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Iraq Report: November 10, 2006

November 10, 2006, Volume 9, Number 40

WILL REINSTATING BA'ATHISTS HELP RECONCILIATION PROCESS? The Iraqi government revealed a plan on November 7 that would allow the majority of former Ba'ath Party members to return to their former positions, in the hope of convincing what is seen as a major part of the Sunni insurgency to lay down their weapons.

Ba'athist officials were purged from their positions soon after the toppling of Hussein's regime by the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, even though many of those that joined the party under Hussein did so out of necessity and not ideological fervor.

The de-Ba'athification campaign has been widely blamed by many for creating a vast pool of unemployed and disenfranchised Sunni Arabs, many of whom found no option but to join insurgent groups.

Major Concession

The government's decision to allow former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party to return to their government jobs is considered a major concession to the Sunni Arab community.

The director-general of the Iraqi De-Ba'athification Commission, Ali Faysal al-Lami, said on November 7 that plans have been drawn up to allow many former Ba'athists to return to their jobs. Al-Lami said the draft law would be presented to parliament and would allow for all but the top 1,500 former Ba'ath Party officials to return to work and obtain their pensions.

"The law will allow Ba'athists to return to their offices, but not allow them the ideology of the banned Ba'ath Party. We consider those who insist on remaining in the Ba'ath Party to be terrorist elements," al-Lami was quoted by AFP as saying.

Reforming the De-Ba'athification Commission to transform it into an "accountability and reconciliation program" is one of the "benchmarks" for progress in Iraq that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad outlined on October 24. The hope is that allowing the bulk of the former Ba'athists to return to their jobs will help quell sectarian tensions and help to foster national reconciliation.

Hussein's Death Sentence

The fate of former President Saddam Hussein is inextricably intertwined with the Ba'athists' future and whether or not the Sunni insurgency can be persuaded to lay down its weapons. While he lacks the authority he once possessed, Hussein still has symbolic significance to those associated with his Ba'ath Party.

After Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity in the Al-Dujayl trial and sentenced to death, there were widespread reports of Sunnis rejecting the sentence and holding pro-Hussein demonstrations. Moreover, the party has called for Hussein not to be harmed and for the immediate release of their comrades. They have also threatened retaliation against the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad if he is executed.

"If President Saddam Hussein is executed...the party will reinforce its siege against the Green Zone," the party announced on its official website on November 7. The Ba'athists vowed to "use all possible means to destroy embassies, as well as the headquarters of intelligence and treacherous organizations."

Although, the threat was issued before the Iraqi government's plan to reinstate many of the Ba'athists was announced, the anger at Hussein's verdict was evident. His downfall parallels that of many of the Ba'athists who were dismissed in 2003. The party that once filled the highest echelons of power in Iraq and granted the greatest privileges has essentially been dissolved.

Indeed, Hussein's execution would perhaps serve as a rallying point for not only the Ba'athists, but for other Sunni Arab groups. Putting Hussein to death could make him a martyr, which would inject new life into the insurgency, particularly since there is a widely held perception that the trial was illegitimate and held under the auspices of the U.S. occupation.

Therefore, Hussein's symbolic stature could grow if he is executed, making him appear a victim, like the disenfranchised Sunni Arabs themselves, of a vindictive Shi'ite-led government and its perceived U.S. benefactors.

Conversely, the offer to reinstate many Ba'ath Party members could be a means to entice those who are willing to forgo Ba'athist ideology, embodied by Hussein, and embrace the current Iraqi government.

Hussein's execution may have less symbolic power for Ba'athists if there are opportunities for them in the new Iraq. The reinstatement plan could drive a wedge between former Ba'athist leaders, who are believed to be driving the Sunni-led insurgency, and those low-level Ba'athists who feel so disenfranchised that they have no choice but to fight.

Will Plan Have Any Effect?

It's difficult to ascertain whether the plan to reinstate Ba'athists will have any concrete effects leading to reconciliation. But the plan is seen as a major policy shift by the Iraqi government, and that alone is noteworthy. The Shi'ite-led government apparently realizes that it needs to take steps to be more inclusive in order to persuade those willing to lay down their weapons to do so.

The reinstatement plan, coupled with the talks Iraqi officials held with former Ba'ath Party leaders in Amman, Jordan, last week, demonstrates the Iraqi government's efforts to assuage the Ba'athists' feelings of marginalization. Allowing them to return to their positions and perhaps including them in the political process would offer them hope and reason to abandon the insurgency.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that the plan will get bogged down in the Iraqi parliament. There is still considerable opposition to the Ba'ath Party and many lawmakers fear reinstating its former members because of the party's notorious past.

Furthermore, many Iraqis have scores to settle with former Ba'athists and there have been reports of revenge attacks against former party members. "Al-Zaman" reported on November 8 that attacks against former Ba'ath Party members continue unabated, particularly in the south. According to the Freedom Monitoring Commission, an independent Iraqi human rights group, 1,556 former Ba'athists have been killed and none their cases have been investigated.

If the government does not do more to protect the former Ba'athists, then the reinstatement plan will be useless, since threats of retribution against the Ba'athists would force them to take up arms in self-defense, thus continuing the cycle of violence and dashing any hopes of national reconciliation. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 10.)

KURDS' OIL LAW POSES PROBLEM FOR BAGHDAD. On October 22, the Kurdish regional government published a final draft of the petroleum law. The draft document is to be debated within the regional assembly and, if passed, it would place the region's government in opposition to the central government in Baghdad, which has indicated that it will publish its own completed hydrocarbon law sometime in December or early 2007.

If parallel legal frameworks are established in the Kurdish autonomous region and Baghdad, foreign firms wanting to do business may have to sign separate contracts and adhere to the laws of two governments. Thus, the issue remains as to whether a compromise can be reached between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government, or whether the division of oil revenues will prove to be a source of further instability in a country already reeling from insurgency and sectarian strife.

Kurds Push Own Oil Policy

While violence engulfs much of Iraq and the Baghdad central government continues negotiations over a petroleum law, the Kurds have moved ahead and are poised to pass their own oil law. In addition, they have already signed a handful of contracts with foreign firms to explore oil fields in the north.

Issam al-Chalabi, a former Iraqi oil minister, said the right to control local oil reserves constitutes a major complication between the Kurds and the central government, AP reported on October 25.

"The Kurds have submitted a draft petroleum act to be adopted that gives them the right to control oil, regardless of the government in Baghdad. The Oil Ministry has submitted another completely different draft that gives the authority to the ministry, not regions. It's the main issue of the conflict: oil and Kurds," he said.

The establishment of a petroleum law in the Kurdish region not only underscores the decentralization of oil resources, but it constitutes another step in the Kurds' move away from the Baghdad government.

Tension Over Signed Oil Contracts

In another area of contention, the Kurdish administration has moved ahead and signed exploration contracts with several foreign oil firms, including the Norwegian oil company DNO and the Turkish firms PetOil and Genel Enerji. The contracts place the local administration at odds with Baghdad by stressing Irbil's autonomy at the expense of the central government.

The issue came to a head when Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani told the state-owned daily "Al-Sabah" on September 24 that contracts signed with foreign firms to develop oil fields in the north without the approval of the central government were subject to review by the ministry. Officials in the Oil Ministry also said that foreign firms currently working in the Kurdish region would be blacklisted in the future from attaining contracts to develop oil fields in southern Iraq.

In response, Kurdish Prime Minster Nechirvan Barzani said the move would be unconstitutional and he issued a statement suggesting that his government may secede if the contracts were rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, 2006). "If Baghdad ministers refuse to abide by that constitution, the people of Kurdistan reserve the right to reconsider our choice," he said.

'Future Oil Fields'

The key issue concerns the control and management of so-called "future oil fields". Although Article 108 of the Iraqi Constitution says, "oil and gas are the ownership of all the people of Iraq" and are to be managed by the federal government in conjunction with regional governorates, only "current" oil fields, which are controlled by the central government, are mentioned, not any discovered in the future.

Kurdish Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami insisted that future oil fields in the Kurdish region are to be managed by Irbil and won't be shared with Baghdad, "USA Today" reported on November 6. "In management of new fields, we are adamant that we will not share with the federal government. Planning, coordination -- no problem. But who has the right to write contracts? We can consult with the center, but the ultimate authority lies with the Kurds," he said.

The issue of future oil fields will becomes all the more significant when the fate of Kirkuk is decided by a referendum in 2007. Recent demographic shifts as part of the Kurds' attempts to reverse the Hussein regime's "Arabization" campaign suggest that Kirkuk may very well have a Kurdish majority, thereby placing the Kurdish government in a good position to annex Kirkuk and take control of its massive oil fields.

Outlook Unclear

The fact that the Kurds have already drafted their own petroleum law even before the creation of a federal law is itself indicative of the strength of Irbil's position, in that the Kurds are a major component of the Shi'ite-led coalition government and without their support the government would probably fall.

Conversely, it may be in the Kurdish administration's interest to back down and show a willingness to compromise with Baghdad. The Kurdish region is land-locked and export outlets are crucial. Experts contend that the existing Ceyhan pipeline from northern Iraq to Turkey does not have the capacity to carry additional crude exports. Furthermore, if Kirkuk is annexed by the Kurds, it may complicate matters with Turkey, which is already concerned that the Iraqi Kurds' ambitions of autonomy may incite their own sizable Kurdish population to follow in their footsteps.

Even if the dispute is resolved, the oil industry itself is in shambles because of rampant corruption and insurgent attacks. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the U.S. agency responsible for overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, issued a report on July 30 describing smuggling as "pervasive" and "virtually pandemic," which threatens Iraq's ability to maintain, let alone increase oil production.

Even though Iraq is rich in crude oil and natural gas, it must import much of its refined petroleum. Years of UN sanctions left much of Iraq's oil infrastructure in a dilapidated condition, crippling its refining capacity.

Finally, caught in the middle of the dispute are the Sunni Arabs, who fear that Iraq is moving toward partition into three sections: a Kurdish north and Shi'ite south, both rich in oil, while the Sunnis are left with a resource-poor center. The Kurds' demands and aggressive posturing might aggravate the Sunnis' feelings of marginalization and provide more fuel for radicals among them. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 8.)