Weekly Iraq Update #38
September 12, 2012-September 19, 2012
Anti-film protests spread throughout Iraq
On September 13, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest the anti-Islam film that has sparked demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Protests took place in at least 10 major Iraqi cities including Kut, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, Amara, Hillah, Nasiriyah, Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, and Baghdad, and were led by a variety of political groups. In the south, Shi’ite Islamist groups, principally the Sadrist Trend and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), mobilized thousands of supporters and political officials in anti-American protests, while in parts of Baghdad, Ramadi, and Mosul, Sunni Arabs staged their own demonstrations. A demonstration also took place outside the Kurdistan Islamic Group’s headquarters in Erbil in the Kurdistan region. While scaled down since, protests in Iraq have continued as of September 18.
Several key figures capitalized on the protests as an opportunity to advance their own political ends. Statements and personal appearances were made by Muqtada al-Sadr, Ninewa governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, Erbil governor Nawzad Hadi, and a representative of Ali al-Sistani, the highest ranking Shi’ite cleric in Iraq. In addition to their anti-American rhetoric, many of the Shi’ite and particularly Sadrist demonstrators carried messages protesting the poverty and lack of infrastructure that has plagued Iraq in recent years. While sparked by the film, these protests were largely focused on the failure of the Iraqi government to combat corruption and to provide services, security, and jobs to its citizens. Through such protests, the Sadrists continue to demonstrate their ability to mobilize supporters rapidly in numerous cities throughout Iraq.
IHEC vote provokes dissent
On Monday, the Iraqi parliament appointed eight new members to the board of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). No agreement could be reached on the appointment of the ninth and final member, causing parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi to suspend voting. Of the eight new board members, four were proposed by the Shi’ite National Alliance (two by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamic Da’awa Party, one by the Sadrist Trend, and one by ISCI); two were supported by Iraqiyya; and two are preferred by the Kurdistan Alliance. This represents a small gain for Maliki, who had only one close ally among the Shi’as on the last IHEC board. It also represents a gain for Iraqiyya, which had only one representative on the last board. Furthermore, it represents a potential gain for the group of Iraqiyya, Kurdish, and Sadrist leaders who were behind the attempts to force a no-confidence vote against Maliki earlier this year. The ninth board member is expected to be a minority representative, with Christian and Turkman candidates proposed. While no particular sectarian or ethnic quota is mandated, the 2007 IHEC law does require “consideration of representation for women,” placing female Turkman candidate Gulshan Kamal at an advantage in seeking to join a board that at present is all-male. The composition and manner of choosing the new board will do little to ease concern over the political independence and sectarian balance of the board
While agreement on at least eight candidates is an achievement given the protracted struggle that had taken place over the number of board members to be elected, the vote produced a predictable but significant degree of dissent. Within the Shi’ite alliance, a dispute was reported between Maliki’s Islamic Da’awa Party and Vice President Khodair al-Khozaie’s Islamic Da’awa Party – Iraq Organization, which charged Maliki’s party with pushing forward its own preferred candidates in violation of internal agreements governing the State of Law Coalition, to which both parties belong. Members of Iraqiyya also expressed their dissatisfaction with the proceedings, with MPs criticizing their own coalition’s failure to push for representation on the board for mixed-population provinces such as Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala, and insisting that the voting session was inquorate. Representatives of the breakaway Free Iraqiyya bloc accused the political blocs, particularly Iraqiyya, of violating the principles of democracy and seeking to cover up secret high-level agreements over the composition of the board. MPs from Basra, meanwhile, complained that their province had been marginalized without a representative on the board, and a Shabak MP protested that his community was not included in the nomination process. The immediate and public complaints raised by parties and communities that failed to gain representation on the IHEC board suggests that the popular legitimacy of the commission will likely be brought into question by groups disappointed by their showing in future elections. Such groups will likely point to the public maneuvering of the most powerful political blocs over the composition of the IHEC board as evidence of political interference in the electoral process, seeking to invalidate the process in the eyes of their supporters.
Baghdad-Erbil oil agreement
Last week, the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government announced that they had reached an agreement on Kurdish oil exports and payments to oil companies working in the Kurdistan region, reportedly brokered by U.S. officials. The agreement was negotiated at a meeting chaired by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ruz Nuri Shawiz that was attended by Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafi Al-Issawi, Trade Minister Kherullah Hassan, Oil Minister Abdul-Karim Luabi and KRG Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami. The most interesting – and promising – element of the agreement is the stipulation that the federal government will pay oil companies operating in the Kurdistan region a sum of $833 million in return for an increase in exports from the Kurdistan region, returning first to 140,000 barrels per day for the rest of September before increasing to 200,000 barrels per day for the remainder of 2012. The Iraqi cabinet’s ratification of payments to oil companies working in the Kurdistan region suggests a softening of the federal government’s previous hardline stance against oil companies signing contracts with the KRG. The agreement also mandates that Iraq provide 17% of Iraq’s refined oil products and fuel to the KRG for use in its power stations. Encouragingly for future relations between Baghdad and Erbil, the agreement proposes the establishment for an export quota and payments to be included in the budget for 2013. It also demands the establishment of two joint committees to monitor adherence to the agreement and resolve future problems.
Historical precedent, however, suggests that the major stumbling blocks are not diplomatic but operational. Past agreements have been signed only for each side to fail to meet their respective sides of the bargain: the federal government has failed to pay oil companies for their work in the Kurdistan region, while the Kurds were unable to reach export quotas set by a 2011 agreement. Given the lack of progress towards an oil and gas law since 2007, there is no particular reason why this agreement should succeed in binding the two authorities where attempts in 2009 and 2011 faltered. While the language of this agreement suggests a greater degree of cooperation than has been evident in recent months, it remains to be seen whether the political will and operational ability exist on both sides to reach a lasting settlement.
Iraq reopens al-Qaim border crossing with Syria
On Tuesday, Iraq announced the reopening of its border with Syria in order to allow limited entry to fleeing refugees at the al-Qaim border crossing, an area that has seen increasing levels of spillover in recent weeks. Up to 100 Syrian refugees will be allowed entrance into Iraq per day, though men under the age of 50 will be turned away as a security precaution. The border crossing between al-Qaim and the neighboring Syrian town of Abu Kamal had been closed since August 15th as opposition forces battled for control of Abu Kamal. The reopening should help to alleviate tension between Maliki’s government and the Sunni tribes of Anbar, many of whom have family on the Syrian side of the border.
Meanwhile, Maliki continues to maintain a publicly neutral stance on the crisis, restating support of reform in Syria while refusing to call for the removal of President al-Assad. Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who was sentenced to death in absentee by an Iraqi court last week, condemned Iraqi facilitation of Iranian support to the Syrian army, stating that Iraq is “becoming an Iranian corridor to support the autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad and killing innocent people.”
For an analysis of the death sentence pronounced against Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and its implications for democracy in Iraqi, see Stephen Wicken’s political update, "The Hashemi Verdict and the Health of Democracy in Iraq.” For a look at Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s role in Iraq’s political crisis, read Stephen Wicken’s backgrounder, “Sadr’s Balancing Act.” For a detailed exploration of Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, see “Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”