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Iraq Report: May 12, 2006

12 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 19

NEW KURDISH ADMINISTRATION COMES UNDER SCRUTINY. The parliament of Iraq's Kurdish region unanimously approved the 42-member cabinet of the Kurdish region government on May 7, installing the first post-Saddam Hussein unified Kurdish administration. While reunification has been hailed as a step forward for the region's two major parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which fought a bitter civil war in the 1990s -- the new government faces tough demands from its electorate.

Iraqi Kurds have become increasingly vocal in their demands in recent months for free speech and press rights, greater administrative transparency, and an end to corruption. They have also called on the KDP, led by Mas'ud Barzani, and the PUK, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to allow for greater political pluralism.

Facing Some Daunting Tasks

The new government's response to such issues will demonstrate whether the Kurdish autonomous region is, as its leaders bill it, an model of democracy and stability for the rest of Iraq to emulate or, as its detractors claim, a region whose two main parties have entrenched their hold on power.

One of the most urgent issues facing the unified government is the demand for free speech and press, particularly following a crackdown by both parties on demonstrators, intellectuals, and journalists over the past seven months. Kurdish intellectual Kamal Sayyid Qadir, who holds Austrian citizenship, was jailed by the KDP last year for articles he wrote criticizing Kurdish Region President Mas'ud Barzani's administration. He was sentenced in December to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership."

That sentence was thrown out and Qadir was sentenced at a new trial in March to 18 months in prison. One week later, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani pardoned Qadir. It is unlikely however, that Qadir would have received a retrial, let alone a pardon, had there not been intense publicity surrounding his case. For their part, Kurdish officials claimed that they were required to arrest Qadir according to an outdated Iraqi law, which they vowed to amend.

The Halabjah Case

Qadir's case is just one of a number of cases brought against writers and journalists this year. In addition, several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated on March 16 following a government crackdown on demonstrators who violently interrupted a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the Hussein regime's chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah.

Journalists caught up in the melee reported being beaten by both security forces and demonstrators. Those working for independent Kurdish media outlets said security forces destroyed or confiscated their cameras and video recorders. The journalists claimed no similar action was taken against party-owned media, implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident.

Other journalists said their equipment and film were confiscated at checkpoints outside the town.

A day after the Halabjah incident, PUK security forces arrested Hawez Hawezi, a high-school teacher and journalist working for "Hawlati," on charges that his writings had criticized the two parties. Citing corruption and cronyism within both administrations, Hawezi called on officials to step down in a March 15 article in "Hawlati."

Defamation Problems

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a March 22 press release that Hawezi was released on bail on March 19 after appearing before an investigating judge.

"The judge told the journalist he faced unspecified defamation charges," the organization reported.

Hawezi was rearrested in late April after publicly complaining of his treatment while in detention, Reuters reported on May 2.

Asos Hardi, the former editor in chief of "Hawlati," and the weekly's current editor in chief, Twana Osman, were given six-month suspended sentences and fined 75,000 dinars ($50) on May 2 for defaming then-PUK Prime Minister Omar Fatah. The two were charged after the newspaper reported that Fatah ordered two telephone-company workers fired for cutting his home phone line. The court determined that the regional communications minister, not the governor, had ordered the two workers fired.

"Hawlati" Managing Editor Peshwaz Faizulla told the Committee to Protect Journalists that both editors were forced to sign a statement saying that they would not commit defamation again, the organization reported on May 2.

According to some reports, a bill is under discussion by the Kurdistan legislature that would restrict freedom of press even further.

Critics of the KDP and PUK have said they expect little to change as long as opposition to the parties remains weak. Apart from the growing criticism of the few independent media outlets that exist in the region, there has been little organized opposition.

Including Minority Parties

One exception is the Kurdistan Islamic Union, which withdrew from the Kurdistan Coalition ahead of December's legislative elections, citing dominance of the KDP and PUK over Kurdish region politics, as well as corruption in the Kurdish Regional Government. The union was subsequently attacked in seven Kurdish towns by what the authorities deemed a "mob of youths." The union, meanwhile, contended that the KDP had orchestrated the attacks. Despite the attacks, the party walked away with five seats in the 275-seat Iraqi National Assembly, and in January vowed to cooperate with the KDP and PUK to promote Kurdish interests.

Leaders from minority parties criticized the KDP and PUK in January of planning to divide ministerial posts between the two sides, claiming the parties had an agreement in place to solidify their control over the Kurdish region. In the end, seven of the 42 ministers named were from minority parties. However, only two of the seven were given portfolios.

When parliament convened last week to hold a vote of confidence in the cabinet, lawmakers were asked to vote in open session for the cabinet. Although 52 parliamentarians objected, calling for vote by secret ballot, their request was denied, "Jamawar" reported on May 8. The newspaper also criticized the parties for appointing only three female ministers.


"Jamawar" further reported that the names of the ministers were not announced prior to the vote of confidence being taken. Parliamentarian Tavgah Muhammad Ali claimed that only a "few members" of the parliament had seen the list of ministers. Moreover, the ministers' qualifications were not made public, Ali claimed.

"This government is the result of a political consensus," he said. "It is not a government whose ministers have been selected on a technocratic basis."

In addition to overcoming the demands of an increasingly frustrated electorate, the KDP and PUK face the additional challenge of merging four other ministries: Justice, Peshmerga Affairs, Interior, and Finance. Before this can be accomplished, the two parties will need to overcome the distrust that has plagued relations for more than a decade

Kurdish region legislator Karim Bahri told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on May 8 that the assembly's Legislative Committee is drafting legislation that would clear the way for those ministries to merge. In reality, it could be years before they are united.

"It is natural that technical and legal complications occur, in addition to other issues that have still to be resolved between the [Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah] administrations [of the KDP and PUK]," Bahri said. "It will need some more time before we are able to unify these four ministries -- to form the legal, technical, and organizational aspects."

He added that it would be two or three months before the other ministries begin functioning. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on May 12.)

PRESIDENT CALLS FOR UNITY AS DEATH TOLL RISES IN BAGHDAD. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has appealed to Iraq's feuding factions to unite and stop the sectarian killings that have swept the country in recent months. The violence has added hundreds of fatalities to the already high numbers of people killed in insurgent bombings or by criminals, pushing the death toll in Baghdad alone last month to more than 1,000.

Talabani said in a written statement on May 10 that "we feel shocked, sad, and angry when we receive almost daily reports of finding unidentified bodies and others who were killed on the basis of their identity."

He called on Iraq's feuding groups -- many of them believed to be militias tied to political parties -- to stop tit-for-tat reprisal killings of Shi'a and Sunnis. The killings have continued daily since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra on February 22.

Talabani said the reprisals, along with insurgent attacks and crime, killed at least 1,091 Iraqis in Baghdad alone last month. And he noted that that figure from the Baghdad morgue is likely a low estimate. Many other people disappear without a trace.

RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief Nabil al-Haidari said the militant Shi'ite and Sunni groups are targeting not only each others' fighters but, more so, ordinary civilians. Often they seek to clear whole neighborhoods of members of the opposite community.

Al-Haidari described how two residents of one mixed neighborhood recently received death threats from opposing groups: "The day before yesterday, [one] neighbor, a Sunni from Tikrit, received a threat from armed people, four people, who came to him and said to him, 'You have to leave or we will kill you.' [On] the same day, [a] doctor, who is Shi'ite, received an envelope with a letter and a bullet, telling him to leave because he is Shi'ite, or he will be killed."

Political Parties Split Over Solution

So far, it has proved extremely difficult for Iraq's ruling parties to agree on a strategy for ending the violence.

"The Washington Post" reported on May 11 that senior Iraqi leaders are preparing to put the country's multiple paramilitary forces under a single command along with the police forces.

But that plan has been rejected by Sunni political groups. "If we [consolidate] the militias and put them in the official forces of the Interior and Defense ministries, this will convey the problem [of the militia's own violent agendas] to these ministries. So we cannot accept this idea," said Baha Aldin Abdul Qadir, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political bloc.

Sunni parties say that militia members now employed by the Interior Ministry but operating independently within it have carried out numerous abductions and killings of Sunnis.

Abdul Qadir said his party wants militia members instead to be integrated into ministries only in civil capacities or be enrolled in public-works programs. Alternatively, he said, they could be assigned roles as border guards far from urban areas.

Militias' Growing Presence

Meanwhile, the paramilitary forces are becoming increasingly visible in Baghdad. Leaders of some political parties that have been appointed to head ministries have recruited members of their parties' armed wings to serve as guards for their ministries' facilities.

Al-Haidari said that today, there are so many uniformed and nonuniformed guards in Baghdad that no one knows who they all are.

"You have different kinds, and many kinds, of guard forces," Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief said. "There is the police, with official cars, and there are army members, with different colored uniforms, and at the same time there are some ministry guard forces, well-armed, and the strangest thing here are the many cars with civilian people, who do not wear uniforms, they are well-armed and they are shouting loudly and sometimes shooting [in the air] for the people to make way for them."

The exact number of ministry-affiliated guards across Iraq is unknown. "The Washington Post" quoted Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi today as saying there could be 150,000 such guards nationwide. They are assigned -- at least nominally -- to protecting various parts of Iraq's infrastructure, from oil pipelines to electrical plants. (By Charles Recknagel. Originally published on May 11.)

OIL PROSPECTING IN KURDISH-ADMINISTERED NORTH INTENSIFIES. Oil-prospecting activities in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq are gathering pace following a Norwegian company's discovery of new oil reserves there, while other small international oil firms from Canada and Britain have also become involved. Still, despite the optimism of the firms, some experts say security concerns and legal uncertainties remain brakes on development.

With the Kurdish north markedly safer than most other parts of Iraq, smaller international petroleum companies are becoming increasingly interested in prospecting for oil there. While the oil giants still hesitate, some Norwegian, Canadian, and British firms are already there and expressing increasing optimism.

Possibly New Oil Fields

Helge Eide, managing director of DNO of Oslo, Norway, says the company has been active in the Kurdish-administered region for some time and already has found new oil reserves. He said the company's first well, Tawke No 1, is now getting ready to start test-producing oil.

"We are progressing with our early test-production plan with the objective to start test production [in the] first quarter of next year," Eide said.

Eide added that the area is close to the Turkish border, some 300 kilometers from Kirkuk, and does not appear to be part of the long-established Kirkuk or Mosul oil fields. He said this makes the find even more exciting. "This is a complete new area, where there have been very limited -- if any at all -- exploration activities," he noted. "So this is definitely a complete new prospect, and if we can confirm commercial oil volumes, it will be characterized as a complete[ly] new field."

Other oil companies are also getting increasingly interested. One is Heritage Oil from Canada. It has already signed two memorandums of understanding with Kurdish regional authorities for an area comprising some 1,300 square kilometers. Production-sharing agreements are currently in the final stages of negotiation as well.

"We are already working in terms of the normal tasks that are to be expected in the initial stages, which are the geological field surveys, all the preliminary assessments that are necessary to define what is going to be the exploration program," Heritage chairman and chief executive Micael Gulbenkian said.

Legal Gray Area

Experts agree that the prospects for new oil finds seem good. But some are worried about the legal framework and validity of the granted licenses. Catherine Hunter, a senior analyst with Global Insight in London, said it is not yet clear whether the regional licenses would also be recognized by the central government in Baghdad. This is because the new Iraqi Constitution appears to many observers to give some licensing rights to both governments.

"That's not entirely clear from the actual wording of the constitution itself, and that's why again, we are seeing very small prospective companies in that region, rather than the major oil companies who are likely to wait for a more certain regulatory climate before they go in there," Hunter said.

Oilman Eide said, however, that he is counting on the Kurdish regional administration remaining a self-governing power in the region. So, he said, his company is not worried. "We believe that the political development and the constitutional arrangement now, which provides for such agreements to be signed, it was a right decision for us to do that," he said.

Analyst Hunter cautions that despite the as-yet-unknown extent of the Kirkuk oil fields and the possible significant untapped deposits further north, the Kurds may be overestimating their total potential reserves. She said the total estimates of some 45 billion barrels put forward by the regional administration may be too high and prompted, at least in part, by the administration's desire to attract investors.

Still, whatever the total reserves turn out to be, the Kurdistan authorities' optimism seems to be bringing in more, newly interested oil companies. Most recently, Sterling Energy, the first company from Britain, has been granted an exploration license in the region, too.

DNO's Eide said he welcomes the competition. "It's positive that other companies now are also starting operations up there," he said. "OK, we were very early and we have been progressing very well with the seismic and drilling, but I think in general it's positive that other companies now are entering this area."

That is because the oil companies must not only weigh the possibility of getting returns from their drilling but also the security risks of doing business in Iraq. And the presence of more companies can only reassure the early arrivals that their calculations in choosing to work in the Kurdish-administered region were right. (By Jan Jun. Originally published on May 12.)