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Iraq Report: December 15, 2006

December 15, 2006, Volume 9, Number 44

POLITICAL PARTIES CONSIDER UNITING AGAINST AL-SADR. The decision by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to pull his political bloc out of the Iraqi government to protest Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's decision to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush on November 30 has brought the Iraqi political process to a virtual standstill.

Major Iraqi political parties have now engaged in behind-the-scenes talks to form a new political alliance to help break the impasse. The Iraqi daily "Al-Azzam" reported on December 12 that the main Shi'ite party in Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has been in discussions with the Kurdish Alliance and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party to form a new political coalition. The aim would be to exclude al-Sadr's bloc, whose support the current government relies on to survive.

Although politicians involved in the preliminary discussions denied that they were seeking to sideline al-Sadr's bloc, comments by Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih of the Kurdish Alliance on December 12 clearly suggest that the main cause of the current political crisis are militant politicians like al-Sadr.

"A number of key political parties, across the sectarian-ethnic divide, recognize the gravity of the situation and have become increasingly aware that their fate, and that of the country, cannot be held hostage by the whims of the extreme fringe within their communities," "The New York Times" quoted Salih as saying.

Breaking The Impasse

A November 8 memo written by U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley and leaked to "The New York Times" on November 29 listed several recommendations to strengthen Prime Minister al-Maliki's beleaguered government. Among them were for al-Maliki to "bring his political strategy with Muqtada al-Sadr to a closure" and for the United States to "actively support al-Maliki in helping him develop an alternative political base."

The new political alliance of Shi'ite, Kurdish, and Sunni groups is essentially what Hadley's memo was referring to, and could be an effective way of breaking Iraq's political logjam. "The aim of these agreements is to improve civil peace and enhance national unity and strengthen the political process," Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a senior SCIRI official, was quoted by AFP on December 11 as saying.

One of the main criticisms of al-Maliki's government by both Sunnis and U.S. officials is his inability or unwillingness to reign in al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which has been widely accused of carrying out sectarian attacks.

With 34 seats in the Iraqi parliament, al-Sadr is an integral component of al-Maliki's governing coalition and the prime minister is politically dependent on him. Consequently, al-Sadr's removal from the governing coalition would free al-Maliki's hands and give him the political breathing room to press al-Sadr to reign in his militia.

"We want a patriotic front that can bypass sectarianism and should be open to all who want to join. We call for resolving the militia issue, which is certainly the key to defusing the crisis," AFP quoted Iraqi Islamic Party member Omar Abd al-Sattar Mahmud on December 11 as saying.

Moreover, without al-Sadr's obstructionist tendencies, a stable and relatively unified political alliance would be able to undertake some of the more pressing issues, such as drafting a comprehensive oil law and reviewing the Iraqi Constitution, which is a main Sunni demand.

Potential Risks Of New Alliance

The formation of a new political alliance across sectarian lines carries with it several risks, most notably the threat of increased violence. Al-Sadr's power comes from his ability to mobilize his militia. The Imam Al-Mahdi Army was behind two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, and al-Sadr could instigate another confrontation with U.S. forces if feels he is being politically marginalized.

Also, ostracizing al-Sadr could radicalize him even further, and free him to unleash his militia on the Sunni Arabs, which in turn could lead to reprisal attacks and a steep rise in sectarian violence.

If SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and al-Maliki move to exclude al-Sadr from the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, it could also force Iraq's top Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to intervene and stress the importance of Shi'ite unity above all else.

For Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a coalition with SCIRI and the Kurdish Alliance could alienate the other members of the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front. The Iraqi People's Conference and the National Dialogue Council, the other two main components of the front, have so far not been involved in the talks.

Finally, the new alliance could be seen by the more radical Sunni elements in the insurgency as a vehicle for pushing through Shi'ite and Kurdish demands concerning federalism, a concept that many Sunnis fear will enable the breakup of Iraq.

Al-Maliki's Prospects Unclear

It is difficult to say whether a new political alliance bodes well for al-Maliki or not. The BBC reported on December 12 that al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party has not decided whether or not to join.

If major parties are moving to isolate al-Sadr, this could prove advantageous for al-Maliki, who would no longer have to acquiesce to the radical cleric's demands. Also, Iraqi officials involved in talks concerning the new alliance have denied they were seeking to oust al-Maliki, Reuters reported on December 12.

However, recent visits by SCIRI leader al-Hakim and Iraqi Vice President al-Hashimi to the White House have fueled speculation that al-Maliki may be on the way out. Al-Hashimi has been a vocal critic of the prime minister's handling of security in Iraq, particularly his unwillingness to disband the Shi'ite militias. It may be that al-Maliki's position has become so untenable that he will be ousted like his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on December 15.)

IRAQI KURDS WARN AGAINST DELAYING KIRKUK REFERENDUM. As 2007 approaches, one of the more contentious issues in Iraq looks likely to come to the fore: the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

In the Iraqi Constitution approved by the Shi'a and Kurds, Article 140 calls for a three-step process to normalize Kirkuk by reversing the "Arabization" policy implemented under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Upon completion of the normalization process, which has seen thousands of Kurds return to the city and it surroundings, a census and referendum is to take place sometime in 2007 to determine whether or not Kirkuk will be assimilated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

However, as Iraq prepares itself for what is expected to be a difficult and sensitive process, the recommendations by the U.S. Iraq Study Group and increased warnings by Turkey to postpone the referendum have alarmed Kurdish leaders. Kurdish officials have recently issued warnings that any postponement of the referendum could plunge the relatively peaceful Kurdish north into chaos.

Kurds Fear Another Betrayal

The Iraq Study Group described the Kirkuk situation as a "powder keg" and recommended that the referendum planned for 2007 be delayed. Kurdish leaders reacted angrily and assailed the group's recommendation, calling it an affront to Iraq's sovereignty, particularly since the Kirkuk referendum is enshrined in the constitution

"The issue of Kirkuk will be resolved in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution Article 140. Consequently, this constitutional question will be resolved by the Iraqis themselves. No one can interfere in that," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said in a December 9 statement on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan website.

The Iraq Study Group's recommendations concerning Kirkuk have awakened the Kurds' fear of betrayal. The Kurds have been enthusiastic supporters of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the removal of the Hussein regime. In fact, the Kurdish north has been the only region in the country where U.S. soldiers do not regularly face hostile actions. The Kurds believe that by supporting the U.S. effort in Iraq, they in turn will be given the opportunity to take back what is rightfully theirs, the semi-autonomous north with Kirkuk, and its massive oil fields, as its crown jewel.

Therefore, for the United States to even suggest postponing the resolution of Kirkuk's status reminds the Kurds of the last time they felt betrayed by U.S. promises. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the United States called on Iraq's Kurds and Shi'a to rebel against Hussein's rule, and promised U.S. support that never came. The rebellion was crushed by the Iraqi Army, and millions of Kurds abandoned their cities and villages and sought refuge along the Turkish and Iranian borders.

Indeed, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani directly referred to this incident when reacting to the Iraq Study Group report. "We smell in this report the attitude of James Baker in the aftermath of the war in Kuwait," he said, referring to the U.S. decision not to assist the Kurds during the rebellion nor to overthrow Hussein when Baker was secretary of state under former President George Bush.

Tensions Rise With Turkey

On December 10, at a conference held by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Manama, Bahrain, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said Kirkuk's future status carried significant implications for Turkey, AP reported on December 11. In addition, he called on Iraq's government to avoid imposing an "unrealistic" future on Kirkuk, a veiled threat that Turkey would not sit idly by and watch the city fall under the control of the Kurds.

In response, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, warned Turkey not to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs. "You speak of Kirkuk as if it is a Turkish city. These are matters for Iraq to decide," he said.

Turkey has repeatedly expressed its unease over the Iraqi Kurds' bid to annex Kirkuk, which the Turks believe could form the foundation for a strong economy that could eventually fund the Iraqi Kurds' bid to establish an independent Kurdish state. Ankara fears that a Kurdish state would become a focal point of Kurdish nationalism and incite its own Kurdish population to seek autonomy.

Threats Of Secession, War

Ghafur Makhmuri, a member of the Kurdish regional parliament, told "The Kurdish Globe" on December 12 that if the recommendations by the Iraq Study Group concerning the fate of Kirkuk are implemented, then the Kurds might be forced to secede from Iraq.

"The part of the report that calls for postponing the implementation of the constitutional Article [140] on Kirkuk will lead to an explosive situation in the country," Makhmuri said.

Secession by the Kurds would present a disastrous scenario that could ignite a regional conflict. Iraq's fragmentation would greatly increase the likelihood of Turkish military intervention, not only to prevent its own Kurdish population from seceding, but also to protect northern Iraq's Turkoman population, who are ethnic Turks.

More bluntly, the president of the Kurdish regional government, Mas'ud Barzani, warned that if Article 140 was ever deferred, then the region would plunge into war, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on December 9.

"If there ever would be serious strife, it would happen then. If there ever would be a bloody war, an organized and a determined war, it would only take place then, and only then would it [the situation] become dangerous," Barzani said. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on December 14.)