Is Iraq edging closer toward partition?

Jaffar Al-Rikabi
Just as the final U.S. troops are withdrawing, and just as the world’s attention is diverted on Syria and elsewhere, Iraq may steal the limelight a final time and bow and declare: before long, she may not be anymore.
About the authorEducated at Oxford and Georgetown Universities, Jaffar Al-Rikabi is a researcher in Middle East politics and economicsIn recent years, it has not been custom for Iraq to be left in the shadows. A controversial U.S.-led war in 2003, and tumultuous years of post-war transition and strife kept Iraq at the top of the Middle East’s news agenda for a remarkable number of years.

But as Iraqi security improved from 2008 onwards, and as foreign direct investment began to pour in from 2010, a Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. A wave of revolutions outside Iraq was hence born, dominating 2011 headlines.

With dramatic protests calling for freedom and democracy being brutally oppressed nearby, much smaller Iraqi ones calling on elected politicians to provide better services and less sleaze seemed tame in comparison. Almost overnight, Iraq appeared as one of the more stable countries in the region.

But appearances are often deceptive, and while events in Syria dominated this weekend’s headlines, Iraq’s relegation from the limelight might yet prove temporary.

Iraq abstains in Syrian crisis as Assad grows isolated

Dramatic weekend news coverage from the Middle East stemmed from an Arab League vote on Saturday suspending Syria’s membership following its crackdowns on protesters that have been ongoing since March.

The vote marked a victory for Saudi Arabia which has been advocating a tough Arab stance on Syria. Saudi amassed Gulf support from GCC countries it dominates, the support of pro-revolution states such as Egypt, and the backing of countries such as Jordan with a legacy of strained relations with Damascus.

In an interview with the BBC, Jordan’s King Abdullah became yesterday the first Arab head of state to openly call on Assad to resign: “If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life,” Abdullah said.

Arab isolation of Assad may pave the way for potential international intervention in the mould of NATO’s mission in Libya, which too began with an Arab League decision inviting western involvement.

In Libya’s case, intervention was facilitated by Russian and Chinese abstentions in the Security Council. A similar position may not be forthcoming from the two powers with regard to Syria.

Indeed, Russia’s pro-Assad position remains unchanged, with Reuters yesterday reporting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s opposition to the Arab League’s decision. Instead of criticising Assad, Lavrov blamed Western countries for inciting opponents of Assad to seek his removal.

China’s position is yet unclear, though it has in the past months offered supporting statements to Assad.

Eighteen Arab states voted in support of the Arab League suspension, Yemen and Lebanon opposed, and Iraq abstained.

Iraq’s behind-the-scenes crisis

Iraq’s abstention reflected the contradicting impulses of PM Maliki’s coalition government, which on the one hand loathes Assad’s Baath regime for its sponsoring of terrorism in Iraq since 2003, and on the other hand, fears the spill-over effects of foreign intervention and regime change in Syria.

Iraq worries that Syria’s instability could develop into a sectarian civil war between Allawite defenders of Assad and an opposition movement dominated by Sunni Islamists. Such a conflict may endanger Maronite Christians and other minorities, Lebanese Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi recently warned.

Syrian civil strife may re-ignite sectarianism in Iraq and the region as a whole. A clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Syria will likely be felt in Baghdad, particularly if there is foreign military involvement in Syria with Arab financing that threatens Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Both Iranians and Saudis fund militias in Iraq.

But Iraq’s concerns, legitimate as they are, do not fully explain the heightened sense of insecurity the politicians are expressing. The loud warnings arguably betray a sense of crisis that is much more reflective of internal problems than external fears.

Last Friday, Iraq’s government reacted with anger at leaked news of a reported oil deal between ExxonMobil and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Shahristani issued a sharp rebuke, cautioning that any oil deals negotiated with the KRG remain illegal, until long-awaited rules can be worked out to split revenues amongst Iraq’s fractious regions.

The Iraqi central government’s position is well-known to ExxonMobil and other IOCs. The fact that Exxon reportedly went ahead with signing the deal with the KRG despite this knowledge is a worrying sign of weariness with Baghdad.

Whether fact or fiction, many Iraqi politicians are already seeing this development as an extension of a changing US foreign policy towards Iraq. Having failed to get an extended mandate for a prolonged U.S. troop presence, some Iraqis contend that the U.S. is now set on punishing Baghdad by encouraging the Kurds to seek formal independence. A recent visit by Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal Talabani as head of a delegation that was composed exclusively of Iraqi Kurdish politicians has fuelled such suspicions.

Washington may dismiss this as conspiracy theory, but a conspiracy that captures the attention of Iraqi politicians and the wider public is likely to be as powerful as fact.

It is already having an impact on other provinces. In Western Iraq, Salahaddin provincial leaders declared last week that they would make the province a federal region “whether others liked it or not.” With federalism ill-defined and widely misunderstood in Iraq, the ‘f-word’ is often a euphemism for separation.

Iraq’s Sunni Parliamentary Speaker, Usama al-Nujaifi has supported these moves, blaming broken promises from PM Maliki for this trend. Pro-Maliki politicians dismiss these accusations. Instead, they charge Nujaifi and others with foolishly implementing a Saudi plot to provoke dissent and division in Iraq as a means to halt its growing oil production, which is seen by Riyadh as a strategic threat to its power in the region.

These contesting agendas may still prove business as usual for Iraq, with politicians accustomed to talking of impending gloom, taking the country to the brink of disaster, only to pull back in the final hour.

Or they might not.

Just as the final U.S. troops are withdrawing, and just as the world’s attention is diverted on Syria and elsewhere, Iraq may steal the limelight a final time and bow and declare: before long, she may not be anymore.