Uncertainty continues

With the uncertainty of elections, Iraq remains in limbo, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after the silence imposed on the candidates in Iraq’s local elections on the day before polling booths opened on Saturday, thousands of Iraqis raced to remove the campaign posters littering street lights, trees, walls and buildings in Baghdad and other cities.
The crowds were mostly poor Iraqis fighting with hawkers to target the pre-election banners and posters, along with other materials such as cartons and billboards.
Their aim was to steal the plates and wooden holders before municipal workers started cleaning up the mess and to take them for sale in the shantytowns and slums that have grown up around the country’s cities.
Iraqi news outlets have reported that the candidates vying for the voters’ attention in the elections have spent some $200 million on campaigning, including on expensive billboard posters and street decorations in the country’s first elections since the exit of the last US troops in December 2011.
Iraq’s elections after the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime have been much touted as offering a model for democracy for the region propelled by the US occupation, although the country has been mired in political conflict and sectarian violence since the US-led invasion in 2003.
With nearly half of eligible voters staying away from the polling stations, many voters appeared to have been caught between apathy and anger about how much the provincial elections would change their lives.
The vote for the provincial councils, responsible for nominating the governors who lead the local administration, has been seen as a key test of the country’s stability amid a spike in sectarian violence and a lingering government crisis.
The elections also served to measure Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s popularity ahead of general elections next year, amid accusations by Arab Sunnis and Kurds about his authoritarian leadership style and the marginalisation of their communities.
Ahead of the polls, Al-Maliki, who has said he wants to bring the national elections next year forward by a few months in an apparent bid to secure a third term in office, announced that he would prefer to form a new “majority” cabinet instead of his national partnership government if he receives most of the votes in the local elections.
Official preliminary results are not expected for several days, but early tallying of votes showed on Monday that Al-Maliki’s State of Law list had an early edge in Baghdad and some other Shia-dominated provinces.
An estimated 13.8 million Iraqis were eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates, with 378 seats being contested in 13 provinces.
Voting was suspended in the two Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, allegedly because of security concerns. Iraq’s three autonomous Kurdish provinces will have their own elections in September, while no balloting is planned in the disputed and ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk.
Turnout for Saturday’s vote was about 51 per cent, the country’s Independent Higher Electoral Commission announced after polling stations had closed. The participation of the nearly one million displaced Iraqis was very low.
Many Iraqis did not vote in the elections despite appeals from political and religious leaders and aggressive campaigning by candidates.
Al-Maliki’s opponents blame his government and the security forces for the low turnout.
“The government’s shortcomings were crystal clear. A lot of people refrained from voting because the government has failed to stop terrorism and provide easy election facilities,” charged Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who is a staunch opponent of Al-Maliki, in a statement.
A spokesman for the Sunni Muwahadoun list said that the elections had been fraught with violations. Dhafir Al-Anni, the spokesman, said that many eligible voters in Sunni areas in Baghdad had not been able to find their names on the polling lists.
The head of the mostly Sunni Al-Iraqiya Bloc, Iyad Allawi, whose bloc showed weak results, said that the security forces had arrested people in many towns and prevented them from voting in some Baghdad areas.
In a preliminary report, the Shams Network for Monitoring Elections said that it had registered some 118 violations, such as the security forces directing voters to vote for specific candidates, a failure to check the identities of voters, and the absence of names of eligible voters on polling lists.
Moreover, the credibility of the balloting also came into doubt as insurgents were still able to carry out bombings despite the heightened security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
For most of the polling day, only approved vehicles were allowed on the streets, and in Baghdad and many other cities roads were closed and new checkpoints set up, with voters being searched before entering polling stations.
Nevertheless, attacks killed three people on the election day after mortar rounds, bombings and grenades landed near polling stations. Gunmen dressed in police uniforms entered a polling station in a village in Diyala, north of Baghdad, burned ballot boxes, and then escaped.
In the past week, dozens of people have been killed in a series of bombings across Iraq, targeting mainly Shia areas, but also two polling stations. Fourteen election candidates died in attacks ahead of the polls.
On Thursday, a bomb attack in a Baghdad cafe popular with Iraqi youth killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens of others. All in all, some 250 Iraqis were killed this month in the run up to the elections, while hundreds of others were injured.
Iraqi sectarian divisions have also been reflected in the decision to keep two provinces out of Saturday’s voting.
On Monday, Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had the most to lose after the fall of the Saddam regime, held a day of civil disobedience, protesting against what it said was the discrimination against the community by the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
In the predominantly Sunni provinces and in some Sunni-populated neighbourhoods in Baghdad, many schools, government offices and shops were closed and the streets were almost empty except for police vehicles.
Sunnis have staged months of protests against Al-Maliki, accusing him of amassing power in Shia hands, discriminating against them, and sidelining Sunni leaders.
On Tuesday, dozens of protesters were either killed or wounded when government forces clashed with Sunni protesters in Haweeja in Salaheddin province. The fighting raised fears of further clashes in other Sunni provinces, where protesters have been calling for revenge.
Iraq’s provincial elections are held to elect bodies that are meant to ensure decentralisation, but by winning at the local level national groups can deepen their power bases ahead of next year’s parliamentary vote.
There has been a strong case for arguing that the present polarising provincial ballot has re-drawn more starkly than ever before the ethno-sectarian battle lines in Iraqi politics.
It remains to be seen how the results of the elections will affect Iraq’s lingering political crisis, as they are widely seen as a test of support at the Shia grassroots level for Al-Maliki and his Daawa Party.
Many commentators fear that Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term as prime minister in next year’s parliamentary elections, will rally Shias behind his tough policy against the Sunnis and the Kurds once the local elections are out of the way.
The clearest sign of such a move would be the formation of provincial councils with the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, a rival Shia group led by cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, which according to early tallying has made a good showing in the provincial elections.
This would allow Al-Maliki to claim a mandate for the “political majority” he has been advocating, even if he will have only a tight win in the local elections.
Yet, by moving towards a majority government dominated by Shias, and by expanding his hold on power, Al-Maliki will also jeopardise Iraq’s fledgling political process by further alienating his Sunni and Kurdish rivals and raising sectarian tensions in the country.
It is unlikely that the Sunnis, who have been resisting marginalisation by Al-Maliki and the country’s Shias, will consent to the humiliation of exclusion.
If Al-Maliki insists on his idea of a majority government, the Sunnis may finally opt for an autonomous federal entity, as many of their leaders have been proposing.
The Kurds, who run their own autonomous region, have already threatened that they will hold a referendum on self-determination if Baghdad’s central government insists on denying them equal partnership status in the country.

               Inching towards autocracy

Iraq’s provincial election is seen as a gauge of democratic succession and nation-building, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraqis are headed to the polls Saturday to elect new local governments amid acute political crisis and a surge in violence that has wrecked several provinces and left more than a dozen candidates dead. Embattled Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is widely seen to be manipulating the election to muster support for his bid to secure a third term in office despite strong opposition from the country’s Kurds, Sunnis and even some Shias who accuse him of monopolising power and sidelining his partners.
Al-Maliki, whose State of the Law List is a key contender in Shia-dominated southern provinces, has been leading an aggressive campaign to enlist public support on a ticket that advocates strong leadership for a bitterly divided and violence-torn nation. In tough speeches during the election campaign Al-Maliki urged his supporters to come en mass to polling stations on Saturday.
He also accused his opponents of receiving backing from foreign intelligence services to make their way to the local governments. “Participation [in polls] is like a bullet fired against the enemies,” he said at an election rally in Kut, south of Baghdad, on Saturday. In Meesan, further to the south, Al-Maliki told another crowd Sunday that if Iraqis won’t support his bloc, remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party will come back to power in Iraq.
Al-Maliki is the head of the Islamic Daawa Party, which many Iraqis believe he is grooming to become a new ruling party, styled on Saddam’s autocratic Baath Party. His vigorous campaigning sparked fear that most of the vote will go to his list.
Opponents accuse Al-Maliki who is also minister of interior and chief commander of the army of abusing state resources, including the state-owned media to promote his image and his party’s standing. Observers also talk of irregularities in registration of voters.
Some 16 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in the 20 April polls, where more than 8,000 candidates are vying for 378 seats on Governorate Councils which are responsible of running day-to-day administration of the provinces. Around 23,000 local observers and some 174 foreigners will monitor the elections, according to the Independent Election Commission which will supervise the balloting.
The three provinces of the autonomous Kurdistan Region and the disputed northern province of Kirkuk are not participating in the local elections. The government also suspended balloting in two Sunni-majority provinces where authorities say security cannot be guaranteed.
Ahead of the election insurgents have stepped up their campaign of bombings and attacks targeting security forces and Shia areas. On Monday, car bombs and attacks on cities across Iraq, including two blasts at a checkpoint at Baghdad international airport, killed at least 55 people and wounded hundreds.
Attacks targeted several candidates. On Sunday, gunmen opened fire on two candidates leaving them dead in two separate attacks. Twelve other candidates have been killed, six of them are members of the mainly Sunni Iraqiya bloc, fostering a notion that they are being targeted.
Officials have insisted they are capable of holding the polls nationwide, but political leaders have voiced concern about further violence and held Al-Maliki responsible for the security deterioration. Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, a staunch critic of Al-Maliki, accused him of negligence and devoting his time to electioneering instead of ensuring security. “While people are being bombed some are busy in making election propaganda in disrespect to the blood spilled over the roads,” said Al-Sadr in a statement.
“What increases our pain and regret is the indifference shown by the prime minister who is on a provincial tour to promote his list,” said Suleiman Al-Jumaili, a prominent Sunni law-maker.
The government declared a curfew on Saturday and put security forces on high alert in a move to stave off attacks during the polling day.
The provincial election is revolving mostly on basic services such as electricity, sewerage, health, corruption and high unemployment. The elected bodies which are responsible for nominating governors are meant to ensure decentralised governance and democratic successions but the councils have often complained of restrictions issued by Al-Maliki’s government.
Army soldiers and police forces have cast their ballots for the elections on Saturday ahead of next week’s main vote. Some 650,000 soldiers and policemen were eligible to vote. Critics said the soldiers and the police forces were subject to pressure by their superiors, who are loyal to Al-Maliki, to vote for the prime minister’s list. The Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said there have been no reports of violation or pressure on voters to choose a specific list.
The cabinet decision to postpone the provincial elections in the Sunni dominated Anbar and Nineveh provinces has sparked criticism and accusations of manipulation in favour of Al-Maliki’s Sunni allies. Al-Maliki’s office said the delay of the election in the two provinces is due to threats to election workers and violence in these two provinces which have been witnessing Sunni anti Al-Maliki protests since the beginning of the year.
Meanwhile, Kurds have been enmeshed in internal wrangling over the election after Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced plans this week for balloting in provincial, parliamentary and presidential races in September.
The dispute centres around the right of Barzani himself to stand for election for a third term, despite the Kurdistan Region’s constitution which limits the presidency to only two terms. 
His supporters argue that he was initially appointed by the Kurdish parliament in 2005, and re-elected four years later and therefore he is eligible for re-election. Barzani’s opponents argue that he has served two full terms, and has completed the maximum allowed time.
The row is expected to deepen division between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and pro-democracy groups who have been trying to stifle Barzani’s over-all control on the government and politics in the Kurdish region which has been dominated by Barzani’s party and family.
Election wrangles in both the Shia-controlled south and the Kurdish-ruled north show how difficult is the job of building democracy in Iraq, despite claims by Washington that the US-invasion has ushered in a democratic era following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. 
Indeed, far from making Iraq a democracy, the US-invasion has established a sectarian-based political system where sect and ethnicity trump other national loyalties and efforts of nation-building and good governance.
Iraq has held several elections since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam but the country has remained deadlocked in political conflicts and sometimes in bloody sectarian power struggles that have mired it in a prolonged existential crisis.
 Saturday’s elections come with the country engulfed in a government dispute that has pitted Al-Maliki against several of his erstwhile national unity Cabinet partners, and amid more than three months of anti-government protests by the country’s Sunni Arab minority.
The polls, therefore, should not only be seen as a measure of Al-Maliki’s popularity but of the country’s multi-sectarian and ethnic political groups to build a more responsive political system.
If Al-Maliki succeeds in dominating local governments and cashes in on the results to win the country’s next parliamentary election in 2014, he would opt for a majority-based national government, as he has been advocating.
 Also, if Barzani stands for election in polling in September as he plans and refuses to end the era of being the supreme leader of Iraq’s Kurds, he will betray his commitment in true democracy for Kurds. 
That would mean the end to the era of consensus politics and ultimately the Iraqi experiment would be entering uncharted waters.

 البعض يراه هوسا قطريا‏!
صلاح النصراوى 

الموقع الالكتروني الذي بث أخيرا ان قطر اشترت حصريا حقوق تنظيم جنازة ابرز رئيسة وزراء بريطانية البارونة ثاتشر في عاصمتها الدوحة‏,‏ كان سيحقق سبقا صحفيا هائلا لولا أن المتابعين للمصدر يعرفون جيدا أنه موقع يجنح للسخرية السياسية كأسلوب للتعامل مع قضايا المنطقة رغم أن اكثر قضاياها هي فعليا من أنواع الكوميديا السوداء التي يجدر بعد مشاهدتها القول ان شر البلية ما يضحك.
قبل ذلك بأيام اثار مقدم البرامج الساخر باسم يوسف ضجة عندما حور نشيد الوطن الاكبر في حلقة من حلقات برنامجه والتي استهدف فيها قطر في تعبير يعكس استياء طيف واسع من المصريين مما يرونه من محاولات قطر في دس أنفها بشئون بلادهم واستغلال ظروفها الصعبة لاهداف مريبة.
وفي الحالتين تقف قطر, التي يراها المتشككون مجرد ظفر إبهام يبرز كنتوء علي ساحل الخليج العربي يتعملق امام رموز ذات دلالات كبري, مثل لندن وكاتدرائيتها الشهيرة سانت بول حيث سيسجي جثمان ثاتشر, في الحالة الأولي, في حين أنها وقفت في الثانية ازاء ايقونات خالدة في الوجدان الشعبي المصري كالوحدة العربية وجمال عبد الناصر, وبطبعية الحال مصر ذاتها.
في الواقع ان طموحات قطر مقارنة مع صغر حجمها كانت دوما موضع علامات استفهام واحيانا سخرية منذ اختط اميرها الحالي بعد توليه الحكم عام1995 لها هذا النهج الطموح.
واذا كان أكثر ما يروي يظل في خانة التنكيت فان ما هو موثق ان الرئيس السابق حسني مبارك لم يستطع أن يحبس احساسه بالازدراء حين زار عام2000 مبني تليفزيون الجزيرة, وهو رمز الدورالقطري الاشهر, حين تساءل كيف بإمكان علبة كبريت صغيرة أن تثير كل ذلك الضجيج.
لكن هل تستحق قطر فعلا كل هذه السخرية في حين تقف اليوم في الصف الاول من الدول التي تلعب ادوارا بارزة في السياسة والاقتصاد والاعلام والرياضة وغيرها من المجالات الحيوية بفضل تلك الاموال المهولة التي في حوزتها والتي تستثمرها في ميادين متعددة, أم أن الأمر ينطوي علي عدم استيعاب وسوء فهم من قبل المشككين للتغيرات في موازين القوي في المنطقة وللتطورات الدراماتيكية الجارية فيها؟.
بطبيعة الحال لا يمكن لقطر ان تتكلم عن مكونات جغرافية او تاريخية أو بشرية أو ثقافية أو ايديولوجية أو عسكرية, وغيرها من عوامل القوة والقيادة التقليدية, إلا أن مصادر القوي المتمثلة بثروتها من مليارات الطاقة والحيز الذي تدير به سياساتها الخارجية ربما لا يقل اهمية عن كل تلك المكونات, ان لم يكن اكثر اهمية في عصر العولمة والسماوات المفتوحة وتكنولوجيا المعلومات والتي تؤهلها كقوة ناعمة ان تكون شريكا في نادي الفاعلين الدوليين.
فقطر تضع نحو250 مليار دولار في استثمارات متنوعة تتوزع علي قارات العالم, هي الاضخم عالميا نسبة لسكانها, وبما ان وارداتها السنوية تزيد علي100 مليار دولار في بلد لا يتجاوز عدد سكانه ربع مليون نسمة الا قليلا ولن يكون بحاجة الي اي استثمارات كبيرة في البناء التحتي لسنوات طويلة, فلنا ان نتخيل حجم هذه الاستثمارات خلال الاعوام المقبلة.
وفي حين ان القيادة القطرية ترفض الربط عادة بين هذه الاستثمارات وسياسات المعونة السخية التي تتبعها وبين اي طموحات او اجندات فان شاشات الرادار لا يمكنها ان تخطئ في رصد الابعاد السياسية للدور القطري المتصاعد سواء في دعم اقتصاديات الدول الغربية المنهارة أو في ملفات اقليمية عديدة ومحاولاتها المستميتة لتولي دور قيادي في المنطقة, محل قوي تقليدية آفلة بعد ان تعرضت مراكزها للاهتزاز خلال العقد الأخير.
هذه المسألة بالذات هي التي تثير الكثير من الاسئلة بشأن السياسة الخارجية لقطر.هناك سؤالان هما الاكثر إلحاحا; اولهما لماذا تقوم قطر بكل ما تقوم به, وهل ينسجم ذلك مع حاجاتها الاساسية ومصالحها الوطنية من ناحية, ومتطلبات الأمن والاستقرار في الاقليم, من ناحية ثانية, في حين يتمادي البعض في السؤال عما اذا كانت تلك السياسة القطرية تعمل لمصالحها فقط ام وفق اجندة خفية تتناغم فيها مع مصالح قوي دولية واقليمية واهدافها.
أما السؤال الثاني فهو الي اي مدي نجحت قطر فعليا الي الآن في تحقيق أي من مرآبها او اشباع طموحاتها كي يكون ذلك معيارا حقيقيا للحكم علي فاعلية نهجها هذا, أم أن الأمر سيبقي في نطاق التجريب, او في حدود المغامرات التي لن توصلها الي نتائج فاعلة او حقيقية, عدا طبعا الارتدادات التي تتحق فعليا علي الأرض.
في الحقيقة ليس هناك اجابات شافية لهذه ولغيرها من الاسئلة في ظل غموض قطري بشأن أجندتها الخارجية كما يغيب اي تفسير مقنع عما تقوم به, سواء في ضوء حجم الاستثمارات القطرية المهول عالميا, او الدور المتزايد الذي تلعبه الدوحة في ملفات اقليمية بالغة الخطورة, في حين تلجأ القيادة القطرية هي ايضا كما يفعل مهندس هذه السياسة رئيس الوزراء الشيخ حمد بن جاسم ال ثاني بالرد الي طريقة لاتقل سخرية عن تلك التي يلجأ اليها منتقدو قطر.
ومع ذلك فان غياب, او بالاحري احجام قطر عن أن تطرح اطارا مرجعيا لسياستها الخارجية او اي رؤية نظرية لها لا يعني بأي حال من الاحوال أن ما تقوم به طلسم يستعصي علي الفهم والتحليل, فسلوكيات أي دولة ضمن أي نظام اقليمي أو دولي هي بالتالي التي تفسر سياساتها الخارجية, وليس بيانات او تصريحات قادتها التي لا تخرج عادة عن معسول الكلام.
وهناك عدة ملفات تتأبطها قطر الآن هي الأخطر في حاضر ومستقبل المنطقة, وخاصة بسبب ارتباطها بمواقف دولية واقليمية متشابكة, وهي الاسلام السياسي وعلاقاته بالثورات العربية وما يتفرع من ملفات وخاصة التمويل, القضية الفلسطينية والصراع العربي الاسرائيلي والنظام العربي المتمثل بالجامعة العربية, التي اصبحت فعليا تدار بريموت كونترول قطري.
إن السخرية السياسية التي تطال قطر لا تعبر عن استعلاء أو حسد أو غيره, بل هي موقف نقدي تجاه ما يراه البعض من هوس قطري بالادوار والمواقع والزعامات الوهمية ينبغي ألا تصم القيادة القطرية آذانها عنه, كما فعلت تلك الانظمة العربية التي عملت وتعمل قطر علي اسقاطها.
Early elections in Iraq?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is seeking early elections in a bid to secure a third term in office, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is facing growing opposition from Sunni Arabs and Kurds in his country, has renewed his suggestions that Iraqis should go for early parliamentary elections in an apparent bid to outmanoeuvre his rivals and maintain his grip on power.
Iraq has been gridlocked by crisis since the US withdrawal in December 2011, and this has paralysed Al-Maliki’s government and is increasingly pushing the ethnically and sectarian divided country to the brink of chaos.
Al-Maliki, perceived by Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and even by many Shias as an affront to Iraq’s stability and nation-building efforts, would most likely benefit from early elections because he wields enormous powers, oversees many state organisations involved in elections, and controls the state-owned media, the army and the security forces.
Arab Sunnis and Kurds have been protesting against what they consider to be Al-Maliki’s dictatorship and have boycotted the government, and occasionally the parliament, to press their demands for greater autonomy and a larger say in national decision-making.
On Saturday, Al-Maliki said holding parliamentary elections three or four months before the scheduled date in late 2014 would help rescue Iraq’s political process, which he described as being in “intensive care.”
“There should be an early election because the government is dysfunctional and the political process is on hold,” he told a rally of his supporters in the Shia holy city of Najaf.
Al-Maliki also said a “majority government” should be formed after the upcoming elections, instead of the kind of national partnership government that took power in Iraq following the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq’s Sunni speaker of parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi, a staunch critic of Al-Maliki, dismissed the suggestion and insisted that early elections would require Al-Maliki’s resignation and the appointment of a non-partisan government to supervise the polling.
The Democratic Current, a small liberal-oriented group, also rejected elections overseen by Al-Maliki.
Meanwhile, a four-month-old Sunni uprising against Al-Maliki is showing no sign of abating.
Since late last year, tens of thousands of Sunni protesters have been rallying after Friday prayers in Sunni-dominated cities and neighbourhoods against Al-Maliki’s government.
At the centre of the crisis are Sunni grievances that they are being sidelined and their efforts to seek greater autonomy from the central government ignored.
Sunni dissatisfaction with the government started with complaints about its failure to provide services and jobs and the mistreatment by the Shia-controlled security forces of Sunni detainers, but protesters later revamped their demands to wanting the devolution of state powers.
Many Sunnis are now calling for the revoking of the US-orchestrated political process in the country that they believe has empowered the majority Shias at their expense.
They are pushing for a new constitution that they say should end their perceived neglect and marginalisation. Some Sunnis have even declared that they should secede from Iraq and seek autonomy outside it.
Several ministers from the mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc have either resigned or suspended their participation in the government to protest against what they call Al-Maliki’s increasingly dictatorial behaviour.
Things are also in a crisis situation in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq.
Kurdish ministers and legislators have been boycotting the cabinet and the parliament over disagreements with Al-Maliki’s handling of government affairs.
One recent quarrel was over state budget allocations, after Al-Maliki was able to gather enough votes in the parliament to pass a law on this despite Kurdish protests against blocking payments to oil companies operating in the Kurdish region.
A delegation from Al-Maliki’s bloc who met with the President of the Kurdistan regional government Massoud Barzani last week failed to convince him to send the Kurdish representatives back to Baghdad.
Fouad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, later said that the Kurdish leader had made it clear to the delegation that the Kurds would seek self-determination if they were not treated as equal partners in the government.
“It is either make or break,” he told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday.
Relations between the country’s Kurds, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, and the Shia-led government have worsened over other long-running disputes, including power and resource-sharing.
Oil and territorial disputes lie at the heart of a long-running feud between the Kurds and the Baghdad government.
The Kurds have been pursuing separate oil-and-gas exploration deals with foreign companies, and they have started selling oil on international markets in independent export deals.
The moves have aggravated tensions with Baghdad, which considers the sales to be illegal and a challenge to its claim to full control over Iraq’s oil.
In defiance, the Kurdistan government on Friday shipped its first direct cargo of crude oil to the international market. The cargo, about 30,000 tonnes and worth around $22 million, was pumped from an oilfield near Kirkuk and trucked over Iraq’s northern border with Turkey.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Al-Shahristani, one of Al-Maliki’s strongest allies, said that the federal government considered such oil exportations to be “smuggling operations.”
The Kurds, meanwhile, are seeking help from the United States, which they fear might be siding with Al-Maliki by assuming that he can be shoed-in to remain Iraq’s prime minister.
On Sunday, the Kurds dispatched a delegation to Washington for talks with the Obama administration on the Iraqi crisis. The visit came on the heel of remarks made by Brett McGurk, US secretary of state special advisor for Iraqi affairs, that Washington may have no objection to Al-Maliki’s bid to form a majority government.
“No matter which solution the political leaders in Iraq choose, we will support it as long as it abides by the constitution, even if it’s a political majority government,” McGurk was quoted as saying after meeting Al-Maliki in Baghdad.
Although the US embassy in Baghdad played down the statement, the Kurds seem to be worried about McGurk’s increasing role in Washington’s Iraq diplomacy.
McGurk, nominated as US ambassador in Iraq before being turned down by Congress because of sex allegations, is also seen by Al-Maliki’s Sunni opponents as close to the Iraqi premier.
Last month, a Kurdish delegation held talks with senior US officials in what was described by the head of the delegation, Khaled Shwani, as “a bid to solve the current problems plaguing the country”.
Shwani, a prominent Kurdish parliament member, was later quoted by the local press as saying that Iraq’s problems could be solved by “the establishment of three federations in Iraq” based on the “project of US Vice president Joe Biden”.
In 2007, and while serving in the US Congress, Biden introduced a non-binding bill for “decentralising” Iraq into three entities, one Shia, one Sunni and one Kurdish. The bill was approved by the Senate by 75 votes to 23.
Many Iraqis perceive that the Biden proposal is aimed at paving the way for the breakup of Iraq, and Shwani’s remarks seem to be designed to rekindle a debate in Washington on Iraq’s future in favour of Kurdish ambitions for independence.
All this should have made Al-Maliki more careful about how to end Iraq’s increasing political chaos by reaching out to his opponents instead of throwing the country into more uncertainty.
The Kurds, the Sunnis and even his own Shia co-religionists such as radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, will consider any third term by Al-Maliki as a reward for his failure by giving him yet more power.
In January, Al-Sadr’s followers joined Sunni and Kurdish representatives in the parliament to pass a law blocking Al-Maliki from a third term.
Al-Maliki challenged the bill in the federal courts and many Iraqis believe that he will exert pressure on the judiciary, as he has done many times in the past, to make the court veto the law.
Two worries continue to dog the country. The first is that Al-Maliki will succeed in mobilising Shia support for his ambitions for a third term, and thus increase sectarian polarisation in Iraq.
The second is that Al-Maliki will try to play on rivalries within the Kurdish and Sunni camps to muster enough support for his plans for early elections.
This will mean that the elections will end in another failure in nation-building efforts, and Iraqis will emerge from the process far more divided than they were before along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Risky business

Cash-strapped Egypt is seeking finance from Iraq, but it could well be disappointed, writes Salah Nasrawi

Egypt is facing enormous difficulties in its attempts to convince Iraq’s Shia-led government to extend it financial and economic aid amid growing fears that the country is on the brink of an economic downhill slide.
Hard hit by its inability to finance imports of fuel, wheat and other basic commodities caused by sliding foreign currency reserves and a soaring budget deficit following the 25 January Revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has been casting around for credits and cash to stem an economic collapse.
Iraqi officials say that Cairo’s efforts to gain Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s approval for a multi-billion dollar bond to be deposited in Egypt’s Central Bank to bolster its faltering economy and pay for badly needed supplies of crude oil have stumbled over Egypt’s desire for generous terms and domestic political complexities in both countries.
Last week, Al-Maliki’s deputy Hussein Al-Shahristani was quoted as saying that his country would ship four million barrels of crude oil to Egypt every month starting from April. The announcement raised hopes that the Iraqi supplies would help assuage a severe fuel shortage that has been feeding anti-government sentiment in Egypt.
But one Iraqi official said that little had been done to finalise an agreement that could meet Egypt’s ambitious expectations from a country that is already embroiled in political conflict and ethno-sectarian strife that its Shia-led government partially blames on its Sunni-dominated Arab neighbours.
“We haven’t seen any sign of concrete talks. In order for the oil deal to hit the ground, Baghdad is waiting for detailed negotiations with Cairo regarding a broader and more systematic approach to bilateral relations,” the Iraq official told Al-Ahram Weekly on Tuesday.
“There are outstanding issues which need to be tackled before any financial or oil deal can be reached,” he stressed without elaborating.
Among the obstacles that Iraq says could block any financial deal with Egypt are restrictions on transactions put in place by the UN sanctions following former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, including an embargo on the Cairo branch of the Iraqi state-owned Rafidain Bank which Iraq wants to reopen to handle financial transactions.
Iraq also wants Egypt to lift visa restrictions on its citizens, who currently need security clearance for entry.
In addition to these restrictions, a request from Egypt for a $4 billion bond to be deposited in Egypt’s Central Bank to shore up its foreign currency reserves has hit a snag over the easy terms requested by Egypt, according to the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had initially made a request for a $5 billion deposit during a visit by Al-Maliki to Cairo in February. The sum was meant to be similar to the deposits in Egypt’s Central Bank from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that have been ring-fenced and cannot be touched.
Al-Maliki reportedly told Morsi that he could not guarantee the endorsement by Iraq’s fractured parliament of such a huge sum, but that he would consider a smaller amount and suggested negotiations between the two governments on terms.
Egypt is also believed to be seeking Iraqi crude oil at preferential prices in a deal similar to the one with neighbouring Jordan. Egypt is said to want to import diesel fuel from Iraq on a daily basis.
Last month, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil visited Iraq at the head of a large government and business delegation to follow up on the loan request and make other requests, including the provision of Egypt with crude oil.
The talks also focussed on the areas of trade, power, health and reconstruction. After the visit, Iraq lifted a ban on Egyptian dairy imports and released pensions owed to Egyptians who left Iraq after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Iraqi-Egyptian relations were broken off in 1990 after Egypt joined the US-led coalition that forced Iraq out of Kuwait during the Iraq-Kuwait war. The two countries partially patched up ties during Saddam’s last years in power, with Egypt becoming Iraq’s fourth-largest business partner, but relations have remained cool with the Shia-led government that came to power in Iraq following Saddam’s ouster.
Last year, Iraq transferred $408 million, the value of remittances owed by Iraq, to 670,000 Egyptian workers who left the country in the 1990s during the Gulf War. Efforts to solve the problem during Mubarak’s rule had faltered because Egypt had insisted that Iraq should also pay some $100 million in interest.
While Egypt is still waiting for Baghdad’s nod to help salvage its sky-diving economy, it has also escalated attempts to improve relations with Shia Iran, which is believed to be a close ally of Al-Maliki’s government.
Iran and Egypt resumed commercial flights this week some 34 years after the two countries severed relations following the Islamic Revolution in Iran that toppled the pro-Western shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi and triggered an ideological backlash from Egypt.
Relations soured even more under Mubarak, who accused Iran of supporting radical Islamist groups in Egypt and Shias throughout the Middle East.
But Tehran and Cairo moved to improve ties following the ouster of Mubarak, and Morsi was the first Egyptian president to visit the Islamic Republic last August. In February, Morsi received Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Cairo while the latter was attending a conference of Islamic nations.
On Sunday, dozens of Iranian tourists arrived in southern Egypt to visit Pharaonic sites as part of a bilateral tourism-promotion deal. The following day, Ahmadinejad signed a draft law that would see the lifting of visa requirements for Egyptian tourists visiting the Islamic Republic.
Under a cooperation agreement signed last month, charter flights between Egypt and Iran will link the Upper Egyptian tourist cities of Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel with Iran.
Iranian tourists will initially not be allowed to visit Shia shrines in Cairo.
Egypt’s willingness to engage with Iraq and Iran could be largely motivated by economics, but it also indicates how economic difficulties are shaping the perspectives and strategies of Egypt’s new Islamist rulers.
Many observers believe that thaws in relations with Iran and stepping up ties with Iraq could signal the intention of the Egyptian government to integrate economic relations with foreign policy, even if that could harm its relations with some of Egypt’s traditional allies.
Many Egyptians feel they have been betrayed by their Sunni Arab brethren since the 25 January Revolution and feel shock and anger at what they consider to be their economic excommunication, leaving the country to scramble to cut deals abroad to help keep it from sinking into chaos.
Egypt has sought help from several wealthy Arab countries to shore up depleted reserves in its Central Bank, but few have been forthcoming. Only the oil-rich Gulf emirate of Qatar has provided funding, including a $5 billion loan deposit.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, has provided only $1 billion in loans.
On the other hand, Cairo’s new approach could challenge the United States, which considers Iran to be its arch-enemy in the Middle East. Washington is Egypt’s largest donor, and it has announced that it will provide an extra long-term loan of $450 million to spur reform.
Some Egyptians believe that their Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government is playing a dangerous game by trying to put pressure on the oil-rich countries in the Gulf by strengthening cooperation with Iran and Shia-led Iraq.
They believe that this policy could further alienate Egypt from its Arab neighbours, while giving no guarantees that the Iraqis and Iranians will deliver.
The policy is also facing domestic opposition. Hard-line Islamist groups such as the Salafists have voiced concern that Iranians and Iraqi Shias could soon be flocking to Egypt to spread their Shia brand of Islam.
A previously unknown group called the Islamic Alliance for the Defence of the Prophet’s Companions and his Family warned on Sunday that it “would not allow” Iranian tourists into Egypt and would send them back to their country.
But Essam Al-Erian, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader and deputy president of its political front the Freedom and Justice Party, dismissed the threats.
“Egypt cannot be infiltrated by a trend or an ideology. It has defied communism and secularism, and it has mixed its nationalism with an Islamist element,” he wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
“Egypt will remain Sunni,” Al-Erian wrote.
However, the hard political facts remain. Iraq’s Shia-led government and its Iranian allies are not going to help Egypt without reciprocal political benefit. For them, the goal should be to lure Egypt further away from its Arab Sunni brethren, especially Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf nations.
Such an outcome would be extremely costly to Egypt, which would likely suffer from restrictions and probably boycott by the Gulf countries and the United States, jeopardising other aspects of its foreign policy.