Weekly Iraq Update #39

September 19, 2012-September 26, 2012

Protests present political opportunities

Protests against the anti-Islam film ‘The Innocence of Islam’ continued this week in Iraq, as thousands took to the streets in Basra and Karbala calling for the boycott of U.S. companies and the closure of U.S. offices in the region. As reported last week, protests have taken place in more than 10 cities throughout Iraq, many of them led by the Sadrist Trend. The recent protests in Basra, however, marked an interesting development. For the first time, the Shi’a militant group Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH)announced its presence at the demonstrations. As one of the most notorious “Special Groups” in Iraq, KH has long been seen as a component of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force and has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. Articles posted recently on KH’s website acknowledge the heavy presence of the movement’s supporters in the most recent protest in Basra. The demonstrators carried pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, burned American flags, and chanted anti-Western slogans. The appearance of pictures of Khamenei seems to be part of a recent propaganda campaign by Iran-backed Shi’a groups, including KH and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), to spread Iranian influence throughout Iraq.

As seen in the map below, the protests have hit a wide range of cities in Iraq. As expected, however, demonstrations in the southern cities were dominated by Shi’a groups such as the Sadrist Trend, AAH, KH, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). While there were no reports of confrontations between these groups, their presence suggests that each group is attempting to boost their public profile. Public statements, even from the secretive KH, demonstrate efforts to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the protests and rally political support in their favor. As Iranian influence in Iraq continues to grow, the evolving relationships between Shi’a groups in the south will become increasingly significant for Iraq’s political landscape.

Syrian conflict reveals weaknesses

Tensions over the conflict in Syria have also exposed Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. On Friday, Iraq announced that it had denied entrance to a North Korean plane en route to Syria, attempting to dampen criticism over allowing Iranian arms shipments through Iraqi airspace.  This move was quickly followed by a statement by Ali al-Moussawi, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s media adviser, insisting that Iraq will conduct random searches of Iranian planes bound for Syria. Last week, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated 117 Iranian aircraft that are being used for flights “between Tehran and Damascus to send military and crowd control equipment to the Syrian regime.” While the designation does not mention Iraq specifically, U.S. officials, citing a “Western intelligence report,” continue to assert that Iran is using Iraqi airspace without obstruction. The report claims, moreover, that “tens of tons” of military equipment have been shipped on a daily basis.

At the Senate confirmation hearing for U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Beecroft last week, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) questioned the ambassador on the issue of Iranian arms shipments. Beecroft responded that the U.S. is “pressing” Baghdad to inspect Syria-bound Iranian flights. Skeptical that Maliki’s government would stop the flights, Kerry suggested that Congress might consider restricting the $1.7 billion in annual U.S. aid to Iraq. It is unclear what Iraq could do to control its airspace in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, even if it wanted to. According to Lt. General Robert Caslen, “Iraq recognizes they don’t control their airspace,” an issue that has been augmented by the slow pace of U.S. weapons sales. Without a functioning air force or air defense system, Iraq is physically unable to secure its airspace from Iranian encroachment should it wish to do so.

New movements and old issues in provincial elections process

The Iraqi parliament’s agreement upon eight of the nine new board members for the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) prompted a number of defections and the formation of new parties expected to contest the provincial elections. Iraqiyya members in Diyala province last week announced their defection from the coalition, citing the failure of Iraqiyya to ensure executive posts in the provincial government. On Thursday, seven MPs from Basra province announced the formation of a new parliamentary bloc to defend the rights of citizens of the oil-rich southern province, particularly with regard to hydrocarbons revenues. Most notably, former Tawafuq MP Nur al-Din al-Hayali proclaimed the formation of the Ninewa Salvation Front with the intention of countering Kurdish dominance in six Ninewa districts, as well as Kurdish “control of the oil and agricultural wealth.” Hayali’s move signals dissatisfaction with recent indications that Ninewa governor Atheel al-Nujaifi’s al-Hadbaa movement, elected in 2009 on a virulently anti-Kurdish platform, has subsequently moved too close to the Kurds, particularly over oil contracts, and points to the likelihood that Arab-Kurdish tensions again will be the key electoral issue in the province.

These new movements may find themselves with more time than anticipated to refine their electoral strategies, however, as confusion continues to reign over the provincial electoral process. On Monday, Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi told a meeting of Arab politicians in Kirkuk that he expects provincial elections will be held on time – they are scheduled for March 2013 – and that they will be held in Kirkuk simultaneously with other provinces. UN Special Representative Martin Kobler stated subsequently that the IHEC appointments ‘pave the way’ for provincial elections in “early 2013.” A report on state-run al-Iraqiya television citing parliamentary sources claimed on Monday, however, that the elections have been postponed for six months. Appearing to corroborate this statement, former IHEC head Faraj al-Haidari told the Iraqi Media Network that the new IHEC board needs at least 180 days to be able to organize the provincial elections according to international standards. Legal issues persist regarding the electoral process: the preliminary vote on the IHEC board appears to have been inquorate, and no progress has been made on a constitutional elections law. With these issues outstanding and with no announcement made as yet on a ninth board member, it remains unlikely that the elections will be held on time.

Barzani defiant despite local and national threats

On Thursday, State of Law MP Hussein al-Asadi proclaimed his intention to collect signatures from MPs in order to question Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani over alleged constitutional breaches relating to border crossings, oil agreements and the training of Syrian Kurdish fighters. In response to the claim, President Barzani told the International Conference of Democratic Parties in Rome on Saturday that while the Kurds remained committed to a federal Iraq, “the Kurdish people will not live under dictatorship.” Barzani went on to threaten that “if the Iraqi government does not abide by the constitution and moves towards dictatorship and monocracy, then the Kurdish people will make a different decision.”

With President Barzani away on a tour that may include an appearance at the ruling Turkish AK Party’s Grand Congress on September 30, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani announced on Friday that the KRG had decided to give more power to the region’s provincial administrations in order to provide better services. Barzani likely took this decision with an eye to pacifying the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its offshoot, the Gorran (Change) Movement, which are particularly strong in Suleimaniyah province but losing out to the Barzanis’ Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) elsewhere in the Kurdistan region. The gambit did not appear to yield immediate results: on Monday, the PUK and Gorran issued a joint statement calling for the amendment of the Kurdistan region’s constitution. The statement came after the first meeting between PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Gorran leader Nawshirwan Mustafa since Mustafa, a PUK co-founder who left the party in 2006, established Gorran in 2009. Kurdish opposition parties have called repeatedly for the introduction of a parliamentary system that more closely resembles the one outlined by the Iraqi constitution and checks the power of the President. Barzani was re-elected in 2009 in a direct vote; opposition groups argue that parliament should elect the regional president, as it did in Barzani's first term in 2005, making the president accountable to an elected body. The KDP responded to the Talabani-Mustafa meeting with thinly-veiled hostility, stating that the party welcomed rapprochement between Kurdish parties unless it was driven by external forces – a criticism apparently directed at Mustafa, who recently discussed opening political offices in Iran.

Past Updates

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, 2012: Ultimatum 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