By Gareth Stansfield

Less than three years ago, Iraq occupied the attention of the world. With the sectarian conflict ending in 2008, and attention turning to Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Libya, and the Eurozone crisis, Iraq has been ignored. But its problems have not gone away.

There are two reasons why Iraq has moved out of the spotlight. The first is that Iraq has suffered fewer 'spectacular' events in recent years. The brutal civil war, with its regular catastrophic suicide bombings and the littering of the streets of Baghdad with the bodies of those caught up in the horrendous inter-sectarian conflict which raged across Iraq in the late 2000s, has seemed to be over. News about Iraq's economic performance, government corruption, parliamentary disputes, or inability to pass legislation have, quite frankly, not been as important to report upon as have the events of the Arab Spring.

The other reason is perhaps a little less positive. Western governments, caught up in Afghanistan and struggling to comprehend the dynamics and trajectories of the Arab democratic revolutions - let alone decide what their policies should be towards the newly formed governments of the region - have held Iraq at arm's length, describing it as fragile, but as a success story and going in the right direction, wherever that may be. In reality, Iraq's direction may not prove to be as attractive as previously thought, and events are taking place inside and around the country that suggest the next year could be one in which deeply-rooted political problems once again come to the fore.

Centralising Power

While Iraq may have had successive elections at provincial and national levels, with each of them being deemed more successful than the last, democratic norms and processes remain elusive. The ability of the Council of Representatives (parliament) to exercise authority over the cabinet has been steadily eroded by the centralising tendencies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Key institutions, including the central bank, the anti-corruption commission, and the independent electoral commission, now fall under the direct control of the cabinet rather than the parliament.

Even more significant is the manner in which the prime minister has brought the different components of Iraq's security forces and intelligence services under his direct control, creating in effect his own power base within the country at a time when his political, and perhaps popular, support base is waning. With direct control being exercised over the ministries of interior and defence, through loyal lieutenants appointed directly by Maliki, the result has been the removal of actual, perceived, or potential competitors and threats from key positions from the top to the middling ranks of key institutions. Within the military, for example, the appointment of officers is personally decided by the prime minister, with the result being that the officer corps is overwhelmingly dominated by Shi'as, and particularly those deemed to be supportive of Maliki's Da'wa party. In effect, Maliki has made himself coup-proof, by creating a set of powerful and interlocking institutions staffed by loyalists who have a very real stake in their patron's political survival and further consolidation of power. It is little wonder that his opponents make comparisons between this strategy and the way in which Saddam Hussein came to power.

This strategy of centralisation has not gone unnoticed or unchallenged. Maliki's principal political opponents/partners in the Iraqi government remain the Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya umbrella, led by Iyad Allawi and including the equally prominent Usama al-Nujaifi, and the Kurdish front led by the president of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, and the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani. With Maliki in seemingly constant confrontation with the Kurdish leadership since 2007 over their demands to control their hydrocarbons sector independently of Baghdad and to continue with and strengthen their level of regional autonomy, the tension between, Erbil, the Kurdish capital, and Baghdad is now palpable. This was made more intense in October by Kurdish successes in signing contracts with Exxon-Mobil to explore prime acreage in the north, without Baghdad's consent. Believing that they not only won the elections of 2010 (which they marginally did), yet having been increasingly excluded from meaningful roles in Baghdad, Iraqiyya is in an intolerable situation. This, combined with the fact that the prime minister's heavy-handed attempts (which have included arrests and reportedly assassinations) to ensure that no threat can emerge in the near future from previously powerful Sunni Arab political and military groupings (such as the former Awakening Councils, established by the US in 2007-8 to bring an end to the civil war), have set the Sunni-dominated provinces in the west and north in a collision course with Baghdad. The Kurdish front and Iraqiyya, have found common cause in opposing the attempts of the prime minister to consolidate his control over Iraq's key institutions, and this struggle is now creating the setting for Iraq's political development in 2012.

Federalism Everywhere

Federalism as an idea has been a grenade waiting to have the pin pulled from it ever since the Constitution of Iraq, passed in 2005, allowed for the formation of 'regions.' These regions, using the extant Kurdistan Region as an exemplar, would then enjoy heightened autonomous powers over key aspects of policy and legislation. The rationale for this approach, most clearly articulated by the Kurdish leadership, has been built around ideas of more effective governance, improved economic performance, and more capable public services. But it is also a clear and public strategy to limit the power of Baghdad and the ability of a 'central' government of Iraq to ever subjugate the rest of Iraq by force. In essence, federalism is a strategy by which power is leached away from the central state, and relocated throughout the provinces. Initially, the idea provoked a backlash from virtually all non- Kurdish components of the Iraqi political spectrum, as it was seen as a Kurdish attempt to break the integrity of the country. While demands for federalism did at times appear in the south - put forth particularly by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq - these initiatives failed due to a popular suspicion of motives and the forceful opposition of the prime minister who, as a resolute centralist, is opposed to the further creation of regions beyond the existing Kurdistan Region itself.

The situation is clearly changing. Following the arrests of some six hundred notables in Salahadin province - a staunchly Sunni Arab area, which includes Tikrit within its boundaries - the provincial council voted to declare Salahadin an autonomous region. While, constitutionally speaking, the Salahadin council cannot do this (it needs to submit a request to the cabinet in Baghdad for a referendum to be organised), dissatisfaction with the performance of the central government and fear over Maliki's ambitions are causing provincial leaders to conclude that autonomy from Baghdad is now attractive. Other provinces - north and south - now seem to be in the process of embracing Salahadin's strategy, creating a nightmare for a prime minister who has done everything he can in recent months to centralise, rather than decentralise, power and the agency to act. It is no understatement to say that the federalism question is one which will dominate political life, perhaps violently, in the months ahead.

Whose Oil?

If the question of federalism is going to be a serious issue in the year ahead, it will be matched by the related questions around management of the hydrocarbons sector. The problems are intimately linked - the Constitution of 2005 gives heightened, if not fully specified, responsibilities to 'regions' to manage any previously undeveloped oil or gas reserve in their territory. What it does not do is provide detail of the scale or scope of these responsibilities, and here lies the dispute between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad that stymied all attempts to introduce a much-needed oil and gas law for Iraq.

In short, Kurdistan demands full control over its oil and gas sector, including the right to engage directly with international oil companies and to receive payments from them direct to Erbil, with the Kurds then contributing their share to the national coffers. Baghdad conversely demands final oversight over the signing of contracts, and would remain responsible for managing the relationship with companies, and for ensuring the Kurdistan Region received its agreed financial allowance. This dispute has not prevented the Kurdish leadership from engaging with a range of medium sized companies seeking to invest in their oil sector. While this was more of an annoyance for Baghdad than anything else, the announcement in November that Exxon Mobil - the world's biggest publically traded oil company - would be taking up six exploration contracts in Kurdistan has sent shockwaves through the country and the industry.

The Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object

The momentum behind federalism and the devolution of power from Baghdad is turning from being a Kurdish-associated initiative held in abeyance with appeals to Iraqi nationalism to a force which is building daily. It is being fed by the reaction - in the north and south - to the heavy-handed centralising tendencies of Maliki, and the perceived economic gains that would be made available to provincial leaders who see that their political, maybe even physical, futures are threatened by Maliki's growing power. The immovable object is, of course, the increasingly well-entrenched prime minister and his lieutenants, who still enjoy significant popular support, a strong security structure and a guaranteed source of patronage. The stage is set for a struggle between Baghdad and the regions, and for the redrawing of the Iraqi political map to represent those who oppose the centralisation of the state and those who demand it.

(Gareth Stansfield is a Professor of Middle East Politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, and Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House.)


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Iraq: The Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object | Global Viewpoint