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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

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 »

VP Biden and the Great American Reposture in the Middle East

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 2 December 2011 19:35

So, it’s over, or mostly so. The visit to Iraq by US vice-president Joe Biden this week marked the symbolic end of the US-led Iraq War and the beginning of a new era in which a so-called Strategic Framework Agreement will govern US-Iraq relations.

First, don’t get fooled by that impressive framework term (yes, it’s called the SFA in US government parlance). This may sound fancy, but to Iraq it means simply a normal bilateral relationship between two independent countries. Other countries may have their own SFAs with Iraq as well, formal or informal, and in the long run it’s the realities on the ground – not how US government media advisors choose to spin it – that will count.

But the vice-presidential visit this week was of course mostly about spin. Basically, it was the usual Biden menu of gaffe, humour and pomposity delivered with unmistakable self-confidence and no particular regard for the facts on the ground. Biden even referred to US hospital-building in the great Iraqi city of Baku!  (The Transparent White House© was courageous enough to publish the little hiccup as delivered, with a tiny sic inserted not so gently within the flowery prose of the VP).

More substantially, the remarkable feature of Biden’s speeches was that he is finally beginning to talk about Iraq as a nation, instead of the compulsive references to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that characterised the public Iraq diplomacy of the Obama administration in 2009–2010. Instead of references to the sub-categories of Iraqis, Biden now talked about “this great nation”. Those who talk about civil war and fragmentation, according to Biden, “not only misunderstand the Iraqi politics, but they underestimate the Iraqi people”! Apparently, this time around Biden even forgot to visit his old favourite, Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI, a Shiite sectarian party that for a long time enjoyed access to most areas in Washington.

Too bad it’s too late to talk like that now. Biden’s remarks come at a time when Iraq as a nation appears to be in far greater danger than back in 2006 when Biden himself prophesised disintegration and advocated controlled devolution. Biden would have realised this had he focused on qualitative instead of quantitative indicators in his speech: The number of violent incidents may be down, but Sunni-majority areas of Iraq are showing an unprecedented interest in self-rule and even separatism from what they see as a Shiite Islamist monopoly in Baghdad. When Biden says, “we were able to turn lemons into lemonade”, refers to “a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law” and even highlights “Iraq’s emerging, inclusive political culture… (as) the ultimate guarantor of stability”, he is simply making things up.

It is perhaps symptomatic that Biden’s exit from Iraq – probably the last top Washington official to leave the country prior to the full withdrawal – should take place via Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Even though rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from Biden’s erstwhile predilection for sects and ethnicities, it has never backed this up consistently in its own policies. Nothing symbolises the contradiction in US policy better than the tension between a rhetorical focus on the national whole and the constant pandering to centrifugal forces: US state visits to Spain do not always include Catalonia and the Basque Country as separate ports of call, so why should Iraq – another federal country – be any different?

Biden closed by saying that “oil’s the glue that’s going to hold this country together”. That’s an optimistic forecast at a time when Biden’s own Kurdish hosts are considering using oil as a weapon to dismantle Iraq as a country, and increasingly enlist US oil companies as part of their efforts.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 12 Comments »

Finally, Some Good Sunni Federalism: Are You Happy Now, Joe?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 30 November 2011 13:21

US Vice President Joe Biden has visited Iraq many times, with many different messages.

Back in 2007, Biden travelled to the Sunni-majority governorate of Anbar in search of federalists. He wanted to fill a glaring lacuna in his wonderful plan for a tripartite Iraq: Real Sunnis that were ready to forget about Baghdad and focus on local provincial politics instead. He was unable to find any takers… Full story here.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition | 7 Comments »

Operation Iraqi Partition

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 1 September 2010 11:55

“Iraq is free to chart its own course”. The message from the Obama administration as Operation Iraqi Freedom came to an end sounded wonderful, like the release from captivity of a beautiful bird.

Alas, Iraq today is anything but a beautiful bird. Rather it is a wounded prisoner, incarcerated for the past seven years in a mental prison. True, things were not great before 2003 either: Back then, Iraq was ruled by a brutal regime whose excesses would at times assume sectarian or racist forms. Nonetheless, equally problematic, in a different way, are the acts of the motley crew of members of the “international community” whose task it was to rehabilitate the victims of the Iraq War after 2003 and put the country on the right path to true freedom. Instead, through their blind insistence on a discourse of ethnic and sectarian division they gave political opportunists returning from exile a head start and charted the way for a constitution and a political system that resonate poorly with the Iraq’s historical past.

To truly appreciate the immensity of this crime and the degree of complicity in it among Western intellectuals more generally, let’s not focus here on the big, famous or powerful, whose agendas and intellectual parameters are well known. They include of course people like Paul Bremer, Peter Galbraith, Joe Biden, Chris Hill and Ad Melkert who in their various ways have all insisted on dividing the Iraqis territorially and conceptually, as if ethno-religious communities somehow constituted distinct branches of humanity. And let’s not go so much into what journalists have done in this regard, except mentioning that probably the most consistent offender is the elusive “Qassim Abdul-Zahra” of AFP/AP (probably a pen name) as well as pretty much every Baghdad correspondent that has worked for the BBC over the past seven years (yesterday, the BBC simply subtitled an interview with Ala Makki of Iraqiyya with “Sunni MP”. How would they describe Ayad Allawi of the same secular party?) No, let’s instead look at the writings of a less known, bright young American professor at Harvard who in many ways has tried to engage in constructive dialogue with the Islamic world and at one point in 2004 also had a role as a consultant on the Transitional Administrative Law that governed Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Even he cannot get Iraqi history right.

In a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Noah Feldman made the case for a prolonged US presence in Iraq beyond 2011. Feldman writes, “Iraqis’ primary identities are still of religious denomination or ethnicity, not of Iraqi nationhood – and that may remain the case indefinitely. Iraqi national identity under Saddam Hussein never truly incorporated Shiites or Kurds. Sunnis, who identified most closely with the Iraqi nation, remain in some ways disenfranchised relative to the other groups, or at least they perceive themselves that way.”

So Feldman claims Iraqi Shiites are less identified with the Iraqi nation than the Sunnis! The only problem with that bold assertion is that it totally lacks an empirical basis. Had the Harvard professor bothered to read Iraqi newspapers from the 1920s, he would have been astonished by the countless contributions by prominent Shiite intellectuals who celebrated Iraqi nationalism and their alliance with the (mainly Sunni) population in the northern areas of Iraq in opposing the British presence at the time. Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir from Hilla and Jaafar Abu Timman from Baghdad are but a few examples that come to mind. As for Feldman’s assertion elsewhere in the article that Iraq was somehow “born” as a result of British machinations, why doesn’t he turn to the Lughat al-Arab journal that was published in Baghdad in the Young Turk era (1908–1914)? It is in fact littered with patriotic references to Iraq as a watan (homeland) in articles by writers like Anastas al-Karmili (a Christian) and Kazim al-Dujayli (a Shiite).

There has been much talk about conspiracies by hostile powers to divide Iraq into separate statelets, and most of it is probably unfounded. This partition conspiracy, however, is real and since it mostly goes undiagnosed it represents arguably far most dangerous aspect of the Iraq War: Brilliant Western academics who may have the best possible intentions towards Iraq and its people but who in an attempt at sounding sophisticated perpetuate the toxic paradigm of a tripartite Iraq – be it territorially or sociologically – simply because they have failed to study the country’s history properly through primary sources. The suggestion is not that sectarian and ethnic issues are non-existent in Iraqi history. But if Western academics had stopped reproducing what are outright lies about the origins of the modern Iraqi state, the whole climate of the discourse on Iraq would have looked vastly different. Rewrite that Feldman op-ed, delete everything that is empirically incorrect about Iraq’s history, and check to see how much is left of the original argument.

Operation Iraqi Freedom may be over, but Operation Iraqi Partition lives on, regardless of Security Council resolutions or status of forces agreements. Unfortunately, there is no anti-war movement against it in the Western world because most of the academics there are in fact its loyal soldiers.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Sectarian master narrative | 80 Comments »

Shiastan Strategist Criticises Maliki-Allawi Rapprochement; His Boss Meets with Hill

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 11 July 2010 20:14

Predictably, the signs of increasing dialogue between Iraqiyya headed by Ayad Allawi and State of Law (SLA) led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are met with alarm not only by the Kurds, but also by the Iraqi National Alliance, the more sectarian Shiite group of parties that received 70 seats in the new parliament.

The latest contribution to this chorus is from Basim al-Awwadi, a political adviser to Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). In a statement to the press, Awwadi suggests that SLA and Iraqiyya cannot cooperate because their political programmes are incompatible and “180 degrees from each other”.

Clearly, Awwadi is not a supporter of the “180 solution” ! Also, he is not very good at analysing political programmes. The fact is that SLA and Iraqiyya agree on a number of salient issues in Iraqi politics, including the importance of a strong centralised state including a powerful oil ministry, respecting Islam but without giving clerics too much power (unlike Awwadi’s own INA, State of Law does not have adherence to the diktats of the Shiite priests as part of its official programme), boosting Iraqi oil production (even in a situation where Iran may not like this because prices may go down), and not ceding the mixed city of Kirkuk to the Kurds. In fact there is greater agreement on these issues between Iraqiyya and SLA than there is internally within INA (where at least some Sadrists are more centralist and anti-Kurdish than the rest).

But there is also some more interesting background to this. Awwadi, who has become more prominent as a Hakim adviser lately, used to be a strong advocate not only of the idea of a Shiite federal entity stretching from Baghdad to Basra, but indeed for full Shiite independence. In articles written back in 2004 and 2005 and published on websites such as that of the “Committee for the Independence of the Shiites of Iraq” (on which more here), Awwadi claimed that “the Shiites of Iraq are a separate nation, totally distinct from the others”. He advocated emulating the Kurdish strategy of independence, aiming for the liberation from the rest of Iraq of the territory in the triangle between Fao, Samarra and Kirkuk/Diyala. He strongly criticised the Allawi government and suggested the Shiites do more to get on par with Sunnis and Kurds with respect to military capability.

Little wonder, then, that Awwadi is critical to an alliance between SLA and Iraqiyya that could once more push his beloved sectarian identities slightly to the background. Meanwhile, however, his primitive kind of thinking still appears to command some interest in American circles, not least as far as Ambassador Chris Hill is concerned. He made sure to follow in the footsteps of Joe Biden and UNAMI representative Ad Melkert to make his nth meeting with Awwadi’s boss, Ammar al-Hakim, over the weekend. Characteristically, the ISCI communiqué from the meeting said the meeting resulted in “reassurances… that a government would be formed of all the political forces of all the factions of the Iraqi community”. In fact, that sounds very 2004, but some players apparently still want to keep the idea of a “factionalised” Iraqi society on the agenda…

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | 3 Comments »

The Khalilzad-DNO Affair and the Galbraith Parallels

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 24 June 2010 15:14

The recent nomination of the former US ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to a position on the board of DNO, a Norwegian private company engaged in oil deals in Kurdistan, has already generated big headlines. Part of the reason is that following Peter Galbraith, Khalilzad is the second key US figure involved in constitutional issues during the years 2003–2005 to acquire business interests in Kurdistan. Continued disagreement between the Kurds and Baghdad over supremacy and governance issues in the oil sector makes this kind of dual involvement into a particularly touchy area.

Certain parallels to Peter Galbraith do exist in this case, but the differences also remain considerable. In the first place, the timing of Khalilzad’s involvement with DNO seems somewhat tidier. Khalilzad quit his diplomatic mission in Iraq in 2007 and his involvement with DNO started after that date (and only became formalised recently after he was nominated for the DNO board by the Emirati company RAK, which has a big stake in DNO shares). Conversely, Peter Galbraith continued to advise the Kurds during the constitutional negotiations in August 2005 even after he had started receiving money from DNO and had also acquired his “stake” in the Tawke oil project.

Secondly, to the extent that he is known to have had any direct impact on legal frameworks directly relating to the oil sector, Khalilzad was unsuccessful. Khalilzad failed in his offensive to getting a package of oil legislation passed in early 2007; Galbraith, by way of contrast, was successful in obtaining constitutional accept for many of the principles he authored in late 2003 and early 2004 about regional influence in the oil sector (or at least a sufficient degree of legal ambiguity to create problems for Baghdad). In fact, the parts of the Iraqi constitution with which Khalilzad is most clearly associated are the last-minute amendments that were designed to encourage participation in Sunni Muslim areas in the 15 October 2005 constitutional referendum, including, importantly, the key point about a one-off batch of constitutional revisions with no supermajorities required in parliament (which of course could ultimately reverse everything the Kurds have been dreaming of with respect to regional influence in the oil sector and, in a worst-case scenario for DNO, the business prospects with which Khalilzad has now become associated).

The closest parallel to Galbraith is probably the fact that both he and Khalilzad appear happy to continue to advise US public opinion about the best US policy also after their involvement in Kurdish oil. Galbraith’s penmanship in support of some kind of decentralised solution for Iraq has already generated two books (The End of Iraq and Unintended Consequences), whereas Khalilzad just months ago wrote an op-ed in The Financial Times in which he advocated US support for a coalition government consisting of Iraqiyya, State of Law and the Kurdistan list, with Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi taking turns as premier. This is of course an interesting position, given that in theory, Maliki and Allawi alone actually have a sufficient number of deputies to form a government without the Kurds but that they nevertheless persist in attempts at negotiating with Arbil instead of with each other.

This position by Khalilzad on the issue of government formation is also one which is apparently being viewed with interest by the Obama administration. In a recent interview with BBC Hard Talk, Ambassador Chris Hill was asked whether the next government would include the Sadrists (apparently, this scenario is favoured by BBC reporters as the epitome of tragedy in Iraq). Hill replied by saying something to the effect that this was not necessarily the case. “There are four parties”, he began, apparently thinking of the old four-way formula once favoured by the Bush administration of Daawa-ISCI-Kurds-Sunnis, with Iraqiyya apparently serving as “Sunnis” instead of Tawafuq this time. But then he started with the details, first mentioning just State of Law and Iraqiyya, and pausing to emphasise that those parties alone held “almost” enough seats to form a government (they actually have more than enough, but it is good news that this scenario is now at least being considered in Washington). He then mentioned the Kurds briefly (as per the Khalilzad proposal) and moved on to other issues before ISCI (or the Sadrist-free rump INA) was even mentioned.

In his commentary on Iraqi affairs, Khalilzad has made it clear that he has a far better understanding of what is going on in Iraq south of Kurdistan than Galbraith, who was always on thin ice whenever he ventured to comment on Baghdad politics. But with his recent involvement as a nominee for the DNO board, Khalilzad no longer enjoys any neutrality on the Iraqi scene: He is effectively a proponent of the vision of a strongly decentralised Iraq that is favoured by those who envisage an autonomous Kurdish oil sector.  Any future policy advice on his part about any aspect of US Iraq policy – like the advisability of this or that coalition combination – will be tainted, like that of Galbraith, by business interests that dictate a preference for a weak Baghdad and an oil minister favouring regional interests over national ones.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Oil in Iraq | 28 Comments »

The Presidency Council Intervenes in the De-Baathification Debate

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 4 May 2010 17:20

The Iraqi presidency council, consisting of President Jalal Talabani, Vice-President Adel Abd al-Mahdi and Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, has today intervened in the de-Baathification debate in an interesting way: It expresses the view that regardless of the de-Baathification status of individual candidates, no votes shall be taken from lists. Also, in a move probably intended to highlight that demand and speed up the certification process, the council suggested that the Iraqi judicial authorities should proceed with certification of all governorates and only leave Baghdad open, where the manual recount is expected to last for another week or two.

These measures are helpful in that they could serve to bring some kind of closure to the de-Baathification process, which has long ago run out of control and has become an arena for settling scores and advancing party interests. The move protects the right of the Iraqi voters, and might go some way towards focusing minds on the necessary negotiations ahead. Nonetheless, it cannot escape notice that two of the authors of today’s decision, Talabani and Abd al-Mahdi, only a few months ago supported the first revival of the de-Baathification debate, partly directly and partly indirectly through the work of people in their own electoral alliances. In this way, the rise and fall of the de-Baathification issue looks very much like a trap designed to ensnare Nuri al-Maliki, whose consolidation of power was disliked by all three members of the presidency council. And to some extent, this succeeded since Maliki eventually gave in to the temptations of using the de-Baathification card, whereas the parties that initiated the campaign are now switching to a softer tone and are making all the sounds Washington wants them to make.

Of course, what the presidency council is doing here is somewhat messy in terms of its constitutionality. True, the presidency has a general task of safeguarding compliance with the constitution, but no specific powers or instruments to implement that task have been put in place except for the veto power of the presidency council. Indeed, when today’s press release calls for non-interference in the work of the Iraqi judiciary it all smacks of self-contradiction: Interference is precisely what the presidency council is up to! Nonetheless, the point can probably be made that the Iraqi electoral process long ago strayed from the legalist path, and in today’s situation any move that can serve to restore some credibility to the process should be welcome.

The United States is likely to second the move by the presidency council, since it has been pointing in that direction itself. However, if the political affiliations of the men behind today’s decision also suggest the contours of a new grand alliance in the making then this may not be such great news. Masud Barzani of the Kurdistan Alliance recently used the opportunity to renew his call for a tripartite federation of “Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds”, and Adel Abd al-Mahdi’s Iraqi National Alliance is making headway with its plans to absorb some or all of the other Shiite-led alliance, State of Law. That all sounds rather like 2005.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 2 Comments »

Once More, Peter Galbraith Fails to Clear His Name

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 14 January 2010 6:59

The Iraqi parliament has already gone on holiday until next Tuesday so we might as well take a look at the most recent attempt by Peter Galbraith to explain to the world exactly what he was up to with his multiple roles in Kurdistan in the period 2004–2006. Whereas his latest contribution does not really contain any significant new information, it has been circulated by the author and his friends with such fervour that a refutation should be available for the record.

Galbraith’s latest version of events appears in the 14 January issue of The New York Review of Books under the headline “A Statement on My Activities in Kurdistan” – and as such cannot fail to generate expectations of a “full and final disclosure”. In that perspective, however, the piece is a rather disappointing affair. With the exception of two minor details there is no new information, just a rehash of the same old story, and the article certainly fails to effectively rebut the key point of criticism against Galbraith: That he continued to stay involved in the Iraqi constitutional process also after he acquired a business interest in the Norwegian oil company DNO and its Kurdistan operations in 2004. The only new pieces that are added to the puzzle are the fact that the Iraqi oil ministry must have known about Galbraith’s interest in DNO (since Galbraith represented the company on a joint committee), and also that the government of the United States was somehow informed.

Today, Galbraith wants us to read his “Kurdistan activities” between 2004 and 2006 roughly as follows. After having been interested in the Kurdish cause during the 1990s (partly on basis of his experience with Kurdish refugees after the 1991 uprising) he in 2004 “helped Kurdistan’s leaders draft a proposal for a self-governing Kurdistan that was submitted to the Coalition Provisional Authority on February 11, 2004, for inclusion in Iraq’s interim constitution”.  Since the proposal also included provisions for regional control of the oil sector, Galbraith’s next step was to help the Kurds start building their oil sector in practice on the ground. Accordingly, he “helped bring DNO, a Norwegian oil company, into Kurdistan”. As part of this process, he was “paid by DNO and entered into a financial arrangement with the company through a Delaware partnership, Porcupine LP.” Later, in 2005, he “advised” the Kurds on their negotiations for a permanent constitution; however Galbraith stresses that their negotiating position was more or less similar to the one “they” had defined in February 2004, “and they achieved virtually all of it”. Galbraith specifically denies having “pushed through” anything during the negotiations, thereby refuting a claim made by The New York Times concerning his overall level of influence on the Iraqi constitutional process.

Galbraith’s account is unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. Firstly, no matter how much he tries to dress things up by referring to the “Kurdish proposal of February 2004” there is no way he can erase what he himself wrote on this subject back in 2006, when he in considerable detail bragged about how almost every single word of that proposal had in fact been written by himself. On p. 167 of The End of Iraq, Galbraith highlighted this fact by dramatically describing the sole change to his own proposal that was introduced by the Kurds: “Kosrat Rasul, the veteran PUK peshmerga who had served as Kurdistan’s second prime minister in 1994, wanted to clarify that deployments of the Iraqi Kurdistan national guard outside the region should not only be approved by the Kurdistan national assembly but should only occur at the request of the federal government in Baghdad. His amendment underscored the Kurds’ reluctance to be involved in Iraq’s wars. With that change, the proposal was accepted.” Galbraith’s five-page proposal, that is, with the single-paragraph amendment by Rasul! In other words, every time Galbraith refers to “the Kurdish proposal of February 2004”, please substitute “the Galbraith proposal of February 2004”. This applies for example when Galbraith writes, “The Kurds…had set the agenda and they pushed through their own proposal”. It was largely Galbraith’s proposal they pushed through.

Secondly, with respect to the supposedly “informal” nature of Galbraith’s involvement with the constitution after he had acquired an “interest” in DNO in June 2004 (at which point the conflict of interests obviously got more pronounced), at least three smoking guns can be found just in the open sources. The first two are again of Galbraith’s own making, and once more can be found in The End of Iraq. On p. 199 in a footnote Galbraith cannot resist revealing how he personally intervened to dissuade a British official from opening a debate about the taxation power of the central government close to the deadline for the constitutional draft. Also, on p. 171 he depicts his own role in staging a semi-official referendum on Kurdish independence on the sidelines of the January 2005 elections. The third significant reference is from his friend, Jonathan Morrow, who on p. 13 of a report entitled Iraq’s Constitutional Process II from 2005 describes how the “Kurdish parties were able to invite into the ad hoc meetings [where Kurdish and Shiite leaders designed the shape of the new constitution] experienced non-Iraqi international negotiators and constitutional lawyers, including former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith and University of Maryland Professor Karol Soltan, to advance the Kurdish case.” Again, what was he doing there, if he had a business interest in DNO? This truly is a “private citizen” extraordinaire, with access to all areas, and clearly so active that even open-source materials attest to his influential role.

One additional aspect that strangely has yet to receive much attention in the American debate is the question of possible disinformation of the US Congress by Galbraith in ways that could advance his own “business interests”. On 11 January 2006, Galbraith, who by that time was still involved with DNO, suggested several policy measures in a testimony to the US Senate called “Acknowledge Partition and Withdraw: A Reality Based Strategy for Iraq”. Among these measures was the idea of a general US withdrawal from Iraq, with the exception of a “small over the horizon force in Kurdistan”, explained with reference to the claim that “the Kurds are among the most pro-American people in the world and would welcome a US military presence, not the least because it would help protect them from Arab Iraqis who resent their close cooperation with the US during the 2003 War and thereafter.” Coincidentally, of course, that small American military force would also protect Galbraith’s “business interests” and the Tawke oilfield to which these interests relate. But Galbraith did not tell Congress that, did he?

Additionally, many of the conjectures by Galbraith in his congressional testimony are inaccurate or misleading. For example, the idea that other Iraqis would embark on some kind of systematic revenge operation to physically attack the Kurds for their cooperation with the Americans since 2003 seems a little exaggerated. (By 2006, vast number of non-Kurdish Iraqis had done exactly the same thing in terms of cooperation.) Galbraith also vastly overplays Shiite interest in federalism when he asserts that “Iraq’s Council of Representatives has already passed a law paving the way to the formation of a Shiite ‘super-region’ in fifteen months” and later goes on to talk about “a Shiite Region likely on its way”. In fact, three years later, few Iraqi Shiites seem to have any interest in a Shiite region whatsoever (even Ammar al-Hakim has left the specific idea of a nine-governorate “Shiite” region and now talks about federal regions more generally). Also, Galbraith failed to mention that the law to which he referred in fact enables several thousand other, non-sectarian scenarios of Iraqi governorates combining into federal regions  (yes, that’s right, thousands, new regions can be everything from a single governorate to 14 governorates coming together and need not be territorially contiguous, so the reservoir of possible combinations of those existing governorates that are allowed to form multi-governorate regions, i.e. excepting Baghdad, is truly mind-boggling).

Towards the end of his attempt at rebuttal, Galbraith does a wonderful job of highlighting the general shakiness of his own position. He writes, “A separate issue arises over what I should have disclosed in connection with my articles in The New York Review of Books… I wrote several other articles in 2004 and 2005, some of which briefly discussed the oil issue, and did not mention my business arrangements. These arrangements were covered by confidentiality agreements, but I should have stated that I had business interests in Kurdistan. I regret not having done so and apologize to the editors and readers of The New York Review of Books. In my later articles, I did state that I was ‘a principal at the Windham Resources Group, a firm that negotiates on behalf of its clients in post-conflict societies, including in Iraq.’ ”

The big issue, of course, is that he did not mention Porcupine and DNO! But to Galbraith that distinction between a consultancy firm and an oil company appears to be unimportant, and he offers the reference to the Windham Resources Group in the hope that this may mollify NYRB readers after his failure to disclose inconvenient truths about Norwegian oil companies and multi-million stakes in the Kurdistan oil industry. As with so many other aspects of his “activities in Kurdistan”, Galbraith is either unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture and the strong and problematic linkages between his private-citizen “business interests” on the one hand and the Iraqi constitutional process and US policy debate on the other.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Oil in Iraq | 3 Comments »

Bremer Speaks on DNO and Galbraith

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 25 November 2009 11:00

In its continuing coverage of the DNO/KRG/Galbraith nexus in Iraq, the Norwegian business daily Dagens Næringsliv has landed a rare interview with the ruler of Iraq in the CPA era from 2003 to 2004, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. In the interview, published in the hard-copy of the paper on 20 and 21 November, Bremer reflects on Peter Galbraith’s many simultaneous roles in Iraq in 2004, and in particular comments on sovereignty issues related to the signing of DNO’s contract with the KRG.

Bremer – who to a considerable extent has been out of the limelight since he left Iraq and who informs DN that he is currently spending much time pursuing his favourite pastime of painting landscapes – dismisses Galbraith’s pursuits in Iraq as “unethical” and adds that he himself was personally subjected to a two-year ban on business activity in Iraq subsequent to his tenure at the CPA. This characterisation of Galbraith by Bremer is perhaps not terribly surprising given the well-known personal enmity between the two men, and many observers will probably also want to emphasise the multiple ethical questions that pertain to the CPA itself under Bremer’s own leadership and indeed his whole program of using ethno-sectarian quotas as the key for shaping institutions of government in the “new Iraq”. As far as ethics are concerned, what is now happening in the US mainstream media is actually a lot more interesting than what Bremer thinks about Galbraith: An increasing number of leading intellectual forums in the US that used to support Galbraith – including the mighty New York Review of Books – are now following the lead of the NYT in issuing various forms of apologies to their readers for having given space in their columns for Galbraith without at the same time providing full disclosure of his business involvement in Iraq. Conversely, his remaining support base seems to be growing distinctly rural in outlook, and now appears to be limited to angry letters in his defence printed in publications like the Rutland Herald and the Brattleboro Reformer, both based in his home state of Vermont.

Beyond the ethical, the main focus of the DN articles concerns an interesting question about the timing of the contract that was entered into between KRG and DNO back in June 2004. DNO has repeatedly emphasised 30 June 2004 as a key point in time in all their calculations about the legality of their contract in Iraq – the logic being that a contract signed before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi leaders on that date would supposedly enjoy a special status in a legal vacuum and therefore be immune against challenges by future Iraqi governments. Apparently in conformity with this logic, DNO notified the Oslo Stock Exchange about its contract with the Kurds on 29 June 2004, and Galbraith’s Porcupine company reportedly came into existence on 30 June. The DN article cites DNO boss Helge Eide with regard to the influence of both Galbraith and the KRG in pushing for a pre-handover contract, clearly showing how the basic intention of everyone involved was to circumvent Iraqi sovereignty.

The problem raised by DN in the interview with Bremer concerns the unexpected change to the date for the handover in Iraq from 30 to 28 June 2004, which at the time was something of a security-related top secret that few others than Bremer and his leading officials knew about. Of course, as Bremer also hints at in the interview, since the transfer of power took place two days early, any sovereignty-focused logic pegged to the expected 30 June date would be at risk once that date was abruptly changed. “We did not tell anyone”, Bremer says in the interview, referring to his agreement with Bush to leave Iraq on 28 June to avoid potential terrorist problems. His description of this is consonant with the account provided on pp. 145–46 of Galbraith’s own book The End of Iraq, which portrays Bremer’s early departure as something that caught everyone by surprise. The implication, of course, is that in theory there could be a problem with the date of the DNO contract, since many of the available documents suggest that it had been planned for a 29 June signature, one day after what eventually turned out to be the actual handover date.

Ultimately, these questions are of greater historical than practical significance. True, it is indeed somewhat conspicuous that DNO has retained 30 June 2004 as such an important feature of its argument to defends the legality of its Iraq operations, and apparently the first reference to the exact date of their contract was only communicated publicly as late as in January 2006 – some 18 months after it came into existence. However, at that point it was given as 25 June 2004, hence before 28 June. Regardless of speculation as to what the actual chronology may have been, it seems safe to assume that documents compatible with that narrative exist, and it would be very hard for anyone to question the real date of the DNO contract in a legal challenge. Additionally, as it turned out, the date for the handover ended up being without any significance whatsoever in Iraq’s 2005 constitution: The only distinction in that document is between contracts signed by the Kurdistan authorities after 1992 and the entry into force of the new Iraqi constitution, which technically did not take place until the seating of the Maliki government in May 2006. If the Iraqi governments under Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari ever had a theoretical window in 2004 and 2005 for challenging the deal they simply did not use it.

The real problems with DNO’s contract in Iraq are of a different nature than those discussed by Bremer in the DN interview. Above all, they are concentrated in the last section of the very article of the Iraqi constitution – 141 – that is so often evoked by DNO itself in defence of its own position: Pre-2006 unilateral deals by the KRG are valid … “unless they are in conflict with the constitution”. However, while that last part is pretty momentous it keeps getting ignored by DNO. Even if so-called “future oil fields” are not enumerated among the exclusive prerogatives of the central government, a shared responsibility for the entire oil sector is explicitly acknowledged in article 112, and it is hard to see how the bilateral deal between the KRG and DNO can satisfy that criterion for constitutionality unless the DNO contract is submitted to Baghdad for review and consultation. Similarly, the constitutional article (111) on oil and gas ownership stipulates that the oil and gas belongs to “all the Iraqi people, in all regions and governorates”. Again, a production sharing arrangement in which the foreign company holds the right to a substantial share of the oil exported (reported by some sources as high as at 55%) is likely to come under special scrutiny. But above all, it needs to be pointed out that DNO cannot know whether its Kurdistan contract is constitutional. That is simply because the authority for reviewing constitutionality on these matters does not rest with the KRG, DNO, or, for that matter, this blogger! There simply is no point in having huge teams of international lawyers pontificating about the constitutionality or otherwise of the DNO contract, because in any event the final arbiter is going to be someone else – either the Iraqi federal supreme court (in a legal way) or the Iraqi government (in a practical compromise). In other words, all that is certain is that there is uncertainty here. Additionally, of course, there remains the revision clause of the constitution (142) which means that everything in it – including the legality of pre-2006 contracts – can be struck down during the first round of revisions. So far, at least, the tendency in the constitutional revision committee has been towards greater centralised control of the oil sector.

In sum then, the whole idea of a strictly legalistic approach to the DNO contract is of limited value. Legalism may perhaps appeal to someone like Peter Galbraith: Just like Bremer who can go back to painting landscapes, Galbraith can abscond to gubernatorial ambitions in Vermont and enter a multi-million lawsuit against DNO in London. Around the world, there will always be takers for his simple message of ethnic decentralisation as the universal tool for solving political conflict. But left with a difficult situation on the ground are first and foremost the Iraqis, including, importantly, the Kurds – and in this case also DNO and its shareholders. However, what the Kurds and DNO fail to realise is the extent to which the Galbraith legacy has created problems and not solutions for them. Recently, however, this has clarified a good deal as a consequence of Galbraith’s public comments subsequent to the first revelation of his “business interest” in the Tawke oilfield last month, and in particular through his emphasis of the assumed “congruence” of his actions. For example, according to the Vermont newspaper Rutland Herald on 13 November, at a recent public meeting “Galbraith said he had always been supportive of Kurdistan’s self-determination, which meant having control over its oil fields and establishing a Kurdish oil industry.” In cruder terms, oil contracts such as that entered into with DNO could do service as dynamite in a greater vision of Kurdish independence, something which in turn would be “congruent” with Galbraith’s advice and support to the Kurds to seek a maximum of regional power in the 2005 constitution as a prelude to independence. The problem for the KRG and the DNO is that because Galbraith’s prediction in 2006 of “the end of Iraq” failed to materialise, they are now left to pick up the pieces after what amounts to an aborted separatist attempt.

Galbraith’s whole “independence train” for the Kurds was predicated on an incremental tendency of symmetric territorial and political fragmentation in Iraq that just failed to happen. In early 2008 that process stopped as Iraqi Shiites began emphasising their Iraqi nationalism, and ever since Galbraith’s commentary and description of Iraqi affairs have grown increasingly fictitious and irrelevant. So too, of course, have the separatist policies that he supported and helped shape.  Accordingly, instead of taking their cues from Galbraith (who is now presumably basking in perfect “congruence” in Townshend, Vermont)  both the Kurds and DNO would stand to gain a lot from adjusting their policies to the new realities in Baghdad. Above all, this would mean realising that Iraqi Shiites are not particularly interested in symmetrical federalism for Iraq. True, there are Shiite sectarians today, just like there were anti-Shiite bigots during the Baath. But the irreducible minimum on which all parties south of Kurdistan can agree (and something which an alarming number of Western analysts still just cannot seem to get their head around) is a consensus position on Iraq as a unified territorial shell. Today, the real tension in the Shiite Islamist camp is between Shiite chauvinists who pay lip service to the idea of Iraqi nationalism and Shiites who are genuine Iraqi nationalists – and not so much between centralists and separatists (even ISCI now seems to have given up its federalism ambitions, if perhaps somewhat reluctantly). And so accordingly, Shiites will continue to speak in the name of a unified Iraq, hesitate with regard to the formal enshrinement of sectarian identity in the state structure, and stand up for Kirkuk as a multi-ethnic city attached to the central government in Baghdad, and so on. Importantly – and particularly relevant in view of the apparent revival of friendship between the Kurds and Shiite Islamist parliamentarians lately – even during the heyday of Kurdish-Shiite cooperation back in early 2007, that alliance broke down precisely over the question of the oil law and the Kurdish insistence on an exclusive right to sign foreign contracts. Accordingly, in terms of oil policy, it makes sense for Shiite Islamists to focus on boosting production in the supergiant oil fields in the far south where the true potential is (as testified to by the international oil giants lining up to sign technical service contracts there), rather than making painful concessions related to controversial production sharing deals for the comparatively small fields in the north, including those that involve DNO. When Shahristani gets summoned to parliament this should be interpreted as a failure of his tactics in handling the ministry rather than an end to the overall strategy of putting the south first; in fact some of his current detractors in parliament (such as Fadila) are even more vehemently opposed than Shahristani to the whole concept of production-sharing deals with foreigners and independent Kurdish decision-making on oil.

In sum, while the Bremer interview in DN raises many important questions (one that is not answered is whether Bremer actually had the authority to stop the DNO deal if in fact the agreement was entered into during the CPA reign), perhaps both the Kurds and DNO would obtain better results today if they tried to revisit Kurdish aims as defined prior to the arrival of Galbraith, Bremer and the whole CPA. For example, back in 2003, the Kurdish draft constitution for Iraq actually defined a bi-national Arab-Kurdish federation in Iraq in which Baghdad controlled the oil sector. Hence, instead of hinting about suing Baghdad over lost income from oil exports in the summer of 2009 (likely to prove a non-starter in negotiations with the oil ministry and something that will only increase the anger of Iraqis who are already infuriated by Galbraith’s multiple roles in contributing to the design of both the DNO contract and the constitutional framework that governs it), at some point in 2010 after the parliamentary elections when a new  Iraqi government has been formed the KRG and DNO could  try to enter into negotiations with Baghdad about converting their current agreement to a service contract more acceptable to the Iraqi public – a solution that reportedly would still be pretty lucrative for everyone involved and therfore a win-win situation. Many Iraqis south of Kurdistan are hoping that the new KRG government headed by Barham Salih will prove a lot more moderate than the previous one, and that the old scheme of a unified Iraq with a special status for Kurdistan can once more come to the fore as a sustainable political arrangement. Conversely, in their own visions for Iraq, both Bremer and Galbraith ultimately proved themselves to be out of touch with the dominant trends of the country’s politics.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Oil in Iraq | 5 Comments »