Friday, March 1, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #9: Issawi resignation presents opportunities to Maliki

March 1, 2013

By Stephen Wicken

Whether Sunni will continue to participate in the government of Iraq remains crucial to the outcome of the country’s ongoing political crisis. Leading Sunni politician Rafia al-Issawi announced on March 1 that he has resigned as Finance Minister, days after Electricity Minister Karim Aftan al-Jumaili departed Iraqiyya following a dispute over the coalition’s cabinet boycott. These developments further marginalize Iraqiyya, expose deeper political divisions within the coalition, and have exacerbated fractures among the Sunni population at large. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now has an opportunity either to split the Sunni further by reaching out to those who advocate participation in government, or to appoint political allies to fill the ministerial positions of Iraqiyya members who continue their boycott. Either move would further reduce meaningful Sunni participation in government and move Iraq closer to majoritarian rule.

Government participation question splits Sunnis

Leading Iraqiyya figure Rafia al-Issawi announced his resignation as Finance Minister at an anti-government protest in Ramadi on March 1. In a blistering speech, Issawi toldthe protesters that he had chosento side with ‘his people’ rather than remain part of a Maliki government that had rejected “any principle of partnership”. It was Maliki’s moveagainst Issawi in December 2012 that spurred the wave of anti-government protests that have gone on in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni provinces for 10 weeks. A native Anbari, Issawi has been the Sunni politician on the national stage closest to the protest movement, appearing at the largest protests in Anbar to great reception. Issawi’s resignation is likely a move to bolster his profile further ahead of the upcoming provincial elections, although having left office he remains vulnerable to prosecution of the type that Maliki pursued against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in 2012. Following Issawi’s speech, al-Iraqiyah state television quoted Maliki as sayingthat he would not accept Issawi’s resignation until an investigation into “financial and administrative irregularities” had been concluded. It is unclear whether this ‘investigation’ is related to rumorsthat an arrest warrant would be issued against Issawi and Iraqiyya MP Salman al-Jumaili on charges of inciting terrorism. Maliki ally Hanan al-Fatlawi claimedon March 1 that Issawi was resigning in order to return to parliament and regain parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Maliki’s statement may therefore constitute a threat against Issawi, encouraging the latter to discontinue his high-profile criticism of the premier.

Issawi’s public resignation as Finance Minister is a symbolic move: Issawi was in fact replacedin early February by Sadrist Planning Minister Ali al-Shukri on an acting basis. Issawi’s statement that there was no “honor” in taking part in a “sectarian government”, however, was an implicit criticism of Electricity Minister Karim Aftan al-Jumaili, whom Iraqiyya publicly expelledon February 27 after he brokethe coalition’s boycott of cabinet meetings. Aftan justifiedhis decision to return to work by insisting that he is a technocrat and not a political candidate, suggesting that he is likely to continue as an independent rather than join another political bloc: his official biography states that he “does not belong to any political orientation.” His return to the cabinet, however, has further exposed the bloc’s internal divisions and the disagreement within the Sunni Arab community over involvement in government and the political process. Only a day after Aftan’s departure, Iraqiyya MP Talal al-Zobaie criticized the boycott policy, claimingthat it had not been approved by a majority of Iraqiyya members, and he called the list an “inharmonious mixture”. Meanwhile, Rafia al-Jumaili, a representative of Aftan’s tribe, criticizedAftan’s return to government, saying that the tribe “condemns and deplores” the move.

The loss of another ministerial portfolio further marginalizes Iraqiyya within the government and further exposes the bloc’s internal divisions. Today, Iraqiyya retains only five ministerial positions: Education Minister Mohammed al-Tamim, of Saleh al-Mutlak’s Hiwar party; Industry Minister Ahmed al-Karbouli, of al-Hal; Agriculture Minister Izz al-Din al-Dawla of Osama al-Nujaifi’s Iraqiyoun; Water Resources Minister Muhanad al-Sa’idi; and Science and Technology Minister Abd al-Karim al-Samarrai of Hashemi’s Tajdeed party. A source within Maliki’s State of Law Coalition claimedon February 28 that all but Issawi and Samarrai were expected to return to cabinet meetings soon. On March 1, however, Iraqi Awakening Conference leader Ahmed Abu Risha claimedthat Issawi’s resignation would soon be followed by those of other Iraqiyya ministers. However, Abu Risha, who had signed up to Issawi and Nujaifi’s ‘Uniters’ coalition for the provincial elections, himself faced a leadership challengethis week, and may have been sidelined within the Awakening movement.

The question of involvement in government threatens to divide Iraqiyya and the Sunni population it was elected to represent. Iraqiyya’s failure to present a united front on the question of governmental participation threatens further to diminish Iraqiyya’s relevance in Iraqi politics at a time when it is already under pressure from State of Law, other political blocs, and its own Sunni constituency. It also raises the question of Maliki’s response. Maliki statedon January 24 that Iraqiyya ministers boycotting cabinet sessions would be placed on “compulsory leave” and replaced with other Iraqiyya members. It is possible that Maliki will now seek out more pliant members of Iraqiyya in order further to split the bloc. In Issawi’s case, however, Maliki appears to have struck a dealwith the Sadrists to give them the Finance Ministry. Should Maliki repeat this step, installing National Alliance members in the place of Iraqiyya’s few remaining ministers, he would complete Shi’a dominance of Iraq’s government.

Deepening budget impasse presents opportunity to Sadrists

While the prospect of more ministries and greater access to power and resources would no doubt be appealing to the Sadrists, they remain Maliki’s primary opponents in the battle for Shi’a Arab votes. The continuing impasse over the 2013 budget presented an opportunity this week for the Sadrists to demonstrate their populist credentials. The Sadrists have highlighted repeatedly the issue of distribution of oil revenues during the budget process, proposing in December 2012 that surplus oil revenues be distributed to the population, and accusingthe Maliki government of marginalizing southern oil-producing provinces through “centralist” planning. The Sadrists led a protest at the edge of Baghdad’s Green Zone on February 26 at which thousands of demonstrators demanded that parliament pass the budget. Leading Sadrist parliamentarian Dhia al-Asadi insistedthat the protesters opposed the use of the budget negotiations for political gain and demanded the legislation’s passage in order to pay for new service projects and encourage employment – key themes for the Sadrists in their competition with Maliki for political support.

Fearing that the protests might grow and turn violent, the Office of the Commander in Chief was reportedto have declared a state of full alert, and security forces blockedentrances to Baghdad and the bridges between al-Rusafa and al-Karkh. However, the Sadrists ultimately decidedto end the demonstration, although Muqtada al-Sadr threatened on February 27 to call for a second “peaceful sit-in” should the budget impasse continue. The demonstration is a sign both that the Sadrists retain the ability to call out supporters at short notice to demonstrate, and that despite recent transactional alignments with Maliki – over control of the Finance Ministry and the Accountability and Justice Commission – Sadr continues to emphasize both his populism and Maliki’s failure to provide services and employment ahead of his anticipated battle with Maliki for Shi’a votes in the provincial elections scheduled for April 20.

Meanwhile, the standoff between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government also continues to stifle budget negotiations. The key stumbling blocks are the enduring issues of the Kurdistan region’s share of the budget, payments to oil companies working in Kurdistan, and paymentof the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces. A deliberative session was heldon February 25, but voting was postponedagain in the face of continued disagreement over the Kurdish share of the budget. Members of the Shi’a National Alliance continue to insistthat parliament is on the verge of adopting the budget, while Kurdish representatives maintainthat they expect no agreement in the near future. A delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) headed by KRG Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami traveledto Baghdad on February 28 to meet with Iraqi Oil Minister Abd al-Karim al-Luaibi, but returned to Erbil without an agreement after five hours of negotiations.

Mixed signals on Baghdad-Ankara relations

Contradictory statements on Turkey’s hydrocarbons trade with the KRG have highlighted again the tense state of Iraqi-Turkish relations. On February 25, the state-run al-Iraqiyah television network reported an announcementfrom Oil Minister Luaibi that Turkey had officially informed Iraq that it would not support the building of oil and gas pipelines from the KRG to Turkey without Baghdad’s approval. The Turkish government has neither confirmed nor denied the statement. Luaibi’s announcement was contradicted, however, on February 28, when Tony Hayward of the Anglo-Turkish firm Genel Energy predicteda formal agreement between Turkey and the KRG. Hayward pointed to the “symbolic” importance of ongoing exports by truck from the KRG to Turkey, and claimed that good progress was being made on a pipeline that he expected to be operational by 2014.

Luaibi’s statement, if true, would signal a significant shift in Turkish policy. Turkey has insisted upon the legality of trading in oil with the KRG – in spite of US pressure– and as recently as February 8 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticizedthe Iraqi government’s desire to oversee the KRG’s energy agreements. Turkish-Iraqi relations have been extremely poor for some time, with the Turks granting residence to fugitive Iraqi Vice President and Maliki critic Tariq al-Hashemi, and premiers Maliki and Erdogan repeatedlytradingaccusations. Iraq has been without an ambassador to Turkey for more than two months, although officials on both sides have claimedthat the delay in naming a new ambassador reflects internal disputes within Iraq rather than the status of relations with Turkey. While this is plausible, the fact remains that the vacant role diminishes the prospect of improved relations between Baghdad and Ankara – a relationship that could have the potential to ease regional tensions. Luaibi’s statement, should it prove true, could signal a Turkish attempt to improve bilateral relations, as Baghdad has made clear its oppositionto an independent Turkey-KRG pipeline. However, in the absence of Turkish confirmation and in light of preponderant evidence of Turkey prioritizing economic relations with Erbil over diplomatic relations with Baghdad, Luaibi’s claim seems unlikely.