IHEC Publishes the List of Entities for the April 2013 Local Elections in Iraq

November 30, 2012 at 11:59 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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IHEC Publishes the List of Entities for the April 2013 Local Elections in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 29 November 2012

The official deadline for registering political parties for next year’s local elections in Iraq on 21 April 2013 expired last Sunday. The Iraqi elections commission continued to handle registrations on Monday and Tuesday but has now published a list that looks more definitive in that it does not any longer include the expression “registered until now”. This being Iraq, it is hard to be certain whether this really is the final list, but it is certainly the most comprehensive account available so far and a brief discussion of these 261 entities can be worthwhile.

It should be said at the outset that the publication of this list, while significant, is not a definitive indication of how the political landscape for the next local elections in Iraq is shaping up. The crucial stage in that respect is the list of coalitions, which on previous occasions has been published as late as one month before the elections themselves. What voters will deal with on election day, after all, is electoral lists, which can be made up of one party or several registered entities joined together on a list. A registration as a separate entity at this stage may well be nothing more than an expression of the hubris of Iraqi politicians who feel the need to have a political party of their own; as in previous elections a key question is the extent to which such hubris can be transcended for the purpose of creating electable lists and viable coalitions when the elections get closer.

With regard to the registered entities themselves, they fall in three main categories.

Continue Reading IHEC Publishes the List of Entities for the April 2013 Local Elections in Iraq…

Reidar Visser: Spin-Doctors and the Changing Nature of Imperial Power in Iraq

December 13, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Visser: Spin-Doctors and the Changing Nature of Imperial Power in Iraq

Posted on 12/13/2010 by Juan Cole

Reidar Visser writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Treaties, Acronyms and Spin-Doctors: The Changing Nature of Imperial Power in Iraq

In the 1920s, during the early days of the Iraqi monarchy, a major bone of contention between King Faisal I and Britain concerned the definition of their bilateral relations. King Faisal objected strongly to the concept of a “British mandate” with its connotations of colonial tutelage; feeling under pressure from Iraqi nationalists he pushed instead for bilateral agreements to be expressed in a series of Anglo-Iraqi treaties where the two countries had the superficial appearance of being more on an equal footing. Faisal eventually got his treaties, but those bilateral pacts – and not least the annexes to them – basically gave Britain what it wanted in Iraq, including permanent air bases and informal influence through advisers that only came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the monarchy in 1958.

In today’s Iraq, the relationship between Western powers, regional players and the Iraqi government seems vastly different. True, in 2008 a bilateral treaty or a so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was entered into by the United States and Iraq; ever since the SOFA has been portrayed by Washington as a brilliant triumph of American diplomacy against a supposed Iranian desire to immediately evict U.S. forces from Iraq. However, few U.S. government officials have bothered to publicly acknowledge the fact that thanks to pressure from Iraqi parties supported by Iran, the duration of the treaty had been brought down to three years only during the course of the negotiations in 2008 so that all U.S. forces are now required to leave Iraq by 2011. So brilliant, in fact, was the U.S. diplomatic triumph of the SOFA that across Washington there is today consensus that the agreement needs to be renegotiated as a matter of urgency in order to secure a U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2011!

Continue Reading Reidar Visser: Spin-Doctors and the Changing Nature of Imperial Power in Iraq…

A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010

December 3, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment

A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 30 November 2010 15:51

Now available from Amazon.com

In 2005, under the auspices of the U.S. occupation, Iraq adopted a constitution that defined the first parliamentary cycle as a “transitional” period. Between 2005 and 2010 the political system would become transformed from one dominated by power-sharing among ethno-sectarian communities toward a more robustly national, issue-based form of democracy with a strong prime minister.

As the U.S. sharply reduced its troop presence in Iraq in 2010, it became clear that this democratic transition had not happened. The lengthy process of government formation after the March 2010 election remained influenced by the same ethno-sectarian bargaining that had characterized Iraqi politics five years earlier. The goal of having a strong prime minister with a national orientation was still distant. In fact, most Iraqi politicians seemed to cling to the instruments of ethno-sectarian quotas and regional patronage as a way of bolstering their own influence.

A brand new book, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010, explains what went wrong at the level of Iraq’s parliamentary politics between 2005 and 2010 and identifies potential problems in the years that lie ahead. Updated all the way to the formal end of the transition on 11 November 2010, it argues that most players on the Iraqi scene never tried to move towards a more progressive form of politics. Only one leading Iraqi politician, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, even tried to pursue the constitutional vision of a majoritarian democracy—and he failed. But Iraq’s politicians are not the only ones at fault. Another key theme in A Responsible End? is the strong role played by the U.S. government and the United Nations in enshrining a retrograde, ethno-sectarian politics in Iraq during a period that was supposed to be about political progress.

Continue Reading A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010…

An Iraq of Its Regions Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?

January 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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An Iraq of Its Regions

Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?


By Michael Rubin  |  Middle East Quarterly
Wednesday, January 13, 2010



Federalism remains a dominant political debate in post-Saddam Iraq, and while Western commentators often focus on Iraqi Kurdistan, in reality, Iraqi discussions are broader. Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, explains, “Villages, towns, and regions have shaped identities: the people of southern Iraq, for instance, often think of themselves as ‘Qurnawis’ or ‘Basrawis’ or just ‘Southerners’ rather than as ‘Shiites’ or ‘Sunnis.'” Indeed, Visser persuades us that the conventional wisdom that Iraq is an amalgam of three Ottoman provinces–one Sunni, one Shi’i, and one Kurdish–is wrong for that identity is more complex and disparate. Sorbonne historian Alastair Northedge fleshes out this point more with the definitive essay tracing the development of Iraqi identity prior to the Ottoman trifurcation of the region, while Richard Schofield of King’s College London sketches a useful outline of the drawing of modern Iraqi boundaries.

Visser’s introduction to An Iraq of Its Regions (Columbia University Press, 2008) is detailed and well-grounded in historiography. So, too, is his contribution on the two regions of southern Iraq. He argues persuasively that much of the Western media misinterpreted Iraqi Shi’i leader ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Hakim’s demand for a single southern, federal region, and that discussion in southern Iraq revolves around two regions: the Basra-Amara-Nasiriya triangle and another in the Middle Euphrates region, although he also describes minor variations that arise from time to time.

Exeter University scholars Fanar Haddad and Sajjad Rizvi’s contribution on fitting Baghdad into the federalist discourse pales next to Visser’s work, but after a somewhat disjointed discussion of federalism in other countries and federalism “from above” as opposed to “from below,” they persuasively show through interviews the fears that many Baghdadis have that federalism might lead to the dissolution of the state.

University of Haifa historian Ronen Zeidel reprises his thesis on regionalism around Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit in a separate chapter. Utilizing several Arabic histories and other sources, Zeidel writes a definitive, local history of Tikrit from the sixteenth century through the present day with a special emphasis on the rise of the Tikritis in the Iraqi military and power structure in the second half of the twentieth century. Zeidal shows that the primacy of Tikriti regional identity did not survive Saddam’s overthrow, since Tikriti refusal to fight advancing coalition forces shattered regional solidarity. De-Baathification hit Tikrit hard. To cope, many residents subordinated the regional identity about which they had been so proud to a broader Sunni identity.

An essay by James Denselow, a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, is the only true disappointment in the collection. Rather than provide a survey of Mosul equivalent in depth to Visser’s or Zeidel’s contributions, Denselow substitutes historical background for a survey of secondary sources by authors like Avi Shlaim, Rashid Khalidi, and Juan Cole, none of whom ever visited Iraq and whose writing accordingly tends toward the polemical. Denselow’s failure to address the consolidation of Mosul’s identity after Saddam’s fall, the struggles to reverse gerrymandering around Sinjar, Tel Afar’s unique identity, and issues surrounding the resurgence across the border of Kurdish nationalism in Qamishli, the largest town in eastern Syria, are omissions that raise questions about why the editors did not seek revision before inclusion. Meanwhile, Denselow’s discussion of the artificiality and porousness of the Syria-Iraq border is nothing new; his conclusion that “informed quarters” recognize that the Syrians have done their utmost to secure the border reads more like an academic’s attempt to secure Syrian good will than a work of scholarly integrity.

University of Exeter historian Gareth Stansfield and his colleague Hashem Ahmadzadeh show a mastery of Iraqi Kurdish issues in a chapter that examines Kurdish and Kurdistani identities. The authors look both at the political debate in Iraqi Kurdistan–where the former term refers to ethnic identity and the latter is a way to signal equality in Iraqi Kurdistan for non-Kurdish residents, be they Turkmen, Chaldean, Assyrian, or Arab–and at the Kurdistani term’s original pan-Kurdish overtones. Kurdish historical writing is notorious for unsourced claims and a retroactive imposition of nationalism. Both authors avoid this pitfall and provide a well-researched narrative, although Stansfield’s penchant for vanity footnotes distracts. Still, “Kurdish or Kurdistanis? Conceptualising Regionalism in the North of Iraq” should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand Iraqi Kurdish politics.

Few edited collections have value greater than a single constituent essay. An Iraq of Its Regions is an exception–Visser and Stansfield have assembled a unique work that should become the handbook for any serious discussion of Iraqi regionalism.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: Columbia University Press, 2008


They Don’t Give a Damn about Kirkuk… But They Don’t Want to Vote Either!

November 2, 2009 at 8:53 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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They Don’t Give a Damn about Kirkuk… But They Don’t Want to Vote Either!

Posted by Reidar Visser on November 1, 2009


Procrastinator-in-chief: Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, ISCI’s parliamentary whip

Media reports on the delays in passing an election law have so far focused on Kurdish resistance to language that would give a special status to the Tamim governorate pending a settlement of its political status. However, the Kurds should not be given all the blame for the delay: Even if the Kurds are unwilling to move an inch, with their 50 plus representatives they simply do not have the numbers alone to deny the Iraqi parliament a quorum, as is sometimes claimed in the press. (Earlier, in other contexts, 30 Sadrists have also been mislabelled as potential obstructionists in their own right in this way). There are still some 220 representatives left from which the 138 parliamentarians required for a vote can be recruited.

This should bring into focus an interesting segment of Iraqi MPs whose stance on the elections law has so far largely escaped scrutiny: Those non-Kurdish representatives who say Kirkuk is a minor or even “constructed” issue but who nevertheless seem distinctly unwilling to press for a vote on the law. One example is Ayad al-Samarrai who on 24 October in a statement on the Iraqiyya television station condemned parties and representatives “from outside Tamim” for complicating the issue and for using criticisms such as “the selling of Kirkuk” – the latter reference making it clear that he was talking about Iraqi nationalists.  Another example is Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) who on 30 October said that the mixing of the question of Kirkuk with the elections law was problematic, and that the “Arabs and Turkmens [of Kirkuk] make exaggerated demands.” He elaborated: “We are only talking about two or three seats”. The same tendency of portraying the Kirkuk as essentially a local issue was evident even before the summer vacation when Salim al-Jibburi (another Tawafuq MP) blamed “Arabs and Turkmens of Kirkuk” for creating trouble over the elections law on 21 July.

The basic thrust of all these three examples is that they deny any national aspect to the Kirkuk issue. They deplore the attempts by others to see Kirkuk as a question of national concern and construe those who make demands for a special status for Kirkuk as parochial recalcitrants and/or Iraqi nationalists fishing in waters outside their proper jurisdiction (“Kirkuk has a Kurdish majority”, Hakim maintains, again choosing to see only the ethnic sub-identities). Forgotten is apparently the argument put forward by Iraqi nationalists (often from Hiwar and Iraqiyya) that Kirkuk is a truly national question. Ignored is the fact that there is a direct link between the next parliamentary election and the fate of Kirkuk, since it is for the next parliament to create a new committee to finish constitutional revision (in which the settlement of Kirkuk is likely to come to the fore again). In that perspective, it does matter whether the representatives of Kirkuk favour to stay with the central government in Baghdad or instead want annexation by the Kurdish federal government.

The big question is, of course, when their position is in practice identical to that of the Kurds, why are these MPs so reluctant to press for a vote? If the problem consists only of a couple of local hardliners, what is all the fuss about? There could be two alternatives, one with no special status for Kirkuk and another involving a postponement of elections there, and if Kirkuk is so insignificant they would easily win! After all, in the past, ISCI and the Kurds had no qualms about trying to bulldoze their opposition, as seen in October 2006 during the vote on the federalism law (even if they barely managed to win the vote back then). And yet each time someone in the Iraqi parliament has pressed for a vote, ISCI has been at the forefront of the calls for more talks and more consensus, or they have not been present in the chamber at all. One just cannot help wondering whether for some this all has to do with the fact that an early vote would also produce an open list – a prospect about which many of the current parliamentarians are distinctly uneasy. Or is the reluctance there because these politicians know somewhere deep inside that many Iraqis are concerned about Kirkuk and therefore they do not want to have too much focus on their dealing and wheeling within the safe confines of parliament?

This paradox also puts the recent discovery of the alleged “loss” of the registers of voters for Kirkuk for 2004 (central to many of the compromise proposals so far) in a strange light. Yes, those registers have apparently been lost. Or so says the Iraqi elections commission (IHEC). Except that it adds – just to be on the safe side it seems –  that “even if the registers are found, they cannot be used”. Why? Because they were compiled by the United Nations and not by an Iraqi commission! That was the explanation offered by Qasim Hasan al-Abbudi of the IHEC. Abbudi, a high-ranking member of the commission, has an interesting background. His resume says he graduated from law school in Baghdad in the 1990s, but little detail is offered before he emerged as a judge in post-2003 Iraq. However, in 2008 additional information came to the fore as Sadrists accused him of strengthening the control of ISCI and the “Iranian security services” within the IHEC, among other things describing him as a past employee of Al-Alam, the Iranian television station. And so, while the proposal by Adil Abd al-Mahdi (another ISCI figure) to use the 2004 registers for a two-constituency system seemed genuinely creative when it emerged a week ago, its rejection one week later by the member of the IHEC that is closest to ISCI makes you wonder what is going on while the clock is ticking. By far the two most prominent IHEC persons in shooting down any attempt at introducing Kirkuk compromises in the election law have been ISCI’s friend Abbudi as well as Faraj al-Haydari, a former KDP politician.

Meanwhile, today, there are reports of another attempt by UNAMI to mediate, apparently without giving any consideration to the fresh proposals on constituency sub-division along administrative (not ethnic) lines that were contributed by Iraqis last week. As usual, there is no word from UNAMI itself about what it is doing, but if correctly reported by Iraqi television the latest proposal does involve a slight improvement of the previous position which was basically identical to that of the two Kurdish parties and therefore badly suited to reach out to the Iraqi nationalists. According to Al-Baghdadiya, the new scheme would mean establishing a quota guarantee for Arabs and Turkmens from Kirkuk; however these seats would belong not to the seats for Tamim proper but to the “compensatory” seats that are distributed at the end to enhance proportionality at the national level. Additionally there would be a one-year process of scrutinising the Kirkuk elections registers (the 2009 ones would be used in January 2010, despite objections by Iraqi nationalists, but the re-investigation would involve looking at older rolls of voters), followed by new elections for Tamim one year into the new parliament.

The new proposal seems weak in that caves in to the primitive ethno-sectarian logic that many Iraqis feel are undermining their whole nation. “Arabs” and “Turkmens” may get reserved seats, but what about those forces in Tamim that want to define themselves through civic forms of identity, like “Kirkuki” or “Iraqi”? Another problem is that key appointments to the next committee for constitutional review – to which the entire Kirkuk issue will be intimately connected – will likely take place before the foreshadowed one-year period has come to an end, thus probably producing representatives for Kirkuk whose legitimacy will be disputed. Despite these weaknesses however, this is at least some kind of compromise in the sense that it is so diluted that there can be no good reason for the Kurds to reject it whereas at the same time it satisfies the nationalist demand for a special status for the Tamim governorate, albeit a highly symbolic one.

The main problem now is whether Iraqi politicians really want to have a new election law.


Joint Patrols and Power-Sharing in Mosul: Unbalanced Proposals from the International Crisis Group

October 6, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Joint Patrols and Power-Sharing in Mosul: Unbalanced Proposals from the International Crisis Group

Posted by Reidar Visser on October 5, 2009


In the one corner, a steadily increasing group of Iraqi politicians of all sectarian backgrounds who reject the idea of joint patrols between the forces of the Iraqi central government, the Kurdish federal authorities and the United States in what the Kurds refer to as “disputed territories” in northern Iraq, including Nineveh. The latest addition to this camp is Abbas al-Bayati, a key ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his revamped State of Law coalition. In a statement to the press on 1 October, the day of the re-launch of the Maliki alliance, Bayati made his position on this crystal clear: the governorates of Kirkuk and Nineveh fall within the exclusive sovereignty of the central government, whose responsibility it is to protect the population of these areas with its security forces. In principle, according to Bayati, the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have no legitimate role; any exception to this rule must meet with the full consent of both the central government and the governorate authorities concerned.

In the other corner, there are, of course, the two biggest Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK. Less easy to explain in rational terms but perfectly predictable is the presence of Washington, represented through its commander in Iraq, Ray Odierno, who has apparently invested a degree of personal prestige in the idea of joint patrols and whose army is increasingly in search of some kind of mission that can define its raison d’être in Iraq. And then, something of a surprise: the International Crisis Group. In its latest report on Iraq, “Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa”, the ICG furnishes the most elaborate justification to date for the project of establishing joint patrols in the Nineveh governorate. Singling out the province as one of the potentially most dangerous in Iraq, the Crisis Group also makes recommendations for power-sharing in local government.

To find the ICG in this position is surprising because it has in the past produced a vast number of exceptionally well-researched, empirically based reports in Iraq, often with interesting policy proposals, including a much-quoted “oil for soil” scheme for Kirkuk, released in October 2008. Indeed, most of the analytical aspects of the most recent report seem to conform with the high standards of past ICG publications on Iraq. But some of the policy recommendations are troubling and distinctly less balanced than previous proposals by the group.

The first of these concerns the idea of joint patrols in what the Kurds refer to as “disputed territories” in northern Iraq. The ICG recommends the implementation of this mechanism, despite the fact that it is something that is supported by the Kurds whilst rejected by most other Iraqi politicians. Not only that, the ICG goes on to portray such patrols as somehow constituting a “compromise” position. This is where the logic becomes particularly hard to follow. The keystone of the argument reads as follows: “While Ninewa’s Arab leaders accuse the KRG of expansionist ambitions, one reason the Kurds rushed across the Green Line in 2003 was to protect Kurds displaced under Arabisation and to facilitate their return to their original homes and lands; the effort to incorporate these areas into the Kurdistan region came later (especially via Article 140 of the 2005 constitution).” The report then goes on to make an analytical distinction between Kurdish expansionism (allegedly this “came later”) and the supposedly more humanitarian and basic agenda of “protecting” Kurds living in Nineveh. The ICG separates “protection” from “territorial ambition”, and voila, Barzani is a great philanthropist!

Frankly, in this case, to assume that one aspect of the Kurdish presence can be excised with surgical precision from the other is a way of reasoning that cannot survive for long in the real world. Indeed, the ICG itself has produced a far more level-headed assessment of this problem in one of its earlier reports, writing last July (in “Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line”) that “the Kurds also claim these areas as majority-Kurdish and historically part of Kurdistan, and in reality their presence should be seen as a bid to reclaim them by establishing facts on the ground in advance of a law-based resolution of their status”. In other words, the distinction between “protection” and “expansionism” that forms the basis for the designation of the joint patrols as a “compromise” is in itself entirely artificial, and the ICG knows it. Just a quick glance at Kurdish maps issued long before 2003 should eliminate any doubt about this; they often include an extra “ethnic” line indicating areas claimed as belonging historically to Kurdistan.


Kurdish map from around 1998 showing areas of actual control and ethnic “borders”


In order to understand why Iraqis react so strongly to the joint patrols, it can be useful to revisit the legal basis for the controversy. In particular it is important to take note of how the singling out of areas as “disputed” ones so far has been an entirely unilateral process, controlled by the Kurds and sometimes with the support of the Americans, but never in any systematic dialogue with Baghdad. Thus, the only post-2003 definition of the extent of Kurdistan is that of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) of March 2004 which was also confirmed in the October 2005 constitution, where the federal region is defined as those areas that were administered by the Kurds “on 19 March 2003 in the governorates of Dahuk, Arbil, Sulaymaniya, Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh”, often defined with reference to the so-called “green line” that separated the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of the Baathist era from the central government. And guess what, there is of course an unspoken, logical corollary implicit in the TAL: Every square inch of land south of the green line is the exclusive sovereignty of Baghdad until progress has been made on the settlement of those “disputed territories” that are alluded to (but never defined) later in the document. True, Kurdish militias stormed over the Green Line in 2003, but their expansionism into these areas was coordinated only with the Americans and their continued presence there does not enjoy any legitimacy within the Iraqi constitutional framework.

 kurdistan2003 TAL

The Kurdish region as per the TAL, indicated in orange; areas with Kurdish population are in green



Areas of Kurdish expansion beyond the Kurdistan federal region since 2003, as indicated in the orange area of actual Kurdish control per 2009


Continue Reading Joint Patrols and Power-Sharing in Mosul: Unbalanced Proposals from the International Crisis Group…

Identity carved by Reidar Visser

September 10, 2009 at 11:36 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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ahmadinejad and maliki photo ahmad al rabaye afp

Photo Ahmad Al Rubaye AFP

Identity carved

Reidar Visser

September 10.2009

In an op-ed published in August, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius – whose work is often a bellwether of prevailing moods in Washington – expressed concern over his recent discovery that the government of Iraq was “desperately vulnerable to pressure, especially from neighbouring Iran”. Citing defected Iraqi security officials who believe that Iran secretly orchestrated the recent bombings in Baghdad to put pressure on Nouri al Maliki, Ignatius went on to suggest that Maliki was so firmly in the hands of the Iranians that “the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel”.

 There are good reasons to scrutinise the Iranian role in Iraq, but any serious discussion of Tehran’s influence must also acknowledge the ways that American actions have helped open the door for Iran, whether deliberately or not.

Paranoia about Iranian influence in Iraq has been a staple of American commentary since 2003. But it has produced a series of perplexing contradictions, since America has chosen to systematically empower and do business with exactly those Iraqi Shiite politicians who have particularly close ties to Tehran – a tendency seen at key junctures such as the formation of the Iraqi governing council in 2003 and the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution in 2005.


Ignatius himself, in fact, had sung the praises of one such pro-Iranian politician in an August 2005 column, where he waxed lyrical over Ammar al Hakim, the son of the late Abd al Aziz al Hakim and today the new leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Ignatius recognised that Hakim had certain connections to Iran, but did not hesitate in singling him out as “the Shiite card in the Iraqi poker game”. He went on to describe Hakim as a “remarkably articulate man, with the spark of curiosity in his eyes and a presence that we in the United States would call star quality”. Ignatius concluded by proposing a “strategic alliance between Najaf and Washington” to cement relations between the US and the Shiites of Iraq.

Today most analysts, including many in Washington, agree that emphasising sectarian identity – “playing the Shiite card”, in Ignatius’ terminology – is Iran’s preferred method for maximising its leverage in Iraq. For his part, after having been treated for three years by Washington as its special partner among Iraq’s Shiites, Ammar al Hakim is now playing a leading role in putting this Iranian strategy into operation: he is working to recreate a Shiite-dominated alliance for the next parliamentary elections, though this time with a veneer of Iraqi nationalism aimed at tapping into the anti-sectarian sentiment that seemed popular with voters in the local elections in January. Washington has now pinned its hopes on the idea that Maliki can resist Iranian pressure to join Hakim’s Shiite alliance by appealing to a national, nonsectarian agenda.

 But even if the United States now seems to recognise how an ethno-sectarian framework plays into Iran’s hands, specific American policies continue to bolster the sectarian status quo – thereby marginalising the very nonsectarian trends that are a declared American policy objective. One example is the proposal revealed last month by Ray Odierno, the top US general in Iraq, whereby the Americans, along with troops from the central Iraqi government and forces belonging to Kurdish federal authorities, will jointly police a string of territories in northern Iraq considered “disputed” by the Kurds (who want to annex them to the federal region of Kurdistan). The plan seems to reflect the latest anxiety among Washington think-tankers – that an Arab-Kurdish conflict over territory is the next potential Armageddon in Iraq. But while the Odierno plan may well originate from the best of intentions, its reception in Iraq suggests that it may be yet another nail in the coffin of Iraqi nationalism, and thereby also help consolidate Iranian interests in Iraq, albeit more indirectly.


In practice, the Odierno plan is helping isolate Maliki from the nationalist and secularist constituencies that he is now supposed to win over in order to be something more than just a Shiite strongman. In governorate after governorate in the affected areas, local politicians have rejected the Odierno scheme, portraying it as a dangerous recognition of land grabs by the Kurds (who, naturally, instantly embraced the plan), and a green light for the partition of Iraq. Importantly, these reactions represent a universal pattern across the Nineveh, Salahaddin and Tamim governorates, comprising Arabs, Turkmens, Christians, Shabak and even some Yazidis.

 These are mixed but Sunni-dominated areas where local politicians fully support the central Iraqi government, call for more Iraqi security forces and defend the 2005 constitution – precisely the sort of values Maliki should be looking for if he is sincere in his declared ambition to reach out beyond his own Shiite core constituency. But the politicians here also think that it would be far too extreme to embrace the Kurdish interpretation of what constitutes “disputed territories”. That term was deliberately left undefined in the 2005 constitution and the 2004 transitional administrative law (only Kirkuk was explicitly mentioned) and the Kurdish demands – which form a shopping list of both realistic and highly unrealistic irredenta, many of which rest on no serious historical foundation whatsoever – are only one side of the story. Other Iraqis believe many of these areas are not “disputed” at all, but they now fear that the Odierno scheme of joint patrols will effectively mean a recognition of the Kurdish view.


Where does Iran fit into this battlefield, which mostly straddles areas of northern Iraq where relatively few Shiites live? Twenty-five years ago, on October 10, 1984, in the middle of the Iran–Iraq War, a remarkable article appeared in the Liwa al-Sadr newspaper in Tehran. The newspaper was published by the party of the Hakim family, then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had been set up in Iran in an attempt by Khomeini to gain control of the Iraqi opposition. The article heaped praise on the Sunni Islamist movement of Falluja, which was commended for bravely resisting the secular regime of Saddam Hussein and upholding Islamic values – including a ban on alcohol. The article highlighted both the contribution of the Fallujans to the uprising against the British in 1920 as well as the refusal of these Sunni Islamists to serve in the ongoing war against Iran. Today, Iran’s main goal in Iraq still appears to be to prevent any resurgence of Iraqi nationalism: As long as it does not translate into irreconcilable extremism of the al Qa’eda variety, Tehran prefers the articulation of “Sunni” rather than “Iraqi” identity in the central and northern parts of the country. Provided that the overarching framework remains ethno-sectarian – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds sharing power – Iran will always enjoy the upper hand through its clients among the Shiite majority.

 Today Tehran is not only looking to strengthen the Shiite alliance and maintain its long-standing ties to the Kurds, but also to identify tacit partners among the Sunnis that are willing to play the role as defenders of “Sunni” (or, if need be, “tribal”) rather than “Iraqi” interests. So far, the potential partners that stand out are tribal groups in Anbar (one of these has already been enrolled in the new Shiite-led alliance), as well as the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), an Islamist group with historical roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In recent statements to the Iraqi press the IIP has openly appealed to specifically Sunni sentiments, saying they want the “Sunni Arab street” to vote as a unified bloc come election time. Crucially, while alliances between groups like these and Shiite parties will have the appearance of multi-sectarian lists, they will not seek to transcend ethno- sectarian identity. Rather they will cultivate sub-national identities, providing Iran with a permanent sectarian trump card that can always be played.


To the Iranian regime, the Iraqi situation would be problematic only if Shiite Islamists began participating in genuine cross-sectarian alliances with parties like the secular Iraqiyya, Hiwar, the Iraqi Constitutional Party, the Hadba movement in Mosul or the new, explicitly cross-sectarian party being formed by the Sunni former speaker of parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani and the Shiite Nadim al-Jabiri, formerly the leader of the Fadila party.


Forget about the conspiracy theories and the alleged Iranian crew of Maliki’s private jet: If the Iraqi premier signs up to the Odierno project and abandons his potential allies north of Baghdad, it will mean that he is boxed in more than ever before. The likelihood of him succeeding on his own as an Iraqi nationalist will diminish dramatically; instead, there will be stronger prospects of some kind of future alliance between the Kurds, the IIP (or any other Sunni sectarian party prepared to step in) and the Shiites (whether in two quasi-national blocs or as a single, overtly sectarian ticket).


The Americans, always worried about Maliki becoming too strong, constantly harassed by strong Kurdish lobbies in Washington, and with a fond weakness for several IIP leaders, will be very happy. So too will Tehran.

Reidar Visser is the editor of the Iraq website historiae.org, a member of the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo and a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.


Biden, US Policy in Iraq and the Concept of Muhasasa

July 6, 2009 at 8:10 pm | Posted in Turkmens | 1 Comment
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Biden, US Policy in Iraq and the Concept of Muhasasa

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

6 July 2009

On 27 February this year, President Barack Obama held one of the best speeches on Iraq delivered by a US senior official for a long time. Obama congratulated the Iraqis for having resisted the forces of partition, and while he noted the need for political reconciliation, he pretty much refrained from imposing his own interpretation of what the relevant problems were and how they should be solved. As such, the statement was in harmony with the better parts of his speech in Cairo in June, in which he went out of his way to make it clear that he had no intentions of framing America’s relationship with the Muslim world as a monologue where only the values of one side receive attention.

However, after the reappearance of Joe Biden on the Iraqi stage this weekend – this time as vice-president of the United States and special envoy charged with facilitating national reconciliation in Iraq – there is considerable danger that both the optimism among Iraqis from Obama’s first speech as well as the substantial progress towards a more mature form of politics seen during the January local elections may be reversed. Biden’s brief public remarks as well as those offered by high-level US officials in conjunction with the visit all suggest that while Iraq itself may be maturing, US policy in Iraq is not. Conceptually, Washington seems stuck in language dating from 2007, and it consistently adheres to a public discourse on Iraq that features old and stale categories of analysis. At worst, the choice of words by US leaders could help resuscitate the very sectarian forces that are cited by Washington as its main concern.

Continue Reading Biden, US Policy in Iraq and the Concept of Muhasasa…

The First Licensing Round Gets off the Ground: The Politics of Oil in Iraq

June 28, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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The First Licensing Round Gets off the Ground: The Politics of Oil in Iraq

 South Oil Company

The South Oil Company (SOC) in Basra has become the point of gravity for both nationalist and regionalist opposition to the first licensing round


 By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
28 June 2009


On 29 and 30 June, major international oil companies are expected in Baghdad for the “first licensing round”, where they will submit bids for 20-year technical service contracts for some of Iraq’s biggest existing oil fields (including West Qurna, Rumaila and Zubair in the Basra area, as well as Kirkuk and Bai Hassan in Tamim governorate) and gas fields in Diyala and Anbar. The awards will be announced shortly after the IOCs have presented their bids.

The awards procedure itself has been designed to be an auction that can be immune against the criticism about corruption and lack of transparency that often accompany no-bid contracts. The oil majors participating have been prequalified and will submit bids indicating simply what sort of rise in production levels they can offer and at what price per barrel. The Iraqis will then, on the bases of purely mathematical criteria, identify those companies that present the best bids. In isolation, at least, it looks good: The IOCs will compete on few and readily-understandable variables directly related to price and output; Iraq will select those IOCs that can provide the best services for Iraq.

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OPINION: Disputed Territories in Iraq: The Practical Argument against Self-Determination in Kerkuk

May 26, 2009 at 12:03 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Disputed Territories in Iraq: The Practical Argument against Self-Determination in Kirkuk

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
25 May 2009

If history should provide the guidelines, it would be relatively easy to prescribe a solution to what is frequently seen as one of the most “complicated” issues in current Iraqi politics: The status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. A variety of different historical sources prior to 1957 and dating back several centuries unequivocally designate Kirkuk as a town dominated demographically by Turkmens, who for their part were famous throughout the Iraqi region from Basra to Mosul for their leading role in the Ottoman and later Iraqi administrations. Traditionally, the Kurds in this area, whose relationships with the Ottomans and later the Iraqi government in Baghdad were far more tenuous, had their strongest presence in the rural hinterland outside Kirkuk. Accordingly, any attempt to sever the longstanding ties between Baghdad and the city of Kirkuk itself on the basis of two waves of Kurdish immigration to the city itself in the late 1960s and since 2003 would be ahistorical in the extreme, and not incomparable to, say, a Scottish bid to annex selected slices of Northumbria in the north of England.
In the early twentieth century, many observers saw the north of Iraq as consisting of towns dominated by Turkmens (and sometimes Christians), and a countryside where the Kurds were often in the majority, as in this account in an article from the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society from 1937, where it is even claimed that Arbil maintained a certain Turkmen character (most observers agree that Arbil was Kurdified much earlier than Kirkuk).

However, today’s Iraq presents a confusing situation, and many commentators reject the validity of any attempt to use ancient history as a determinant for tomorrow’s political maps. To them, what matters is the current situation on the ground. In particular, many advocate a solution based on self-determination, mostly in the shape of some kind of decisive referendum – a solution which reportedly features in all four scenarios for Kirkuk presented in a recent (but as of yet unpublished) report on Iraq’s “disputed territories” by UNAMI, the primary ÙN political agency in Iraq. Despite considerable attempts by the Baathist regime to gerrymander the population balance in Kirkuk to the disadvantage of the Kurds towards the end of the twentieth century, it is expected that the mass influx of Kurdish migrants to the city of Kirkuk in the late 1960s and early 1970s plus additional immigration since 2003 (when Kurdish militias acquired control of the city and encouraged Kurds to settle there) mean that a there might be vote in favour of annexation by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) if a referendum were to be carried out under present circumstances.

But in addition to the historical argument against this kind of outcome, two very practical considerations also militate against any use of the self-determination principle in Kirkuk. The first has to do with lessons from the recent history from the 1960s and 1970s, and the way in which the very idea of using plebiscites or censuses for determining the borders of Kurdistan became the focus of attention of the autonomy negotiations between the Baathist regime and Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the main Kurdish leader at the time. Towards the end of those negotiations, Barzani introduced claims for the annexation of a host of territories (such as Kirkuk) where the Kurdish population element was thin or only recently-established; the Baathists accordingly sought refuge in the principle of ethnic demography as a determinant for the allocation of territory. This formed the background to the 1970 peace agreement, where Baghdad confidently agreed to autonomy for all areas with a “Kurdish majority”, believing it would be restricted to the governorates of Sulaymaniyya, Arbil and the newly-constituted Dahuk (which had been separated from Mosul as a concession to Kurdish demands). But the recourse to demography also constituted the beginning of the end of the peace agreement. The promised census never materialised (first both sides agreed to a postponement, later Baghdad put it off unilaterally), and the Kurds refused to use the previous censuses of 1965 and 1957 as a basis (knowing they would show no Kurdish majority in Kirkuk). Then followed a dirty game in which both sides appear to have applied unscrupulous methods to secure an outcome in their own favour. The Kurds accused the Baathist regime of flooding Kirkuk and its neighbouring areas with Arabs in order to neutralise growing Kurdish demographic weight, whereas the central government suspected that Barzani and his allies were importing Iranian Kurds to settle them near Kirkuk. It seems likely that misdeeds were committed on both sides, and the regime’s decision to expel tens of thousands of Fayli Kurds (indigenous to Iraq but many of their forefathers held Persian passports in Ottoman times in order to avoid conscription) represents a particularly brutal aspect of the developments.

All of this escalation and human suffering was the singular result of the promise that “demographic realities” would be used to demarcate the boundaries of Kurdistan. It does not require much fantasy to imagine that something similar could take place in the future if “self determination” were employed as the main criterion for settling the current dispute. In fact, to some extent, this has already happened. Since 2003, Kurdish authorities have been accused of bringing in huge numbers of Kurds in and around Kirkuk in order to bolster their own claim to the city. With tendencies of growing assertiveness by the Iraqi central government since 2008, a counter-campaign focused on beachheads among their potential allies – particularly the non-Kurdish population elements of Kirkuk such as the Turkmens, the Arabs and the Christians – seems perfectly possible. In other words, any promise of “self determination” along the lines of what UNAMI is now apparently considering would almost inevitably set off a violent tit for tat process which could easily surpass the 1970s and the immediate post-2003 period in intensity and violence. What the international community needs to realise today is that “self determination” in Kirkuk has become completely meaningless as an exercise of democracy because so much gerrymandering and dirty tricks have already been brought to bear on the situation. Essentially, in Kirkuk the slogan of “self determination” is like a greasy old rag that will never become clean and dry again, no matter how many times it is washed.

There is also a second practical argument against any application of self determination in Kirkuk: The likely domino effect in the rest of Iraq. This represents a danger because the concept of “disputed territories” was never defined at the time of its fateful insertion in the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) in March 2004, from where it was transplanted into the 2005 constitution. Hence, in theory, today, any politician anywhere in Iraq can invent a case of a “disputed area” for whatever piece of land he or she might wish to politicise. Thankfully, so far, few other than the Kurds have been keen to exploit this option (the Kurds have declared targets of expansion along the entire current border of the KRG), with most other Iraqi politicians seemingly holding on to the existing framework – perhaps even more so after the spectacular failures of recent initiatives to create federal regions south of Kurdistan, whether in Basra (where a formal initiative was launched last December), or in all the Shiite-majority areas south of Baghdad (where the scheme hardly progressed beyond the drawing-board level). But, for a considerable time, a small group of Iraqi Shiite politicians have been interested in projecting the same concept of territorial conflict on governorates south of Baghdad. As early as in 2005, just weeks before the launch of the project by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) to create an all-Shiite federal region of nine governorates south of Baghdad, press reports suggested that Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim had voiced an interest in redrawing the boundaries of the Karbala governorate so that it would also comprise the desert area of Nukhayb, presently a part of Anbar. And since April this year, other Shiite-oriented politicians – ranging from the Maliki-supported new governor of Karbala to Ahmad Chalabi – have joined a growing chorus of leaders calling for changes to Karbala’s border. Nukhayb is wanted by Karbala politicians not for its ties to Shiism – most of its tribes are Sunnis – but because of its strategic location on the road to Saudi Arabia, where many Iraqi pilgrims have been killed by terrorists in the past.

Map of Western Iraq late 1960  Reidar Visser

Map of Western Iraq from the late 1960s showing Nukhayb in the province of Ramadi (Anbar). The governorates of Najaf and Muthanna did not exist back then

The case of Nukhayb illustrates the serious problems of exporting the notion of “disputed territories” to the rest of Iraq. During the monarchy area, boundary delineation in the desert areas was approximate at best, and a 1957 map of Iraq, for example, shows lines in the sand extending from the river areas of the Euphrates towards the west, but stopping shortly after Bahr al-Milh and thus leaving the jurisdiction of the rest of the vast territory between Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the imagination. The exact subsequent development remains a matter of dispute, but certainly government maps from the late 1960s showed Nukhayb firmly within what was then called Ramadi province and today is Anbar. Importantly, at this stage, a number of other administrative changes – only some of which are currently considered as “disputed” by the proponents of the concept – had yet to be made. For example, there was no Dahuk province (the area was part of Mosul and was only detached to form a separate governorate after the peace treaty with the Kurds in 1970). Also, the governorates of Najaf and Muthanna did not exist (they were carved out from Karbala and Diwaniyya/Nasiriyya later on). Hence, if the Baath era is to serve as basis for some kind of status quo ante logic, it will be exceedingly hard to pinpoint exactly when the “original sin” of the former regime took place. In other words, the consistency and the assumed objectivity of the whole process disintegrate entirely as soon as a pick and choose approach is applied.

Nevertheless, for politicians willing to fish in these waters, there are certainly plenty of options. Already, there is talk about other potentially “disputed areas” between Baghdad and Salahaddin, Baghdad and Babel, Babel and Anbar, and Karbala and Babel. Initial reactions to the emergence of Nukhayb as an issue suggest that some of these conflicts may well contribute to renewed sectarian polarisation, with the Sunni-dominated parties of Anbar – from the sahwa to the Iraqi Islamic Party – mobilising against any idea of redrawing the borders (and accusing the protagonists of the Karbala claim of disguising their real goal of annexing areas potentially rich in oil and gas in the proximity of Nukhayb). A promising sign, though, is that so far much of the opposition has actually been framed in national terms, with outspoken aversion against petty quarrelling over borders between inhabitants of areas that all consider themselves Iraqis first and foremost.

In sum, then, a good solution for Kirkuk should seek to bring an end to the logic of “disputed territories” instead of proliferating it. Rather than pursuing a maximalist demand that is dangerous to Kirkuk as an urban community and to Iraq as a society of coexistence, Kurdish politicians should try to envisage the potential value of alternative incentives, of which quite a few have been proposed. Liam Anderson has suggested using as a model the case of the Åland Islands from the post–World War One settlement, where the autonomy of the Swedish-speaking archipelago west of Finland had its autonomy guaranteed by the international community, in a robust “autonomy plus” arrangement that should be of interest to Kurds (whose main concern during the twentieth century, after all, has been distrust of Baghdad). Internationally-guaranteed autonomy for the areas the Kurds currently control would offer them assurances of non-interference that are stronger than the 2005 constitution, and could be a good reason to reverse their maximalist approach to Kirkuk. Similarly, the International Crisis Group has come up with a proposal that would give the Kurds other advantages in return for giving up their claims to Kirkuk: “Oil for Soil”, or an arrangement whereby Kurdistan is given the exclusive control of oilfields within Kurdistan proper (which, again, they would not be able to achieve under the 2005 constitution), but would at the same time withdraw the demand for the inclusion of Kirkuk in Kurdistan. As for the Kurds of Kirkuk, an emerging “Kirkuk first” attitude can already be found among some of them, and this could be promoted further. In an interesting development, Kurdish politicians in Kirkuk recently emulated Basra regionalists in calling for a “half dollar per barrel of exported oil” to be set aside in a local development fund – the kind of negotiable, “soft” federalism that would be relatively easy to integrate within a unitary state structure.

Finally, a one-off territorial compromise at the elite level could be used to round off these negotiations (this is also an integral part of the suggestions by both Anderson and the ICG). The best solution for Iraq would of course have been if the troublesome “disputed territories” concept had never entered the TAL in the first place – it would in fact have been perfectly possible to deal with the issues of forced resettlement during the Baathist era on a family by family, property by property basis, without any resort to the abstract and problematic concept of ethnicity that is implied in the “disputed territories” nomenclature. Nevertheless, expectations of some kind of territorial settlement are now very strong in the Kurdish camp, and could be difficult to reverse. Equally important, to some extent it should be possible to achieve this without deviating very much from past attempts at compromise. In the 1970s, the regime was for example prepared to cede Kurdish-dominated areas near Kirkuk such as Chamchamal and Kalar for the sake of peace. In general, from the point of view of history, the idea of the sacrosanctity of the territorial integrity of the Tamim governorate – reportedly another cornerstone of UNAMI’s report – is less readily understandable than the principle that Kirkuk, the city, should stay within the unitary-state framework of Iraq under any circumstances. In that kind of perspective, it could make sense that certain rural parts of the Tamim governorate in the future should gravitate towards the autonomous KRG. At any rate, whatever course of action is chosen, a grand compromise for the north of Iraq should be done as a one-off affair at the elite level. The inhabitants of the area have already suffered enough and should not have their lives destroyed by serving as pawns in a long-winded, fictitious process of “self determination”.



Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit-Verlag, 2005), the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq. Many of his writings on questions of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation in southern Iraq are available at his website, historiae.org.09

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