Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 15

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 15 March 23, 2012- March 30, 2012

by Stephen Wicken

Baghdad Hosts Arab League Summit

Iraq hosted the Arab League summit this week for the first time since May 1990, three months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Baghdad was locked down in the days before summit as delegates arrived: entire streets were closed, SWAT teams and helicopters patrolled the city, and at least 100,000 extra security forces were brought in to man hundreds of new checkpoints and roadblocks. The government declared a five-day public holiday in order to ease traffic delays, but Baghdad residents were infuriated by limited mobility and increased goods prices, as well as by the estimated $500 million spent the Iraqi government spent on upgrading summit facilities and lavishing delegates with extravagant menus. Despite the increased security, rockets exploded in central Baghdad and an IED explosion was reported, though not confirmed, near the Green Zone as Arab leaders and representatives met on Thursday. At least four security force members were reported wounded by the rocket attacks, which occurred near the Iranian embassy and the provincial governor’s office.

At a meeting of Arab League economic and finance ministers on Tuesday, Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi asked Arab nations to follow Algeria and the United Arab Emirates in forgiving Iraq’s pre-2003 debts. The same day, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a meeting of the Arab Social and Economic Council that Iraq invited Arab firms to “participate in the construction of Iraq” and benefit from “investment opportunities available in all fields.” The Iraqi government resisted other attempts to include internal Iraqi affairs on the summit’s agenda, prompting Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi to declare that he would not attend.

Sunni Leaders Snub Maliki

While Iraq drew plaudits for succeeding in hosting the summit despite security concerns and political animosities, a number of Sunni states made clear their continued hostility towards Iraq’s Shi’a-led government and Maliki in particular. Despite striking a number of bilateral agreements in recent weeks in an attempt to overcome long-held personal enmities, Maliki was unable to entice Sunni state leaders to attend. Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (who exchanged kisses with Maliki on the airport runway in a sign of reconciliation) was the only head of state from the Gulf to attend the summit, with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, as well as Sunni Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria, sending ministers or representatives. Egypt and Yemen also failed to send heads of state to Baghdad, likely as a result of enduring domestic troubles.

Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, told Al-Jazeera that by sending only its ambassador to the Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam, Qatar was sending a message to Iraq. League officials suggested that the lower levels of representation from the Gulf states was intended to show frustration over Iraq’s opposition to assertive action on Syria. Of the two states that have pushed hardest for aggressive action in Syria, the Saudi ambassador spoke for two minutes, pointedly avoiding mention of Syria, while the Qatari ambassador declined to speak at all. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a press statement that Iraq was satisfied with the official representation of the Arab nations at the summit, describing the turnout as remarkable in light of current regional conditions.

Arab Leaders Back Annan Plan for Syria

The ongoing crisis in Syria dominated media coverage of the Arab League summit, despite Iraqi officials’ previous insistence that the meeting would focus on the structural reform of the Arab League itself. On Thursday, leaders and representatives called for Assad to act quickly on Annan’s UN Security Council-backed peace plan. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby told the summit that the solution to the crisis is “still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition,” while Maliki warned that arming either side in Syria would lead to a “proxy war” in the country. An Arab League declaration seen by Al Sumaria called for prompt and full implementation of the Annan proposal, condemned acts of violence, and called for adherence to a political solution while rejecting foreign interference.

The discussion of Syria at the summit largely conformed to the predictions of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who told reporters prior to the summit that Arab leaders would not call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation but would likely agree instead on a “doable” transition of power to Assad’s vice president ahead of elections. On Wednesday, Zebari told his Arab counterparts that Iraq opposed foreign intervention in Syria but that it supported the Syrian people’s aspiration for freedom. Zebari also declared that Iraq would back the efforts of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to broker a peace in Syria, although he admitted to journalists that the Arab League summit would offer “nothing new” on the crisis.

Kurds Threaten to Withhold Oil Exports

In the latest battle in the war of words between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad, the Kurds threatened to stop oil exports if Baghdad continues to withhold payments to oil producers in the region. The Maliki administration maintains that only the central government has the right to strike oil export deals, while the Kurds insist on their prerogative to control their own resources. A KRG spokesman claimed that the central government owes the KRG almost $1.5 million for exports made since May 2011 and announced that Kurdistan had decided to reduce exports to 50,000 barrels a day in the meantime. The KRG also said that Baghdad needs to seek its approval before signing contracts to develop the giant oil field at Kirkuk. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Rafa Issawi told AFP the Iraqi government is not afraid of Kurdish threats to halt oil exports but had approved payment of nearly $560 million to oil producers in Kurdistan.

Talabani Announces National Conference for April 5

President Jalal Talabani called on Sunday for a national conference to be held on April 5, after “intensive consultations” with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi. Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi subsequently announced that Iraqiyya will boycott the conference and any preparatory meetings unless the Arbil Agreement is implemented in full. The KRG Presidency also argued that the success of any national conference would depend on the execution of the Arbil Agreement.

Obama’s Nominee for Ambassador to Iraq Draws Criticism in Washington and Baghdad

President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday of his intention to nominate Brett McGurk, a former member of President George W. Bush’s national security staff and a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan in the Obama administration, as the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq met with opposition in the United States and in Iraq. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain said that he had “very significant questions” about McGurk’s “qualifications and his positions on the issues,” chiefly because of McGurk’s reversal on the need for an American military presence in Iraq after November 2011. McGurk led the failed 2011 negotiations to extend the stay of US troops but has since come to the view that a follow-on force is no longer necessary. The Iraqiyya bloc also signaled its opposition to McGurk’s nomination, with its Washington office sending a letter to members of Congress declaring a refusal to work with McGurk in Baghdad. Iraqiyya perceives McGurk to be an advocate for Maliki.

For a comprehensive look at the first two months since U.S. troops left Iraq, read Ramzy Mardini's backgrounder, " Iraq's Recurring Political Crisis."  To read a transcript from the Feb. 29 event "Policing Iraq," click here, and to read a transcript from the Feb. 16 event "Iraq After the U.S. Withdrawal," click here. To read past weekly updates, click here.