Maliki vs Shahristani? by Reidar Visser

February 10, 2011 at 12:28 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Maliki vs Shahristani?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 February 2011 15:08

This is becoming somewhat farcical, but today the Iraqi deputy premier for oil and energy affairs, Hussein al-Shahristani, tells Reuters that the Iraqi premier, Nuri al-Maliki, was misquoted when he said the Kurdish contracts with foreign oil companies had been approved. Shahristani reiterates the argument that he has always made about the need for the central government to review the contracts before they are approved, even going as far as explicitly saying they need to be converted to technical service contracts (more similar to what is being used by the central government for oil contracts in the south).

It is rather remarkable for the deputy premier to contradict the premier on such a key issue, and the suggestion about a “misquote” does not quite make sense: Maliki was presenting an elaborate argument about the geological differences between Basra and Kurdistan and the interview included several comments which all went in the same direction. Surely no simple “misunderstanding” can assert itself in this way across a whole section of an interview even though it seems likely that the interview with Shahristani was conducted in English and the one with Maliki in Arabic? Nonetheless, the refutation seems to reflect the prevailing mood in the Iraqi oil ministry, where Reuters reported astonishment and even disbelief during the weekend when the news of Maliki’s comments broke. No one, it was said, had heard anything.

So who is right and who is wrong? On the one hand, Shahristani himself has a record of recent misquotes, as when he allegedly said Iraq would reach an oil production of 4 million barrels per day at yearend – a figure which was promptly adjusted downwards by one million bpd by the oil ministry. But Maliki has also been acting strangely since the start of his second term. First, there was the seemingly suicidal attempt to alienate almost every force in Iraqi politics by attaching IHEC and other independent commissions to the executive, which just weeks ago brought about an alliance of critics reminiscent of the opposition Maliki was facing in early 2010 at the time of the budget. And then there was this latest episode involving the Kurdish oil deals, in which Maliki seemed to abruptly give up his pretensions to keep Baghdad as the ultimate power broker as far as the energy sector is concerned.

Perhaps what we are seeing is Maliki’s old tendency of turning to the Kurds in times of trouble, which was evident already in autumn 2009. If that is the case, the key question is how many members of his own Shiite alliance are willing to follow him in that direction, and how far are they willing to go when it comes to making concessions to the Kurds on issues like oil/energy, Kirkuk and generally enshrining the kind of quota-based, ethnicity-oriented political system that the Kurds are seeking. The latest move by Maliki was surprising in that it seemed to indicate that Shiite attempts to assert a centralist policy in energy questions were dead; Shahristani’s response today suggest that the centralist/nationalist element in the National Alliance, which also includes Sadrist and Turkmen components, is still there and at least is putting up some kind of resistance when it comes to independent energy deals by provincial authorities. Alongside Maliki and Shahristani, a third force to watch for is erstwhile Daawa member Ibrahim al-Jaafari, now parliamentary head of the National Alliance bloc, who is cutting a dominant figure both in parliament and at NA meetings, sometimes at the expense of Maliki himself. Jaafari was famously deselected as premier for a second term in 2006 thanks in part to Kurdish pressure.

A meeting of the National Alliance on 31 January 2011. Maliki is sitting to the right of Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Meanwhile, parliament was supposed to have done the second reading of the budget today, but the budget had not arrived in parliament from government! The second reading was postponed until tomorrow, to be followed by a vote later in February.

8 Responses to “Maliki vs Shahristani?”

  1. Kirk H. Sowell said

    Monday, 7 February 2011 15:21 at 15:21 Agreed on the point about Maliki turning to the Kurds in times of trouble. I’m wondering if this is a quid pro quo on the security portfolio issue. This is becoming a big headache for Maliki, harder even than getting reelected. Allawi opposes him on the issue of course, but so do the Sadrists over interior, and the Kurds have been demanding a piece as well.

    A note about Shahristani is that he is one of the few within State of Law who can stand up to Maliki. He heads his own party within the bloc – or subbloc, if you will – and his long-term ties to Sistani and personal status make him a substantive figure in his own right. As for Jaafari, he and Maliki have had a rapproachment of late, but I view him as largely having cast his lot with Iran. And unlike ISCI, he actually got something for not opposing Maliki the way they did.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Monday, 7 February 2011 15:31 at 15:31 Yeah, as far as I remember I saw a report that the Kurds had won the leadership of the secret services and that Chalabi was still being talked about as a potential interior minister so who knows. The remarkable thing is that Iraqiyya is reportedly seeking the good offices of Barzani over the strategic policy council which is somewhat ironic in this context since they and Shahristani ostensibly agree on the need to have a minimum of central oil ministry coordination in the energy sector. It’s just another side effect of the poor personal relationship between Allawi and Maliki. They’re supposed to have another “summit” soon but sources close to Maliki said no date has been set so far.

  3. Thaqalain said

    Tuesday, 8 February 2011 7:31 at 07:31 So a weaker Baghdad will be just an observer/reviewer without any powers to hold, suspend, terminate PSAs. Al Maliki and Shahrestani think we are fool and dumb.
    I agree with Reidar , sooner regional power lords or governors will start signing deals directly and a copy will be sent to Baghdad for review. It won’t be limited to Oil & Gas, it will be broad and many DUBAI type of mini states will be developed but in the long run IRAQ will be totally fragmented and vanished.
    One should note division of Sudan today.

  4. Kjetting said

    Tuesday, 8 February 2011 14:35 at 14:35 This is within an established pattern. Maliki makes a statement on oil policy, more or less lofty – less this time perhaps – then Shahristani “corrects” the statement and moves HIS policy along.

    Before the Kurds or anybody else have a signed, generally agreed paper in their hand, there is no reason to celebrate or to hold your breath.

  5. Tom P said

    Wednesday, 9 February 2011 19:11 at 19:11 In light of the fact that these contracts have been a bone of contention for so long, it seems odd that Maliki seemingly has gone behind the back of his cabinet or at least members of it, to conclude a deal with the Kurds. What are your thoughts on this? Is this precedented?

    When it comes to interpreting a Kurdish victory in this matter as a victory for ethno-nationalism that may endanger the unity of Iraq in the long run, isn’t that to over-emphasize such an outcome? After all they have their own constitution and its understandable that they want to have more than ceremonial powers. Would it, in comparison, be unheard of if say California made a deal with an oil company without Washington knowing about it? Any thoughts?

  6. Reidar Visser said

    Wednesday, 9 February 2011 19:31 at 19:31 A couple of thoughts on the first point. Yes and no. Under normal circumstances it would be unusual for a PM to say something with such far-reaching implications without checking that he had the backing of his own government first. But Maliki just did precisely that, in fact, with the attachment of the independent commissions to the executive, which he did against the wishes of the Kurds, Iraqiyya and half of his own National Alliance. So it’s not totally inconceivable or unprecedented. Another precedent, of course, is that the Kurds previously claimed to have obtained promises and signatures, I think from both Jaafari and Maliki, that articles 58 of the TAL and 140 of the constitution would be implemented, i.e. by end of 2007, and we all know how that ended.

    A complicating factor in all of this is the near complete media blackout on these questions in the Arabic Iraqi press. There is almost zero coverage of this. People who read international financial newspapers may find it odd that an issue which attracts so much attention internationally should not produce some clearer answers in the country where all of this is going on. But the fact is that the issue is almost not being discussed in the Arabic media in Iraq (only Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab daily, had a brief article today) and this is probably one of the reasons so much ambiguity remains.

    On your second question, consider the following: What will be left for Baghdad to do unless the central government at least has a minimum of power to coordinate the energy sector? Remember that Iraq is a completely oil-reliant economy. Remember also that all the governorates have exactly the same rights as the Kurds have when it comes to oil according to the constitution. So that leaves the question of what happens to the glue of the federation if centralised power is being systematically dismantled by giving provincial authorities full control of so-called “future” fields. It leaves us also with a likely scenario of violent fragmentation in which ethno-sectarian propaganda can once more thrive.

  7. martin rutt said

    Wednesday, 9 February 2011 21:43 at 21:43 Reider, your comments are both interesting and helpful.
    Picking up on the last thread (with Tom P) how do you see this issue being resolved? The impasse is surely lose-lose for all?

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Wednesday, 9 February 2011 22:03 at 22:03 Martin, I agree this is an unhelpful stalemate. In general, my take is that the Kurds would get a better deal if they reverted to their position as it was more or less in 2003 when they wanted a bi-national federation of Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, with the federal government responsible for defence and the oil sector. International guarantees for this autonomy was a main demand back then, and I think this should be offered to the Kurds. I think the central government would be prepared to cede some rural parts of Nineveh and Tamim province under this kind of arrangement, if not Kirkuk itself.

    As for the oil sector, based on the argument outlined above about central-government control over energy as the glue in the federation, I think it makes sense that Baghdad should have some kind of role – though not necessarily the dominant role – in all contracts, “existing” and “future” fields alike. In fact, one can argue that this is already contained in article 112 second of the constitution. Now, when it comes to the existing deals that the Kurds have already signed, I’m sure it would be possible to reach some kind of compromise. The DNO contract has been published and if I understand correctly, the company takes a more moderate share of the income than some had predicted, so the parties may not be that far apart. But I think the basic principle of agreement with the centre in energy issues makes sense if one wants to keep Iraq in one piece and avoid bloody wars of separation in the years to come.

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