Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for October, 2014

After the Rise of ISIS, Will Iraq’s Shiites Secede?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 31 October 2014 15:11

As Iraqi Shiites celebrate the holy month of Muharram and its key holiday of Ashura (4 November), it can be argued that radical sectarian mobilization among them has risen to a level unprecedented in modern Iraqi history since 1927, when a series of episodes prompted calls among the Shiites of Iraq to form their own separate state. This year, too, visions focusing on the possible separation of the Shiite-majority provinces of Iraq as a separate political entity are back on the agenda.

The last time such ideas were being considered in an even remote way was in 2005, when Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI launched his scheme for a single Shiite federal entity stretching from Basra to Najaf. It was the first time since 1927 that anything in the way of territorial separation of Iraqi Shiites had received any serious attention whatsoever. However, back then the project was characterized by only fragmented levels of support, with most Iraqi Shiites still speaking in the name of a unitary state. An even more radical movement to separate the south entirely had even less of a support base.

However, following the rise to prominence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, Iraqi Shiite discourse on the Iraqi state appears to have changed quite dramatically – in the direction of separatist solutions. It is true that some of the talk of a separate Shiite entity, often referred to as the “Sumer” project in a reference to one of the ancient civilizations of Iraq, may have gained extra prominence because of the proliferation of social media, meaning that a wider array of Iraqi Shiite voices are accessible to outside analysts than at any point in history. However, it is noteworthy that also more established political parties among the Iraqi Shiites appear to be warming up to ideas that were considered a taboo just a few years ago. A case in point is the State of Law alliance of former PM Nuri al-Maliki and current PM Haydar al-Abadi. In a first, during Ramadan, a key website supportive of Maliki accorded much prominence to an article that openly hinted at the possible secession of the Shiite areas from the rest of Iraq. Also, changes in the regional environment contribute to a greater push towards separatist  solutions. Iran, in particular, has altered its approach to Iraq in a dramatic way since the emergence of ISIS. In unprecedented ways, it is openly acknowledging and even propagandizing its military support for the Iraqi government through the presence of Iranian advisors among Iraqi military forces deployed on the frontlines against ISIS. The confirmation by the Iraq parliament of an interior minister with a background in the Iran-sponsored Badr brigades arguably gives Tehran more direct influence in Iraq’s security forces than they had under Maliki.

The optics of the Iraqi battlefield look increasingly sectarian as well. In the north-west country almost all the territory recaptured by Iraqi government forces from ISIS are areas associated with Shiite minorities or Kurdish territorial claims. Also recent Iraq government victories in the Jurf al-Sakhar area in Babel, while covering Sunni-minority lands, essentially fall into a picture of wider Shiite consolidation in a core territory from Basra to Samarra.

There are however still some important exceptions to the general trend towards sectarian fragmentation in a territorial sense. This relates above all to Iraqi Sunnis that want nothing to do with ISIS. In a macro perspective this can be seen above all in Anbar, where several key areas including Ramadi still remain outside direct ISIS control. Those who say the quick fall of Mosul is sign that ISIS enjoys general Sunni Iraqi legitimacy will have trouble accounting for the continued existence of pockets of resistance to ISIS among Sunnis in Anbar. If the fall of Mosul to ISIS is proof that Shia discrimination of Sunnis is the underlying cause of the current troubles, then why didn’t all of Anbar also immediately fall? Also at the level of individual politicians, these tendencies can be seen. Provincial councils of Anbar and Nineveh alike continue to operate outside ISIS-controlled territory and repeatedly have condemned ISIS. Prominent Iraqi Sunni politicians like Usama al-Nujayfi have made a point of visiting the Shiite clergy in cities like Najaf and Karbala, which of course is anathema to the rabidly anti-Shiite ISIS.

Beyond this, many of the same historical and practical arguments against separatism that transpired in 2005 remain relevant. The Iraqi Shiites can offer no historical precedent for their separatist scheme, and the link to the old, pre-islamic Sumer civilization has of course nothing more to do with Shiites than with Sunnis (Saddam Hussein was also a huge Sumer enthusiast). And at the practical level, Iraq remains a multi-religious country whose disintegration would likely lead to huge numbers of displaced people, quite possibly creating human tragedies on a scale worse than anything caused by ISIS thus far.

With foreign military advisors of all descriptions pouring into Iraq and the concomitant internationalization of the whole debate pertaining to the future of the country, it becomes doubly important that Western pundits exercise caution when they go about attributing cause and effect in the current crisis. In particular, the notion that ISIS somehow embodies “legitimate Sunni demands” must be rejected. To maintain such a view is not only an affront to the large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis who bravely resist ISIS, often by putting their lives on the line. It also means accelerating a process towards a territorial fragmentation of Iraq that lacks historical basis and points towards an uncertain future.

Posted in Shiite sectarian federalism | 7 Comments »

Additional Ministers Approved for the Iraq Cabinet

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 18 October 2014 22:02

After a month of wrangling and indecision that extended into the Eid al-Adha holiday, new Iraq Prime Minister Haydar al-Abbadi today succeeded in winning approval for new ministers in his government, including most importantly ministers for defence and interior.

It makes sense to start with the choice of ministers for interior and defence. These important posts were a stumbling block for Maliki’s two cabinets. In 2006, they took  a month extra to decide, whereas in 2010 they weren’t decided by parliament at all, as Maliki continued to control them himself or through acting protegées. This time, the candidate for minister of interior, in particular, had caused controversy. For a long time the frontrunner was Hadi al-Ameri, a militia figure from the Badr organization with particularly close ties to the Iranians, whose candidacy caused uproar among many Sunni MPs who remain critical of his conduct during the previous sectarian crisis period of 2005-2007. Today, Ameri gave way to Muhammad Salim al-Ghabban, who shares his Badr background but possibly is seen as less toxic to non-Shiite MPs simply because he is younger and has less baggage than Ameri. For his part, Khaled al-Obeidi who is the new defence minister, had been a candidate back in 2010 as well, when he was nominated by Iraqiyya but quickly was criticized for having moved too close to Maliki. Maybe that sort of person – a Sunni and former Iraq army officers with ties in both sectarian camps – is the best Iraq could hope for in a time when urgent work needs to be done to reorganize the Iraqi army and make it more resilient against the Islamic State terror organization. Both ministers achieved more than acceptable levels of backing by MPs, with Yes votes from the 261 MPs present reported at 173 (Obeidi) and 197 (Ghabban), which is considerably more than what many other ministers got back in September.

As for the Kurdish ministers, it was probably wise of Abbadi to have them approved before parliament in the same batch as the others. The vote on those ministers include some new portfolios that were not voted on back in September (altogether five: migration, tourism, culture, women, and a minister for state), as well as reshuffling two key portfolios whose allocation to individual Kurdish ministers by Abbadi was not to the liking of the Kurdish political parties themselves: Rosch Shaways thereby continues to serve as deputy prime minister, and foreign minister Hosyar Zebari becomes minister of finance.

The vote in the Iraqi parliament today makes the Abbadi cabinet more complete. It maintains differences from the cabinet of his predecessor Maliki in at least two important structural aspects: It has got security ministries approved by the Iraqi parliament with solid backing, and it remains significantly slimmer, with less than 30 ministers (out of the 9 ministers approved today, 2 referred to the reshuffling of ministries already allocated). Moreover there are few “empty” ministries of state with no other purpose than placating particular party interests. Kurds have improved their representation in the cabinet significantly, and the alignment of personnel to ministries is also more in harmony with the wishes of the Kurdish parties.

It can be said that through these additions, the Iraqi parliament has realistically done what it can in the short term to help the Iraqi cabinet achieve a more solid platform for its battle against ISIS. Major legislative acts such as de-Baathification reform, a senate law, and an oil and gas law, will continue to remain on the agenda for a long time, probably with no realistic prospects for early solution. But it will now be the job of the cabinet and the new security ministers, above all, to lead the Iraqi effort in combating the challenge of the Islamic State on the ground in  Iraq. To the extent that there is a remaining parliamentary role in the short term, it relates to approval of a draft law for so-called “national guard” units that may be formed to supplement the Iraqi army, particularly in Sunni-majority provinces.

Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014 | 8 Comments »

The Controversial Kurdish Ministers in the New Iraqi Cabinet

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 17 October 2014 22:07

Iraqi news reports and public controversy regarding the Kurdish ministers in the new Iraqi government of Haydar al-Abbadi that was seated last September have brought to the fore some of the key issues in Iraqi political culture and behavior in the post-2003 period.

In several Kurdish statements, as well as in press reports that uncritically reproduced those statements, one can get the impression that Kurdish politicians who were unhappy with the way portfolios were distributed to individual Kurdish ministers back in September think they have the right to conduct some sort of private reshuffle, moving individual Kurdish politicians between ministries in accordance with their preferences and ideas about which positions fit which individuals better. It has been maintained that Abbadi did not sufficiently consult with the Kurdish parties in making his nominations before parliament, and there is a desire for change of several key ministries. In particular, the Kurds are insistent that Hosyhar Zebari, the previous foreign minister, should be finance minister rather than deputy PM, whereas Rosch Shaways should continue to hold that deputy premiership. The Kurdish view has been that the swap between those positions could be executed as soon as there was internal Kurdish agreement behind the decision.

Of course, from the constitutional point of view, what the Kurdish parties may think about the allocation of Kurdish politicians to ministries is subordinated to the will of the Iraqi parliament, as expressed in the vote on the Abbadi government in September. Constitutionally, it is immaterial what Kurdish parties or the Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani may think about the issue. Parliament has already expressed its will, and if there are to be changes, these will have to be voted on. The only reason there is a legal loophole for making such changes at all without first going through the formal process of dismissing ministers already voted into their jobs is that the Kurdish ministers have refrained from formally taking the oath as ministers in the new cabinet before parliament.

Accordingly, before any swearing in of Kurdish ministers as per the new allocation preferred by the Kurds themselves can take place, a proper vote in the Iraqi parliament on their candidacies must be conducted. Whether a majority for such a vote is realistic remains an open question. True, one could expect such support for new Kurdish ministers to materialize as part of the general agreement between all the leading Iraqi factions that led to the formation of the Abbadi government in the first place. However, it is noteworthy that voting patterns on the individual ministers back in September featured several protest abstentions and many ministers failed to reach the symbolically important absolute majority mark of 165 (the Iraqi supreme court has insisted that an “absolute majority” means a an absolute majority of the total members of the assembly only in those cases where this is expressly mentioned and therefore an absolute majority of MPs present is enough for minister approval). Accordingly, the Kurdish bloc itself does not have sufficient votes to pass these ministers without the active support of at least some of the non-Kurdish blocs in the Iraqi parliament.

With security ministers still not appointed and indications there may be ministers of state added (one of the reported new Kurdish ministers is just an unnamed “minister of state” to be given to members of a Kurdish Islamist party), the new Abbadi government is structurally looking more and more like the second Maliki cabinet. It is true that the Abbadi government formation process looked cleaner on the surface with no intangible “strategic policy council” and no mysterious “Erbil agreement”. But if there is a multiplication in coming weeks of numbers of ministers with no other purposes than satisfying particular political party interests, some of the assumed differences between Abbadi’s and Maliki’s cabinets could soon get blurred.

The Kurdish stance on its ministers, too, is reflective of the culture of consociated democacy that has crystallized in Iraq since 2003. Essentially, the Kurds think they wield sovereignty within their allotted quota of ministerial seats. That is not a view that is supported by the Iraqi constitution, and one that will be put to the test when the Iraqi parliament gets together to tackle these issues in coming days. A forthcoming decision on Saturday has been expected, but so far there is no formal agenda on the parliament website. What is clear in any case is that any new  Kurdish ministers must be voted on before they can complete the formality of swearing in.

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