Friday, May 3, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #18B: Protesters Divided as Kurds Hand Maliki A Lifeline

May 3, 2013

By Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali

Moderate Sunni Arab protest leaders continue to renounce violent confrontation with security forces and advocate negotiation with the Maliki government. Anbari protesters remain fundamentally divided, however, with Ramadi the site of calls for negotiation and Fallujah the site of calls for jihad. Meanwhile, the agreement signed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) allows Maliki breathing space, although it may not produce long term results.

Ramadi Protesters Endorse Negotiation as Fallujah Calls for Jihad

Anti-government protests continued in Sunni Arab-majority areas of Iraq on May 3 despite rumors that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had set the day as a deadline for the protesters to “end or transfer” their demonstrations. Stepping into this situation, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak once more sought to portray himself as the Maliki government’s mediator with the protesters. On May 2, Mutlak travelled to Anbar, where he met Governor Fahdawi, Anbari tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha, Mutahidun MP Ahmed al-Alwani, and members of Anbar Provincial Council.

After emerging from the meeting, Anbar Governor Qassim Mohammed al-Fahdawi denied the rumors of a deadline, insisting that they were being spread to exacerbate tensions. Abu Risha also insisted that no deadline had been communicated and that the talks had not concerned ending or moving the protests. The protests would continue in the same place until protesters’ demands had been achieved, Abu Risha added, but the Ramadi protest was now more disciplined and would not allow armed or masked people to enter.

Sunni Arab tribal leaders have continued to stress the need to avoid confrontations with security forces. A tribal council in Salah ad-Din rejected the formation of tribal militias on May 3, stressing its support for and solidarity with security forces. The implementation of protesters’ demands, the tribal leaders insisted, would “pull the rug from under the feet of critics of Iraq’s unity.” To that end, Abu Risha announced on May 2 that “the majority of Anbar’s protesters” had chosen senior Sunni cleric Abd al-Malik al-Saadi to negotiate with the government on their behalf. Saadi has long been a proponent of moderation and negotiation, despite a statement he made in the aftermath of the Hawija attack that appeared to endorse self-defense in the event of raids on protests by security forces. Saadi’s mandate for negotiation was reiterated by 40 Anbari tribal leaders who issued a statement on May 3 denouncing “armed manifestations” and calling for the punishment of all who spill “innocent Iraqi blood” whether civilian or military. At the same time, however, the tribal leaders demanded the withdrawal of security forces from cities and insisted on the right to continue peaceful protest and prayer, with protection to be provided by local police. The tribal leaders also refused to hand over to security forces the three protest leaders accused of involvement in the killing of five soldiers in Ramadi on April 28.

As to the likely demands that Saadi might transmit, leading Mutahidun figure Ahmed al-Alwani, whose Ramadi residence has hosted meetings of protest organizers, stated on May 3 that a “negotiation committee” of Anbar demonstrators had the following demands: the suspension of executions; the adoption of an amnesty law; and the delivery of members of the security forces who killed protesters in Fallujah and Mosul. A spokesman for the political bureau of the Ramadi protest committee, Abd al-Razzaq al-Shammari, also echoed the demand that all military and federal police units should withdraw from Ramadi.   

The Council of Iraqi Scholars, the group of moderate senior Sunni clerics that Abd al-Malik al-Saadi formed in 2007 to isolate radical Sunni clerics, announced in a “Friday of Open Options” sermon on May 3 that the only appealing option was for Sunni Arabs to pursue regional autonomy within Iraq. Insisting that the group was not “against the rule of the Shi‘a in Iraq” but simply opposed to Maliki and his designs on dictatorship, and implying that the Kurds had abandoned the Sunni Arabs by returning to government, the group proposed that the Sunni be allowed under the constitution “to judge ourselves by ourselves and decide our destiny in our hands.” The alternative – which, the group noted, no “sane and honest” person would prefer – is civil war. Saadi is no longer a member of the Council of Iraqi Scholars, having resigned soon after its establishment complaining that the group was too tied to the political realm. However, he has continued to associate with the Fiqh Council of Iraq, a body tiedto the Council of Iraqi Scholars with the mission of “guiding the nation.” Saadi has not endorsed federalism in Sunni Arab areas himself – should he do so in his role as negotiator with the Maliki government, he is likely to face serious pushback from both the government and a significant element of Sunni Arab Iraqis.

The question of regional autonomy within a federal Iraq is a deeply controversial one that carries negative connotations for Iraq’s Sunni and Shi‘a Arabs alike. Former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi noted on May 2 that public opinion in Anbar and Ninewa was split on federalism. On May 3, protesters in Fallujah threw bottles at preacher Ahmed Abd Ali after he demanded the establishment of an Anbari federal region. Fallujah has continued to host militant protesters at the “Martyrs Square” site, calling for jihad and waving the flag the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) front group. The Free Iraq Uprising, a protest group that on April 24 announced it was part of the Ba‘athist insurgent group Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN), has also consolidated its presence at the Fallujah camp. The area around Fallujah continues to see clashes between police and militants in a security environment far less stable than that of the larger protest at Ramadi. An attempt by security forces to raid the Fallujah camp, as they did the Hawija protest where the Free Iraq Uprising also had a strong presence, would certainly result in violent confrontation. In Ramadi, by contrast, protest leaders have been successful in preventing further escalation; should they lose control of the protests, or should Maliki attempt to end them by force, the symbolism of an attack on the more moderate protesters would likely have a greater galvanizing effect on Sunni Arabs across Iraq.

Iraqi Kurds Hand Maliki a Lifeline

Iraqi Kurdish ministers returned to the May 2 cabinet meeting after an understanding was signed between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to address outstanding issues between the two sides. Maliki and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani signed a paper of principles on April 29. It will serve as a framework for further dialogue and negotiations as joint committees will be set up to address the following 7 points: 

  • Hydrocarbons issues: The KRG has independently signed over 40 oil contracts that the Iraqi government views as a violation of its sovereignty. Complicating matters between the federal government and the KRG is the absence of an oil and gas law that governs those contracts and their revenue. To solve that issue, both sides have agreed to form a committee to work on such a law. 

  • Fiscal issues: The 2013 federal budget was passed in the Iraqi parliament without the Iraqi Kurdish vote, leading to a boycott of the political process in Baghdad by the Iraqi Kurds. According to the new agreement, the 2013 budget will be amended. Presumably, this means the KRG will receive more funds with which to pay oil companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi Kurds will raise again the question of their share (17%) of the federal budget.

  • Security: The security situation in the mixed areas has been chronically troubling with attacks by AQI and JRTN in addition to tensions between the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces. For the KRG, the presence of the Dijla, Ninewa, and Al-Jazeera Operations Commands is a challenge and a threat. The agreement stipulates that the issue of those operation commands will be addressed. Additionally, security affairs in areas with disputed internal boundaries will be managed between Baghdad and Arbil. 

  • Article 140: This article is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution to address the status of areas that witnessed administrative changes during the Saddam Hussein’s rule. That includes the oil-rich Kirkuk province as well as border areas in Diyala and Ninewa provinces. Both sides will work to ratify a law demarcating the boundaries of these areas.

  • Sovereignty issues: Since 1991, the KRG has exercised autonomy in granting visas to visitors of the region. The KRG’s ability to invite foreigners has been enhanced since the opening of the Arbil and Sulimaniyah airports. Maliki and the federal government have been critical of this arrangement, positing that the federal government should be involved in the process. According to the agreement, the federal government and the KRG will jointly work on the issue.

  • Legacy issues: The federal government will offer compensation to Iraqi Kurds affected by chemical weapons attacks and other anti-Kurdish operations committed by Saddam’s government.

  • Cooperation: To consolidate relations between the federal government and Baghdad, both sides will appoint representatives to their respective areas.        

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani endorsed the signing of the framework and decided along with other Iraqi Kurdish parties to send the Iraqi Kurdish Members of the Iraqi Parliament to attend its session next week session. This support boosts the agreement due to Barzani’s preeminence in Iraqi Kurdish politics and decision-making. Barzani’s position will be consolidated further if Maliki visits Arbil and convenes a cabinet meeting there. Despite the fact that the Baghdad-Arbil negotiations have been ongoing, the opening with the KRG provides Maliki breathing space as he manages an escalating Iraqi Sunni discontent. It remains to be seen if this opening will be sustained as events on the ground evolve and have previously manifested their capability to overtake positive developments. Historically, Baghdad-Arbil openings have proven to be tactical and not strategic.          


Moderate Sunni Arab figures are rejecting violence vocally and the Iraqi Kurds have returned to government, suggesting that Iraq’s ongoing crisis may have reached a plateau. On the ground, however, self-restraint on the part of the Iraqi security forces will be essential to preventing a recurrence of the Hawija operation, particularly as AQI, JRTN, and other militants will continue to seek to pull security forces into confrontation. Government efforts to engage with protesters’ demands – such as those of Saleh al-Mutlak, for all that they are likely motivated by political calculations – will have to be sustained and seen as credible by protesters to succeed. Similarly, serious engagement on the points of agreement between Baghdad and Arbil will be essential to prevent the creation of another showdown between the two governments, and particularly between their security forces on the ground. Equally, a Kurdish deal with Maliki that leads to a majority government that excludes Sunni Arabs will be destabilizing. After all, the underlying issues that spurred an explosion of ethnosectarian tensions remain deep, and can easily override temporary de-escalation.

Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali are Research Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War.