Friday, April 5, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #14: Political Calculations Trump Security Concerns

April 5, 2013
by Stephen Wicken

Tikrit bombing bears al-Qaeda hallmarks

A suicide bomber detonated an oil tanker packed with explosives inside a compound housing government administrative offices in central Tikrit on April 1, killing at least nine people. Police at the scene suggested that guards may not have inspected the tanker because of the daily inflow of fuel trucks – the Baiji oil refinery is near Tikrit. Violence in northern Salah ad-Din province has been common in recent months, with a major suicide bombing killing 35 people at a funeral in Tuz Khurmatu district in January, and another killing at least seven people in a two-car bombing in central Dujail district this week. Although no group has taken responsibility for the Tikrit attack, a spectacular attack against government offices suggests that the perpetrators were likely linked to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaeda in Iraq’s front group. The group is known to monitor the movements of tanker drivers, forcing them to pay protection money. Furthermore, dozens of ISI members escaped from a prison in Tikrit in September 2012 after an ISI-coordinated attack in which militants destroyed the prison archives relating to the group’s members. ISI recently claimed 49 attacks in Anbar province between January 13 and February 10, including the suicide bombing that killed MP and former Awakening leader Ayfan Sa‘doun al-Issawi and the IED attack on the convoy for former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. The Tikrit attack came on the same day that Manaf Abd al-Rahim al-Rawi, thought to have been ISI’s ‘governor’ in Baghdad, was executed along with three other ISI members. 

ISI has used tankers in the past, filling trucks with chlorine gas in order to kill police and Awakening members in Anbar in 2007. The Tikrit tanker bombing suggests that the group remains adaptive in its attempts to carry out spectacular attacks against government officials, security forces, local politicians, and civilians. It is possible that the high-profile Tikrit bombing constitutes part of a campaign to degrade security in Salah ad-Din in order to encourage Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to postpone elections in the province, as it has done in the other predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninewa. Sunni boycotts of the 2005 elections, at that time voluntary rather than compelled by the government, favored ISI by exacerbating the sense of Sunni disenfranchisement and lack of representation in ways that increased active and passive support for the insurgency. 

Maliki avoids security questioning in parliament

Despite the official explanation that the security situation in northern and western Iraq had prompted the decision to delay elections, Prime Minister Maliki declined a Sadrist request to attend a parliament on April 1 to discuss the recent violence. Maliki cited “the confidentiality of security information” as his reason for refusing to answer MPs’ questions, and instead proposed to discuss security at a cabinet meeting with the heads of political blocs and parliamentary committees. The proposal, and Maliki’s alternative, drew criticism from political opponents, with Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi accusing Maliki of marginalizing the role of parliament by preferring the cabinet. With Sunni opponents of the prime minister continuing to boycott cabinet meetings and Kurdish parties boycotting both government and parliament, addressing the subject at a cabinet meeting would ensure that only Maliki’s allies would attend. Haider al-Mulla, spokesman for Maliki’s erstwhile ally Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak who recently returned to cabinet meetings along with two allies from his Arab Iraqiyya faction,, suggested that Maliki was seeking to avoid questions about monopolizing security files and merging militias with security forces, thus contributing to unprofessional and ineffective security forces. Maliki’s refusal to appear also drew criticism from Sadrist MPs. 

Maliki has appeared in parliament to discuss security before. The prime minister attended in September 2007, answering questions and delivering an optimistic assessment despite a more unstable security environment than exists today. He returned in December 2009 to engage in a closed-door session after an ISI bombing killed more than 120 people and wounded more than 400 in Baghdad. Since that time, however, Maliki has avoided questioning in parliament, particularly since a campaign to withdraw confidence in the premier gained momentum in early 2012. The constitutional procedure for moving towards a no-confidence vote involves the ‘interrogation’ (istjiwab) of a minister; recent requests for Maliki to discuss security breaches in parliament have concerned ‘questioning’ (masala) the premier, a separate constitutional provision that is unrelated to no-confidence proceedings. Maliki cannot afford to be seen by potential voters as weak on security before the provincial elections, however, particularly having used security as the justification for postponing provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewa. 

Electoral commission proposes new date for Anbar and Ninewa votes

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced on April 2 that it had submitted a proposal to Maliki suggesting that elections in Anbar and Ninewa be held on May 18, just under a month after they are held elsewhere. IHEC electoral administration head Mekdad al-Sharifi stated that he had consulted with the Supreme Security Committee overseeing electoral security, the head of which, Major General Ahmed al-Khafaji, referred to plans by al-Qaeda to disrupt elections, likely as a means of justifying the postponement. IHEC stated prior to the postponement that it had completed technical preparations for voting in all provinces: the announcement is likely intended to affirm the body’s independence and professionalism ahead of the elections. 

The IHEC proposal must now be addressed by Maliki. Under the terms of the election postponement, the delayed polls must be held within six months of April 20, when the elections will take place in all other provinces but Kirkuk, which is excluded from the vote because of ongoing disputes about ethnic representation. If Maliki agrees to hold the elections within a month of the original date, it would suggest that Maliki feels he has gained enough politically from the delay by slowing the momentum of the anti-government protest movement and its political allies while aiding preferred Sunni figures such as Saleh al-Mutlak. In the period since the delay was announced on March 19, significant cleavages have emerged between key Sunni Arab rivals, with Mutlak and Jamal al-Karbouli accusing their former allies Osama al-Nujaifi and Rafia al-Issawi of seeking to divide Iraq along sectarian lines at the behest of regional powers. The split has been mirrored among anti-government protesters over the question of negotiation with Maliki. With key Sunni politicians attacking one another and the protest movement divided, Maliki may now see a purpose in going ahead with elections sooner rather than later. With violence continuing to spike both in the areas where elections have been postponed and beyond, Maliki’s response to IHEC’s proposal will illustrate whether he believes he has sufficiently arrested the momentum of the protest movement and its political allies, or whether he assesses that he needs more time to weaken his opponents. It will also indicate whether Maliki will heed or continue to overrule IHEC’s recommendations, an important indicator of how the premier may respond to the elections body during and after the provincial elections later this month. 

Stephen Wicken is a Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.