Weekly Iraq Update #51

Political Update: Maliki Sends Security Forces Against Sunni Rivals--Again

by Stephen Wicken

At noon on December 20, Iraqi counter-terrorism forces raided the home of Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi in Baghdad’s Green Zone and arrested five of Issawi’s bodyguards. Issawi is thought to have been present during the arrests but unable to prevent them. It subsequently emerged that Issawi’s chief bodyguard, Lieutenant Colonel Mahmoud al-Issawi, also a member of Issawi’s family, had been arrested on December 18 on terrorism charges, while another member of Issawi’s protection team, Major Mohammed Salman, was arrested on December 19. A source told Al-Sumaria News that the arresting forces carried official arrest warrants and took the detainees to an interrogation center. A source within the Interior Ministry subsequently told another news outlet that the ministry had censured members of the arresting unit for misconduct in abusing the detainees during the arrest process.

Issawi subsequently held a press conference alongside fellow leaders of the secular-Sunni Iraqiyya bloc Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. He accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of a “deliberate and pre-meditated act” against him and called on parliament to vote to withdraw confidence in Maliki. A meeting of the Iraqiyya leaders at Nujaifi’s residence was also reported to have included Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed al-Chalabi and the parliamentary leader of the Sadrist Ahrar Bloc, Baha al-Araji, who expressed solidarity with Issawi. As of 1505 EST on December 20, a single unconfirmed report indicated that tanks surrounded Nujaifi’s house, where these figures remained in conference, suggesting that Maliki may pursue both Issawi and Nujaifi in the coming days. Unconfirmed reports further indicated that additional arrests had been made at the Ministry of Finance. 

A source within the media office of the Finance Ministry told one news agency that Issawi had received a phone call from President Barack Obama, who was said to have inquired into the case and its implications, and a visit from U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Beecroft. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is said to have protested to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry about the incident.

The move against Issawi comes almost on the anniversary of a virtually identical move against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, also of Iraqiyya, that led to Hashemi’s flight from Iraq and a trial-in-absentia that produced a number of death sentences against him. A year ago, Maliki used the withdrawal of U.S. forces as cover to move against Hashemi, a long-time critic who had accused Maliki of sectarian, pro-Shi’a policies, as well as to intimidate Issawi and Mutlaq, whose Baghdad residences were surrounded by government forces. This time, Maliki appears to have exploited the distraction caused by President Jalal Talabani’s stroke to go after another of the public faces of Iraq’s Sunni political community.

Talabani’s stroke in itself may have been a motive for Maliki to move against Issawi, in order to discourage Iraqiyya from a concerted effort to install a Sunni candidate as president in the event that Talabani cannot resume his duties. With Hashemi in exile in Turkey and unlikely to return under a Maliki premiership, Vice President Khudayir al-Khuza’i, a Maliki ally, will take over as acting President until parliament votes on a permanent replacement, a vote that the constitution states should take place within 30 days. In the meantime, Maliki will enjoy tremendous national power: he controls the security ministries (both of which have acting ministers), operates in the absence of the president and one vice president, has disrupted the Finance Ministry with numerous arrests, and may be using security forces to intimidate the Minister of Finance and the Speaker of Parliament. While the power-sharing agreement that put Maliki in the premiership suggests that Talabani should be replaced by another Kurd, there is no constitutional requirement that this be so. Osama al-Nujaifi and Issawi have both been mentioned as possible contenders for the presidency, and the move against either of them could have the effect of preempting any such campaign. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Hashemi arrests at the end of 2011, Issawi joined the Iraqiyya boycott of parliament and publicly accused Maliki of seeking to build a dictatorship in Iraq. Since Iraqiyya returned to government, however, Issawi has largely kept a low profile. In May, he was involved in mediating a low-level disputebetween the Finance Ministry and the local government in his home province of Anbar, where Issawi is extremely popular, regarding customs dues from border crossings. He was also drawn into a dispute between members of Anbar Provincial Council and the former governor Mamun al-Alwani that saw the chairman of the council’s investment committee threaten to report Issawi to Maliki for corruption. Issawi was subsequently reported to have been involved in efforts to effect reconciliation among provincial council members and grandees in August, suggests that he was seeking to avoid another confrontation with Maliki.

Although Issawi largely has avoided headlines this year, avoiding even public pronouncements on the removal of the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq, he recentlyjoined a major coalition of Sunni politicians and parties to contest the provincial elections scheduled for April 2013. Headed by Osama al-Nujaifi, the coalition includes Nujaifi’s Iraqiyoun party as well as his brother Atheel al-Nujaifi’s al-Hadba, both strong in Ninewa province, alongside Issawi’s National Future Gathering and Anbari strongman Ahmed Abu Risha’s Iraqi Awakening Conference. While Issawi’s party was registered officially under the name of another senior figure, Zafer al-Ani, the attachment of Issawi’s name was expected to draw significant support among moderate Sunnis and particularly among residents of his native Anbar. Should the arrests succeed in discrediting Issawi, or intimidating him to the extent that he withdraws officially or figuratively from the political process, the Nujaifis would lose a significant source of support and a link to Anbar. The Nujaifis are already in a vulnerable situation with regard to their political constituency.  Having been successful in playing to anti-Kurdish sentiment among Sunni Arabs in 2009 and 2010, they have subsequently been forced to work with the Kurds over issues of oil revenue in Ninewa, prompting Maliki to call for Atheel al-Nujaifi’s removal as governor of the province. This has damaged the Nujaifis’ standing with Sunni nationalists, and collaboration with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, Maliki’s most steadfast opponent, on a no-confidence vote would only exacerbate this tendency.


Weekly Iraq Update #51

By Sam Wyer

December 12, 2012 – December 19, 2012

Talabani suffers stroke, heightening concern

On December 17, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke and was admitted to the Medical City Hospital in Baghdad. While initial reports claimed he had died or fallen into a coma, Talabani is currently in stable condition and is receiving treatment from foreign doctors from Germany, the U.K., and Iran. Talabani was movedto Germany on December 20 in order to receive continued treatment.

While both the Iraqi and Kurdistani political spheres have remained relatively quiet about the situation, Talabani has received a number of visitors including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi Vice President Khudair al-Khuzaei, head of the judiciary Medhat al-Mahmoud, First Deputy Speaker Qusay al-Suhail, and Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi. While it is too early to assess the immediate implications of Talabani’s current condition, his stroke has heightened fears that the ongoing Baghdad-Erbil crisis may once again fall into dangerous waters. Talabani has long served as a mediator between Iraq’s Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni political forces, and was still playing this role until Tuesday, looking to achieve a suitable political end to the conflict that would involve the withdrawal of both Iraqi and Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk. On December 17, Maliki invited a Kurdish delegation to meet in Baghdad next week after a successful meeting with Talabani. It is unclear how Talabani’s current state will affect the negotiations.

Despite having limited powers as Iraq’s president, Talabani is seen as a “unifying figure who has helped prevent the disintegration of Iraq's fragile national unity government, which includes Shia and Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds.” As a result, if Talabani were to die or become unable to continue in his duties as president, the issue over his successor will become extremely important to the balance of power and ongoing Kurdish-Arab tensions in Iraq. According to the Iraqi constitution, Talabani would be succeeded on an acting basis by one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Khudair al-Khuzaie or Tariq al-Hashemi. Given that Hashemi has beensentenced to death by Iraq for the alleged murder of a security official and lawyer in Iraq, it is extremely unlikely that he will return to Iraq from Turkey to contest the seat. As such, Khudair al-Khuzaei, a pro-Maliki Shi’ite, would take over the presidency until parliament elects a new president within 30 days of Talabani’s removal from office. Talabani’s exit may also spark political infighting among the Kurds as his successor in the PUK is not established.

Peshmerga forces fire on Iraqi helicopter

Hours after news of Talabani’s stroke emerged, the Ministry of the Peshmerga announced that their forces had shot at an Iraqi helicopter over the town of Sikanyan, just north of Kirkuk. According to Kurdish officials, the troops opened fire to prevent the aircraft from spying on Peshmerga deployments in the area. Tuesday’s incident appears to have been a warning to the central government and not an attempt to down the helicopter. Kurdish officials, however, have warned of stronger actions in the future if surveillance activities continue. So far, there has not been a public response from the central government to the confrontation, which is unsettling in the context of the sharply heightened tensions and Talabani’s medical condition. As both Iraqi and Peshmerga troops remain deployed near the disputed city of Kirkuk, the potential for similar confrontations remains dangerously high, raising the possibility that tension could be ignited into open conflict.

Attack waves target Kurds

Two waves of attacks killed dozens of people and wounded many more across Iraq on December 16 and 17. On Monday, car bombs killed and wounded civilians and members of the security forces around Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, Tuz Khurmatu, Dujail, and Khaldiya. Roadside IEDs were detonated in al-Buslaibi village, north of Baghdad and in Madain, south of Baghdad. Magnetic ‘sticky bombs’ killed civilians in Baquba and Balad Ruz. Gunmen attacked checkpoints near Tikrit, Kirkuk, and Mosul and targeted civilians in Baquba and Jalawla. There was also a mortar attack on the town of Rutba in Anbar. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the methods used are characteristic of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the umbrella group of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who have successfully carried out a number of coordinated attack waves this year.

In a departure from past attack waves, however, some of this week’s attacks specifically targeted Kurds in the disputed towns of Baladruz and Jalawla in Diyala province. In the most overt example, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s office in Jalawla was struck by a car bomb, killing two Kurdish security recruits and wounding five others. According the Olive Group’s weekly security report, the number of attacks this week in the disputed provinces of Diyala, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Suleimaniyah was reported at 59, a significant increase from last week’s 33 and the 2012 weekly average of 36. As the standoff between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces continues in the disputed territories, radical Sunni elements have not remained dormant; the increase in attacks in these areas suggest that groups such as ISI are attempting to exploit already febrile sectarian and political tensions.

Past Updates

Iraq Update #50- December 06- December 12, 2012: Jabhat Nusra designation highlights AQI’s regional ambitions

Iraq Update #49- November 29- December 06, 2012Jordanian Terror Plot Reveals AQI Regional Network

Iraq Update #48- November 21- November 29, 2012: Tentative agreement reached on disputed territories standoff

Iraq Update #47- November 15- November 21, 2012: Freed Daqduq travels to Beirut

Iraq Update #46- November 7-November 15, 2012: Rumors surround Daqduq release

Iraq Update #45- November 2-November 7, 2012: Tigris Operations Command Continues to Cause Concern

Iraq Update #44- October 24-November 2, 2012: Iraq Sets Date for 2013 Provincial Elections as Maliki Renews Push for Majority Government

Iraq Update #43- October 17-October 24, 2012: Kurdish delegations arrive in Baghdad

Iraq Update #42- October 11-October 17, 2012: Central Bank governor suspended amid political disputes

Iraq Update #41- October 3-October 11, 2012: Iraq confirms massive arms deal with Russia

Iraq Update #40September 26-October 3, 2012: Iraqi leaders gather in Ankara

Iraq Update #39- September 19-September 26, 2012: Protests present political opportunities

Iraq Update #38- September 12-September 19, 2012: Anti-film protests spread throughout Iraq

Iraq Update #37- September 6-September 12, 2012: Vice President Hashemi sentenced to death

Iraq Update #36- August 31-September 6, 2012: Iran resumes shipments of military equipment to Syria through Iraqi airspace

Iraq Update #35- August 22-August 31, 2012: Communications Minister resigns

Iraq Update #34- August 15-August22, 2012: Data suggests rise in violence along historic fault lines

Iraq Update #33- August 3-August 15, 2012: Baghdad’s Tensions with Irbil and Ankara Diminish

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 32- July 27-August 3, 2012

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 31-  Al-Qaeda Leader Claims Credit for Deadly Attacks

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 30- July 16-July 20, 2012: Rebels Take Over Syrian Border Checkpoints

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 29- July 6-July 16, 2012: White House Says Daqduq Issue Not Closed

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 28- June 29-July 6, 2012: Sadrists Back Down

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 27- June 16-June 22, 2012: Maliki Requests U.S. To Stop Exxon Operations

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 26- June 9-June 15, 2012: Sadr Returns To Najaf, Speaks With Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 25- June 1-June 8, 2012: Sadr Goes To Iran, Pressure Likely To Increase

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 24- May 25-June 1, 2012: The Numbers Game

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 23-  Efforts To Remove Maliki Intensify

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 22- May 22-May 18, 2012:Hashemi Trial Begins

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 21- May 4-May 11, 2012: Daqduq Case Dismissed

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 20- April 27-May 4, 2012Ultimatum Issued To Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 19- April 20-April 27, 2012: Maliki Visits Tehran

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 18- April 14- April 20, 2012: Iraqiyya, Kurds Consider Vote to Unseat Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 17- Members Appointed To Human Rights Commission

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 16- March 30- April 5, 2012: KRG President Massoud Barzani Visits Washington

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 15- March 23- March 30, 2012: Baghdad Hosts Arab League Summit

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 14- March 15-March 23, 2012: Barzani Disparages Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 13- March 8-  Maliki Visits Kuwait, Emir to Attend Arab Summit

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis,  Update 12- March 6- Diyala Appoints New Governor

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 11-  Diyala Governor Reportedly Resigns

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 10-  Judiciary Sets Hashemi’s Court Date

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 9-  Investigation Escalates Hashemi Case

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 8-  Iraqiyya Ends Boycott of Council of Ministers

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 7- Iraqiyya Returns to Parliament

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 6-  Iraqiyya Contemplates Next Move

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 5- January 13-  Iraqiyya Continues Boycott

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 4- December 30- January 13, 2012: Kurds Walk Out of Parliament Session in Protest

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 3- December 23- December 30, 2011: Tensions Increase between Maliki and Sadrists

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 2- December 19- December 23, 2011: Crisis escalates in Iraqi Media

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 1- December 19, 2011: Timeline of political crisis