Friday, March 8, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #10: Tensions on the border and in parliament

March 8, 2013

By Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali

Escalation in cross-border violence this week is the most serious since the Syrian uprising began two years ago, and in particular the ambush of Syrian soldiers returning after seeking refuge in Iraq further threatens to accentuate tensions between the Iraqi government and anti-Assad forces. In domestic politics, the recent budget vote in the face of a boycott by most other political parties has demonstrated the willingness of the National Alliance to use its parliamentary majority to work without the input of other parties. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to favor a going-it-alone strategy, with the establishment of a new military command without consulting local leaders in Anbar, Ninewa, or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).         

Syrian conflict spills over into Iraq

A series of incidents along the border between Iraq and Syria this week heightened concerns that the Syrian conflict may be bleeding into Iraq. On February 28, four mortar shells fired from Syrian territory landed on the Iraqi side of the Yaarabiya-Rabia border crossing in Ninewa province [Map Point 1]. They were followed on March 1 by a Scud missile, also fired from Syria, which landed near the village of Yos Tapa [Map Point 2]. Then, following three days of fighting with Syrian regime forces, Syrian rebels seized control of half of the border town of Yaarabiya on March 2. Iraqi forces fired warning shots to prevent the fighting from reaching the border post, but residents of Rabia reportedly were forced to flee after shells landed on the Iraqi side of the border.  On March 5, Syrian rebels were reported to have looted Yaarabiya, requesting that Iraqi forces not enter the area. A source at Sinjar hospital subsequently stated that six Iraqi soldiers had been killed during clashes with Syrian rebels along the border between Rabia and Baaj [Map Point 3].

The Iraqi government ordered the army to close the Rabia border post on March 3 “because of the Syrian government’s lack of control over the other side of the post.” By this point, however, a number of Syrian regime soldiers had fled into Iraq to escape the fighting at Yaarabiya. According to the Iraqi government, the soldiers had been transferred to Baghdad for medical treatment and were being escorted to the Al Walid-At Tanf border crossing in Anbar province when they were ambushed at Akashat [Map Point 4]. 48 Syrians and 9 Iraqis were reported killed.

The escalation in cross-border violence is the most serious since the Syrian uprising began two years ago. Since the uprising’s beginning, segments of the Iraqi public -- particularly its Shi’a majority -- and officials have expressed fears about a post-Assad Syria including the possibility that it could renew an Iraqi civil war. The week’s events, coupled with anti-Iraqi government statements from FSA commanders, will further accentuate tensions between the Iraqi government and anti-Assad forces.              

Budget vote raises fears of majority government

The Iraqi parliament voted on March 7 to pass the 2013 federal budget law after five months of failed attempts. 168 MPs were present at the vote, just passing the quorum level of 163. The vote was boycotted by members of the Kurdistan Alliance and half of Iraqiyya’s MPs, but passed with support for Maliki’s State of Law Coalition from the Sadrists. The 17 percent allocation of the federal budget to the KRG was retained, but with a number of conditions that in practice will lessen this allocation considerably. Reports indicate that the Kurds did comparatively well out of the vote in some senses: a motion to decrease the KRG’s allocation to 13 percent was defeated, and the budget makes provisions for payments in advance to the Kurdish Peshmerga Ministry. However, Kurdish demands for an additional $3.5 billion for payments to oil companies working in the Kurdistan region were rejected, with the vote restricting these payments to $645 million. 

The Kurdistan Alliance’s immediate responses were to threaten an appeal to the Federal Supreme Court (FSC) and to cease oil exports. With Maliki ally Medhat al-Mahmoud returned to his position at the head of the FSC, an appeal is unlikely to benefit the Kurds. A refusal to export oil via Baghdad, moreover, will almost certainly prompt the federal government to refuse to make the payments earmarked for oil companies working in the Kurdistan region. Companies working in Kurdistan already will be aware of the legal and economic ambiguities surrounding the issue; the hardening of the Baghdad-Erbil dispute, however, may cause some companies to reconsider their positions in the long term.

The vote provides further evidence of recent developments with serious implications for Iraqi politics. Firstly, Iraqiyya once more demonstrated its internal divisions over the budget vote, with Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak reportedly leading a group of Iraqiyya MPs into parliament to ensure quorum for the vote. Mutlak’s pro-Maliki stance was so evident that even Sadrist MP Awad al-Awadi commented publicly, noting that Maliki was using Mutlak to “dissolve” Iraqiyya. Iraqiyya MP Jaber al-Jaberi, who boycotted the budget vote, argued meanwhile that voting without the Kurds meant that parliament had “laid the foundation stone in the project of dividing Iraq”. Given Mutlak’s previous inconsistencies regarding accommodation with Maliki, and given that Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi does not appear to have intervened to prevent the budget from being passed despite his high-profile opposition to Maliki, Iraqiyya’s stance on the budget remains somewhat unclear. Nujaifi may have allowed the budget vote to come to the floor knowing that a defeat for the Kurds would play well with his Sunni Arab base in Ninewa.

The Sadrist’s support for the budget law, moreover, confirms their willingness to side with Maliki, particularly against the Kurds, whose demands they have opposed as inflated and “unjust.” The Sadrists in recent weeks have abandoned the pretense of supporting anti-government protests in predominantly Sunni areas; accepted acting control of the Finance Ministry at Maliki’s request; and made a deal with the premier over control of the Accountability and Justice Commission. Although the Sadrists continue to position themselves to compete with Maliki at the provincial level, they appear increasingly reliable as members of the Shi’a National Alliance at the national level. Evidently highlighting this trend, State of Law Coalition MP Abd al-Salam al-Maliki stated on March 8 that the experience of passing the budget law in the face of Kurdish and Iraqiyya opposition had only encouraged the National Alliance to work as a parliamentary majority in the future as a precursor to forming a majority government. Such a development threatens to shut Sunni Arabs and Kurds not willing to work with the Maliki government out of government entirely, with serious implications for their continued willingness to engage in the political process.

Agriculture Minister resigns as ‘Last Chance Friday’ turns violent in Mosul

Anti-government protesters staged “Last Chance Friday” on March 8, with large protests in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul, and smaller protests in Samarra, Baiji, Tikrit, and Dur. Isolated protests also took place in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Athamiyah and Ghazaliyah. 

Violence returned to the Mosul protests for the first time since early January, when security forces fired on and wounded four demonstrators in the center of the city. On March 8, one of the Mosul protest organizers, Hussein al-Obeid al-Jubouri, was arrested, reportedly by federal police, on charges of belonging to the insurgent group Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). In response to the arrest, demonstrators were reported to have thrown stones at police units in central Mosul. The police responded by opening fire on the protesters, killing three demonstrators and injuring four. Federal police commander Mahdi al-Gharawi subsequently insisted that local anti-riot police, and not federal police, had opened fire. Seeking to prevent further clashes, security forces quickly imposed a curfew on eastern Mosul.

The shootings were immediately condemned by senior politicians from Ninewa province, particularly Speaker Nujaifi, who immediately announced the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the killings. At the same press conference, Izz al-Din al-Dawla, a member of Nujaifi’s Iraqiyoun party within the Iraqiyya coalition, announced his resignation as Agriculture Minister in protest at the shooting, saying that “those who had sent him to Baghdad were today shedding blood.” Dawla lashed out at the Maliki government, criticizing it for failing to meet protesters’ demands.

Dawla’s resignation leaves Iraqiyya with control of only four ministries, and further emphasizes the internal divisions within the bloc. Increasingly, Iraqiyya appears split between a faction led by Saleh al-Mutlak and including Jamal al-Karbouli’s al-Hal party, which favors collaboration with Maliki; and a faction led by recently resigned Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi and supported by Speaker Nujaifi, which opposes participation in government. Two of the remaining ministers – Education Minister Mohammed al-Tamim of Mutlak’s Hiwar party and Industry Minister Ahmed al-Karbouli of al-Hal – belong to the faction closer to Maliki, while Science and Technology Minister Abd al-Karim al-Samarrai of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s Tajdeed party is thought to oppose cabinet participation, and Minister of State for Provincial Affairs and Acting Communications Minister Turhan Mufti’s National Turkmen Front is allied with Nujaifi and Issawi for the upcoming provincial elections. Should the demands of anti-government protesters grow in response to the latest confrontation, Iraqiyya will be placed in an even more difficult situation. As with Issawi’s resignation last week, moreover, an open cabinet position grants Maliki with yet another opportunity to install an ally and move closer to majority government.

New Operations Command Raises Tensions

In developments reminiscent of the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command in July 2012, Maliki’s decision to set up a new operations command to encompass Anbar and Ninewa provinces has raised tensions in the area. The formation of the Al-Jazeera and Al-Badia Operations Command (JBOC) first came to light after the Ministry of Defense announced it had carried out an operation on February 16, 2013 in the Syria-adjacent al-Qaim area in Anbar province. The JBOC is reportedly commanded by General Hassan Karim Khdheir, who had previously headed the Ninewa Operations Command. Iraqi officials and press reports indicate that the JBOC will be tasked with securing and protecting the Iraqi-Syrian and Iraqi-Jordanian borders encompassing both provinces. The JBOC becomes the tenth operations command established by Prime Minister Maliki.      

The formation of the JBOC has been met with strong opposition by local Ninewa and Anbar officials, who described the step as “illegal,” and by the KRG, with all pointing out that it was formed without their consultation. On March 5, a JBOC contingent attempted to deploy to Sinjar district in western Ninewa and establish a headquarters, but were blocked by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. KRG officials viewed the move as a violation of agreements between Baghdad and Erbil on security forces deployments in areas with disputed internal boundaries. The following day witnessed a demonstration by locals rejecting the opening of a JBOC headquarters in the area. The JBOC forces subsequently withdrew, but reports indicate that on March 7 they blocked a road that connects Sinjar with Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.       

The presence of the JBOC may be the result of Maliki’s apprehension that the current security forces in Anbar and Ninewa are not able to adequately protect the border. This has recently become a bigger concern as the violence in Syria has extended into Iraq. Furthermore, the appointment of General Khdheir indicates Maliki’s desire to entrust security responsibilities with commanders known to him. Khdheir’s appointment may have a political dimension as well, given his past contentious relations with the Iraqi Kurds. Past tensions between the KRG security forces and the current public discontent in Anbar and Ninewa suggest that the JBOC’s role will likely continue to cause controversy as the provincial elections approach.