Al-Maliki Faces His Sternest Test Yet
On July 10, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party -- a key component within the Iraqi Accordance Front -- rejected the suggestion that his coalition would put forward a no-confidence motion. Instead, he stressed that the Front would support such a motion if it were brought up by another party.
Soon after, "Al-Melaf" reported that radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc had decided to raise such a motion, thereby creating a unified front against al-Maliki between the al-Sadr's Shi'ite movement and the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament.
Both blocs harbor considerable animosity toward the Iraqi premier. Al-Sadr has recently accused the Iraqi government of disparaging his militia, the Al-Mahdi Army, and essentially giving U.S. forces the green light to crackdown on it. At the same time, the Iraqi Accordance Front has long accused al-Maliki's government of marginalizing the Sunni Arab population.
The Oil Law Controversy
On the legislative front, al-Maliki faces a widespread revolt within parliament regarding the draft petroleum law that his cabinet recently approved. The Kurds, who in late June had indicated that they supported the draft law, have now announced they are vehemently opposed to the latest draft.
Kurdistan Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami, without elaborating, said on July 11 that amendments made to the latest daft were meant to "reduce the powers of the [Kurdish] region," AFP reported.
In fact, the draft law has become so divisive that the Iraqi Accordance Front and al-Sadr's political movement, both of which are currently boycotting the parliament, announced separately on July 9 that they may end their boycotts specifically in order to vote against the bill. Even the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association criticized the law, describing it as "invalid" and issuing an edict calling on Iraqi lawmakers to vote against it.
Even with such serious objections to the draft, there are indications that al-Maliki may be able to cobble together enough support to pass it into law. However, forcing the bill through over such strenuous objections would adversely affect al-Maliki's efforts to foster national reconciliation.
Mixed Signals From Washington
While al-Maliki is being assailed within Iraq, he continues to receive mixed messages from the United States. The same July 7 CBS News report indicated that Washington has been working behind the scenes with several Iraqi political parties to form a broad new political coalition called the Iraqi Project. This new coalition would move to form a new government comprised of ministers ostensibly chosen for their expertise instead of their party loyalties.
A new, more secularly oriented coalition could possibly end the political paralysis that has crippled al-Maliki's government. Not only has his government failed to pass important legislation, but Sunni and Shi'ite parties alike have indicated that the political environment is so sectarian in nature that they have either boycotted the parliament or withdrawn support for al-Maliki's government, thereby making it difficult to raise a quorum.
However, publicly Washington stands by al-Maliki and the current Iraqi government, regardless of the political impasse, and this is not the first time reports have surfaced that the United States was moving behind the scenes to push al-Maliki out.
In December visits to the White House by Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi fueled speculation that a new political coalition was being formed to unseat al-Maliki. But internal disagreements and competing agendas among Iraqi political factions reportedly prevented the new coalition from forming.
A U.S. Troop Withdrawal?
Rumors of a partial U.S. troop withdrawal have sprung up in the Iraqi and Western press for years, only to be consistently rejected by the Bush administration. However, a July 9 report in "The New York Times" indicated that for the first time some administration officials, fearing the loss of more Republican support, were considering a gradual pullout of U.S. troops from "high-casualty areas."
While the White House categorically denied the report, it elicited an intense response from several high-ranking Iraqi officials, who said such actions would lead to grave consequences in Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari underscored the fears of many Iraqi leaders that a quick U.S. withdrawal -- without having enough adequately trained Iraqi forces to fill the security vacuum -- would lead to a civil war.
"The New York Times" report could be seen as another attempt by Washington to take a more aggressive stance toward Baghdad in the hopes of prodding the Iraqi leadership to move faster on the political front.
However, the article could also be an indication that the situation may be moving toward a tipping point where Washington's patience is nearing an end. With the U.S. public growing increasingly weary of the war and the desire for some sort of concrete plan for a troop withdrawal gaining momentum among U.S. lawmakers, the administration -- and by extension the Iraqi government -- may be running out of time.
The U.S. troop surge that began in February was not only meant to quell the violence, but to also create space for the Iraqi government to move the political process forward and pass vital legislation. However, there are indications that Iraq may not be able to do that before the highly anticipated September 15 status report is to be presented to Congress.
In a widely circulated article in the Western press this week, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity indicated that Iraq will not meet any of the political and economic benchmarks for progress outlined by the United States in the spring. If that were indeed the case, then it would be a huge embarrassment for U.S. administration, as well as perhaps the decisive blow to al-Maliki's position.
Turkish Incursion Into Northern Iraq Could Backfire
His statements were the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive comments coming out of Turkey, warning the U.S. and the Iraqi government that if they do not curb PKK activities in northern Iraq, Turkey will have no choice but to carry out unilateral military action.
Iraqi Kurdish officials have reacted to the Turkish warnings and the massing of Turkish forces along the border with increasing alarm.
Iraq's Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari issued a statement on July 9 expressing his deep concern over intelligence estimates of more than 140,000 Turkish troops currently stationed on the border. He urged restraint and called for a diplomatic solution to the tensions.
The Pentagon disputed the numbers cited by Zebari, while Turkey had no comment. Zebari may have exaggerated intentionally, to focus greater international media attention on the Turkish threats in the hope of forcing Turkey to back down. In any case, it shows that he takes the Turkish threats seriously.
Setting Dangerous Precedent
The possibility of a Turkish military operation in northern Iraq has created concerns among the Kurdish leadership that it may lead to clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdish peshmerga militia. This could then mushroom into a wider regional conflict.
"An incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan will not be a picnic...if the incursion is into areas inside Iraqi Kurdistan -- into the cities and towns -- then there will definitely be clashes between the peshmerga forces and the Turkish Army, and this is something we do not wish for at all," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Al-Arabiyah satellite television on July 6.
Talabani's warning underscores the dilemma Turkey faces in a major cross-border operation into northern Iraq. If Turkish forces do enter Iraq and engage PKK fighters, it unclear how long they will remain, and it may take a significant amount of time to drive the PKK forces out of their mountain strongholds.
Consequently, the longer Turkish forces remain inside Iraq, the greater the chances that they will clash with the peshmerga, who would see any incursion as a violation of their territory. Indeed, after being oppressed for decades under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds do not take their newfound semi-autonomy for granted. Fighting in Iraqi Kurdistan would also open an additional military front that U.S. and Iraqi forces are ill-equipped to deal with at this time.
In addition, a Turkish incursion based on the principle of fighting terrorism sets a dangerous precedent for Iraq's neighbors. Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, who are widely believed to be involved in Iraq behind the scenes, may be emboldened to follow suit. Once Turkey opens the proverbial Pandora's box by conducting cross-border operations into Iraq, Iraq's other neighbors may well argue that they are entitled to do the same in the name of national security.
Drawn Deeper Into Iraq
Further attacks by Al-Qaeda against the Iraqi Turkoman population, similar to the July 7 bombing in the northern town of Tuz Khurmato, may draw Turkish forces deeper into the conflict as they face pressure to protect their ethnic brethren.
Armed confrontations may result between all the parties involved, with Al-Qaeda carrying out attacks aimed at perpetuating a similar cycle of violence that engulfed Baghdad and the surrounding areas for a year and a half. Turkey could be drawn ever deeper into in Iraq's internal conflicts, and find it ever more difficult to extricate itself.
While Turkey may believe that a military incursion into northern Iraq will improve its national security, the resulting fallout may actually end up not only making Turkey less secure, but destabilizing the entire region as well.
U.S. Experts Discuss Prospects For 'Soft Partitioning'
However, both Joseph and O'Hanlon say partitioning Iraq was far from their first choice of how to set up the country politically following the removal of Saddam Hussein. But if it's happening, O'Hanlon said, they propose trying to make it happen well.
They call their proposal "soft partitioning" -- keeping Iraq as a single, sovereign country, but with three distinct regions, each responsible for its own security and governing institutions.
"Whether you like the idea of soft partition or not -- and frankly most of us don't, and it wouldn't be a first choice for very many people at all -- it's happening in Iraq," O'Hanlon said during a July 5 presentation at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "Up to 100,000 people a month are being violently displaced from their homes. It is being ethnically segregated. It is becoming Bosnia, in some ways. And we would rather talk about how you might manage that process rather than have the death squads and the militias do the separation for us."
Weakening The Power Center
Joseph and O'Hanlon said there is no reason why Baghdad couldn't be a kind of capital, but it shouldn't be the country's power center. In fact, as Joseph argued, the existence of a power center in Iraq is what's causing the sectarian violence.
"The more power is concentrated in Baghdad, the more Shi'ites will have to dominate it," he said. "That's the fundamental fact, and it's basically an axiom of reality in today's Iraq. And as we show in the paper, marshalling the evidence, the so-called security dilemma that this produces infects government from the highest levels and helps propel the sectarian conflict. And so it would appear at this point, given Iraq's political realities, that it's self-defeating to insist on a centralized structure for Iraq."
Even a soft partitioning, Joseph and O'Hanlon concede, would require some displacements. But they believe such migrations can be managed in order to avoid the sort of ethnic cleansing that is occurring now.
Under a soft-partitioning program, some populations would be asked to relocate in order to help keep each region ethnically coherent. But Joseph and O'Hanlon said it would not be necessary to force anyone to move.
Joseph said mandatory relocation would be morally little better than ethnic cleansing. But, he added, there's another way to look at the situation.
"There's a flip side to the moral question, which is: of course it's wrong to forcibly uproot people from their homes," he said. "But is it morally correct to insist -- as is the current policy -- to insist that people remain where they're living when you can't protect them?"
Iran Looks On
What about neighboring Iran? O'Hanlon says he doesn't believe the current government of Iran wants to help Iraq, even though both countries are predominantly Shi'ite.
O'Hanlon said he believes the United States should talk with Iran, but not to expect any positive response.
"Implicitly -- and now I'll make it explicit -- what we're saying is, Iraqis matter more than Iran," O'Hanlon said. "I don't expect any favors from Iran. I think Iran -- as our intelligence agencies have been concluding -- is in a proxy war against the United States. I think Iran would be willing to risk a destabilized Iraq to see us defeated. I expect no goodwill from them. I still think we should talk to them, partly to put pressure on them and to embarrass them in the eyes of the world and present the evidence we've got in front of as many other countries as possible."
The idea of partitioning Iraq isn't new. It was first proposed by a group including U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware), a candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The White House has rejected the proposal. Instead, it's working to build up a strong central government and parliament in Baghdad.
O'Hanlon said he, too, once rejected the idea, but now it seems to him the only sensible way to pacify Iraq.
"This is very hard to do. I'm sure, frankly, it's impossible to do with complete robustness, which is why [Joseph] and I waited until 2007 to propose this plan -- or actually late 2006, which was the first time we went into print with this," O'Hanlon explained. "Because at that point it just seemed that there had been enough civil war, enough ethnic cleansing, enough violence -- that frankly holding on to the idea of an integrated Iraq the way it used to be was no longer viable and the risks of implementing soft partition were no longer greater than the risks of what we already were trying."
Turkey Ratchets Up Pressure For Action Against PKK
While the Turkish government has repeatedly urged the United States and Iraq to move against the PKK, political complications, particularly with regard to Iraq's Kurds, have prevented any large operations against the rebel group.
Since 2004, Turkey has warned that it will go after the PKK in northern Iraq if its warnings are not heeded. Despite repeated warnings by the United States for Turkey not to carry out unilateral military actions in northern Iraq, recent indications suggest that Ankara is on the verge of actually doing just that. With thousands of Turkish troops amassed along Iraq's border, a major military operation seems imminent.
On June 30, the Turkish daily "Radikal" reported that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned that a military plan was in place to invade northern Iraq if U.S. or Iraqi forces failed to move against the PKK bases there. While details of the plan were not known, it is believed the Turkish military might try to establish a buffer zone in northern Iraq to curb the rebels' movements.
Gul's warning came on the heels of comments by Turkish General Yasar Buyukanit, the head of Turkish armed forces, about the need to conduct cross-border operations against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. Buyukanit also indicated that he had requested the Turkish government draw up political guidelines for any sort of military incursion into the region.
The comments by Gul and Buyukanit have been the clearest signs yet that Turkey is planning a major military operation. The threatening rhetoric has been coupled with sporadic, and sometimes unconfirmed reports in the Iraqi and regional press of shelling and limited cross-border military operations by Turkish forces.
However, the threats also come as Turkey prepares for general elections on July 22. The increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Ankara may be partly the result of criticism by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which has been accusing the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party of lacking the political will to move against PKK rebels in Iraq.
The Turkish parliament is currently in recess for the elections, but the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to hold a final pre-election meeting on July 9. There is wide speculation in the Turkish press that the cabinet could give the green light for some sort of military operation in northern Iraq.
Pressuring The United States To Act
While Turkey has ratcheted up its threats to intervene in northern Iraq, it has also increased pressure on the United States to crack down on the PKK. In fact, accusations of U.S. failure to curb PKK activities have intensified into outright suspicions in the Turkish press that the United States may actually be aiding the rebel group.
The Turkish media widely reported on July 1 that four former PKK fighters who had "escaped" from a PKK-run base at Mount Qandil in northern Iraq claimed to have seen U.S. military vehicles delivering arms to the camp. The Turkish government said it did not have further information concerning the allegations and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara vehemently denied them.
While the veracity of the allegations by four masked ex-PKK fighters may be somewhat dubious, it could well have been a tactic by Ankara to express its frustration with the United States and to increase the pressure on Washington to move against the PKK.
Indeed, several Turkish leaders have even indicated that the United States is displaying a certain double standard regarding its commitment to fighting terrorism. The "Anatolia" news agency reported on July 4 that AKP lawmaker Egemen Bagis said Ankara is losing patience with the U.S. refusal to move against the PKK, even though Washington has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
"I cannot argue that we are making sufficient progress with the U.S. against PKK terrorism," Bagis said. "The Turkish nation is losing its patience. The prime minister is holding necessary talks. But we expect our ally [the U.S.] to take action against terrorism as soon as possible, and this is a correct and just expectation."
Washington's Hands Are Tied In Iraq
The United States has indeed shown an unwillingness to move against the PKK, and for good reason. One reason is that Washington is far too focused on stabilizing Iraq to shift valuable resources to mount a serious crack down against the PKK. Pressure from the U.S. Congress to show tangible gains from the surge strategy is immense and growing. At this juncture, it is extremely unlikely that resources would be allocated to northern Iraq to assuage Turkish anxieties.
In addition, with U.S. and Iraqi forces currently engaged in major campaigns against Sunni insurgents, Shi'ite militias, and Al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters throughout Iraq, opening an additional front against the PKK in the north does not seem feasible.
In addition, any aggressive U.S.-led operation against the PKK in northern Iraq risks enraging the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, who may view it as an infringement on their semi-autonomous status. In turn, they may decide to distance the region from the Baghdad government, creating additional political tension.
At the same time, the United States is highly reluctant to pressure Iraqi Kurdish leaders into cracking down on the PKK for fear of antagonizing them. In the chaotic atmosphere of Iraqi politics, Washington can ill afford to alienate its most steadfast ally.
Alienating the Kurds could also lead to serious consequences for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government given its tenuous position. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, has decided to boycott the Iraqi government after an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni lawmaker and Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi.
In addition, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's political movement and the Islamic Virtue Party (Al-Fadilah) have pulled out of the Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. Any further withdrawals or boycotts could lead to either greater political paralysis or, worse, the collapse of the government.