Friday, August 07, 2009

Arab politicians flock to Kurdistan as tension rises

Since after PM Maliki’s visit to Kurdistan, the region has become a primary destination for Iraqi political leaders. Vice president Tariq Hashimi (Sunni-Islamic Party), Iyad Allawi (secular-Iraqi List) and vice president Aadil Abdul-Mahdi (Shiite-ISCI) all visited the region in the last few days. The stated purpose of these visits is to congratulate Kurdish leaders on the successful elections.

However, the timing of the visit, and the fact that Hashimi and Allawi went together to see Barazani may have some implications. It possibly indicates that Maliki’s partners and rivals alike are concerned that he might be managing the relations with the Kurdish region alone. Those who do not necessarily agree with Maliki want to know what kind of a deal he made with the Kurdish leaders, if any, especially that not much information has leaked about that.

The second point here is Barazani’s statement in which he said he could ally with some Arab political blocs for the upcoming elections. This may have encouraged the Islamic Party and the Iraqi List to look forward to such an alliance that could substantially alter the political map.

Hashimi and Allawi made sure they visit both Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. In Sulaymaniyah, Hashimi was accompanied by the senior leaders of his party “to discuss steps to improve the relations between the Islamic Party and the Patriotic Union (PUK)”.

Although recent news about approaching agreements and having more in common than not, the complexity of the situation on the ground does not suggest there are readily available solutions. In this regard, Falah Mustafa, the foreign affairs officer in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) acknowledged it was difficult to make predictions about the disputes between the KRG and the central government. “The Iraqi situation is so complicated at this point that we will not waste a chance for dialogue between the regional and federal governments…the regional government seeks progress on points of dispute whenever there is an opportunity to do so in order to resolve problems and calm the situation”, says Mustafa.

In my opinion, both sides want to put the conflict for later, at least until after the general elections in January. Neither side can afford an escalation that could cost them votes. On the one hand, Maliki and his party succeeded in the provincial elections based on the improvement in security. He has a good chance for a second term in office, so despite his tough stance vis-à-vis Kurdish aspirations, he has been keen to steer the situation away from the brink of armed conflict. On the other hand, although the PUK-KDP alliance still has the majority and although there is widespread consensus on nationalist aspirations, the elections revealed a growing popular demand for development and reform inside the region.

Indeed both sides have been clear that they would not let things spiral down to an armed conflict. The minister of defense, Abdul-qadir Mohammed Jasim said he would not allow “such foolishness”. Meanwhile Masoud Barazani pledged that there shall be no fighting as long as he was present.

On the ground, the situation is fast-paced and actions can get not as reconciliatory at times.

In Kirkuk, preparations for the general elections have begun way ahead of any other province. The Electoral Commission is working to establish voting centers and update voter records. According to the Commission’s office manager in Kirkuk, there will be 43 centers; 23 in the city of Kirkuk, and 23 in surrounding towns. The official added that food coupons would likely be used to update the voter records, noting that “the office is constantly in contact with the national center in Baghdad to discuss this issue with the board of trustees, who will in turn make recommendation to the parliament to prepare a mechanism for the process”.
The preparations coincided with a surprise visit by president Talabani to the province, where he is expected to discuss the security situation with local officials. The interesting thing is that Talabani, while he is president of the country, seems to be interested in visiting only two places outside Kurdistan; Baghdad and Kirkuk. I can’t remember the last time he has been to any other province.

The debate over the validity of article 140 of the constitution (which prescribes steps for deciding the future status of Kirkuk) continues. An Arab political group called the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk attacked PM Maliki over a recent statement he made in this regard. During his meeting with Kurdish leaders, Maliki said his government was committed to the full implementation of article 140 in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Hassan al-Jubouri, a speaker of the Arab group called on Maliki to “take it back”. Al-Jubouri argued that article 140’s validity had expired the moment the deadline for implementing it passed. Kirkuk’s Arabs demand that article 142 (the article that regulates constitutional amendments) be used instead.

In other contested regions, both Kurdish and federal authorities are working to assert themselves; in various forms.

In Qara-Teppa, an Iraqi army unit is doing this the traditional way. The IA battalion that is deployed in this town (in northern Diyala) forbade members of the Kurdish security forces (the Asayesh) from walking around the town’s marketplace in their uniforms. The IA unit sent an official letter to the Asayesh force in Qara-Teppa warning that any member of that force seen in uniform in public places would be subject to arrest.

In another contested region; Sinjar (west of Mosul) the KRG is asserting itself in a different way. The mayor of the town said the KRG is funding the construction of four soccer fields at a cost of 160 million dinars (~$140k). This kind of investment, while not big, is a message that the KRG is not backing off from those regions.

In Mosul (the capital of Nineveh) the situation seems to have not been affected by the friendly meetings between the Arab and Kurdish leaders. Yesterday, Khesro Koran the leader of the Kurdish bloc in the provincial council (30% of the seats) reiterated his bloc’s determination to unilaterally form a their own administration in the province, should there be no deal with the Hadbaa (Arab ~50% of the seats) bloc. Koran accused the Arab bloc of taking over all the important offices in the provincial government and replacing Kurdish police officers and senior civilian officials “we cam in with good will and open hands but were surprised that in the first session [of the provincial council] all posts were given to the Hadabaa bloc, in a farce that lasted ten minutes”.

The bottom line is, the crisis continues and the tension rises, and so do negotiations to contain it. The problem is that intentions are very difficult to measure. Both sides say they are keen to keep the crisis from getting out of control, at the same time as they dig the trenches.


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