Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2008
Issue No. 908
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Clouds over Kirkuk

Postponing Iraq's provincial elections might be Washington's and Baghdad's favoured position now, writes Saif Nasrawi

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Iraqis inspect the site of three bombings that targeted Muslim Shia pilgrims Monday. The three suicide bombers, believed to be women, killed 25 Shia pilgrims on their way to the holy shrine in Baghdad (photo: AFP)

The Iraqi parliament passed a provincial elections law last week despite protests by Kurdish lawmakers regarding the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The legislation was aimed to break the political deadlock and clear the way for elections as a step towards political reconciliation. But the walkout by the entire bloc of Kurdish lawmakers in protest sparked another national crisis threatening to derail the fragile political process.

The Kurdish lawmakers, roughly a fifth of the parliament's 275 members, deemed part of the law, passed 127-13 and which governs provincial council elections scheduled to take place across Iraq 1 October, "unconstitutional". Further, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, vetoed the law. According to Iraq's constitution, draft laws should be delivered to the Presidency Council for unanimous approval. A day later, the other two members of the council -- head of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) and Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi and leading member of the Shia Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC; formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- SCIRI) and Vice - President Adel Abdul-Mahdi -- followed suit and vetoed it.

The standoff is over how to allocate local council seats in the disputed region of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim is part of their historical homeland. Other lawmakers have suggested a power-sharing agreement between the city's Arab, Turkoman and Kurdish residents -- a plan that would hand more power to the regions and lessen the oversight of the federal government in Baghdad.

The Kurds are particularly angered by an article in the draft law which called for a 32 per cent equal representations in Kirkuk's governing bodies to be granted for Kurds, Arabs and Turkoman, while the remaining four per cent of the city's local councils will go to the Christian minority. Following the parliament's vote, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani rushed to Baghdad for talks with his Shia allies to try to resolve the crisis. The head of SIIC, Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, later issued a statement stressing the need for national consensus. Barzani, on his side, asked Iraqi leaders to study Kurdish objections to the draft law and propose solutions within 48 hours.

A committee of Iraqi parliamentarians from different political groups was formed to study the unresolved issues and try to reach a compromise. Two days before the parliament goes into summer recess, members of the committee announced Monday that reaching a consensus over the controversial law "is becoming quite impossible before the parliament's vacation".

The Kirkuk issue has always been considered a flashpoint that could blow up over the next couple of months. Kurds are demanding control while Iraqi Arabs are resisting. The conflict has been seen as a crisis in waiting between Arabs, Turkoman and Kurds. Many Iraqi Arabs believe that Kurds not only want to control the northern city of Kirkuk, which contains almost 15 per cent of Iraq's oil reserves, but they plan to annex three other provinces where Kurds live: Diyala, Salahuddin and Ninewa. By vetoing the election law they would limit the Kurds' ability to press their gains there.

The situation worsened Monday when three women carrying explosive belts killed at least 61 people, nearly all of them Kurdish protesters against the draft law and Shia pilgrims in Baghdad. It was one of the bloodiest days in a year in which violence has dropped markedly. Although Iraqi security officials blamed the attacks on Al-Qaeda, a series of attacks were organised on Turkoman political party headquarters in Kirkuk, pushing them to plea for protection from Baghdad on the ground that the city's police is infiltrated by Kurdish forces.

A top parliament official described negotiations over the draft provincial elections law as "bulls fighting". "It seems that parliament is extremely divided and unable to reach a compromise in the coming few days with the Kurds feeling that giving any concessions will jeopardise their hegemony over the north," he told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.

Almost all those who are in favour of the draft law are not members in Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's government which is strongly backed by the Shia's SIIC, the Sunni IIP and the Kurds. They include the Sadrists, former prime minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraq National List, the Shia Fadhila (Virtue) Party, the Sunni National Dialogue Council, and other smaller Shia, Sunni and Turkoman political groups.

"The rift is hugely deep," a parliamentary source told the Weekly. "The ruling coalition feels that holding the local elections in October will undermine its chances to dominate the governorates' councils as happened in 2005. They are creating legal obstacles to postpone it," he said on condition of anonymity.

Khaled Al-Attiya, a deputy parliament speaker, said Monday that objections to a draft provincial law are making it difficult to hold the elections as planned this fall. He added that elections could be further delayed because of the need to update election registration records in early 2009.

Alongside the Kurds' insistence on keeping their five-year strong grip over Kirkuk that could be challenged by the current provincial elections law, SIIC and the IIP also fear that the outcome of provincial elections would undermine their dominance over Iraq's central and southern provinces. The SIIC is not confident because their main rival, the Sadrists, maintain strong military, tribal and social networks, a structure that the SIIC does not enjoy despite the government's US financial and military backing.

The Sadrists boycotted the 2005 local elections, but they announced that they are determined to participate fully in upcoming ones. Three months ago they forged an electoral alliance with Allawi's party and ex-Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari's newly established political group, the National Reform Party, in order to compete against the tripartite governing coalition of the SIIC, the IIP and the Kurds.

Another controversial issue within the SIIC is the question of political succession, especially that its leader, Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim was diagnosed earlier this year with lung cancer. Iraqi reports suggest that a power struggle is dividing SIIC between followers of Ammar Al-Hakim, Abdul-Aziz's son and deputy president of the SIIC, and the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the SIIC. Contrary to Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim's orders, members affiliated to the Badr Brigade supported the local elections law last week.

On the Sunni stage, the IIP is increasingly worried about the growing influence of their new rival, the Awakening Councils, which have more arms and stronger domestic presence. Al-Hashimi's Islamic Party had worked hard during the last couple of months to veto every proposal presented by Iraqi and US officials to include members of the Awakening Councils in the national unity cabinet that was formed earlier this month.

The nearly 110,000 Sunni leaders and fighters of the Awakening Councils, which were created by the Americans last year as part of the "surge strategy", are expected to win a landslide majority in the local elections, capitalising on their strong tribal networks and their military achievements against Al-Qaeda in the main Sunni areas of Anbar, Salahuddin and Mosul provinces.

The failed assassination attempt of Zaki Al-Kobaissi, a senior leader of the IIP and a member of the Anbar provincial council, on Sunday could be a reflection of the underlying and so far "controlled" competition among Sunni groups. Two of Al-Kobaissi's bodyguards were killed while he escaped with minor wounds when a bomb exploded inside the garage of his home.

Given the issues at stake, Al-Maliki's government might be pushed, unwillingly, to delay solving Iraq's central struggles again. "Everybody in the government seems content to postpone the local elections, which could spark an even worse civil strife," a senior Iraqi official said. "US officials are also now more reluctant to push the government to hold the elections, fearing that it could indirectly give credit to (US Democratic presidential candidate Barack) Obama's stance on Iraq," the official told the Weekly.

He added that the Americans fear undermining security gains ahead of November's US presidential elections. Obama, who visited Iraq, last week, reaffirmed his position that a timetable for US military withdrawal from Iraq would force the integration of Arab Sunnis into the political process.

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