Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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The Iraqi Parliament Completes the First Reading of the 2014 Annual Budget

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 17 March 2014 14:23

In a significant move, the Iraqi parliament has completed the first passage of the 2014 annual budget despite boycotts by the Kurds and the Mutahhidun bloc loyal to the parliament speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi.

The sheer arithmetic behind the successful quorum at Sunday’s session speaks volumes about shifting political winds in Iraq ahead of the 30 April parliament elections. In order to go ahead with the first reading, 163 MPs needed to be present to reach the legal minimum requirement for taking parliamentary action. According to the official parliament record, 164 deputies attended. In the context of boycotts by Kurds and Mutahhidun alike, this is a remarkable achievement. It means, firstly, that the Shia bloc in parliament is exhibiting internal discipline at a level not seen since 2005. Altogether the three main Shiite factions – State of Law, Muwatin and the Sadrists – command around 161 deputy votes. The numbers suggest that despite internal turmoil among the Sadrists (or because of it?) a majority of these deputies will have been present during the budget reading. Whereas previous occasions involving Kurdish opposition to Maliki have seen widespread ISCI solidarity with the Kurds, no such major Shiite challenge to Maliki appears to have materialized this time around. But beyond this, importantly, there must have been some MPs from the Sunni and secular camps attending as well. The numbers don’t lie: even on a good day, there are no more than aroundd 160 Shiite Islamist MPs, and most of the handful of minority MPs from small non-Muslim groups and ethnic micro-minorities are loyal to the Kurds. Accordingly, in the context of continued criticism of PM Maliki by Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi, it makes sense to assume that at least some of the breakaway elements of Iraqiyya that materialized in 2012 were present to secure the necessary quorum.

Substantially speaking, the conflict involves primarily Kurdish opposition to proposed measures of control regarding oil export from the Kurdish areas. For their part, the Sunni Mutahiddun appear to be boycotting more out of personal opposition to Maliki than a coherent anti-centralism agenda (although the tendency in the latter direction is more pronounced today than it was a couple of years ago). It is interesting that Maliki is using the issue of the budget and the question of Kurdish oil exports to mobilize popular opinion ahead of the elections. This is unprecedented: In 2010, neither the question of Kirkuk nor the budget tension was brought to the fore in a big way. At the same time, when seen within the context of the election campaign more generally, this is Shia chauvinism within a shell of Iraqi nationalism, quite different, for example, from the 22 July movement of 2008 focused on representation issues in the Kirkuk provincial council. Alongside assertiveness on the part of the central government in oil issues comes new governorate proposals clearly speaking to Shia Turkmen minorities, as well as the cabinet’s recent passage of retrograde Shia personal status law that would enable underage marriage – an apparent concession by Maliki to hardliners in the Fadila party ahead of the elections.

Still, this is only the first reading of the budget. Parliament speaker Nujayfi will be able to stage filibuster-like obstacles to delay the second reading and the decisive vote. It is however noteworthy that Nujayfi himself chose to be present and chair the budget first reading on Sunday, quite despite his own bloc’s boycott.

Three further parliament meetings are scheduled for this week. For now, the second budget reading is not on the agenda.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Oil in Iraq, UIA dynamics, Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Iraqi Parliament Completes the First Reading of the 2014 Annual Budget

The Iraqi Cabinet Decides to Form Three New Governorates

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 22 January 2014 1:44

The Iraqi cabinet made big headlines today with a shock decision to form three brand new provinces. Supposedly, there will be new governorates in Tuz Khormato (a Turkmen-dominated area currently in Salahaddin province), the Nineveh plains (a Christian-dominated part of Nineveh province) and Falluja (centre of the current Sunni-led uprising in Anbar province). With a recent decision to create Halabja as a separate governorate in Kurdistan, some observers declared that Iraq all of a sudden has 22 provinces, after decades of relative administrative stability in 18 governorates since the early 1970s.

It is not like the inhabitants of Falluja, Tuz and the Nineveh plains will feel any major changes related to administrative status when they wake up tomorrow. Some of the uncertainty regarding the new move of the Iraqi government can be glimpsed from the language of the cabinet decision itself: The agreement on the formation of these new decisions was made “in principle”, to be completed after the necessary formalities “had been completed”. Those formalities were not detailed: A special committee including members of the ministries of justice and municipalities will look into the “standards and procedures” necessary to complete the transformation.

This ambiguous choice of language in turn reflects wider legal uncertainties regarding any decision to form new provinces. In theory, despite the absence of any constitutional reference to administrative boundary changes, after 2003 such administrative changes were governed by a Baathist-era law, law no. 159 from 1969, which vested the power to change administrative boundaries in cabinet. However, the anachronistic nature of that procedure is attested to by a requirement that “the revolutionary council” approved the measure – an institution that Iraq now thankfully lacks. In any case, in 2008 a new provincial powers law specifically replaced the old provinces law (and repealed it), but it failed to make provision for new administrative boundary changes, meaning there is currently no detailed Iraqi legislation dealing with the subject of the creation of new provinces. That’s the ironic reality of the new Iraq: Whereas elaborate measures exist for the creation of new federal regions, no special provisions for the creation of new governorates exist.

Of course, the absence of a law does not necessarily mean decisions on these matters are off limits to the current Iraqi government. However, in a democracy there will be an expectation that such momentous decisions regarding the administrative structure of a country are governed by laws. Indeed, the recent Iraqi cabinet decision to transform Halabja in Kurdistan to a governorate was accompanied by comments to the effect that a law was expected to be sent to parliament for approval, the lack of relevant formal mechanisms notwithstanding. But whereas the submission to cabinet of a separate Halabja governorate project reflected longstanding internal Kurdish debate on the issue (and eventually a modicum of consensus), no such consensus is known to prevail regarding these three latest would-be provinces.

In sum, such is the uncertainty connected to today’s decision that it is tempting to view it as mainly empty rhetoric calculated to create happiness in particular political circles prior to Iraq’s 30 April parliamentary elections. The question then is what those interested political circles would be. In the case of Tuz and the Nineveh plains (Tall Kayf) one obvious answer would be minority groups in those areas that have long advocated autonomy – Turkmens and Christians respectively. Some view these projects as antidotes to Kurdish expansionism and potential annexation (either through article 140 on disputed territories or the Talabani project to change administrative boundaries back to pre-Baath conditions). It has therefore been suggested that the cabinet move today was an anti-Kurdish project, with Falluja thrown in as a new governorate simply in a rather strained attempt at mollifying Sunni Arab opinion. It would certainly look rather asymmetrical with a small Falluja governorate carved out from the vast Anbar – a hark back to the special administrative provinces seen in particularly ungovernable parts of the Ottoman Empire!

Since the early 1970s, Iraq has experienced relative stability in its administrative map with minor changes to the administrative boundaries of the 18 provinces. If actually granted governorate status, these new entities could soon apply for status as federal regions – something which the proponents of the Nineveh plains unit have long hinted at. It would open the path for similar demands from oil-rich districts in the south who have long felt marginalized within the governorates of which they currently form, including Zubayr and Qurna in Basra. If Falluja can be a governorate, why shouldn’t they claim the same status, with similar population numbers and vast energy resources?

Of course, the Maliki government is not known to be in favour of this kind of large-scale territorial fragmentation. Nonetheless, we now have yet another fictional act of state affecting centre-periphery relations in the new Iraq: The three projected new governorates come on top of a theoretical right for forming federal regions that is always rejected in practice, and a revised and very permissive law on provincial powers that  few think can work in practice.

For the time being, the Maliki government may feel safe that it can play with words in centre–periphery relations without having to face the consequences. In the long run, however, the increasing gap between rhetoric and practice – and between public expectations and the state’s capacity to deliver – may form a contributing factor to a more radical political climate in Iraq.

*Postscript: The changes above are contained in conclusion number 2 from the Iraqi cabinet meeting on 21 January. However, hidden away further down in conclusion number 4 is also mention of a law project to transform the largely Turkmen Tall Afar area of Nineveh to a governorate, and to send this law to parliament for approval. That does seem to indicate plans for altogether four new provinces. Tall Afar has apparently reached a more mature stage of progress towards governorate status. It is also clear that the Iraqi government believes it can send laws for changes of borders of individual governorates to parliament, quite without there being a more elaborate legal framework for such administrative changes in place. The cabinet can also probably rest assured that parliament is unlikely to approve these measures.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Iraqi Cabinet Decides to Form Three New Governorates

Provincial Powers Law Revisions, Elections Results for Anbar and Nineveh: Is Iraq Headed for Complete Disintegration?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 27 June 2013 9:38

A number of important political developments in Iraq this week have failed to receive the attention they deserve, especially for the light they cast on the perennial question of Iraq’s territorial unity in the face of real and imagined schemes of disintegration.

A good place to start are the provincial powers law “revisions” that were passed by parliament on Sunday. The word “revision” is somewhat misleading, since it can be argued that the new changes are so dramatic that they amount to a rewrite of the original law from 2008.

Here are some of the important changes:

Article 7-4: It is for the first time specifically stated that in an area of shared competency between the central government and the governorate, the policy of the governorate shall prevail.

Article 7-6: The governorate is given responsibility for all state officials in its jurisdiction – significantly no longer excepting the courts, the military and the universities which had previously been designated a central government preserve.

Article 7-9: Whereas the ministry in Baghdad was formerly involved in picking top officials of the various government departments operating in the governorates, the selection process is now exclusively limited to the governor and the governorate council.

Article 31-10: Whereas the military was previously expressly excepted from the authorities of the governor, this no longer applies and an ambiguous shared power formula is outlined.

Article 44: Revenues for the governorates are for the first time specified in law (rather than being the subject of annual budget negotiations). This includes 5 petrodollars per barrel of oil or 150 cubic metres of natural gas. Various potential taxes are mentioned, including the right of governorates to tax companies for damages to the environment.

Article 45: This was formerly a vague cooperation council between the central government and the governorates. The council is now being tasked with transferring, within 2 years, control of all governorate-based government departments under the following ministries to local authorities: Municipalities, housing, employment and social issues, education, health, agriculture, finance, sports. If the transfer is not complete within 2 years, the transfer will nonetheless be considered a legal fact. Henceforth, the role of the ministries will be limited to “general planning” only.

It has been suggested that these dramatic changes were acceded to even by sceptics as an alternative to the creation of federal regions. The question is: What is the point in arguing about the creation of federal regions when this law effectively transforms Iraq into a confederation consisting of all its governorates plus the virtually independent Kurdistan? Is it perhaps just the word “federalism” they fear more than anything else? Do Iraqi politicians realise the implications of giving governorate decisions priority in areas of shared competency? It is for example very hard to see any exemption of the oil and gas sector from the general scheme of provincial dominance, since energy is specifically referred to in the new law through a reference to article 112 of the Iraqi constitution.

Whereas decentralisers among the Kurds and ISCI will have been very happy with these new changes, it is more surprising to find Iraqiyya and the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki backing them in a parliamentary session with unusually high attendance (217 out of 325 deputies). Of course, parts of Iraqiyya have long been drifting in a pro-federal direction, and with even Ayyad Allawi calling for widespread decentralisation of services. More surprising is the apparent green light from Maliki, whose parliamentary allies reportedly objected only to an initial article that further limited the powers of the Iraqi army locally – and who expressed satisfaction at the compromise that later emerged on this. Maybe it is the complications of government formation after the 20 April local elections that have prompted this apparent outburst of modesty on the part of State of Law?

More theoretically speaking, even if this law was adopted as a safeguard against the creation of federal regions it is hard to see why the pressures were perceived as being so acute at this time. Firstly, there are the recent (delayed) provincial elections results from Anbar and Nineveh. After pro-federal winds have been blowing over the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq for some time, there is nothing in these results to suggest the existence of an overwhelming demand for new federal regions in north-western Iraq. True, the Mutahiddun bloc of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi picked up 8 seats in each of these two provinces. But politicians with more anti-federal agendas (Mutlak, Karbuli, local lists etc.) achieved the same number of seats in Anbar and Nineveh and will make coalition forming something of a challenge for Nujayfi (on top of the fact that the Kurds emerged as the biggest bloc again in Nineveh with 11 seats). Second, if the persistence of demands for federal referendums was the problem for Maliki, it could have been solved much easier simply with legislative action to abrogate the law on forming regions that was adopted in 2006. This could have been done even with a simple majority in parliament and without infringing on the constitution since the right to form a region would be intact – it would just need another law to be passed.

The 2-year automatic sunset clause for transfer of service ministries to local control epitomises the decentralisation extremism of these latest amendments. One small potential hindrance remains – the federal supreme court. Technically, the law is a “proposal” emanating from parliament rather than a “project” driven forward by the government, and the supreme court has in the past struck down attempts by the legislature to circumvent the executive in the legislative process. Indeed, in 2010, the supreme court veto related to a far more modest decentralisation attempt to sever the ties between a couple of service ministries and the governorates. However, this year it is noteworthy that after initial protests, Maliki’s State of Law list has remained silent about the controversial law limiting the terms of the prime minister following its publication in the official gazette on 8 April. Similarly, there has so far not been any loud indication that they intend to protest this latest law on a technicality.

Amid all of this, deputy speaker of parliament Qusay al-Suhayl, a Sadrist, has resigned. That should give Iraqi politicians ample opportunity to do what they do best – disregard questions of governance and instead focus on petty personal struggles over top positions.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq and soft partition, Iraq local elections 2013 | 6 Comments »

The Hawija Incident: Wider Ramifications in Iraqi Politics

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 13:20

The recent dramatic images from Hawija of protestors under attack by Iraqi government forces are in themselves nothing new in Iraqi politics. Populated mainly by Sunni Arabs and located close to the disputed city of Kirkuk and the border between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Hawija has in recent years seen a level of violence that is significantly higher than the average in post-2003 Iraq. Some of the political violence has been mainly pro-Baath in nature, in other cases Sunni Islamic extremism has been at play, often with suspected ties to foreign radical groups.

What will determine the significance of the Hawija clash in Iraqi politics more broadly relates to its reception among Iraqi political factions outside the local area. And in this respect, early indications are not promising.

To some extent, it is unsurprising that Sunni and secular groups that have been critics of Maliki for a long period should rush to the defence of the Hawija protestors and complain about the actions of the Iraqi army. What is more critical, though, is that other Sunni and secular groups that lately have been on talking terms with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are also deeply critical of the government’s handling of the Hawija affair. This includes Sunni and secular ministers that had recently returned to the Iraqi cabinet despite the boycott by the mainline Iraqiyya movement – including Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy premier, whose support for the annual budget played a role in enabling Maliki to pass it without Kurdish support.

Beyond this, even if Mutlak can perhaps be accused of wavering rather often when it comes to his relations to Maliki, the disputed areas of northern Iraq and the contest between the central government and the KRG have generally speaking been among the few issues where Maliki has been able to win some Sunni and secular friends during his two terms in office. By way of example, after parts of Iraqiyya opted to boycott parliament and cabinet following the arrest order for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi in December 2011, it was mainly deputies from Kirkuk and other northern areas unhappy with the pro-Kurdish turn of Iraqiyya that defected and signalled their willingness to work with Maliki through breakaway factions like Free Iraqiyya and Wataniyun. Similarly, Arabs from the disputed areas have repeatedly played a certain role in helping Maliki defeat pro-federal tendencies in the northern governorates.

It will not be possible for Maliki to alienate both the Kurds and the Arabs of the disputed areas at one time. In a reflection of this dilemma, Maliki has reportedly rejected the resignation of the education minister from the Mutlak bloc, and is still weighing his options with regard to Kurdish ministers he had promised to replace by acting ministers in the case of prolonged absence from cabinet.

One interesting indicator of how this tug of war will play out relates to the provincial elections results of Diyala and Salahaddin, which have Sunni Arab majorities and significant Shiite and Kurdish minorities. Those results, expected later this week, will likely influence the extent to which factions like that of Mutlak will remain in protest mode.

Another significant process is the holding of delayed elections in Anbar and Nineveh. It emerged yesterday that there has in fact been considerable tension between the elections commission IHEC and the Iraqi cabinet on the issue: Whereas IHEC indicated 18 May as the latest possible date, the Iraqi cabinet decided that elections will be held on 4 July absent any radical improvement of the security environment at an earlier stage. The relevant legal framework gives cabinet the right to fix election dates on the recommendation from IHEC; to what extent this procedure has actually been followed now seems in doubt.

It is no more possible for Maliki to endlessly delay elections in Anbar and Nineveh than to pretend that the conflict in neighbouring Syria doesn’t exist. Maybe the Hawija incident can serve as a reminder for Maliki about how radical winds from Syria can easily derail Iraqi politics, and how critical it is for him, now more than ever, to build bridges and create accommodation rather than letting confrontational politics of the Syrian kind gain hold in Iraq.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 13 Comments »

Targeting Mutlak and Hashemi: Towards Full Political Disintegration in Iraq?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 18 December 2011 13:15

Only days after Maliki’s Washington photo-op and with the US withdrawal formally sealed, Iraqi politics is alive again – but for all the wrong reasons. Yesterday saw unprecedented statements by people close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that a move is afoot to withdraw confidence in Deputy Premier Salih al-Mutlak of Iraqiyya (on charges of incompetence) and to bring legal charges against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, also of Iraqiyya, for alleged involvement in the recent terror attack against the Iraqi parliament.

It should be stressed that so far much of this remains rumours and statements. Iraqiyya leaders say no formal request to parliament nor any arrest warrants have been seen so far. However, to some extent, the exact formal status of these proceedings does not really make that much difference. Mentally speaking the cat is out of the bag anyway: Here are two abrupt attacks by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against participants in his own government. Two lines of attack are being followed, one political and the other judicial.

With respect to the Mutlak case, given his latest comments to US media about the nature of Maliki’s regime it is perhaps unsurprising that Maliki should take some action: When Mutlak accused Maliki of being a dictator, Maliki allies quipped back that Mutlak was the deputy dictator! Whether Maliki has the parliamentary support base to do this remains to be seen. In this matter, Maliki can probably count on the Shiites outside the State of Law alliance (Sadrists and ISCI), since many of them are bitterly opposed to Mutlak for his past association with the Baath party (after previously having been targeted judicially, Mutlak was formally exempted from de-Baathification proceedings as part of the December 2010 government-formation compromise). It is also interesting that the move against Mutlak and the Iraqiyya boycott comes at a time when the general amnesty law is making progress in parliament: That was a case of Iraqiyya and the Sadrists uniting against Maliki.

It is more unclear what the Kurds would do and their votes should be needed even if Iraqiyya continues to boycott parliament since sacking a minister in theory requires an “absolute majority”. Given his penchant for exploiting potential legal loopholes, it is however not entirely unlikely that Maliki may try to make use of ambiguity that arguably exists in that the constitution regarding the definition of an absolute majority in this particular case: In most instances, the constitution explicitly refers to an “absolute majority of the members of parliament”, but with regard to the sacking of individual ministers it speaks only about an “absolute majority” (aghlabiyya mutlaqa). This may well have originated as a simple clerical omission, especially since the concept of a “simple majority” (aghlabiyya basita) occurs elsewhere in the constitution. In other words it would be a an exercise – far-fetched perhaps? – of redefining all of this as plurality, simple majority and absolute majority respectively. Under that kind of scenario, of course, the Shiite Islamists might theoretically seek to sack Mutlak singlehandedly.

As regards Hashemi, this very much looks like a judicial attack on a political enemy that Maliki would probably not be able to get rid of in parliament: Last spring, Maliki had more trouble getting his own vice-presidential candidate, Khudayr al-Khuzaie, confirmed than Hashemi had with respect to his own candidature. Today, there is a statement from the higher judicial council to the effect that it will create a special investigatory committee to look into the accusations against Hashemi’s security detail – a judicial approach that in itself seems ad hoc and extraordinary.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect in all of this is that Maliki is targeting people with a record for compromise. Both Mutlak and Hashemi have at times taken chances with their own constituencies for the sake of cooperating within the Iraqi political system. Back in 2009, Mutlak led a rapprochement attempt towards Maliki, whereas Hashemi was vice-president in the previous parliamentary cycle despite opposition from many Sunni Muslims. When Hashemi was labelled “Baathist” by the Sadrist Bahaa al-Aaraaji in autumn 2009, the revulsion against Aaraji in parliament included many Shiite Islamists and Kurds.

Symptomatic of all that is going on are perhaps today’s developments in Diyala. The embattled, pro-federal governorate council is in emergency session in the Kurdish-dominated Khanaqin. They complain about armed Shiite demonstrations in Baquba and the inability of the government security forces to provide adequate security. This is a pattern we have seen before: Secularists and Sunnis withdrawing to the Kurds in times of trouble with Maliki.

So far the Kurds have a track record of hosting Iraqiyya in a friendly manner and then ultimately betraying them in bilateral deals with Maliki.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 20 Comments »

Disputed Territories and Region Formation: A New Low in the Iraqi Constitutional Debate

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 15 December 2011 13:01

We already have a pretty confused federalism debate in Iraq after the recent surge of interest in federalism among some Sunni local politicians. Both opponents and proponents of new federal regions are making up their own rules and are paying scant attention to the laws on the books.

Enter the concept of “disputed territories”. With emerging federalism projects in Diyala and longstanding Kurdish claims to portions of that governorate – notably Khanaqin – ever more complex situations seem to come on the agenda in Iraq. The Kurds now claim they have supported the federalism request in the governorate council on the provision that Khanaqin will be kept separate and will be annexed to the Kurdistan Regional Government:

وقال عضو الكتلة دلير حسن في حديث لـ”السومرية نيوز”، إن “أعضاء كتلة التحالف الكردستاني وقعوا على الطلب الرسمي بإقامة إقليم إداري واقتصادي في ديالى، على أن تكون المناطق المتنازع عليها وخاصة قضاء خانقين بنواحيه الأربع خارج الإقليم

But can they do that? Absolutely not. Not as part of a federalisation project as such. It is absolutely critical to appreciate that, constitutionally and legally speaking, region formation and disputed territories are entirely separate concepts in Iraq. There is no relationship between them whatsoever and an attempt to intertwine the two concepts – as seen in the latest Diayla move – is bound to come up against insurmountable judicial problems.

This all goes back to the fact that Iraq does not have any post-2003 framework for tackling changes to governorate boundaries other than the vague provisions that relate to “disputed territories” under article 140 of the constitution. Those provisions, in turn, are interpreted to mean “referendums” on the final status of contested areas – but as long as there is no general progress towards article 140 settlement, region formation must remain a separate theme.

If a referendum for the establishment of a federal region in Diyala is called for (as it should be, legally speaking, regardless of Shiite-led counter-demonstrations of some size), inhabitants of Khanaqin – just like all the other citizens of Diyala – will have to vote on whether Diyala (including Khanaqin) should become a single federal region or remain as an ordinary governorate as per today. No other option can or will be on the table.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues | 17 Comments »

In Washington, a Window-Dressing Exercise; in Diyala, another Federalism Bid

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 12 December 2011 19:55

The arrival in Washington of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has been accompanied by considerable media hype.  A key talking point for the Obama administration is the idea that Iraq is facing a more positive future as 8 years of occupation are coming to an end.

Among the indicators of progress cited by President Barack Obama today are the statistics of violence in Iraq, which currently stand at an all-time low. Obama also mentioned a series of “indicators” that strictly speaking relate to the future rather than the present, such as the “expected” increase in Iraqi oil production and the “scheduled” meeting of the Arab League, to be held in Baghdad. Additionally, much attention has been given by the US media to recent statements by Maliki to the international press that all emphasise the idea of Iraqi sovereignty towards its neighbours.

Opponents of the Obama administration, on the other hand, are trying to highlight possible indicators of Iranian hands working behind the scenes. Previously, the so-called special groups and the Sadrists more broadly have received attention; recently, the fate of the pro-Baathist Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq, still camped in Iraq, as well as the pro-Iranian suspected terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq – currently in US custody in Iraq – have been suggested as bellwethers with relevance for the coming period and possible test cases re continued Iranian clout in Iraq.

Some will also ask about the realities of the “non-interference” concept that seems to be the current Iraqi foreign policy doctrine: Iraq will not interfere in Syria, and will not let Iran interfere in Iraq. What, then, are we to make of rumours that Iraqis, including Sadrists, actively (and militarily) support the Syrian regime these days? If that is the Iraqi interpretation of non-interference, can we be assured that informal Iranian “support” will not continue to characterise Iran–Iraq relations?

The critics of the spin-doctoring are right, but they could in fact have painted a far more dramatic and wide-ranging  picture of the precarious situation in Iraq. Just look back at the formation of the second Maliki government that was finished one year ago almost to the day. Among the features highlighted by commentators in the international community and especially the US government at the time (and criticised by others as unrealistic) was the agreement to create power-sharing through a national council for high policies as well as through distributing the security portfolios to the biggest political blocs. But where are we today? One year after the formation of the government, all the elements of power-sharing highlighted by optimistic commentators back then remain unimplemented. The strategic council is hardly at the drawing-board stage and even optimists within the Maliki government suggest that any agreement on security ministries is many months ahead.

The composition of the Iraqi delegation accompanying Maliki to Washington very much reflects this state of affairs. Maliki is assisted by one adviser and two Shiite Islamist ministers with close ties to Iran, two Kurds, one long-exiled, nominally Sunni defence minister who enjoys only limited support in Sunni-majority areas, as well as two technocrats. Glaringly absent is any representative of the Iraqiyya coalition that won most votes in the March 2010 parliamentary elections.

If that is not sufficient to raise doubts about the realities of power-sharing in today’s Iraq, perhaps developments in Diyala today can serve as a better reminder. Reportedly, Iraqiyya figures played a key role in launching a request for a referendum on federal status for that governorate – interestingly with at least some Kurdish support (some say in exchange for the acceptance of Kurdish claims to the disputed territory of Khaniqin). There was rejection from some Shiite parties including ISCI as well as in the Khalis sub-governorate, plus reports that a Kurdish local politician in Diyala was arrested today by a force from Baghdad. Nevermind that the whole federalism bid to some extent was accompanied by illegality in the way it mimicked the “declaration” of a federal region attempted by Salahaddin in late October!

When you have the resources of a superpower, safely withdrawing military forces is in itself not exactly a major accomplishment. True, violence in Iraq is down, but in the big picture the critical reduction of violence antedated 2009. Maliki does things in the name of Iraqi nationalism that Iran doesn’t like, Obama told us today, but when was last time that actually happened? Probably in autumn 2009, when he decided to try to run the State of Law alliance separate from the other Shiites in the upcoming parliamentary elections – and failed. Sunni interest in federalism – virtually non-existent in 2009 – is a sign of the disintegration of national politics rather than a positive development.

The inescapable truth is that much of the current pathology of Iraqi politics dates back to the 2009–2011 period, precisely when President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in charge in Washington.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iranian influence in Iraq, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 32 Comments »

Maliki, Allawi, and the Sunnis That (Still) Reject Federalism

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 December 2011 13:22

Perhaps one of the most interesting dimensions to the recent surge in federalism interest in Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas are those Sunnis that still don’t like the idea of federalism.

We have been in a similar situation before, with the Shiites. Back in 2005, when SCIRI suddenly declared its interest in a big Shiite region and the Western mainstream media promptly announced a general pro-federal tendency among Iraqi Shiites, it was internal Shiite opponents of federalism that ultimately torpedoed the whole project. Back then, at least to some extent, it seemed that popular resistance against sectarian federalism had prevailed.

Since Iraqi Sunnis began discussing federalism in earnest in late 2010, there have been three distinctive rounds of reactions.

Firstly, in the autumn of 2010 the provincial council in Anbar adopted a stance on the development of the Akkaz gas field that in practice amounted to federalism – and at least some local politicians openly advocated federalism. At the time, however, there were plenty of prominent, dissenting voices within Anbar itself.

Second, when parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi seemed to embrace something tantamount to Sunni sectarian separatism in late June 2011, there was also no lack of internal critics. Leading politicians from both Mosul (Nujayfi’s hometown) and the Iraqiyya coalition (Nujayfi’s political party) criticised the move.

Thirdly, there has been a separate wave of reactions to the latest bid by the governorate council in Salahaddin to request a federal referendum.

In the case of Salahaddin, perhaps the most prominent feature is that it has been somewhat difficult to identity leading Sunni local politicians opposing the bid. Vocal opposition has mostly taken the form of threats about sub-governorate separatism, which in turn has a (Shiite-minority) sectarian dimension.  One of the few publicised signs of local opposition was a meeting between the Shiite premier, Nuri al-Maliki, and a number of unspecified tribal shaykhs of the governorate. For what we know, they may well have been Shiite Dujaylis.

Outside Salahaddin, however, negative Sunni reactions remain numerous. There have been anti-federal tribal conferences in Anbar (Dulaym,) and Nineveh (the Jubbur tribe). Also in Kirkuk, Diyala and Mosul, many Sunnis remain sceptical of federalism more generally. Urban politicians in Mosul still call for the intervention of the (Shiite-led) Iraqi army to counter Kurdish assertiveness in the oil-rich disputed territories where Exxon recently signed deals. It is however true that there is some Sunni-led sub-governorate separatism underway as well, for example in the demand that Falluja be separated from the rest of Anbar in a reaction to perceived dominance by Ramadi.

There are signs Maliki is reaching out to the long-exiled amir of the Dulaym tribe, Majid Sulayman, in order to counter the pro-federal current in Salahaddin. The problem with Sulayman (and other exiles) is that he may well be out of touch with local sentiment in the Sunni areas. Symptomatically, perhaps, Maliki’s detractors made a big point of the fact that Izzat al-Duri, the exiled Baathist leader, shared his criticism of the federal project in Salahaddin!

If Maliki is smart, he will reach out to those local politicians on the ground in the Sunni areas that still reject federalism. If he is to maintain some semblance of democracy in Iraq, he will need more than Sunni figureheads from White Iraqiyya or Tawafuq and tribal sheikhs – Saddam Hussein, after all, had excellent relations with many Shiite shaykhs, including Maliki’s own Banu Malik. In Anbar, the deputy governor, Hikmat Jasim Zaydan, recently expressed scepticism towards federalism as a step towards sectarianism and partition. That is an example of the kind of politician to whom Maliki could try to reach out.

Interestingly, Ayyad Allawi, the leader of the secular Iraqiyya has come out with exactly the same position as Maliki: The time is not right for more federal regions. Of course personal relations between him and Maliki are notoriously bad. Allawi could use this situation for two different purposes: Either he could embark on the unlikely project of reconciling with Maliki, or he could exploit the situation to win more support on the ground in a situation when the Nujayfi camp appears to be betting on the federalism option. Are we still convinced that the current Sunni pro-federal trend is really more than SCIRI’s call for a Shiite region in 2005?

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq | 16 Comments »

Sub-Governorate Separatism in Iraq: New Examples from Dujayl and Balad

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 26 November 2011 12:30

Those who are following the evolving debate about federalism in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq will have taken note of the rapidly deteriorating legal standard of the arguments presented. The assertion earlier this week by Khalid al-Attiya, an ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, that the constitution does not call for the “immediate establishment” of federal regions may represent a low mark in the debate so far. It is true, as Atiyya claims, that the constitution does not say that federalism regions need to be established “immediately”.

“الدستور لم ينص على إقامة الفدرالية فوراً، كما أنه حذر من أي توجه عنصري أو طائفي لإنشاء الأقاليم

The thing is, Mr. Atiyya, they can be established “anytime”! 

Also, the second part of the State of Law argument, that the constitution supposedly warns against establishing regions as a result of racist or sectarian impulses, is an outright lie.

A particularly interesting genre of federalism-related constitutional perversion relates to the newly revived idea of sub-governorate separatism, with or without reference to federalism discussions.  In fact, the new Iraqi constitution of 2005 fails entirely to address the question of changes to the administrative boundaries of existing governorates. In terms of territorial changes, it deals only with the possible agglutination of multiple (whole) governorates into new regions through a process of federalisation. The relevant law on the books is a Saddam-era regulation that vests the power to make administrative changes in the central government – which of course is at variance more generally with the radical, bottom-up spirit of the new asymmetrical system of regions and governorates that was introduced with the new Iraqi constitution in 2005.

Despite the absence of clear constitutional or legal provisions allowing sub-governorate separatism through local initiatives, several incarnations of such projects already exist in the political history of Iraq in the post-2005 era. Perhaps most prominently, this includes repeated calls for the creation of new administrative units (governorates or regions) in the oil-rich Qurna and Zubayr areas within Basra governorate. Qurna is a peripheral part of Basra bordering on Dhi Qar, whereas Zubayr is west of Basra and home to a substantial Sunni minority.

Another example in this category is the idea of a Christian-dominated federal entity in the Nineveh plains. In this case, an attempt has been made to seek justification in article 125 of the constitution (which stipulates the right to “administrative rights” for ethnic and religious minorities), but it seems a far stretch to interpret this as a right to form a federal region: Region formation is treated separately and in a far more detailed manner elsewhere in the constitution, whereas article 125 is part of a section dealing with “local government”.

This week, the latest federalist initiative in Salahaddin has prompted sub-governorate separatist attempts from those who do not want to be part of the bid. Symptomatically of today’s sectarian climate in Iraqi politics, these calls for secession (and annexation to Baghdad) are apparently mainly from Shiite minorities who are territorially concentrated in Balad and Dujayl. In local elections in 2009, Maliki’s State of Law won some 14,000 votes in these areas and 2 seats in the governorate assembly; in March 2010 the Shiite Islamists fell short of the one-seat threshold of some 30,000 votes. Historically, Dujayl has seen severe episodes of sectarian upheaval, including in the 1980s after an anti-regime assassination attempt that led to the collective punishment of many Shiites, as well as in anti-Shiite terrorist episodes in the post-2003 era.

It is true that some of the new, anti-federal resistance is framed with reference to previous administrative maps when Balad in short intervals was part of the Baghdad governorate when the rest of Salahaddin wasn’t. As such, it could perhaps be grouped with other “disputed territory” conflicts (including Nukhayb in Anbar in addition to the better known areas claimed by the Kurds). However, the long line here is that the very creation of Salahaddin as a governorate is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that until the late 1960s the governorate of Baghdad was much bigger – an elongated province stretching northwards to the borders of Kirkuk. First and foremost, then, this latest separatism sub-governorate initiative looks somewhat sectarian in character, and certainly more sectarian than the federalism initiative against which it supposedly reacts (there is in fact nothing more sectarian about the Sunni-led, uni-governorate Salahaddin federalism initiative than what was seen in previous attempts to establish Basra as a separate federal entity, apart from the other Shiite-majority areas).

Thankfully, there are also reports about anti-separatism in Dujayl. Back in history, Dujayl was the ancestral home of Shiite writers who were among the first Iraqi nationalists in late Ottoman times, including Kazim al-Dujayli. Still, if sub-governorate separatism becomes a persistent trend in Iraq, we may soon end up with as many federal entities as there are oilfields in the country.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues | 10 Comments »

Salahaddin Leaders Turn to Talabani to Solve Federalism Impasse

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 24 November 2011 13:11

The 15-day limit for the central government to ask the elections commission to arrange a federalism referendum for Salahaddin has now expired.

The Iraqi government is breaking the law on region formation by not arranging the referendum, but in the past similar requests from the Shiite-majority governorates of Basra and Wasit have been quietly shelved by the central government – and without much in the way of protests. Salahaddin, however, is opting for a different course. Provincial council leaders now say they are contacting Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, to make him act in his capacity as “defender of the constitution” and to impel the government to make the necessary legal steps.

In so doing, it is noteworthy that the Salahaddin leaders are hinting at the possibility of future claims before the federal supreme court, but that they are also emphasising that they want to exhaust all other options first. To some extent, this is probably a way of masking a reality in which the supreme court is seen as the tool of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whereas Talabani, as a Kurd – and despite his personal good ties to Maliki – is seen as a federalist first and foremost. For that reason, there is an expectation that he will be sympathetic to federalism initiatives in other parts of Iraq more generally.

Constitutionally speaking, the president of the republic has a theoretical responsibility for ensuring compliance with the constitution but almost no specific constitutional powers in this regard. Even though the president has managed to carve out a certain niche as a quasi-appellate court in cases involving the death sentence, it would be wrong to see the presidency as an alternate constitutional court. What Talabani can do, however, is to act as an informal arbiter, perhaps on the pattern of what was earlier this year when the implementation of the Arbil framework became a matter of dispute. Back then, the secular Iraqiyya party made a point out of turning to Talabani, rather than to Maliki, in an attempt at resolving the remaining issues.

Talabani will be tested on this issue at a point in time when relations between Maliki and the Kurds are already strained because of the Exxon Mobil deals for KRG-held areas including disputed territories. The Maliki camp has been firmly opposed to the Salahaddin federalism bid, but it is hard to see how they can plausibly delay the process in a legal way. The constitutional and legal aspects of the case are so crystal clear that any discovery of new problems by the supreme court will raise even more doubts about its neutrality than before.

There is however one possible reason Talabani might be less forthcoming towards the Salahaddin federalists than they have been hoping for. A new idea in Kurdish circles is that article 140 of the constitution on disputed territories should be implemented before the creation of any new federal region. Also this week, it is being reported that Talabani himself has sent parliament a bill that would regulate the settlement of administrative boundaries in the disputed territories. These ideas in themselves have no constitutional basis and like so much else in Iraqi politics are the concoctions of politicians. Nonetheless, such claims may serve as an indication of a possible new preference in Kurdish circles for bilateral deal-making with Maliki on article 140 instead of or before a general move towards the comprehensive federalisation of Iraq.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 12 Comments »