Will Iraq remain united in 2020?

Thanks to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s plans for new provincial divisions the country’s continuing unity is under threat, writes Salah Nasrawi
There was no referendum, no opinion polls, and no cross-party or public debate, as there usually is when genuine democracies inform people about their choices so that they can make decisions and accept responsibilities.
The announcement by Iraq’s Shia-led government last week of plans to create several new provinces, some of them from contested parts of the country, has taken most Iraqis by surprise and renewed fears of Iraq’s “soft partitioning”.
It also comes amid reports that preparations are underway with international backing to declare Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Region independent within the next five years.
Iraq’s latest conflict began on 21 January when the government announced plans to turn Tuz Khurmatu and Talafar, two towns which fall inside Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories” which are claimed by almost all Iraq’s mosaic of different ethnicities, into new provinces.
Two days later the government said it also planned to turn three more districts into governorates, including Fallujah, a district in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province and a stronghold of Sunni resistance against the Shia-dominated government.
Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki described the decision, taken by a majority of his ministers, as being “irreversible” because he said it was “constitutional and lawful.” Iraq is currently divided into 18 muhafazat, or governorates. Three of these constitute the northern Kurdistan Region and the rest are under the central government’s control.
In explaining why it wanted to establish the new governorates, the government said the districts were large enough in area and population to be upgraded to the status of provinces. It said the new arrangements would help to boost economic development in the provinces and provide better services and social care to their populations.
Yet, the government’s plans for a new provincial map of Iraq have opened up many challenges on both the local and national levels. Many Iraqis question their policy objectives, legitimacy and timing.
Under the plans, which need to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, Tuz Khurmatu, a district dominated by Shia Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity and annexed to the Sunni Arab-dominated Salah Al-Din province, is to be a separate province.
Another town whose inhabitants are also mostly Shia Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity, Talafar, now controlled by Nineveh, a Sunni Arab-dominated province, is also to be declared a separate governorate.
Since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of former president Saddam Hussein both Tuz Khurmatu and Talafar have been subjected to frequent bombings by the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, and the plan reawakens hopes that they will now assume their own security and governance.
It came as no surprise that the Turkmens, who are Iraq’s third-largest ethnicity, hailed their upgrading as an opportunity for greater political influence alongside the country’s Kurds and Arabs.
Leaders of the Turkmen community, which has been complaining of marginalisation in recent years, urged the national parliament to quickly endorse the government plans.
Iraq’s Christian minority, which has also been complaining of exclusion and discrimination, hailed the decision to turn the largely Christian populated Nineveh areas into a province as a blessing.
Some Iraqi Christians have called for a separate Christian “federal entity” in these areas of northern Iraq in the hope that they could thereby gain greater autonomy, security and political status.
But the Kurds, who had hoped that the three would-be provinces would become part of their autonomous region, have voiced strong reservations to the move, which has been vetoed by Kurdish cabinet ministers.
Though the Kurdistan Regional Government has refrained from commenting on the plans thus far, Kurdish MPs slammed them as unconstitutional and politically motivated.  
Meanwhile, Sunni Arabs in Nineveh railed against the plans, which will take both Talafar and the Plain of Nineveh from the largely Sunni Arab populated province.
Governor Atheel Al-Nujaifi of Nineveh said he would ask the provincial council to declare Nineveh a federal region if the parliament moved ahead and approved the plans.
Sunnis in Anbar also rejected the idea of carving Fallujah out of the already Sunni majority province.
Meanwhile, rival Shia groups have also been lukewarm about the plans, partly because they see them as designed to serve the election campaign of Al-Maliki who is seeking a third term in office in the 30 April polls.
Leader of the Shia Sadrist parliamentary bloc Bahaa Al-Aaraji said the decision would “open the door to the splitting of Iraq.”
A closer look at the plans, however, indicates that the Al-Maliki government’s decision may not be haphazard, as some outside observers had previously suggested. Its intention is to redraw the borders of Iraq’s provinces in case the partitioning of the country becomes inevitable.
Its main goal is apparently to create pockets inhabited by ethnicities other than Kurds that would encircle the Kurdish enclave in the north of the country and bloc its expansion into the disputed territories. 
With calls for Sunni Arab autonomy within a federal Iraqi state gaining strength, the plans also aim at limiting their assertion of territorial control. 
In recent weeks, Sunni leaders have been increasingly vocal about demanding their autonomy.
Last week, Sunni Speaker of the Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi traveled to Washington to discuss Sunni grievances with US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. 
Prominent Sunni MP Saleem Al-Juburi said Al-Nujaifi had discussed with Obama and Biden the possibility of declaring the Sunni-populated provinces as federal regions within Iraq.
“This is the [only] solution if other solutions fail,” he told Iraqi Al-Summeria television.
In 2006, Biden, who was a leading US senator at the time, proposed the so-called “soft partition” plan to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions held together by a central government.
But the plan was seen by many Iraqis as paving the way for breaking up the Iraqi state into three separate entities for Kurds, Shias and Sunnis.  
A Kurdish news outlet close to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party reported this week that the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq would declare its independence within five years.
Rudaw quoted energy advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government Ali Balu as saying that Kurdistan “is going to be rid of its status as a region within Iraq.”
“A plan is underway for Kurdistan to be an independent state in the near future,” he said. According to Balu, Kurdistan’s independence would be driven by the region’s geostrategic position and its rich energy reserves.
He said that Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani’s participation in the World Economic Forum at Davos last week had been to pave the way for international recognition of Kurdistan as an independent state.
Barzani has repeatedly warned that the Kurds will seek independence if the region’s disputes with Baghdad over oil, the region’s budget and its territory remain unresolved.
More broadly, the widely expected moment of Iraq’s split may now be finally approaching. It has long been assumed that the failure of Al-Maliki’s coalition government would push Iraq into “soft partitioning” as the only means of avoiding a fully-fledged civil war and the growing threat of a regional flare-up.
Given the increased violence and political uncertainty in Iraq today, the new plans, which would initiate substantive changes in Iraq’s ethno-political map in addition to Kurdistan’s alleged preparations for early independence, raise the question of whether Iraq will remain united in 2020.
In a country where fundamental issues remain unresolved, including the future shape of its provincial boundaries and power-sharing, things are likely to continue teetering on the brink.
With communal divisions sharpening and violence going unabated, the Iraqis’ faith in a unitary state is fading and many of them may now be surrendering to what they see as inevitable.

Washington should keep away from Iraq

The United States does not have a solution to the Iraqi crisis and it should stay out of the country, writes Salah Nasrawi
The recent flare-up in Iraq’s western Anbar province has drawn US media attention to Iraq and sparked a controversy on whether the United States should re-engage in the war-battered country two years after its last troops left.

Some American politicians and media pundits are even suggesting that the Obama administration should actively intervene, probably by considering sending troops back to Iraq to help the Shia-dominated government in combating Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Although there are plenty of reasons to make the United States pay for its follies and crimes in Iraq, most obviously during its protracted occupation of the country, Washington is poorly qualified to help stabilise Iraq and engage in state-building in the devastated country.

While the present escalation is increasingly turning deadly and threatens to shatter the ethno-sectarian divided country, it is out of the question that most Iraqis would want to see US troops back in their beleaguered nation.

However, Iraq does not seem to be a pressing issue for the Obama administration, and the partisan rhetoric about Iraq seems to be mostly a blame-trading game between the Democrats and the Republicans over the administration’s approach towards the country before the mid-term elections.

It will be interesting to see how US President Barack Obama, who is facing charges by his opponents of being reluctant to take hard foreign-policy decisions that disturb his base, will tackle post-Anbar Iraq.

If Obama contemplates interfering in Iraq, he should deal with four contradictory positions. While most Americans, and in particular in his Democratic base, remain opposed to intervention, his Republican critics want him to be more actively involved in Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Iraq itself Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is seeking US political support, weapons and training of the security forces, while the country’s Sunni community wants Obama to halt support to Al-Maliki and increase pressure on him to abandon his sectarian policies.

Thus far, the Obama administration has been reluctant, or too confused, to put on display any concrete policy towards Iraq apart from the usual meaningless statements.

As the present crisis began unfolding, the administration voiced support for Al-Maliki’s government and accelerated deliveries of military equipment to Iraq to help it fight militants in the Anbar province.

It was also looking to provide additional shipments of Hellfire missiles, as well as ten ScanEagle drones and 48 Raven drones.

Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that help to Iraq did not include US “boots on the ground,” explicitly noting that “this is their [the Iraqis’] fight.”

Some Democrats in the US Congress are proposing to repeal the authorisation, known as an AUMF, which was used by former president George W. Bush to wage the war to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The bill would cut off any US attempt to intervene in Iraq militarily.

On the other hand, critics of the White House have blamed the security deterioration on Obama for failing to agree on a deal with Al-Maliki’s government to leave a residual US force behind after withdrawing all American troops from the country at the end of 2011.

They argue that when the last US combat troops departed from Iraq in December 2011, they left behind a defeated Al-Qaeda and an Iraq where Sunni and Shia Muslims were sharing power in what they described as a democracy.

One of Obama’s vehement critics, Senator John McCain, has even proposed that the president should send David Petraeus, a retired four-star general who ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, back to Iraq in order to help deal with the growing unrest in the country.

McCain also suggested that Washington provide weapons such as Apache helicopters and logistical support to help quell the spiraling violence in Iraq.

But McCain said he opposed sending combat troops back to Iraq.

For his part, Al-Maliki has asked the United States for new arms to beat back the resurgence of Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Anbar and training of Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces by US forces.

He categorically brushed aside the idea of inviting American forces back into Iraq.

As for the Iraqi Sunnis, the crisis in Anbar has strengthened their focus on what they perceive as the Shia-dominated government’s marginalisation of their community, which they also blame on US policies in Iraq.

During a trip to Washington last week, Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq warned the US government that supplying the Iraqi government with weapons was not the solution to defeat Al-Qaeda.

“Obama said he would withdraw from Iraq, but in a responsible way, and I don’t believe his withdrawal was responsible. He left so many problems that he should have solved before he left,” he told the US news outlet the Daily Beast.

Chief among those problems, Al-Mutlaq said, was the failure of the Al-Maliki government to share power with Sunni politicians. He repeatedly told audiences and journalists that the United States, which he accused of “destroying” Iraq, should do more to rebuild it.

These are conflicting positions, and there are questions about how Obama will attempt to reconcile them in order to take a viable policy approach to Iraq without choosing one side over another.

Certainly, Iraq is on a threshold, and its collapse as a state would constitute a national security challenge to the United States.

But no one wants US troops back in Iraq. The idea of sending back Petraeus or reviving the so-called “surge” strategy seems misplaced.

The surge remains America’s most misleading myth in Iraq, and its catastrophic results proved that it was nothing but another strategic blunder in the disastrous war the United States waged on the country in 2003.

Atrocities by US soldiers during the nearly 10-year occupation fueled the anti-American resistance in the country and represented a moral, political and military setback for the United States, as well a catastrophic human disaster.

The publication of gruesome photographs that appeared to show US Marines burning the dead bodies of Iraqis last week revived memories of the shocking war crimes perpetrated by American army personnel.  

Some of the photos published on the website TMZ.com showed Marines pouring liquid from a petrol can on two decaying bodies. Two other photos showed the bodies on fire, and two more showed the charred remains.

The Obama administration’s thinking on Iraq will not clarify until some of the other major uncertainties in the Middle East are resolved. These include the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Iran’s nuclear deal, and the crisis in Syria, all of which remain key preoccupations for Washington in the Middle East.

A breakthrough in all these three conflicts is not clear, and conceivably events including continued violence in Iraq may become a catalyst for renewed regional tensions that are increasingly taking on a sectarian dimension.

For most Iraqis, debating whether Obama should wield a longer or a smaller stick to deal with the conflict in their violence-torn country is irrelevant.

Given the fact that the Obama administration does not have a clear-cut strategy on Iraq, it is difficult to imagine that it could help to save the Iraqis from their tragic misfortunes.  

On the contrary, any US intervention will rekindle memories of the invasion and the destruction and humiliation it inflicted and will most certainly make matters worse and add more fuel to the fire in Iraq.

Kurdistan deadlocked over government

A new government in Iraq’s Kurdistan region awaits deals between coalition partners, WritesSalah Nasrawi
Nearly four months after its general elections, Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdistan region is still without a functioning government due to political differences and bargaining over allocations of posts in the new parliament and cabinet.
Leaders of the prospective coalition parties have been struggling for weeks to finalise an agreement on sharing the seats in the new government and its programme. The failure to form a coalition government will accentuate fears of polarisation in Kurdistan, which is already gripped in budget and oil disputes with the central government in Baghdad.
The impasse has raised questions about Kurdistan’s democracy and whether its leaders, once viewed as liberators and reflective of Kurdish nationalism, are now straying into autocrats at the top of a corrupt bureaucracy in their emerging national state.
The Kurdistan region held its fourth legislative elections on 21 September, and final results were announced two weeks later. The new assembly convened briefly on 6 November to allow members to be sworn in, but it was then suspended indefinitely.
However, there is growing unease that prolonged coalition bickering and tactical posturing will not pay off in Kurdistan’s instability-prone politics. The risk of a power struggle has already prompted neighbouring Iran to offer its mediation to end the stalemate.
Some 88 MPs have demanded that the parliament reconvene immediately to resume its business and elect a speaker. They have warned that the suspension of the assembly for too long “will create a legal vacuum” and make people “lose confidence” in the parliament.
The elections in September resulted in a hung parliament in which no party garnered enough votes to form a majority government. Kurdistan’s parliament is composed of a total of 111 seats, out of which 11 were reserved for minorities such as Christians, Tourkoumans and Yazidis.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the region’s most powerful party led by Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani, secured 38 seats, far shy of the 56 seats needed to form the government.
Its main partner, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), won only 18 seats. The main opposition party, Gorran, or Change, which run on a reform ticket, won 24 seats, and the rest of the seats went to smaller parties which are also cashing in on voter dismay.
The result has thrown into disarray the bi-party system which had dominated Kurdistan’s politics for nearly two decades and made a coalition government with Gorran’s participation inevitable. Gorran was established in 2009 after its leaders split from the PUK seeking to promote a reform agenda in the region.
The Kurds have enjoyed semi autonomy since 1991, when a US-British no-fly zone helped protect them from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s forces until his fall in the 2003 US-led invasion. Since then, the region has been enjoying self-rule as a federal region of Iraq.
From its emergence in 1991, the Kurdish Autonomous Region has been ruled by the alliance of the KDP and PUK. The two resistance groups which led the Kurdish armed struggle against the Iraqi governments promised a democratic Kurdistan, but as they held to power they pushed through measures that gave them sweeping powers and established an autocratic regime that belies the image of a true democracy.
Now the outcome of the elections has brought to the limelight public disillusionment over the two parties’ consolidation of power, their commitment to corruption and cronyism and their unbridled security forces.
Barzani had already asked his nephew and son-in-law Nechirvan Barzani, who is also his deputy as party chief, to form the government. The move was considered as highly unusual before parliament convenes, but it was seemingly aimed at undercutting any bid by the other parties to vie for the post.
Because the KDP can neither form the government alone nor with its partner the PUK, it offered to form a broad coalition government, accepting the prospect of making Gorran and other opposition parties junior partners
Initially, the KDP made it clear that it would grant the first choice of partnership in the next government to its strategic ally and coalition partner the PUK, which had lost most votes to Gorran.
The KDP also rejected preconditions by the main opposition parties, which had demanded portfolios in the new government distributed according to the popular vote.
But negotiations to form the new government have stalled, as have efforts by Gorran to challenge the hegemony of the two ruling parties.
Kurdish press reports suggest that demands by the PUK to keep the post of the speaker of the parliament and several key cabinet portfolios are the main obstacles behind the delays in forming the new government. 
The demands have been met by strong opposition by Gorran, which considers them to be attempts by the PUK, whose followers control the security forces and occupy prominent slots in the public services in many parts of Kurdistan, to retain its position of dominance despite its heavy losses in the elections.
As the coalition talks enter their fifth month next week, the KDP, which fears a backlash if the government deadlock continues, appears to be willing to abandon its “most favoured” treatment to its old strategic ally.
In recent days, several KDP officials have gone public in blaming the PUK for the delay in forming the government and issued warnings that their party’s patience may be running out.
The London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported on Monday that Iran had asked the KDP and PUK to send high-level delegations to Tehran for talks on the government crisis.
The paper quoted an unidentified Kurdish official as saying that Iran “doesn’t want to see the political status of its strategic ally the PUK weakened”.  
Eventually, political deals may be done to form a new government, but the question raised by many Kurds is whether this will be able to get down to business and what it can afford for the Kurds.
During the election campaign, there were a number of themes that came through as priorities for Iraqi Kurdistan’s future, on top of them reform of the political system in the region including drafting a constitution to make it more democratic.
The next government is expected to address this issue, which was also among the main campaign promises by Gorran. Party leaders realise that compromising their ideals in exchange for a few cabinet jobs will cost them many of their supporters.
Since its inception following an uprising against Saddam’s government, the self-ruled Kurdish region has had no constitution, and a draft constitution which was passed by the regional parliament in 2009 was never put to a referendum.
The pro-reform parties have insisted on reworking this constitution and have argued that the draft charter was rushed through by the parliament which was then under the control of the two ruling parties.
They even claim that some articles were changed, including those which made the Iraqi Kurdistan region into a presidential system, whereas the original document states that the region enjoys “a parliamentary political system”.
Another dispute is over Barzani’s presidency. In July, lawmakers from the two ruling parties in the region voted unanimously to extend Barzani’s term exceptionally for two more years, despite a limit imposed by the draft constitution on his presidency.
The opposition parties denounced the vote as a coup targeting the parliament and the process of democratisation in the region. The Kurdistan region’s draft constitution states that the president of the Kurdistan region “may be re-elected for a second term as of the date this constitution enters into force”.
Other main opposition demands include unifying the region’s army of the Peshmergas and security forces, institutionalising the government, ensuring the independence of the judiciary, and creating a parliamentary political system.
A key challenge that the new government will face is mounting demands to address corruption and cronyism in the region. For the last 10 years, the administration has been refusing to meet any of these demands, allowing internal discontent to fester.
In addition, the next government should tackle the problem of the Barzani family’s domination of business and oil revenues, which allows the KDP to fund a wide network of services and patronage, putting other parties at a disadvantage.
Simultaneously, most Kurds want the new government to end the heavy-handedness of the security forces which are said to pull strings behind the scenes and who have been accused of repression and corruption.
Last month, Kurdish journalist Kawa Germyani was murdered outside his home. It’s believed he was targeted because of his investigations into corrupt security officials. His family have filed a law suit against PUK officials, including a politburo member whom they believe ordered his execution.
However, the big challenge remains if Kurdistan, celebrated by various international actors as a haven of peace and democracy in crisis-plagued and violence- battered Iraq, has any chance of producing significant political change.
More specifically, can Iraqi Kurdish democracy exist and advance under its current system when one hegemonic party is clinging to power and doing everything it can to abuse its power and stack the odds in its favour?

Turbulence in Iraq

Tensions are soaring in Iraq as the country continues to experience violent clashes and political deadlock, writes Salah Nasrawi in Baghdad
When Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki dispatched the army to the country’s Anbar province late last month, he vowed that the troops would obliterate the Al-Qaeda terrorist group in Iraq’s troubled western province.
Instead, the crackdown initiated an uprising in the Sunni-dominated province that many now fear is sending the country back to the edge of sectarian civil war.
In just one short week, Iraq, which has been struggling with its worst violence since 2006, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
The country now stands at a crossroads, and the power struggle between the two Muslim communities has reached a crescendo that may force them to rethink their future in a unified Iraq.
The escalation of violence broke out last week after the security forces arrested a prominent Sunni lawmaker and moved to dismantle a protest camp in the city of Ramadi that had been demanding an end to what the Sunnis perceive as being the marginalisation and exclusion of their community.
Fighting gripped much of the province as tribesmen seized control of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, and its second largest city Fallujah, fending off incursions by government forces.
As later developments suggest, an alliance of Al-Qaeda operatives and a variety of tribal insurgents then took advantage of the escalation to take over the two cities that control the strategic highway that links Baghdad with Jordan and Syria.
Bolstered by the air force and artillery bombardment, the Iraqi police and pro-government tribal fighters later claimed to have retaken part of Ramadi after fierce fighting had left scores of dead, though much of Fallujah has remained under the rebels’ control.
It was the first time in years that Sunni insurgents had taken ground in the province’s major cities and held their positions for several days, signalling a bold effort to defeat the country’s Shia-led government.
A second move in the insurgents’ new offensive strategy was to step up their attacks in areas closer to Baghdad and in Sunni-populated provinces like Salaheddin and Nineveh, which indicates a push to encircle the Iraqi capital and isolate and surround the government forces.
Like most of Iraq’s problems, the current standoff stems from the country’s political leaders who have been exploiting the ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour in order to grab more power.
The escalating tension shows how much the war-battered country is smarting from the anxiety of decline, and each new conflict seems to be plunging it ever deeper into the abyss.
In mapping Iraq’s political landscape following the flare-up, worrying signs can be identified to the effect that the country’s community leaders are still failing to rise above partisanship and engage in a fair and equal partnership.
By triggering the crisis, Al-Maliki hopes that he will be able to grab a victory ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in April. He thinks that by showing his readiness to use strong-arm tactics against his Sunni opponents he will be able to consolidate his power and his leadership of the Shias and guarantee himself a third term in office.
His Shia rivals, meanwhile, seem to be giving Al-Maliki enough rope to hang himself instead of trying to keep him on check or promoting initiatives to resolve the standoff. 
On the other hand, the power-greedy and poorly-led Sunni politicians are disunited and lacking in a vision and strategy that can address the underlined problems.
Equally, the Sunni tribal leaders are preoccupied with seeking their share in the country’s power and wealth and seem to have nothing useful to offer.  
Insurgents such as former Baathists and members of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s army and security forces who remain determined to topple the post-Saddam regime appear to be in the forefront of the latest uprising.  
As for Al-Qaeda jihadists, their objective in Anbar seems to be mustering the broader population’s support in their fight to defeat the Shias and their endeavour to impose an Islamic state.
It is unlikely that the terror group will succeed in its enterprise, but it will remain a source of great uncertainty, much like the parties’ failure to reach a compromise.
The signal achievement of the latest escalation in the violence in Iraq may be that no one can now predict the course of the country’s sectarian conflict, which is being fought out in the glare of the media and amidst election frenzy.
The pity is that any optimism for stability in Iraq is becoming ever more elusive, as the conflicting goals of the various sides and the complicated battleground are making it that much harder to find a solution to Iraq’s growing sectarian crisis.