Weekly Iraq Update #50
Jabhat Nusra designation highlights AQI’s regional ambitions
On December 11, The U.S. Department of State and the Department of the Treasury released designations against the Syrian jihadist organization Jabhat Nusra, labeling them as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI, initially led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, was previously designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2004 under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al Jihad for its actions against U.S. forces in Iraq. According to the State designation, Jabhat Nusra is overseen by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (aka Abu Du’a), the current emir of both AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). State claims that Abu Du’a provides “strategic guidance” to the emir of Jabhat Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani, who was previously tasked by Abu Du’a to lead AQI operations in Syria. Despite the December 2 media reports inaccurately claiming his capture, Abu Du’a is still at large in Iraq. The Treasury designation also targets two individuals, Maysar Ali Mussa Abdullah al-Juburi and Anas Hassan Khattab, for their role in facilitating the creation of Jubhat al-Nusra as a component of AQI.
In May of this year, the United States also designated the Abdullah Azzam Brigades as an FTO for planning and carrying out terrorist operations against the U. S. and others in Lebanon, Gaza, the Arabian Peninsula, and Jordan. In a similar pattern, the designation indicates that the top commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Saleh al-Qarawi, was tasked in 2004 by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to export AQI activities outside of Iraq.
These recent designations raise many questions about the current status of AQI and their possible role as a node for exporting terrorism in the Levant. AQI’s foiled plot in Amman, Jordan in October seems to suggest that the group’s activities outside Iraq are on the rise. It is also possible that they have been on the rise for some time, and potentially accelerated by regional developments such as the conflict in Syria, the revolution in Libya, and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Moving forward, AQI’s conception of its role and strategy in the region will continue to develop and will likely continue to have significant impacts on security concerns in the Middle East.
For more on AQI’s 2012 summer campaign in Iraq see “The Islamic State of Iraq and the ‘Destroying the Walls’ Campaign” by Sam Wyer.
For more on Jabhat Nusra see “Jihad in Syria” by Elizabeth O’Bagy.
Baghdad refuses second oil payment amid rumors of major Erbil-Ankara deal
Iraqi Oil Minister Abd al-Karim al-Luaibi confirmed on December 10 that Iraq had withheld a second scheduled payment to oil companies working in the Kurdistan region. Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani announced in November that a second payment would not be made, prompting the KRG to declare on December 5 that it would cut oil exports to the rest of Iraq by 50 percent. It now appears that Baghdad intends to withhold the second payment until the KRG agrees to meet a 2013 export target of 250,000 barrels per day and provides accounting of sales and production since 2008. These stipulations were not among the aspects of the agreement between the federal government and the KRG publicized in September, suggesting that Baghdad is now moving the goalposts in response to the military confrontation in the disputed territories.
The move comes, however, amid rumors of a significant Kurdish deal with a Turkish company to include drilling for oil and gas and construction of pipelines for export to international markets. A Washington Post article claims that Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz is reviewing the deal and will make a formal recommendation by the end of the year. On December 11, U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland appeared to take a firmer line than State had previously on the subject of oil deals made without Baghdad’s consent, stating that the U.S. does not support oil exports “from any part of Iraq without the appropriate approval of the Iraqi Government” and calling on “neighboring states to similarly avoid any action or comment that can contribute in any way to increasing tensions.” The State Department has previously advised American energy companies that signing contracts without the approval of the Iraqi federal government “exposes them to potential legal risk.”
Maliki’s criticism prompts Sadrist protests
Thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr protested on Tuesday after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized recent statements made by Sadr. On November 29, Sadr accused Maliki of exploiting tensions in the disputed territories for electoral gain through the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command and charged that Maliki was using military pressure to stay in power. He added to these criticisms on December 4, accusing Maliki of making threats against political opponents and highlighting alleged corruption in the suspended Russian arms deal. Maliki responded that Sadr’s statements had become trite and contradictory and threatened to sue Sadr for slander. The Sadrist Ahrar parliamentary bloc was quick to condemn Maliki’s response, accusing Maliki of escalating tensions in Iraq.
Sadr’s office in Rusafa called for the movement’s supporters to assemble in Sadr City on December 11 to protest Maliki’s criticism of Sadr, which they claimed “violated conventions and customs.” Thousands of Sadr’s supporters attended the demonstration, where they chanted anti-Maliki slogans and raised pictures depicting the prime minister as a vampire, prompting Sadr to issue a statement discouraging his followers from using provocative images. Hundreds more Sadrist supporters protested in Basra the same afternoon, while a further demonstration took place in Najaf on December 12. Further demonstrations took place on December 13 in the provinces of Karbala, Babil, Diyala, and Wasit. The demonstrations are a reminder that despite Sadr’s relatively low profile since the campaign to withdraw confidence from Maliki collapsed in July, the Shi’a cleric commands huge support, particularly in Baghdad and the south, and retains the ability to mobilize this support quickly.
Iraqi parliament revises provincial elections law
The Iraqi parliament voted on December 13 to amend the law governing provincial and district elections. The Federal Supreme Court ruled in October that the existing law, adopted by parliament in August, was unconstitutional, calling the law “a violation of the principle of justice.” The point of contention concerned the system for allotting council seats left over from the initial allocation, which is based on an electoral divider (total number of votes per council seat). The version of the law adopted in August apportions the remaining seats to lists that have already passed the electoral divider, further augmenting the power of lists that have already won seats. The new system, which follows the Sainte-Lague method of successive proportional allocation, removes this stipulation, allowing smaller lists a greater chance at representation on elected councils. Although there are almost half as many political entities registered for the 2013 elections as were registered in 2009 (265, down from 427 in 2009), the new system of allocation increases the likelihood of smaller parties playing a significant role in individual provincial races.
Major Nujaifi-Issawi-Abu Risha coalition announced
On December 13, Anbari strongman Ahmad Abu Risha announced the formation of the United Alliance coalition for the upcoming provincial elections. The coalition, to be headed by Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, will include Nujaifi’s Iraqiyoun party alongside the al-Hadba party led by his brother, Ninewa Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi. The list will also include two Anbar-based but nationally-oriented parties, Abu Risha’s Iraqi Awakening Conference and Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi’s National Future Gathering (Mustaqbal), registered for the upcoming elections by Zafer al-Ani, as well as Arshad Salehi’s Iraqi Turkmen Front. The coalition will seek to draw support particularly from Sunni Arabs hostile to Maliki, although it may suffer from the lack of involvement of key figures from Sunni-majority Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces.