Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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The Syrian Crisis and Its Repercussions for Erbil-Baghdad Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Is Izzat al-Duri?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 8 April 2012 13:34

The sensational video of Izzat al-Duri released yesterday on the occasion of the 65 year anniversary of the Baath party isn’t getting quite the airplay it deserves. Not that the content of the hour-long speech in itself is particularly interesting, but the sheer fact that, despite rumours of ill health, the most senior Baath leader to survive the Iraq War  is confirmed to be alive and well is an important development. This is, after all, the person seen as the rightful successor to Saddam Hussein by the remaining Baath party faithful. Additionally, towards the end of the speech, Duri reveals some interesting perspectives on the broader regional situation that provide clues as to this possible whereabouts, which for a long time has been something of a riddle.

First of all: It looks real. Duri has a characteristic appearance and does not easily lend himself to impersonation. Even though the Baath party specialized in this kind of thing, it seems unlikely that this video is the work of a double.

Above, screenshot of Duri in video released yesterday; below, archive photo

The Iraq-related part of the speech takes up most bandwidth and is the least interesting one. It is a predictable outpouring of anger concerning supposed Iranian influences penetrating everywhere in Iraq and spreading across the Arab world. Not only that, Duri repeatedly describes this as a conspiracy of Persians/Safavids, Americans and Israeli Zionists. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Duri – at 70 and despite conflicting stories about his health situation – had the stamina to gesticulate his way through an hour of these grand theories.

The more interesting and newsworthy parts of the Duri speech are towards the very end. Here, he comments on broader regional developments, including the situation in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Regarding Libya, Duri clearly sees developments there as a deplorable parallel to what took place in Iraq in terms of “foreign intervention”. With respect to Syria, there is praise for the “legitimate” and “peaceful uprising” of the Syrian people, though there seems to be concern that foreign (Western) intervention can ensue if things get out of hand. Most remarkably, though, there is much praise for the Saudi king with reference to his efforts to help solve the situation in Yemen.

Beyond verifying the relative recency of the video, these remarks help explain the worldview of Duri, which seems to be one in which Iranian and Western interventions in the Arab world must be fought at any cost. Unsurprisingly, given his own religious background, there is more positive praise for the ulama in the Arab world than one would perhaps expect from a Baathist leader, even after a decade of state-led “Islamism” in Iraq in the 1990s.

Above all, though, Duri’s remarks on the regional situation may help address that lingering question of where he currently lives. For a long time, it was thought he was in Syria, but the praise for the Syrian uprising suggests he is not there anymore. That leaves the Gulf states as his most likely current location. Given the criticism of the Libya intervention, Qatar can probably be ruled out. On the other hand, the praise for the Saudi king seems to be a credible indicator that he might be there already or is applying for a permanent residence permit.

For many years after 2003, the Iraqi Baathist presence in Syria served as something of an anomaly for those seeing grand sectarian schemes and a Shiite axis projecting through the region from Iran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The realignment of Duri and the Iraqi Baath towards the conservative Gulf monarchies makes both themselves and the Syrian regime – now deprived of another Sunni-secular card –  look a little more sectarian than before. The more sectarian Shiite media outlets in Iraq will lose no time in seizing on this; as ever, though, the question is whether the majority of Iraqis will allow hyperbole articulated from outside the country to aggravate their own political problems.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Sectarian master narrative | 21 Comments »

Qatari Jets, KRG and Iraqi Airspace Sovereignty in the Hashemi Case

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 13:28

There are many interesting aspects to the recent departure by Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi from Erbil in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area of Iraq to Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Among those aspects is one that has yet to receive the attention it deserves: The means of travel used by Hashemi – who is sought by the central government in an alleged criminal case – from Erbil to Doha.  Most accounts simply state that Hashemi arrived in Doha on 1 April en route from Erbil. Some Kurdish interior ministry officials even went on record saying they had no knowledge about Hashemi’s departure.

The picture of Hashemi arriving in Doha, published by the website of the vice-president, is clear enough. It shows Hashemi stepping out of a Qatar Airways jet, apparently onto a red carpet and with ministers waiting to welcome him.

So, Hashemi arrived with Qatar Airways. It is true that they have announced plans for an Erbil–Doha service. But that service will not commence until May. Also, it will be operated by Airbus 320s. The aircraft on the picture looks slimmer than an Airbus, perhaps more like a Bombardier?

The question of Iraqi airspace sovereignty has received some attention lately, both with dramatic declarations that Iraq would “close its skies” for the Arab League summit, and in relation to reports that Iran is continuing to send weapons and fighters to Syria on flights crossing Iraqi territory.  What this picture seems to indicate is that a foreign country, Qatar, can in fact send its aircraft in and out of Iraq with impunity, even on missions perceived as hostile by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Whether the jet actually flew straight down to Gulf (as is most likely) or headed via Turkey and Jordan to avoid “central government” territory is somewhat academic. Guarding Iraq’s borders is a central government prerogative anyway and it seems entirely unrealistic that the Qatari jet landed in Erbil without the express permission of the Kurds.

On top of persistent conflicts related to Kurdistan in the oil sector and the judicial extradition battle for Hashemi, the latest Qatar Airways episode once more raises questions about the true nature of the so-called Iraqi federation. It is becoming increasingly unclear whether the country is anything more than a very loose confederation.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraq international relations | 46 Comments »

After the Baghdad Summit: Implications Regionally and in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 30 March 2012 13:55

The Arab League summit in Baghdad is over and it is time to take stock.

Given the essentially international character of the summit in Baghdad, it is natural to start with the regional implications. And, in many ways, the degree of representation at the level of heads of state is a useful indicator of how things went. Altogether, 10 countries were represented by their rulers: Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Comoros, Palestine, Lebanon and Kuwait in addition to Iraq.

In one way, those who came to Baghdad can be crudely summarized as the “Maghreb Spring” countries (Tunisia, Libya), the very poor in need of any help they can get (Comoros, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Palestine), and “others” not so easily classified (Kuwait and Lebanon). The absence of most of the GCC leaders can be attributed to continued aversion to the Maliki government in Iraq, whereas the failure of the rulers of Egypt and Yemen to show up may reflect the messiness of their own domestic situations as much as any clear policy on Iraq.

But there is more to this than the apparent preference of poor republics for building ties with the new Iraq. True, the gap between Iraq and the Gulf countries remains wide, but if the Iraqi government can build ties with non-GCC countries, it could form an alternative regional bloc within the Arab League.  The one obvious disappointing absence for Iraq in this respect must have been that of Algeria. Nonetheless, the net outcome of the meeting was a dilution of the GCC interventionist policy on Syria. Thanks to their own lack of initiative and boycott, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had to yield to Arab states that prefer softer language on regime change in Syria. The massive wealth of the GCC states was in itself not sufficient to buy a particular Arab policy on Syria.

Also, it is significant that a growing number of Arab states are prepared to interact with Iraq as a perfectly normal Arab state. This is so despite continued attempts by Gulf states to dismiss the Iraqi government as Iranian marionettes. The Arab heads of state who did come to Baghdad probably realized that the town wasn’t full of Safavids after all and that attempts to reduce regional politics to a clear-cut Sunni–Shiite sectarian struggle are futile. (An AP piece claimed “Sunni rulers” shunned the summit whereas in fact 8 “Sunni rulers” were present!) Growing number of Arab rulers realize it is normal for Iraq to have leaders who may or may not be Shiites.

The second implication of the Baghdad meeting relates to the level of internal Iraqi politics. Only weeks ago, both the Kurds and Iraqiyya talked tough about bringing Iraqi domestic problems onto the summit agenda. Schemes for unseating Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemed to garner more interest than ever. In the end, though, the domestic situation in Iraq was kept off the summit agenda, and neither Ayad Allawi of Iraqiyya nor the Kurdish president, Masud Barzani, attended the meeting.

What Allawi and Barzani need to realize is that their position is increasingly analogous to that of the GCC states within the Arab League. The GCC countries who boycotted Baghdad saw their forward policy on Syria reversed. If they persist in boycotting Maliki, Allawi and Barzani may well experience something similar with their own ambitions domestically in Iraq. Importantly, other Iraqiyya leaders like Usama al-Nujayfi (parliament speaker) and Rafi al-Eisawi (finance minister) showed up at the summit. Their presence highlighted how a letter of protest from Qatar which attempted to speak on the behalf of the “Sunnis in Iraq” was just too unsophisticated to fit the complex Iraqi situation. Even the Bahraini foreign minister opted to have a meeting with Maliki.

Perhaps the best indication of the state of affairs in Iraq was the simultaneity of the summit and a mortar attack near the Iranian embassy. The two happened at the same time, but the attack did not derail or even interrupt the meeting of the Arab leaders. These attacks will continue to happen, but they are unlikely to create the collapse of politics in Iraq sought by their perpetrators. Similarly, Iraqi opponents of the Maliki government – who have many valid reasons for being critical – should realize that a policy of dialogue with him stands a better chance of achieving something in the real world. The alternative may well be growing irrelevance, both in the Iraqi political process as well as in the Arab world at large.

Posted in Iraq international relations, Sectarian master narrative | 16 Comments »

The Baghdad Gamble: Maliki Brings the Arab League to Town

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 26 March 2012 11:33

Last Tuesday, a week before the scheduled Arab League summit in Baghdad, a wave of terror attacks killed more than 50 people across central Iraq. Security forces had been put on high alert in the run-up to the summit, yet terrorists were still able to strike key cities such as Baghdad, Karbala, and Kirkuk with impunity. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility, a deliberate attempt to derail the Arab League summit and undermine the fledgling Iraqi government.

Successfully bringing the Arab League together in Baghdad – the first such gathering in the Iraqi capital since 1990 and only the second in the country’s history – would signal the return of a modicum of normalcy to a state still emerging from years of intervention and civil war… Full story here. Discussion/comments section open as usual below

Posted in Iraq international relations | 24 Comments »