As the Syrian war continues to affect the region, we are broadening the remit of our reports
This report is in three sections:
1. Comment from a senior public figure from Iraq
2. Background on Iraq / Syria relations
3. Background on Iraq’s internal politics
There have been dramatic developments in Iraq in recent weeks that affect both Iraq and the region as a whole. One of Iraq’s more prominent public figures, whose name we shall withhold, recently briefed the NCF on developments in that country. He started by talking about Kurdish ambitions for Syria: “the Kurds want to see a greater Kurdistan that includes Syria’s Kurdish region. Obviously that is a problem for the Turks who have their own Kurds with political ambitions. Indeed the issue is all the more sensitive for the Turks because the PKK controls the mountainous country in Northern Syria near the Kurdish border.
“However, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, has other things on his mind apart from greater Kurdistan. Massoud is concerned that there might be a deal between President Talibani of Iraq, who heads the PUK faction, and the new political faction on the Kurdish scene, which goes by the name of Goran. Because of this fear, Barzani has had no choice but to make a deal with Premier Malaki of Iraq. Now this is a new deal. You may have it in your head that Barzani and Malaki are bitter rivals. That was then, this is now.
“Everything in the Middle East is becoming more sectarian. Prime Minister Malaki of Iraq will be the last Iraqi premier to preside over a united Iraq. This is because the Sunnis want to see a federal Iraq, in which the regions get many of the privileges at present reserved for the Kurds. People like Osama Najaifi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament and Saad el Bazz, one of Iraq’s more prominent businessmen, are promoting a federal Iraq in which Mosul, Anbar and Salahaddin and some parts of Diyala get autonomous status. Rafa al Asawe, the Minister of Finance, has been working hard to bring this about. Meanwhile, (Iraqi businessman – name withheld) continues to support the secular Iraqia Party. He is the man who has always funded them but his future funding is said to be predicated on getting Alawi (the founder and head of Iraqia and a man of Shi’ite extraction with secular beliefs) shifted from his post.
“What all this means is that when we see a new national election for Iraq in 2014, the political parties will appeal either to Kurds or to Sunnis or to Shia. Those few remaining old party lists and coalitions that appealed across ethnic divides will largely cease to exist. The beginning of the end for non-sectarian politics in Iraq was the last elections, when small local governorate based constituencies were introduced. What this meant was that politics became much more sectarian. But why should we worry? Iraq is not a natural nation state, the British drew this map.”
We asked why Talibani had decided to withdraw the vote of no confidence in Premier Malaki a couple of months back:
“Remember the context:
1. “Talibani made that deal with Goran against Massoud Barzani because both Jalal Talibani and the Goran group were weak politically so they needed to unite to compete with Massoud.
2. “There are other factors as well. Former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Kahlilzad, who is a close friend of Massoud’s, persuaded Massoud that the Kurdish region should attempt a big oil deal with Exxon Mobile. Exxon went to work in the north and Talibani stopped the vote of no confidence in Maliki.
“Do you understand? Talibani could not allow Massoud Barzani to become too powerful, to become the ‘great one’ in the north because Talibani and his own the PUK would lose everything.
“And now, there is no possibility of a vote of no confidence in Malaki because Massoud has switched his position and now he wants to be close to Maliki. There are other things you should understand here that President Obama has failed to grasp. Massoud is the man of the Turkish, Jalal Talabani is the man of Iran. There have been spats between Maliki and Massoud Barzani but these are issue specific and are not current. For instance, the temporary bridge between Syria and Iraq, built many years ago by British engineers, which still continues to carry traffic, was being used for weapons. Massoud did not want the Iraq Army coming anywhere near the bridge and seeing what was going on, so he stopped them with his Peshmerga fighters. This made Malaki extremely angry and might have derailed everything in Iraq. But the USA, who obviously have colossal influence over Massoud, told both Massoud and Maliki to cool it. Massoud had no choice. The Kurds want a big Kurdish state, but if the Turks grasp the full extent of Kurdish political ambitions, it will be a problem for Massoud, so he decided to keep his head down. None the less, Massoud will do everything he can to create a Kurdish state at the time of Iraq’s elections in 2014.
“Meanwhile there are other geopolitical issues. Iran and the Turks want to find a way to create some sort of alliance despite their differences over Syria and the Arab Gulf states are frightened by this idea. They are also frightened by the prospect of the Syrian civil war spreading to Jordan. The war in Jordan will begin after the Syria war has settled down and will happen because Jordan has big economic problems. After Jordan it will be Saudi Arabia’s turn.
“The whole Middle East is in a state of transition. There is a generational conflict in Saudi Arabia, whilst everybody regards Qatar as a disposable state. These are interesting times.”
IRAQ – RESPONSES TO SYRIA
Iraq claims that a Syrian jet entered Iraqi airspace. During the past week the Syrian army has been launching air strikes against the border town of Albu Kamal and the number of refugees trying to get into Iraq is rising.
The sectarian divisions in the region are also causing Iraq problems. The Iraqi government has not bowed to pressure from the Sunni Gulf States to condemn Assad outright. Iraq would be very worried should a Sunni hard-line government take power in Syria.
Iraqi Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki was to submit a plan at the conference in Tehran to end the conflict in Syria. The plan was for a Syrian government figure to negotiate with the opposition groups and then for elections to be held under Arab league and International supervision. The plan includes a demand that "foreign players to stop interfering in Syrian affairs".
IRAQ - BACKGROUND
On 15 December 2011, the American military formally ended its mission in Iraq. The elections in March 2010 led to the creation of a government of national unity, however, the unity has proved more notional than real. The day after the Americans’ departure, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, broke decisively with the Sunnis the Americans had persuaded him to accept in his government. The government ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the nation’s highest-ranking Sunni, on charges of murder and terrorism. Mr. Hashimi fled to sanctuary in Iraq’s Kurdish region before moving to Turkey.
But most importantly, after the American military withdrawal, insurgent attacks have steadily increased. Assaults against Iraqi civilians and government officials swelled in late December 2011 and January 2012, as the country was gripped by a political crisis rooted in imbalances of power and festering conflicts between the Shiite prime minister and his largely Sunni and secular political opposition.
Many of the attacks of late 2011 and early 2012 are attributed to the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. The terrorist group, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Baghdad on 22 December 2011. The explosions killed more than 63 people
June 2012, there was one of the deadliest months with about 200 people, mostly civilian pilgrims killed.
In July, in a coordinated display intended to show they remain a viable force, Iraqi insurgents launched at least 37 separate attacks throughout the country, setting off car bombs, storming a military base, attacking policemen in their homes and ambushing checkpoints. More than 190 people were killed in violence across Iraq since the start of August 2012, showing that insurgents remain a lethal force eight months after the last US troops left the country. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Co-ordinated bombings are a favourite tactic of the al-Qaida-type-offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq.
On 24 August 2012, twin blasts, one exploding beside a pulpit during prayers, killed at least three people and wounded six. It had become the latest in a wave of violence that punctuates Iraq's struggle to overcome insurgency. Heightened tension between Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds in the coalition government since U.S. withdrawal has raised fears of a return to sectarian violence of the kind that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war a few years ago.
Iraq’s Kurdish Minority
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq governed by the Kurdish Regional Government. It borders Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, Syria to the west and the rest of Iraq to the south. The establishment of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq came after years of heavy fighting, including the Anfal, and 1991 uprising of the Iraqi people against Saddam Hussain, when many Kurds were forced to flee the country to become refugees in Iran and Turkey. The US liberation of Iraq in 2003 followed by subsequent political changes led to the ratification of a new Iraqi Constitution in 2005, which defined Iraqi Kurdistan as a federal entity within Iraq.
However tension between the central Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Regional Government increased. Iraq's central government has a long-standing disagreement with autonomous Kurdistan in the north over control of oil and territory along their internal border. Baghdad maintains it alone has the right to export Iraqi crude. But Kurdistan has moved ahead with signing exploration deals with oil majors such as Exxon and Chevron, which the central government rejects as illegal.
Crude produced in Kurdistan is fed into Iraq's Kirkuk export stream and sold onto world markets via the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. In an interim agreement in January 2011, Baghdad approved payments to companies in Kurdistan for exploration and extraction costs. That agreement called for Kurdish authorities to supply 175,000 barrels per day of oil exports and Baghdad to route 50 percent of the KRG's export earnings to Kurdistan to cover producing companies' costs.
In April 2012, Kurdistan halted exports, saying Baghdad had not made payments to companies working there, but it restarted shipments on August 7 (following improvements in the relationship between Barzani and Malaki) with a warning they could be halted again in a month if there were no payments. Iraq says Kurdistan's oil shipments have fluctuated around 100,000 to 120,000 barrels per day since they restarted, below the 175,000 bpd that Baghdad says was agreed with Kurdistan. Kurdish authorities still needed to present receipts showing company expenses and more auditing is needed before any payments are approved. Iraq approved a payment of close to $560 million to oil producers operating in the north in return for their investment costs to develop oilfields in the Kurdish region. But officials are still waiting for the go-ahead to transfer the money.
Nevertheless, Iraq's Kurdistan announced its willingness to restart negotiations with Baghdad to end the political crisis, focusing on a long-delayed oil law to hand regional authorities more say in managing energy resources, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Rosh Nuri al-Shawish, a Kurd, said. Shawish added that Kurdish officials had met with the head of the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite National Alliance, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, for preliminary talks, and the atmosphere had improved enough for them to see room for progress.
How does Syrian conflict affect Iraq?
Spillover from Syria worries an Iraqi government struggling to overcome its own insurgency and legacy of sectarian violence. Baghdad acknowledges that Sunni Islamist fighters are crossing the porous border to fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was re-elected in 2010, thanks in part to Iran's support for Iraqi Shi'ite political parties. Among Iraq's Shi'ite leadership, however, there may be little love for Assad, whose government Iraq had blamed for allowing Sunni insurgents and suicide bombers to cross over from Syria to attack U.S. and Iraqi troops at the height of the war.