Kurdish Thorn In Iraq’s Side, Gulf News By Francis Matthew, Editor At Large

Al Maliki’s authoritarian ways will force Sunnis and Kurds to seek common ground in reinforcing their local power

Yet another complicated crisis is building up in Iraq, as opposition and regional groups are worried by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Several separate but connected issues are coming together which will increase tension in Baghdad, and make it much harder to find the necessary and different solutions for each issue.

Underlying everything is the failure to get to grips with the inadequacies of the constitution. When it was written in 2005, the Kurds were running an almost sovereign region in the north of Iraq, and had no intention of surrendering any of their hard-won independence.

The rest of Iraq was in the middle of a brutal civil war, so many leading Shiite politicians supported the Kurdish version of extreme devolution of power to the provinces, mainly to avoid the possible return of a Sunni strongman like Saddam Hussain.

But now (seven years later) the situation is very different. Al Maliki is a Shiite prime minister who has been in power since 2006, and has become a lot more authoritarian after the American forces left in December 2011. Today it is the leaders of the Sunni provinces who are deeply worried about what they see as an unchecked and autocratic Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and they want to redraft the constitution to limit Baghdad’s impact on their regions.

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So the Shiites (who previously supported powerful provinces) are now supporting a strong centre, and the Sunnis (who previously supported a strong centre) now want more provincial authority. The Kurds do not care very much about the rest of Iraq, but will not give up any of their own unique autonomy in the north.

As put by Sean Kane, Joost Hiltermann and Raad Alkadiri in The National Interest, the problem is to get all parties to agree to a constitution that allows different levels of autonomy to different regions of the country.
The Kurds level of self-governance has become the effective minimum for regional authority in the constitution. But if the rest of Iraq were to get this one-size-fits-all style of autonomy, the survival not only of the central government but of the country itself could be threatened. Therefore, it seems inevitable that the non-Kurdish provinces will not get the same level of autonomy, however much they may want it.

Oil politics

This background is why the current standoff between Al Maliki’s central government in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Arbil is so intense. The uncertain final status of Mosul is considered too delicate to start discussing, as the Kurds want the city and its oil-rich environs to be in their territory, but Baghdad wants it to be part of mainstream Iraq.

The Kurds did not trust the central government, and were unwilling to wait for a final settlement that might never come, so the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) unilaterally struck deals with oil companies, even though Baghdad said that it had no right to do this.

So despite their deep constitutional dispute, it was a sign of greatly improved relations when Baghdad and Arbil came to an understanding in early 2011 that the Kurds would send their oil to Baghdad, which would then sell it with each side taking 50 per cent of the revenues.

This hopeful political environment encouraged oil major Exxon Mobil to take the controversial step of signing an exploration deal with the Kurds in November 2011.

This happy situation stopped when the Iraqi government stopped paying the Kurds their share of the revenues. In a statement issued last week, the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources said that the Iraqi government had failed to send any money since May 2011, even though it had been exporting 50,000 barrels per day. This has led the Kurds to suspend oil exports until further notice, which is a problem for Baghdad since the stoppage will have a serious effect on the national 2012 budget.

But the Baghdad government feels that it has been cheated by the Kurds. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain Al Shahristani has accused the Kurdish authorities of smuggling huge amounts of oil to neighbouring countries, mainly Iran, or selling it on the local market. He alleged that the Kurds were withholding about $5.65 billion in revenues generated from unreported oil sales since 2010.

Any hope of a solution to this stand-off depends on better relations between the regional and Iraqi governments, which seems unlikely. Another symptom of the breakdown was when Iraqi Vice-President Tarek Al Hashemi, a Sunni politician, sought refuge in Kurdistan (although he is now in Qatar) after having been accused by Al Maliki of running death squads. This allegation came a few days after the last US troops left Iraq, and was interpreted throughout Iraq as an indication of Al Maliki’s increasing Shiite authoritarianism.

The outlook is grim, as there is little to restrain Al Maliki. Al Iraqiya party has temporarily abandoned its boycott of parliament to vote on the budget, but does not seem able to muster the support needed to change things. In this atmosphere, Sunnis and Kurds will seek common ground in reinforcing their local power as minorities in what is becoming an increasingly overt Shiite state.

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