Al-Maliki takes charge
By moving to take over the country's foreign policy, the Iraqi prime minister has cast his Kurdish foreign minister to one side, writes Salah Nasrawi
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Residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in Mwafaqiya village at Mosul. A suicide bomber driving a truck attacked a Shia mosque
Iraq's Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki set up a government panel to oversee the country's foreign policy this week, moving more aggressively than ever to concentrate political power in his hands at a time when concerns are spreading that Iraq's foreign policy has been unsuccessful during a time of regional turmoil.
Al-Maliki also ordered a government review of Iraq's relationship with Turkey after a series of disputes with its powerful northern neighbour over a string of issues including the upheaval in Syria and Ankara's increasing involvement in Iraq's sectarian and ethnic conflicts.
The maneuvers could cement a major shift in power in the face of opposition from Iraq's Kurds to the Shia prime minister's push to consolidate his authority further in a country that has been led by a fragile coalition government since the 2003 US-led invasion.
There are fears that Al-Maliki's moves could trigger a backlash and further divide a nation in which many are wary of a possible spillover from Syria and regional ethnic and sectarian polarisation.
The new government committee, to be headed by Al-Maliki himself, will include several cabinet ministers, the chief of the Iraqi National Security Council and the head of the parliament's foreign relations committee.
A statement by Al-Maliki's office said the committee would be working as a watchdog to follow up the implementation of its decisions by the Foreign Ministry's diplomatic staff.
It said that one of the major tasks of the new committee would be to "unify the discourse of the state on foreign issues and prevent any discrepancies".
By moving to tighten his grip on the country's foreign policy, Al-Maliki also seems to be trying to curtail the power of Kurdish Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. While Zebari will be a member of the new committee, he will lose absolute control over foreign policy-making.
Zebari, a veteran Kurdish politician and former guerrilla fighter, has been the country's chief diplomat for the last nine years, tasked with helping to shape a new vision for Iraq's foreign relations in the post-Saddam Hussein era.
Al-Maliki's move against him comes amid wide concerns about Iraq's foreign-policy orientation and whether it reflects national strategic interests at a critical juncture when Iraq is wracked with unrest and instability.
As the turmoil in Syria continues, concerns about Baghdad's foreign policy have been growing, with many Iraqis believing that the country lacks adequate and effective diplomacy to deal with the bubbling cauldron of political problems abroad.
In a recent incident, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry came under fire after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a surprise visit to the disputed city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq while on a trip to the Kurdish region for talks with its leader Masoud Barzani, also Zebari's nephew.
Davutoglu's visit drew furious reactions from Baghdad and brought the already-chilly relations between the two countries to a new low. Kirkuk is part of a chunk of disputed territory that, along with oil resources, is among the main points of contention between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government.
The visit, the first to the city by a Turkish foreign minister since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, is fraught with symbolism because of the Turkomen, a Turkish ethnic minority that still lives in the province.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry was chided for facilitating the visit by issuing a visa to Davutoglu, who did not travel through Baghdad. The ministry said it had not previously been informed about the Kirkuk visit and did not approve of the trip.
Iraq had previously accused Turkey of fueling tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds over control of territory and oilfields by dealing with the Iraqi Kurdistan region as if it were an independent state.
In July, the region began to export oil to Turkey without Baghdad's permission, a move which the Baghdad government termed "illegal". Turkey also started building export pipelines that would bypass routes controlled by Baghdad.
Last week, Al-Maliki formed a special committee to "investigate the circumstances of the Turkish foreign minister's visit to Kirkuk and present recommendations to the cabinet."
The Iraqi government said it was reconsidering its relationship with Ankara after the Turkish foreign minister's visit, and this would have been bad news for Zebari, who has seen his power steadily diminishing.
Zebari has long been accused of mismanagement and of lacking inter-agency coordination. Critics say he has turned the foreign ministry into a nest of incompetent, politically appointed diplomats and corrupt cronies.
He has been branded by members of the parliament's foreign relations committee as "uncooperative" and slammed for his refusal to bring his ministry under scrutiny. The committee has repeatedly complained that Zebari has brushed aside requests for briefings on the country's foreign policy.
On Tuesday, the head of the committee, Hummam Hamoudi, asked the Iraqi parliament to veto a list of new diplomats recruited by Zebari for being "unbalanced".
One of the criticisms of Zebari has been that he has failed to take advantage of Iraq's presidency of the rotating Arab summit to advance Iraqi diplomacy and foreign relations.
Nearly six months after the last annual summit, which cost Baghdad some $500 million to host, Zebari is being portrayed as unable to take the kind of initiatives that would put Iraq centre stage in Arab and regional politics or promote the country's national interests.
Thus far, Zebari has not voiced displeasure at Al-Maliki's moves to take control of the country's foreign policy, though he has insisted in interviews that the country's political leaders stand united on foreign affairs.
In the past Zebari has complained of what he has termed a "multiplicity" of decision-making centres in Baghdad and the negative impact this has had on Iraq's foreign relations and formulating a clear vision of foreign relations.
Scepticism about Zebari's performance could be owing to more than just his diplomatic style, since his failure to forge an effective Iraqi foreign policy could be rooted in the way the Kurds perceive their future in Iraq.
Many Iraqis believe that Zebari may be serving a long-term Kurdish agenda of breaking away from Iraq, aiming to make this goal attainable when the time comes. Some Iraqi officials note that Kurdistan has already been emerging as a "hostile foreign country" on Iraq's border.
Last month, Zebari told the French newspaper Le Monde that the Kurds "will be proud to have our own state, which I hope can be achieved shortly." He said the Kurds were "capable of separating from Iraq, but at this stage international pressure will not allow it."
As the war in Syria rages on, the political crisis in Iraq is deepening, and Al-Maliki's move to take control of the country's foreign policy could be a warm-up act for the storm that could start brewing in Baghdad soon.
On Sunday, Al-Maliki warned that "Iraq is in the eye of the storm, but we have succeeded in overcoming the storm before and we can succeed again." However, the evidence indicates that time may not be on his side.
Iraq's political rot is deepening, and fixing Iraq's diplomacy could become ever more elusive as time goes by.