Barzani Throws Down the Gauntlet
By Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 10 January 2012
In the clearest statement yet, Kurdish leader Masud Barzani has said he will not attend any national conference to deal with the current political crisis if it is held in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Barzani’s stance is supported by Ayad Allawi, the leader of the secular and increasingly Sunni-supported Iraqiyya party, and is strongly resisted by the Iraqi premier, the Shiite Islamist Nuri al-Maliki.
The question is whether the move will prove a bridge too far for Barzani. Or rather, the real question is whether Maliki truly needs the national conference, tentatively scheduled for the end of January.
Maliki has after all spent the weeks subsequent to the US withdrawal in mid-December to signal a complete disregard for the issues that his detractors (and partners in government) want to discuss at the national conference. Above all, Maliki has gone far in saying that the Arbil agreement of November 2010 is mostly unconstitutional (which is true), and that having received his share of the bargain (the premiership) he intends to ignore anything in the agreement that cannot be found in the constitution. This includes calls for the creation of a high council for strategic policies, ethno-sectarian balances in government ministries and ethno-sectarian formulas for the allocation of security ministries.
To some extent, developments over the last weeks have indicated that Maliki may in fact succeed with an audacious policy of ignoring both Iraqiyya and the Kurds at the same time. In the first place, despite the Iraqiyya boycott, parliament has continued to meet and has made some progress on the 2012 budget which needs to be passed over the next month or so. Iraqiyya has seen a flurry of defections, quite a few of which have occurred in Sunni-majority areas and cannot easily be attributed to intimidation by Maliki supporters (as has been claimed with respect to the south). Some Iraqiyya ministers – in particular independents and those from smaller factions like Al-Hall – have continued to take part in cabinet despite an official boycott. When Maliki presides over elaborate military displays and emphasises his role as commander in chief, he is probably thinking of an alliance of his own Shiite coalition and new breakaway elements from Iraqiyya and the White party that alone can reach the critical absolute-majority mark of 163 deputies in parliament.
Recent reports suggest Maliki is even about to try to reshuffle the Kurdish chief of the Iraqi army. It is not the first time such rumours appear: In December they were heard in relation to Kurdish demands for more power in government; this time it is being suggested the refusal to hand over Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi is part of the equation.
It is high time Iraqi politicians begin to understand Maliki and his modus operandi. In 2010 he promised the Kurds to deliver on their 19 points in exchange for their support for his second term – and went on to discover that most of those points were unconstitutional so it would be difficult to implement them. There is a similar situation with the Sunni-majority governorate of Anbar, which handed Maliki a list of 20 points. Maliki approved, of course, provided that everything was in accordance with the constitution. Needless to say, from 2008 and onwards the federal supreme court has mostly produced rulings in favour of Maliki – certainly on questions of centre-governorate relations where some decisions have placed the provincial powers law of 2008 above the constitution itself. The judiciary also seems sufficiently amenable to Maliki’s desires that it synchronises its business to fit his agenda, probably creating a sense of terror among political opponents not unlike that seen during the run-up and the immediate aftermath of the March 2010 parliamentary elections.
But Maliki can also be pragmatic. He probably does not care much if the Iraqi parliament is left to its own devices for most of the year, but he does need its approval for the annual budget. Exactly one year ago we had a similar situation subsequent to the euphoria of the government formation; Maliki then turned to the Kurds and made compromises on oil exports the basis for a budgetary deal. He went on to ignore most of the Arbil agreement and has continued to consolidate power. Today he is probably weighing whether he actually needs the Kurds – all of the Kurds - to pass the 2012 budget.
Scenes like these have been played out before. It deserves mention that much of the Arbil conference that led to the formation of the second Maliki government actually took place in Baghdad. The Iraqi football association - just like Iraqiyya dominated by secular and anti-Maliki personalities – long tried to have its summit in Kurdistan but eventually ended up having it in Baghdad anyway.
Maliki must be asking himself why he, as the Iraqi prime minister, should take the trouble of travelling to the Kurdish region to attend a conference he does not really need. Maybe the most interesting question today is whether the rest of the Kurds, and in particular those who are the Kurdish competitors of Barzani, will back up his demand to have the conference outside Baghdad.