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.

Past Updates

Iraq Update #49- November 29- December 06, 2012: Jordanian 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 #40- September 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, 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