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Iraq Report: December 21, 2007

Kirkuk Referendum Delayed By Six Months

By Kathleen Ridolfo
Iraq's Kurdish officials reluctantly accepted a UN proposal calling for a six-month extension to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution in mid-December, despite warnings from Kurdish lawmakers that failure to implement the article would be considered a direct violation of their rights under the constitution.

Article 140 refers to the normalization of Kirkuk, a highly contested multiethnic governorate with a capital city of the same name that contains vast oil reserves. Under the Arabization campaign launched in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk and relocated Shi'ite Arab families to the area in an effort to change the demographic landscape of the historically Kurdish-majority governorate.

Since the overthrow of the regime, the Kurdistan regional government has pushed for the return of Kurds to Kirkuk and the incorporation of the governorate into the Kurdish region. The transitional administrative law, issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004, which served as the precursor to the Iraqi constitution, called for a normalization process to be carried out in Kirkuk, allowing Kurds displaced by Hussein to return to Kirkuk and repatriating Arabs back to their hometowns in the south, with compensation. Kirkuk is also home to a large indigenous Turkoman population, whose leaders claim has no desire to join the Kurdish region.

Under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution ratified in late 2005, the Iraqi government must complete the normalization process, hold a census to determine the breakdown of the population according to ethnicity, and hold a referendum on the status of Kirkuk "a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007."

The new extension allows the Higher Committee for the Implementation of Article 140 and the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission much-needed time to prepare for a referendum in the governorate of Kirkuk that will determine whether the governorate will join the Kurdish autonomous region.

UN Special Representative to Iraq Steffan de Mistura appealed to the Iraqi parliament to accept the delay on December 17, saying the extension would not affect the content of Article 140. "Your reaction should be dictated by reason and not by passion. If not, everyone will suffer the consequences of it," de Mistura told parliamentarians.

Kurds Miffed By Delays

Many senior Kurdish officials voiced public support for the extension, saying it was not a reason for concern. Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters in Al-Najaf on December 17 following a meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that the extension was a "positive step." Barzani's comments followed a week-long visit to Baghdad that included meetings with senior Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on a host of issues, including the issue of Kirkuk.

Iraq's two leading Kurdish parties have invested substantial time and money over the past two years to facilitate the demographic correction, building houses and paying Kurds to move to Kirkuk. The six-month delay will only aid that process thereby contributing to the Kurdish demographic majority, a point not lost on Kirkuk's ethnic Turkoman and Arab minorities.

But some Kurdish leaders contend that the government seeks to renege on the constitutional provision. Kamal Kirkukly, deputy speaker of the Kurdish regional parliament expressed frustration over the six-month extension telling the Kurdish newspaper "Jamawar" that Baghdad obstructed the implementation of Article 140. "My own personal belief is that any delay or extension would not aim at finding a right time for its implementation but to find more excuses and obstacles to prevent implementation forever," Kikukly said in the interview published on December 17. "An extension by six months, ten months, or 100 months will not change this reality," Kirkukly claimed.

Continuing, he argued: "We firmly believe that real obstacles were made to prevent the [Higher Committee for the Implementation of Article 140] from completing its work. It was possible to hold a Kirkuk referendum on time. From 2003 to 2005, it was possible to hold two elections and one referendum [on the constitution] in Iraq. Why was it not possible to hold a referendum [on Kirkuk] from 2003 to 2007, which was limited to only a few specific places in Iraq and not the whole of Iraq," he asked.

Representatives of the sizable Turkoman and Shi'ite Arab population in the governorate have said their constituencies have no desire to join the Kurdish region. Many Turkoman and Arabs accused the Kurdish parties of threat and intimidation. The Governorate Council, which ceased to function two years ago, only began to resolve its issues in recent weeks, after the Arab members of the council agreed to end their boycott and return to work on December 4. Turkoman representatives are continuing their boycott.

Turkoman politician Hasan Turhan told the Kurdish website "Rozhnama" in an interview published December 5 that the Kurdish parties have worked to sideline and alienate Turkomans in Kirkuk and other areas of Iraq. Turhan, who is a member of the Turkoman Justice Party and the Iraqi Turkoman Front, holds one of the Turkomans boycotted governorate council seats. He opposes joining the Kurdish autonomous region and says he and his supporters prefer Kirkuk be turned into an independent region jointly administered by Kurdish and Turkoman leaders. He contended that many Kurds in Kirkuk also support the establishment of an independent region for the governorate.

Turkoman Front leader Ahmet Muratly, the front's representative to Turkey told Anatolia news agency in comments published on December 19 that the delay will only seek to benefit the Kurds. "Kurdish groups have driven Kirkuk into a deadlock with the mistakes they made," he said referring to the political tensions plaguing the city. Muratly contended that the Kurds altered the demographic landscape by bringing 650,000 Kurds to Kirkuk from the Kurdish region and from neighboring countries.

Sending A Message To Kurds?

If Kurdish officials felt snubbed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Kirkuk this week, the tried not to show it. Kurdish media outlets ran reports indicating regional president Mas'ud Barzani refused to meet with Rice because the U.S. had allegedly given Turkey the green light to launch airstrikes on Turkish-Kurdish separatists in the mountains of northern Iraq, which Barzani said led to the death of civilians.

Rice met with local officials during her brief trip to the capital city, but did not hold separate meeting with the KRG, leading some observers to speculate she was sending a message to the Kurds over their designs for Kirkuk. Rice reportedly told local leaders in a closed meeting that the United States supports the UN proposal for a six-month extension and called on local leaders to find a political solution to Kirkuk, Governorate Council member Ahmad al-Askari told the website PUK media. "It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," AP quoted Rice as saying ahead of the meeting.

In a press conference alongside de Mistura on December 18, Rice told reporters that the UN is well-placed "to provide the kind of technical expertise and technical efforts that are needed to help [the people of Kirkuk] move forward." Rice said she was pleased with the UN decision "to help the people [of Kirkuk] to resolve some of the differences that they have there, to look at the questions of the – a way forward so that all Iraqis in the Kirkuk province can feel that they have a future in the new Iraq."

Kurds Need To Assuage Fears

While UN, U.S. and Iraqi leaders have contended the delay in implementing Article 140 is solely due to technical reasons, there is no question that many fear ethnic tensions in Kirkuk could erupt into extreme violence over implementation of the article. Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs across the country fear the KRG could one day seize Kirkuk's vast oil reserves – which under the constitution are the property of the central government – and declare independence from the rest of Iraq. Ongoing disputes between the KRG and Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani over Kurdish rights to drill inside the Kurdish region only compound that fear.

Turkey, which supports Kirkuk's ethnic Turkoman population, also fears Kurds would use Kirkuk's wealth to declare independence from Iraq. Moreover, Turks fear, the establishment of a Kurdish state, would likely trigger political instability in Turkey's Kurdish-populated south, which has long-rallied for autonomy from Ankara.

If the UN is to guide Iraq's contesting parties to a resolution, it must push for greater dialogue among the parties. But perhaps more important, it must seek a resolution to outstanding issues such as the draft oil law, which delineates the rights and obligations of the parties in the sharing of Iraq's natural resources.

Kurdistan Region Grapples With Draft Press Law

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani

Iraq's Kurdistan regional parliament passed a controversial press law on December 11 that purports to be one of the freest in the region but in fact imposes steep fines on journalists that publish material critical of the government or Kurdish officials.

Criticism quickly mounted based on doubts about the commitment of the regional government and the journalists' syndicate to protecting reporters' rights, as well as local instances of violence or intimidation targeting journalists. Those objections appear to be increasing pressure on regional President Mas'ud Barzani to return the bill to parliament instead of signing it into law.

News website "Kurdish Aspect" reported that journalists can be fined up to 10 million Iraqi dinars ($8,250) and newspapers can be fined up to 20 million dinars for articles that are seen to create instability, spread fear and intimidation, encourage terror, provoke religious belief of any sects, or insult slogans, symbols, or personalities. "Kurdish Aspect" also reported that the law allows for the imprisonment of journalists, as well as the closing of newspapers for up to six months and the seizing of copies in circulation.

Kurdish officials had claimed during consideration of the bill that it would prevent the jailing of journalists that was allowed under a Saddam Hussein-era law.

The bill was drafted by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, which says journalists will no longer need government permission to publish newspapers. Instead, media outlets will only need to register with the syndicate. Critics say the syndicate is too closely aligned with the regional government and is run by members of the two leading parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). "I believe if the [syndicate] is there to protect my rights as a journalist and defend me, then they are almost nonexistent, because they mainly represent political parties in the region," Rahman Gharib, a correspondent for the independent weekly "Hawlati," told IPS News in January.

Indeed, the Kurdistan regional government has not been kind to journalists in recent years. "If we look at the court cases against writers and journalists in recent weeks and months, we see that none of the verdicts has been in favor of a journalist or writer," Sarwat Ali wrote in the independent newspaper "Awene" on May 30, 2006. "On the contrary, in all the cases, the officials have been the heroes.... This is a new trend in the officials' fights against writers and the continuation of the police...preventing people from holding pens."

Kurdish intellectual and Austrian citizen Kamal Sayyid Qadir was jailed by the KDP in 2005 for Internet articles he wrote criticizing Barzani's regional administration. Qadir was sentenced to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership" before a new trial in March 2006 reduced his sentence to 18 months. A week later, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani pardoned Qadir. But it is difficult to say whether Qadir would have received a retrial, let alone a pardon, had there not been intense publicity surrounding his case.

Independent newspapers like "Hawlati" have been targeted by the Kurdish authorities for articles critical of the regime. Two "Hawlati" editors got six-month prison terms in 2006 for allegedly defaming PUK leader Umar Fattah. As in Qadir's case, the sentences would likely have been much harsher had there not been an intense international media campaign in their support.

Reporters have complained in the past of discriminatory treatment, including confiscations or violence, that they say more politically connected journalists were spared. Several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated in March 2006 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. Journalists working for independent Kurdish media accused security forces of destroying or confiscating their cameras and video recorders, claiming that party-owned media were spared such treatment and implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident. The Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate supported a demand by the authorities that journalists cooperate with an investigation into the incident by turning over any notes, photographs, and footage taken at the demonstration.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a November 5 report that its representatives had discussed the draft press law with several Kurdish officials and representatives of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate during a two-week fact-finding mission to Iraq. The CPJ noted the draft law that it saw was "minimally restrictive when compared with draconian media laws that prevail throughout the Middle East." The draft it received did not call for the detention or imprisonment of journalists. The organization warned, however, that the draft outlined "a host of vague prohibitions." Referring to Article 7, which calls for fining newspapers that do not provide corrections for publishing "untrue information," the CPJ said, "It is unclear who would decide what constitutes incorrect news." It also suggested that, given the tenuous financial situation of independent newspapers in the region, the law could be exploited by pro-party judges to close down newspapers critical of the ruling parties.

The CPJ also expressed concern over the rising number of physical attacks on journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as arbitrary detention of reporters by security forces and the use of the region's courts to harass journalists. Several journalists have reported being abducted and beaten by men wearing military-style uniforms, which suggests the abductors could have been members of the Asayish security service. "[Kurdistan regional government] officials should publicly condemn these reprehensible attacks and launch serious inquiries to bring the perpetrators to justice. The failure to do so would suggest that Iraqi Kurdish officials condone such attacks," the CPJ said.

Critics note that journalists can still be jailed under the region's counterterrorism law, which says anyone who intentionally publishes or broadcasts news or statements that create fear or intimidation or threatens the government can be jailed for up to 15 years in prison. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said in October that "Hawlati" will face charges under the antiterrorism law for "intimidating the public," based on a September report that Al-Qaeda was becoming active in the region.

Kurdistan regional President Barzani must sign the law before it can take effect. Official sources from within the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate told RFE/RL on December 13 that the syndicate had sent an official request to Barzani asking him to return the draft press law to parliament. The PUK's central information office also reportedly asked for an emergency meeting with Barzani and the Journalists Syndicate to revise the law. Meanwhile, the editors-in-chief of the independent newspapers "Awene," "Hawlati," and "Rozhnama" called on journalists to hold a demonstration against the law on December 14.

Sunnis, Sadrists Attack U.S. Security Pact

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Will the agreement see U.S. troops leave, or settle into permanent bases?

A declaration of principles that U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki signed on November 26 calling for the negotiation of a long-term agreement on future political, economic, and security cooperation could pave the way for U.S. forces to pull out of Iraq by the end of next year.

The nonbinding agreement paves the way for the removal of Iraq from Chapter 7 status in 2008, which deems the country a threat to international security and stability. Iraq fell under Chapter 7 status when the UN Security Council issued Resolution 661 following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Al-Maliki said the lifting of Chapter 7 status will enable Iraq to "end the presence" of multinational forces by the end of 2008.

But based on the comments of some Sunni and Shi'ite leaders, it appears few read or understood the intent of the declaration. Moreover, the basic lack of understanding demonstrated by some Sunni politicians suggests they either did not attend the parliament reading of the agreement or they slept through it.

Critics of the agreement argue that it paves the way for a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. Iraqi officials have denied that, saying any formal U.S. request for bases -- and none have been made -- would be the subject of negotiations that are set to continue until July, when a formal cooperation agreement will be signed.

National security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told Al-Arabiyah television on December 10: "We will not accept [permanent military bases] in any form whatsoever and will not approve it, and I believe the Council of Representatives will not approve it. The Iraqi people reject the presence of permanent bases in Iraq." He did concede that "we can talk about facilities for example, certain security agreements. We might talk about some arrangements, but fixed and permanent bases cannot be acceptable."

However, there is reason to believe the critics' fears are not completely unfounded. U.S. Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Bush's adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said negotiations over the coming months will address "what U.S. troops are doing, how many troops are required to do that, are bases required, which partners will join them -- all these things are on the negotiating table."

According to the White House, the agreement "sets the U.S. and Iraq on a path toward negotiating agreements that are common throughout the world." The statement said the United States has security relationships with over 100 countries, including recent agreements with Afghanistan and former Soviet bloc countries.

The agreement also calls for U.S. political, diplomatic, cultural, and economic support for Iraq, and was based on a communique signed on August 26 by al-Maliki, the three members of the Presidency Council, and Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani. The August communique called for "the necessity of reaching a long-term relationship with the American side...that is built on common interests and covers the various areas between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America."

Critics Demand U.S. Withdrawal

Several politicians complained in the media that the declaration should have included a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces, despite al-Maliki's remarks at the announcement of the declaration that the presence of U.S. forces, which comprise the majority of foreign troops on the ground in Iraq, would be determined through negotiations leading up to the signing of a binding agreement in July. Critics also ignored al-Maliki's observation that Iraq intends to end the presence of multinational forces by the end of 2008.

Sunni legislator Salih al-Mutlaq, who leads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, said he opposed the agreement because "it did not refer to the withdrawal of foreign forces in the short term." "This contravenes the desire of numerous political forces, who call for the withdrawal of the occupiers before discussing a national-unity government and a sound political process," the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported on November 28.

The Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni group that opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and does not recognize the Iraqi government as a legitimate body, issued a statement on November 28 claiming Bush, by signing an agreement with al-Maliki, whom many in the U.S. consider a failed ruler, has encouraged the country's ruin, "backing the establishments that will destroy [Iraq] and establishing the dictatorship of those whom [Bush] brought to power."

The association's statement added: "Iraq is being sold the way a slave sells something to his master, a slave whose only concern is to remain in power, and for this purpose, is prepared to give away the entire country."

Parliamentarian Zafir al-Ani, from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front expressed reservations over the agreement, saying it's a contract made by two parties who are not on equal footing, "Al-Quds al-Arabi" reported on November 29. Al-Ani argued the agreement would pave the way for U.S. interference in Iraqi affairs on all levels. His colleague, Harith al-Ubaydi, was a bit more pragmatic, telling the daily that the front was not opposed to agreements as long as they did not harm Iraq's sovereignty or interests.

Meanwhile, Accordance Front spokesman Salim al-Juburi told Al-Jazeera on December 2 that Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi warned the U.S. Embassy of his reservations over the agreement's security component, saying it could make Iraq vulnerable to a veiled occupation down the road. Al-Juburi also claimed the agreement ignored issues such as national reconciliation and reconstruction. Both issues are in fact addressed in the declaration of principles. Al-Hashimi later told participants at a regional security conference in Bahrain that he supports the agreement. "I think the agreement we will sign with the United States will be a good thing," he said on December 9.

Parliamentarians and political leaders aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr adopted a position similar to that of Sunni detractors, claiming the agreement conflicted with their efforts to secure a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. Falah Shanshal said al-Sadr supporters would outright reject "any document" committing Iraq to a security agreement with the United States. Al-Sadr spokesman Liwa Sumaysim contended the agreement should have been sent to parliament and put to a referendum. Al-Maliki's supporters have countered that the declaration is not a treaty and as such, does not require ratification.

Al-Maliki Allies Defend Agreement

Other Shi'ite politicians displayed a greater understanding of the declaration of principles and what the government hopes to achieve in the coming months of negotiations.

Shi'ite parliamentarian Hajim al-Hasani told Al-Fayha television on November 27: "Some sides fear that the document will lead to a long-term agreement" for a U.S. military presence in Iraq, he said. "I think we have to wait and see what kind of agreement there will be.... When the agreement is presented to the Council of Representatives, the deputies can sit together and have a deep analysis to decide what serves the interests of the Iraqis and what does not. They can then approve it or reject it."

Council of Representatives deputy speaker Khalid al-Attiyah told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on December 5 that the most important principles in the declaration were discussed in a closed session of parliament "that was documented and recorded." He said the political blocs in parliament welcomed the clause stating 2008 "will be the last extension" of the multinational forces' mandate. Al-Attiyah said the conclusion of a formal agreement in July will put Iraq "on equal footing with the United States as a free, independent, and fully sovereign state."

Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), praised the agreement while on a trip to Washington in early December calling it part of a broader effort to restore Iraq's full sovereignty. SIIC parliamentarian Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, who is also the imam and preacher of the Al-Buratha Mosque, told his followers in a November 30 Friday Prayer sermon that the agreement was good for Iraq.

If al-Maliki is to gain broad support for a formal U.S.-Iraq agreement in July, he and his allies in parliament will have to work to explain what a formal agreement would entail, and convince detractors that such an agreement would not pose a threat to Iraq's sovereignty. Gaining the support of the traditional oppositionists -- al-Sadr allies and many Sunni Arab politicians -- will be difficult, but not insurmountable. Reconciliation and political accommodation will be a key factor. Both groups will want to see the government set a fixed timetable for the pullout of foreign forces, which should not be a problem for al-Maliki's administration, considering that a significant draw-down of U.S. troops is expected by the end of 2008.

Equally important for the Sadrists, who were once aligned with the prime minister, would be a resolution to the political standoff with the al-Maliki government that would enable parliamentarians who boycotted the government to return to work. For Sunni Arab parties, real progress in terms of national reconciliation must be achieved. The government will need to engage more actively in reconciliation talks, and encourage the parliament to ratify the draft Justice and Accountability Law, which paves the way for former Ba'athists to return to the government and military jobs they held under Saddam Hussein. Such a move would greatly aid the reconciliation process.