Iraq Weekly Update #35
Aug 31, 2012 - Stephen Wicken
August 22, 2012-August 31, 2012
Communications Minister resigns
On August 27, Iraqiya member Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi announced that his resignation from the post of Communications Minister had been accepted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Mohammed Allawi, a cousin of Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi, said that he tendered the resignation in late July, complaining of “political interference” with the ministry’s work. He subsequently accused Maliki of seeking to take over the ministry in order to profit from its earnings in the telecommunications sector. Mohammed Allawi is the first cabinet minister to resign since Maliki’s second government was formed in December 2010. While the resignation can be viewed as the latest step in the marginalization of Iraqiya, it may also open space for Iraqiya to engage in a more potent and productive form of opposition to Maliki without the complicating factor of having to explain the presence of the Iraqiya leader’s cousin in government. Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi is thoughtto have been replaced in an acting capacity by Minister of State for Provincial Affairs Torhan al-Mufti of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.
IHEC disputes place elections in jeopardy
The head of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), Faraj al-Haidari, announced on Tuesday that he and two other IHEC board members had been found guilty of corruption and given suspended one-year prison terms by a Baghdad criminal court. Haidari and another of the convicted members, Karim al-Tamimi, werearrested in April on relatively minor charges. This was an apparent act of intimidation by Maliki, whose petition to throw out thousands of Iraqiya votes was rejected by Haidari after the 2010 elections. The convictions, which would prevent the board members from holding public office in Iraq again, came as long-standing disputesintensified over the potential composition of the next IHEC board. A proposal to expand the board from 9 to 15 members in order to accommodate the chosen candidates of a wider number of parties suggests that the impartiality of the next board will be highly suspect. The ongoing political maneuvering over the constitution of the board and continued prevarication over the procedure for electing its members also renders increasingly unlikely the prospect of provincial elections taking place in March 2013.
Central Bank responds to Iran accusations
The Central Bank of Iraq this week took steps to respond to a New York Times report alleging that Iraqi financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations have been facilitating Iranian efforts to circumvent international sanctions, bolstering Tehran’s reserves of US dollars to stabilize its exchange rates and pay for imports. The report noted that Elaf Islamic Bank, which last month was barred by President Obama from any dealings with the US banking system for enabling transactions on behalf of Iranian banks was continuing to participate in the Iraq Central Bank’s daily auction of USD. The Central Bank then announced on Al-Iraqiyah state television on Sunday that it will provide fixed weekly amounts of dollars to all banks, exchange offices, and money transfer companies for their resale to citizens planning to travel. The Central Bank subsequently announced, again on state television, the introduction of regulations governing the establishment of branches of foreign banks inside Iraq, requiring local monetary authorities to testify that banks wishing to establish new branches are not suspected of money laundering.
Baghdad-Erbil oil row continues
Despite the recent resumption of oil exports from the Kurdistan region, the Baghdad-Erbil oil dispute is far from resolved. On August 20, French oil company Total exacerbated tensions by purchasing a share of an exploration block in Suleimaniyah province, ignoring threats from the Iraqi government about possible punitive action for signing contracts in Kurdistan. The head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Foreign Relations department highlighted the uneasy and temporary nature of the current arrangements on hydrocarbons exports, claiming that the KRG had agreed to limit its share of the federal budget to 17% until the next general election as a gesture of good faith. This gesture was undermined, however, when the KRG threatened on Tuesday to halt oil shipments once more, claiming that no signs have been observed that Baghdad will resume payments to oil companies working in Kurdistan. An Iraqi government source told Reuters that KRG authorities need to present receipts for company expenses and provide further auditing before payments can be approved. In a sign that Baghdad may be reassessing its own approach to oil-industry investment in the face of Kurdish success, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani reportedly announced that that the Iraqi government is considering offering more lucrative contracts to international oil companies ahead of a fifth round of licensing auctions, admitting that the fourth round of exploration blocks accomplished little. Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq Ruz Nuri Shawiz, of President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, subsequently toldReuters that the KRG is ready to restart negotiations to end the hydrocarbons dispute. Shawiz noted that Kurdish officials had met with National Alliance head Ibrahim al-Jaafari for preliminary talks, with the improved atmosphere implying room for progress among political parties on passing an amended 2007 draft of the oil and gas law.
Tensions at Syrian border amid signs of Iranian pressure
The situation at the Iraqi-Syrian border, meanwhile, remains tense. On August 20, Kurdish soldiers at the northern Faysh Khabur border crossing said that they had received orders from the Iraqi government to turn away refugees attempting to cross from Syria. Refugees are being assisted by the PKK, according to McClatchy’s David Enders. Iraq temporarily closed the al-Qaim/al-Bukamal crossing on August 22, erecting three-meter-high walls and surveillance cameras, closing all roads to and from the crossing and leaving some Syrian refugees trapped at the crossing for days.
Despite the successful defusing of the Iraqi-Peshmerga standoff near the Syrian border in Ninewa province last week, incidents of cross-border shooting this week demonstrated the heightened tensions in the border areas. On August 24, the Syrian Local Coordination Committees reported that Iraqi forces at al-Qaim had opened fire on a group of Syrians who had approached the border. Meanwhile, there were reports that two rockets landed near Iraqi troops at al-Qaim, while unknown gunmen opened fire on Iraqi troops from across the border on Sunday.
In signs that Iran may be seeking to use its influence in Iraq to affect the situation on the ground in Syria, senior Iran-based Iraqi cleric Kazem al-Haeri issued a fatwa forbidding the sale of weapons in central and southern Iraq to “unknown destinations.” Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Fadhila Party,followed suit. The fatwas follow rumors that Syrian opposition fighters are receiving a growing number of arms bought in central and southern Iraq.
At the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, however, the Iraqi delegation maintained its public policy of non-interference. Ahead of the start of the summit, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told summit foreign ministers on Wednesday that Iraq “supports any international or regional effort” to resolve the Syrian crisis, supporting “the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom, democracy and self-determination.” Maliki, meanwhile, was expected to outline an initiative, based on the informal proposal submitted by the Iraqis at March’s Arab League summit in Baghdad, for a national political dialogue in Syria under Arab League and United Nations supervision, and the formation of a “government of national unity that includes all the ranks of the Syrian people.”
High-profile political, religious and security-force deaths
In worrying signs of escalating violence, a number of high-profile figures, including officials, religious leaders and security force commanders, were killed or critically injured in attacks over the past two weeks. Certain attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliates. On August 18, influential Sunni cleric Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumidaie and four of his bodyguards were targeted by an IED in the Yarmouk neighborhood west of central Baghdad after he finished leading Friday prayers. The former leader of a Salafist militant group that fought American troops in western Baghdad, Sumidaie had been a vocal opponent of sectarian violence since the US withdrawal, launching a new political party aiming to bring together Sunni and Shi’ite extremist groups that fought US troops. Sumidaie was also one of few Sunnis publicly to defend Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s stance on Syria. On Friday, moreover, two explosions at an outdoor mosque in Sadr City killed at least three and wounded six, including Sadrist official Nasser al-Saadi. A number of high-ranking security officials were also assassinated in recent days: on Monday, senior border forces commander Brigadier General Abdul Hussein Mohsen was killed by unknown gunmen in Taji, north of Baghdad; an unnamed colonel was killed in a waveof attacks along a main route north of the capital on Tuesday; and on Wednesday, Brigadier General Nadhim Tayeh, commander of emergency police in west Baghdad, was killed by gunmen with silenced weapons while driving his private car and wearing civilian clothes.