Iraq Pulse

Baghdad and Iraqi Kurds on Edge in Tense Climate

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Article Summary
Relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have worsened in advance of a visit by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, writes Abdel Hamid Zebari.

The worsening relationship between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the federal government — led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Shiite National Iraqi Alliance — has had a significant impact on the once close relations between Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. This, therefore, justifies the Kurdish approach to deal cautiously with the Iraqi government and Shiite parties in general.

Heated dialogue is taking place in Kurdistan regarding Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s upcoming visit to Baghdad, after he was invited by Maliki. However, the Kurdish party has not set a final date for the visit. The KRG imposed a media blackout on a similar visit made by Maliki to Erbil in mid-February.

Tariq Najem, former director of Maliki’s office and a leader in the National Iraqi Alliance, visited the Kurdistan region to meet with KRG President Massoud Barzani. A few days following the visit, sources in Baghdad revealed that he was carrying a message from Iraqi Shiite parties calling for an end to the current crisis between the KRG and the central government. Erbil didn't openly announce the visit, but only referred to it indirectly.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, the official spokesman for the KRG, Saven Dazai, denied that Maliki invited Barzani to visit Baghdad. He did, however, say that Kurdistan is a part of Iraq and dialogue between the two parties is a normal occurrence.

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The crisis between Baghdad and Erbil worsened after Kurdistan accused Maliki of monopolizing power, taking Iraq back to a totalitarian rule and failing to implement the political agreements that were concluded by the current government. Most importantly, they accused Maliki of not implementing constitutional Article 140 regarding disputed areas, pointing to the fact that Maliki does not recognize the oil contracts signed by the KRG with foreign companies, and highlighting the issue of the Kurdish Peshmerga budget. The Kurds are seeking to have the Peshmerga’s budget included in that of the Iraqi defense system, something that Baghdad opposes.

The crisis between the two sides has increasingly deteriorated, as former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi sought asylum in Kurdistan in early 2012. The Iraqi government is demanding that Kurdistan hand over Hashemi, while the Kurds refuse to comply. This has resulted in both parties mobilizing forces in the Zammar regions early last year and led to the formation of the Tigris forces in Kirkuk early last year.

The Kurdish side now believes that Maliki has no other option but to engage in dialogue with them, particularly given that he is facing another non-Kurdish crisis — i.e., the demonstrations. These demonstrations erupted in Sunni-majority areas in western Iraq, and continue to this day. Protesters' demands are increasing daily, threatening to lead to a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

The provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Saladin, Kirkuk and Diyala — as well as some areas of Baghdad — have witnessed massive demonstrations that started two months ago. Clerics, tribal leaders, government officials and Iraqi MPs have participated in these gatherings, demanding the release of female prisoners and innocent detainees as well as a change in the government’s policies. These demands have evolved into a desire to topple Maliki’s government, raising concerns over the eruption of sectarian conflict and civil war in the country.

The two main parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan region — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by the Kurdistan region President Massoud Barzani — held the Maliki government responsible for the ongoing protests in Sunni areas. They claim that the government has not responded to the protesters’ demands and expressed their support for the demands on more than one occasion.

Although the Shiite and Kurdish parties reaffirm that their alliance is strategic, Kurdish leaders are not motivated to meet with Maliki this time.

Erbil witnessed marathon visits of Iraqi Shiite, Sunni and secular leaders, and even foreign diplomats in Iraq, to discuss the Iraqi crisis with Barzani.

The Kurdish leadership believes that a meeting should not be held solely for the sake of meeting, and that any meeting should include solutions to all of the problems and pledges by Maliki to fulfill his commitments.

The spokesman for the KRG and a leader in the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party said: “We have a historic and strategic alliance with the Shiites, yet we also have good relations with the Sunnis. We have always tried to serve as an element of balance between political forces. However, dialogue with Maliki should be based on addressing the problems; the situation has changed and some conventions will likely be reviewed."

Observers believe that the present  Kurdish caution stems from the fact that they [the Kurds] cannot overcome outstanding issues, given that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. This is particularly true given that the conflict between the three main groups — Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis — has reached its peak.

Observers also believe that although regional and international powers support Barzani, this time he will not be able to reconcile Iraqi parties, as was the case in 2010 with the Erbil agreement, which resulted in the formation of the current Iraqi government.

Kurdish political analyst Abdulghani Ali Yahya says: “It will be hard for Barzani to succeed this time and resolve the outstanding problems. The situation has severely worsened and, despite being backed by regional and international forces, it will be difficult for him to repeat the Erbil agreement."

He adds, “While the Erbil agreement was concluded to reconcile between the Shiites and Sunnis, the Kurds are no longer a part of the solution. This is due to the deteriorating relationship between the Kurdistan region and the federal government, as a result of several issues, including disputed areas and oil issues.”

Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in the field of print journalism and radio, he has published several reports in local and world media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).

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Found in: shiite, oil, nouri al-maliki, muqtada al-sadr, massoud barzani, kurdistan, krg, iraqi politics, iraqi kurdistan region, iraq, erbil, baghdad

Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in print and radio, he has published in local and international media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).

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