both Daawa and ISCI.

With respect to the main Sunni and/or secular coalitions that have emerged from the ashes of Iraqiyya, there are also relatively few surprises beyond the three-way split between Nujayfi, Allawi and Mutlak. It is confirmed that Nujayfi has picked up most of the prominent sub-entities in the old Iraqiyya, including the parties of Zafir al-Ani and Muhammad al-Karbuli and figures like Ahmad al-Masari and Talal al-Zubaye. The tribal leader Ahmad Abu Risha is also in the Nujayfi coalition. For his part, Ayyad Allawi has picked up some former members of Unity of Iraq, including the blocs of Hashim al-Hububi and Wathab Shakir. Abdallah al-Yawir serves as a (tentative) tribal counterweight against the Nujayfi list in Nineveh.

Perhaps the most interesting information in this latest IHEC document concerns two of the smaller coalitions, about which less was known beforehand. Firstly. it is confirmed that Ali al-Fayyad, formerly of the State of Law coalition, has gone ahead with his own coalition (list 226). Alongside the defection to ISCI by Ali al-Dabbagh, this serves to underline a degree of turbulence even in circles that were once considered quite loyal to Maliki. Second, there is the rather large coalition (in number of constituent elements) that is known simply as the Coalition of Iraq, and that has been given ticket number 262. Conceptually, it seems related to the Unity of Iraq coalition in the 2010 election, with a sectarian mix, many seculars and at least attempts at bringing together elements from different parts of the country. The core seems to be the groups that first broke away from Iraqiyya following the conflict between Maliki and (vice president) Hashemi in late 2011: Free Iraqiyya and Wataniyun. Alongside them are, among others, Ali al-Sajri, a former (Sunni) minister of state with a working relationship with Maliki, and Mahdi al-Hafiz, a former (Shiite) planning minister with a background in Iraqiyya.

In his quest for a third term, it seems logical that PM Maliki should be looking to a list like the mixed list 262 to provide a Sunni-secular alternative partner to Nujayfi (whom he considers too strong) or Allawi (whom he cannot work with). How strong this list really is (and how strong Mutlak, another wild card and chameleon is) will to some extent be revealed by the candidate lists. These may take a few more weeks to emerge, following certification of individual candidates including de-Baathification measures.

Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014 | 4 Comments »