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The Kirkuk Issue Exposes Weaknesses in Iraq’s Ruling Coalition

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

7 August 2008

Yesterday’s failure of the Iraqi parliament to pass the provincial elections law before the summer recess may well end up being blamed on Sadrists and other “recalcitrants” who refused to give up their principles and adopt a more “businesslike” attitude. Or, alternatively, as an AP headline puts it today, “Iraqi election bill falls to ethnic rivalry”. However, quite apart from issues related to Islamic radicalism or ethnic identities, first and foremost the parliamentary deliberations of the elections law exposed some of the fundamental weaknesses and contradictions of Pax Americana in Iraq.

It may be useful to briefly recapitulate why there was a desire for provincial elections in Iraq in the first place, and which forces tried to resist this pressure. On the one hand, there was a broad alliance of parties that pushed the elections agenda forward, and insisted on the insertion of a timeline in the legislation that was adopted in February this year. This group featured cross-sectarian cooperation and participation by secularists as well as Islamists, with the key parties being the Sadrists (Shiite Islamist), Fadila (Shiite Islamist), Tawafuq (Sunni Islamist), al-Hiwar al-Watani (Iraqi nationalist, mostly Sunni) and Iraqiyya (nationalist, secular-leaning). Those who opposed the prospect of early elections were primarily the Kurdish parties and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, Shiite Islamist), with some support from the Daawa party of Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki. The opponents of the elections – who had everything to lose because they gained power in the controversial January 2005 local elections which many Sunni and Shiite parties boycotted – tried to scotch the law by using the presidential veto, but finally changed their position after a visit to Baghdad by US vice president Dick Cheney in March.

In the period after the final adoption of the provincial powers law, the more detailed elections bill (required to establish the exact modalities of the elections) stalled in parliament for several months. Again, the principal obstructionists seemed to be the coalition partners of the Maliki government: all of a sudden ISCI became very focused on the issue of female quotas, whereas simultaneously the Kurds supported ISCI in special demands which included closed elections lists and permission to use religious symbols and places of worship during campaigning – all ostensibly on account of the high degree of illiteracy in Iraq. These machinations notwithstanding, the Iraqi parliament finally passed the elections law on 22 July. But while the Maliki government had gradually become quite involved in influencing the law in the directions it wanted, not everything in the final version was to the government’s liking. In particular, the government parties objected to a clause inserted in the last minute featuring a power-sharing formula for the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk (inhabited by Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs) pending elections there. The clause alienated the Kurds who are already in control of the provincial council on the basis of controversial elections held back in January 2005 and wanted to keep the status quo with a view to holding a future referendum about the status of the city. It also drew criticism from the Kurds’ ally among the Shiites – ISCI. As these forces had done with the provincial powers law that had earlier challenged their position, they once more used the presidential veto to send the bill back to parliament.

Why was the Kirkuk clause inserted, who did it, and why could it derail the whole elections process in Iraq? The question of who did it is easy to answer. The clause was supported by many of the same parties that had earlier challenged the Maliki government to hold provincial elections by October: Sadrists, Fadila, Hiwar, and Iraqiyya. Conversely, the power-sharing formula for Kirkuk was opposed by the Kurds, ISCI, some Shiite independents, and some members of Maliki’s Daawa party. It seems probable that at least some of the parties of the Sunni Islamist Tawafuq bloc joined the opposition parties in the secret vote on power sharing for Kirkuk, although there were reports that individual elements of the alliance wavered and were more prepared to make compromises with the Kurds – in particular the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP).

As for the underlying reasons for the voting patterns, deeper antagonisms have been at work. For some time, these two constellations of parties have faced each other in what is the most salient battlefront in Iraqi politics today – far more important than those supposedly “irreconcilable differences between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis” on which some Western analysts like to dwell. Firstly, to a considerable extent, this is a raw battle of power and shares of the pie, as Sam Parker of the United States Institute of Peace pointed out when he coined the dichotomy “the Powers That Aren’t” (PTA, the Sadrists, Fadila, Iraqiyya, most Sunni groups) and “the Powers That Be” (PTB, the Kurds, ISCI, Daawa and the IIP) to describe the struggle between the two sides, first in an anonymous guest post on the Abu Aardvark blog, and later in an NYT interview. Secondly, to some extent this is also about ideology, with centrists versus ethno-federalists constituting the principal cleavage. The centrists are sceptical to any weakening Baghdad’s power and to any extension of the federalism principle south of Kurdistan. Above all, they have misgivings against an ethno-sectarian implementation of federalism that would partition Iraq into three statelets – Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite. The ethno-federalists, on the other hand, favour precisely this kind of Balkans approach to Iraq: they want a free hand for the Kurds in Kirkuk, in exchange for support for Shiite sectarian supremacy in the rest of Iraq – either through Shiite dominance in Baghdad, or through the establishment of a Shiite sectarian region south of Baghdad.

The two dichotomies are not one hundred per cent overlapping. While most of the Powers That Be are also ethno-federalists, some of them aren’t – most importantly, this includes prime minister Nuri al-Maliki himself. And it is precisely ideology that is the great weakness of the PTB, as the Kirkuk issue amply demonstrates. In a perfect world, the PTB would have been able to hold on to their positions of power, successfully excluding everyone else simply by exploiting their leverage at the centre of government in one of the world’s most important oil-producing nations. They would have divvied up the oil income, and ISCI and Maliki would have gladly and effortlessly ceded the disputed city of Kirkuk to the Kurds. Powers That Be are primarily concerned with grabbing power and holding on to it; they are less focused on such things as ideological coherence. But instead something else has happened: negotiations over the oil law have stalled since 2006, mostly because of disputes inside the PTB camp, where the Kurds have disagreed with just about everyone else about who should have the right to sign contracts (central or provincial government) and what oil fields should be considered outside the jurisdiction of the central government. Also ISCI's enthusiasm for creating a mirror image of Kurdistan in Iraq seems to have abated somewhat, probably influenced by the realisation that the provinces where the oil is concentrated – Basra and Maysan – are quite hostile to the idea of a single Shiite federal entity. And when the Kirkuk issue came up recently, it became painfully clear that the Powers That Be did not enjoy sufficient parliamentary support to proceed with their preferred solution – a delay of the vote in Kirkuk without any changes to the local administration, which effectively would have perpetuated Kurdish hegemony in the province. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the negotiations, Daawa officials tried to put a brave face on things, commenting that they were looking for a consensual solution rather than a simple majority decision. However, that seemed disingenuous: it masked the fact that this time the Powers That Be were unable to muster the votes required for their preferred solution and did not anymore command the sort of majority that had enabled them to ram through federalism legislation in October 2006 (no sweet talk about consensus back then). Significantly, the ideological dimension linked to Kirkuk proved important enough to prompt defections even inside the PTB ranks this time, with reports of friction inside the normally cohesive ISCI (between the political and the military wings), and with several of the politicians that have provided token Sunni representation inside the system aligning themselves with the PTA (as the arithmetic of the 22 July vote attests to).  

In this way the PTB were forced to resort to their emergency weapon: the presidential veto. By 2008, parliamentary majorities simply aren’t sufficient in Iraq: instead, bills are vetoed and lifted out of the parliamentary debate for closed-doors discussions among the “political leaderships”, which is mostly a euphemism for The Powers That Be themselves. This is what has happened to the oil legislation, the constitutional revision, and, this time around, the provincial elections law. The net result is that the PTB consolidate their grip on power, and no meaningful moves towards national reconciliation take place.

At the same time, the fact that the Powers That Be are unable to hold together is a remarkable testament to the endurance of certain Iraqi nationalist values that simply refuse to give way to the PTB agenda and that seem bound to create problems for the overall stability of the current system in the long term. Symptomatically, ISCI politician Jalal al-Din al-Saghir condemned unnamed politicians for having “listened to popular feeling” about Kirkuk – a cardinal sin from the Powers That Be perspective. Similarly, Kurdish politician Abdallah Salih recently commented that “those who are in favour of the [22 July version of the] provincial elections law reject the constitution”. The fact is that Iraqi politicians mobilise on the Kirkuk issue precisely because they think it is something that a majority of Iraqis care about. They feel they are on safe ground when challenging aspects of the 2005 constitution precisely because they realise that popular affection for parts of the constitution is not particularly strong (many Iraqis had no idea about the implications of the charter they voted for back in October 2005). In fact, Salih was spot on: a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians do want to make changes to the constitution, but the PTB themselves are fighting tooth and nail to prevent this by blocking any real progress in the constitutional revision committee. For example, in the committee there are numerous suggestions for giving Kirkuk some kind of special status (instead of holding an early referendum), but due to the disproportionate representation of the PTB in the committee and its leading positions, these parties are capable of controlling the agenda and voting down any challenges to their own position.

At least, the actions of PTB are understandable: they simply want to grab ever more power, and to exclude everyone else. What is more difficult to understand is the behaviour of the international players. Why, for example, does the United States continue to support this steadily declining force? Previously, Washington may have considered them more malleable and susceptible to pressure, even if this factor is less evident today, and despite the fact that question marks concerning Iran’s influence in the PTB camp linger. But the Iraq that is being built by reliance on the PTB simply isn’t a sustainable one. Because it is based on appetite for power and extreme opportunism alone, it cannot survive except through the application of brute force and the use of material power: concrete walls (as seen in Baghdad), bribes to political enemies (particularly prominent among the Sunni tribes), and authoritarian handling of internal opponents (such as the Sadrists). When Washington’s ability and willingness to finance these kinds of measures come to an end, the only way forward will be increased authoritarianism or increased reliance on regional patrons.

On the other hand, historical depth, resonance among the Iraqi public, and professionalism are the key ingredients that are missing in the new Iraq. PTB ideology is exceedingly shallow, as seen for example in the Kurdish demand to have Kirkuk considered as some kind of “Jerusalem”: whereas parts of the countryside in the province do have long-standing Kurdish traditions, just half a century ago the city itself was dominated by Turkmens who for hundreds of years had been so important in the administration of Iraq that the toponymic construction “Kirkukli” was common in the titles of Ottoman officials from Sulaymaniyya to Basra. Similarly, the PTB have invented the idea of a Shiite federal region – an entity whose name no one had even heard about prior to 2005. And when it comes to professionalism, the PTB have been so successful in alienating almost a whole generation of highly skilled Iraqi bureaucrats that it is entirely unsurprising that Iraqi oil revenue is not being channelled into development projects but rather is becoming a tool at the disposal of the PTB. Characteristically, Haydar al-Abbadi of the Daawa party was among the first Iraqis to dismiss recent American reports that Iraqi oil revenue is being accumulated by the government instead of being invested in new infrastructure.

Finally, why does even the United Nations so uncritically enter the game on the side of the Powers That Be? In Kirkuk they have clearly adopted the solution preferred by the PTB: more delays and more committees, with the big issues being removed from the public spotlight, and with Kurdish dominance being gradually expanded on the ground. Instead, the international community should see the highlighting of the Kirkuk issue by the PTA as an early warning about the very durability of the new political system in Iraq. The opposition powers are becoming exasperated with the Maliki government’s highhanded approach to the forthcoming elections, and may have felt that there was so much rigging and gerrymandering and deliberate procrastination underway that it was better to attack the fundamentals of the system by pushing the Kirkuk issue – even if the prospect of early elections now seems more distant than ever, and the PTB will try to spin the whole affair as grandstanding by the PTA. But at a time when the fundament of the new Iraqi system seems increasingly shaky, the international debate on Iraq continues to focus almost exclusively on the recent reduction of US casualties in the country, completely ignoring the issues that relate to long-term regional stability.

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