The crisis between the Kurdistan region and the central government has escalated and could lead to a military confrontation with dire consequences. Many writers and analysts point out that the crisis has turned into a personal feud between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.
Although the crisis is not free of any hostility between the two men, a look at their relationship from a different angle shows that despite the apparent enmity, they have many similarities and mutual services.
Before the crisis, Barzani faced strong opposition in Kurdistan and a widespread popular objection to how he managed the region and tried to exert control over every governmental facility, along with the rampant financial and administrative corruption in Kurdistan’s governmental institutions, etc. The objection was not limited to the opposition parties. Rather, it included the strategic ally of Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), that is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and President Jalal Talabani personally.
Some time ago, a meeting between Talabani and Nawshirwan Mustafa, leader of the Kurdish opposition Movement for Change, ended with the PUK announcing its support for the opposition’s primary demands. These demands included re-submitting Kurdistan’s draft constitution to parliament for further discussion and for the amendment of Kurdistan’s political system, changing it from a semi-presidential system into a parliamentary system.
The PUK reluctantly supported Barzani and tried to distance itself from the attempt to withdraw confidence from Maliki. Moreover, the Movement for Change, which is the largest opposition force with 25 out of 111 seats in the Kurdish parliament, was not enthusiastic about supporting the project of Barzani-Allawi-Sadr. The movement saw that this as an attempt by Barzani to disregard internal problems under the pretext of “an external threat” and appear as the national leader and defender of the Kurdish people’s national rights in the face of Arab chauvinism — which dominates the ruling mentality in the central government. In their view, the crisis, in essence, is nothing more than a struggle for economic interests (oil) and a regional conflict between Turkey and Iran within Iraq.
However, Maliki’s angered reaction to the attempt to withdraw confidence, particularly the formation of the Tigris operations command, mobilization of army troops and the threat of using military force in the disputed areas, made it easier for Barzani — and helped him a lot!
Most importantly, the army troops and heavy weapons, which were mobilized by Maliki and reached the outskirts of Kirkuk, reminded the Kurdish public of their bitter experience in Iraq — from the day it was established until the fall of the tyrant in 2003. It also pushed those who are reluctant and unenthusiastic about the Kurdish president’s policies toward Maliki to support [Barzani] and follow his lead! In addition to the sensitivity of the Kurdish public opinion toward the above mentioned areas, the threat of the central government to the region has become a real fact, where everyone fears Maliki's intentions towards Kurdistan. This situation was expressed by the Kurdish author Bakhtiar Ali, who said: “If Maliki attacks Kurdistan, he will not attack Kurdistan of Sheikh Jaafar, Peshmerga minister, nor that of Ashti Hawrami, minister for natural resources. Rather, he will attack our eternal Kurdistan, the people!”
Therefore, despite the apparent enmity between Maliki and Barzani, Maliki’s policies towards the Kurdistan region and his handling of the pending issues between the Baghdad-based central government and the regional government serve the interests of Barzani in the Kurdish street. They enable Barzani to evade responding to the urgent demands for reform in Kurdistan and to further consolidate his and his party’s power in the Kurdistani community.
On the other hand, Maliki is facing problems similar to those of Barzani. He is accused by many Iraqi political forces of exercising political monopoly, and of marginalizing not only the Sunnis, but his Shiite and Kurdish allies as well. He still refuses to commit to the Baghdad-Erbil agreement or to appoint ministers for the security portfolios, and is gradually trying to assume full control over the army and security agencies.
He also retains [the authority] to make important political decisions for himself and a tight circle of aides. If a crisis between him and a political party or current exacerbates and pressures on him increase, he fabricates another crisis to avoid making any concessions.
Despite his occasional flexible statements, he upholds his policies and insists on his decisions. There is also much criticism against his government over financial and administrative corruption — his inner circle was involved in the recent arms deal with Russia — and its failure to provide basic services to the citizens despite Iraq’s huge budget.
Whatever the case, Maliki’s “smart” maneuvers in the past have increased his popularity among the Shiites in general, as many observers believe. Also, the crisis between him and Barzani served as a “precious opportunity” for him to gain popularity among the Sunni Arabs as well, especially in the run-up to the new elections for the provincial councils.
The majority of Arabs living in the disputed areas are Sunni. They were concerned that the rapprochement between Allawi and Barzani would be made at their expense, hence their statements and rallies in support of Maliki and the formation of the Tigris Operations Command.
If we look at the bigger picture, we see that Maliki is strumming the chord of Arab nationalism in general to be able to supersede the Shiite component and reach the Sunni Arab component. As he has said repeatedly, the goal is to form a majority government, rather than a consensual one.
Maliki seeks to secure a large majority in the upcoming general elections from both the Shiite and Sunni Arab components in order to rule unilaterally. He realizes that it would be difficult for him to penetrate the Kurdish masses and to win their votes. The stricter Barzani’s tone against Baghdad, the higher the level of support for Maliki amongst the Sunni Arabs.
We must also not forget the Iranian role in the current crisis. Tehran is angry over the increasing convergence between Barzani and the Sunni axis in general, Turkey in particular, and his public support for the Syrian opposition against Bashar al-Assad.
In short, politicians in our country portray the concerns that threaten their own interests as challenges threatening the public interest. They are experts in exporting their internal crises abroad, and thus postpone freedoms and rights issues under the pretext of external threats.