Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Battle Lines Drawn With Baghdad

Disputes no nearer resolution after ground-breaking Kurdish election.
By IWPR-trained reporters
Iraqi Kurdistan’s landmark election in July is unlikely to ease the deadlock in its tense dispute with Baghdad over territory and resources, politicians and analysts say.

The election gave Change, a new grouping, nearly a quarter of the seats in the semi-autonomous region’s parliament, cutting into the majority of the dominant two-party coalition.

Campaigning focused on local issues such as corruption and development, providing little insight into whether the opposition will offer a fresh perspective on the differences with the central government of Iraq.

The Kurdish government, based in the city of Erbil, has clashed with Baghdad over its plan to expand the land under its control and manage the oil reserves on it. Baghdad wants to curb the Kurds’ autonomy.

US defence secretary Robert Gates visited Iraq after the Kurdish election and highlighted the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds as the single biggest threat to the country’s stability.

Days later, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki travelled to Kurdistan and met senior leaders, including the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, and the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. The men agreed to create committees to address disputes that have grown increasingly ominous as Iraq’s other conflicts have subsided.

Iraqi Arab politicians welcomed the arrival of a robust internal opposition in the Kurdish election but few were optimistic that it would of itself solve the dispute.

“The Kurdish opposition is no different to the ruling parties when it comes to the dispute with the central government,” said Qais al-Ameri, a member of parliament from a Shia bloc that includes Maliki’s Dawa party.

Ali al-Alaak, a lawmaker and senior Dawa official, said Kurdish representatives in the Iraqi parliament were unlikely to change their policy on key issues.

But, he said, he hoped “the emergence of new lists will contribute to the diversity of views in the Kurdish parliament” and push Kurdish leaders towards compromise.

While accusing the Kurdish leadership of prolonging the dispute, Change has adopted a less belligerent tone towards Baghdad, emphasising the need for dialogue among ethnic rivals.

On the key issues however, Change echoes the Kurdish mainstream parties by deferring to the 2005 Iraqi federal constitution, which it says supports Erbil’s claims to land and oil.

With Iraqi parliamentary elections due in January next year, neither Kurdish nor Arab politicians are expected to jeopardise their support by making major moves in this sensitive dispute.

Though criticising the Kurds may be popular on the Arab street, it can be politically imprudent for Iraqi parties looking for parliamentary allies. Kurds are considered a key Iraqi constituency, making up about 20 per cent of the country’s population.

Several senior Baghdad politicians declined to comment on the Kurdish election, saying to do so might imperil future efforts to build a coalition with the Kurds.

Change says it plans to contest seats in the Baghdad parliament. Another runner-up in the Kurdish polls, the Islamist-leftist Service and Reform list, says it may do the same.

Several Arab politicians suggested the smaller Kurdish lists could perform well in Iraqi parliamentary elections in January – particularly if they allied with Iraqi parties.

Ahmad al-Masudi, a spokesman for a bloc loyal to the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said ordinary Kurds were turning away from their main parties as they had begun to rethink their stance on several key issues.

“Kurdish leaders need to heed the opinion of the people on the street,” Masudi said, adding that the region’s government may now pursue a more “realistic” policy with Baghdad.

Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab deputy with the Iraqiya list, said smaller Kurdish groups could find allies among Arab parties in the parliamentary elections if they changed tack.

He said lists such as Change should follow a policy “based on national rather than regional or provincial causes”. Nujaifi has frequently accused the Kurds of encroaching on Arab land and rights in his native Nineveh province.

Kurdish leaders across the political spectrum support strengthening their region’s autonomy. In Baghdad, their unity has secured vital ministries and the presidency.

The smaller lists that performed well in the latest polls could be accused of diluting Kurdish authority in Baghdad if they chose to run independently in the parliamentary election.

Mahmud Othman, an independent Kurdish deputy in Baghdad, advised all Kurdish groups to run as a single list in the parliamentary election. “They will be able to have a clear programme to defend the rights of the Kurds,” he said.

The Change list and Service and Reform deny they will harm the Kurdish cause if they compete separately in January.

“We will not split the Kurdish vote,” said senior Change official Mohammed Tofiq. Should it win seats in the Iraqi parliament, he said Change could still form part of a united Kurdish bloc.

Tofiq says his group has not considered any alliances with other Iraqi parties.

The dispute with Baghdad arouses intense passions among Kurds who still remember Saddam Hussein’s genocidal assaults. If the smaller lists do seek allies outside the region, they are unlikely to opt for parties that oppose the Kurdish cause.

The secular-minded leaders of Change may have particular trouble finding partners for the parliamentary election from Arab Iraq’s fractious, intensely sectarian political scene.

Abdulsattar Jabr, a Baghdad-based analyst, said Change is a uniquely Kurdish phenomenon – a product of the region’s monolithic politics.

“Change can be defined as a breakaway list whose leaders stood up to the parent party,” Jabr said. Change’s top officials are former members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party that has dominated Kurdish politics for decades and is half of the governing coalition.

“No political entity can emerge in Iraq that would be akin to Change ... We do not have a single party that is completely dominant in Baghdad,” Jabr said.

Hadi Jalo Marai, a Baghdad-based commentator, said smaller Kurdish lists such as Change would struggle to make a bigger impact in the Iraqi parliamentary election than they had done in the recent regional one.

He added that relations between Baghdad and the Kurds would not be affected by the latest Kurdish election. “The ruling parties still dominate the region’s media and military forces,” Marai said.

Zaineb Mohammed, a civil servant from the Shaab district in Baghdad, said she had not followed the election in Kurdistan.

“We have enough to worry about here. Those that we elected have done nothing for us,” she said.

She added that the indifference was mutual. “I don’t think the Kurds are concerned with the rest of Iraq. They have their own flag, their own army and now they’re talking of borders. They want to secede from us.”

IWPR-trained journalist Faleh Hassan reported this story from Baghdad. IWPR-trained reporter Basim al-Shara and IWPR Iraq editor Neil Arun contributed to this report from Baghdad and Erbil.

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