The following was first published in The National on April 22, 2009
The apparent success of the US troop “surge” in stabilising Iraq and the recent success in conducting provincial elections have been heralded as a turning point in the nation’s fortunes. Despite occasional outbreaks of violence, the activity of insurgents is greatly reduced in scope and ferocity. A sense of normal life is returning to many parts of the country. The temptation is to believe that Iraq has indeed turned a corner; that the population, tired of six years of war, is rejecting violence and choosing to settle its differences in the political arena. But appearances, as they so often tend to be, are deceptive.
Firstly, violence and the organised groups who perpetrate it have not disappeared. A bomb blast targets Shiites in Baghdad; a truck bomb targets US forces and Iraqi police in Mosul, where the remnants of al Qa’eda in Iraq operate; yet another in the troubled Diyala province, where Sunnis face off against Kurds in the ethnically mixed town of Baquba. All these attacks happened in the past month, showing that sectarian tensions still exist and manifest themselves violently.
Despite this, there appears to be truth to the claim that Iraq is rejecting violence as a means to control the destiny of the nation. The most powerful evidence for this belief, beyond the simple reduction in violence, is the enthusiasm with which the Iraqis have embraced the political process. Even in 2005, when security was far from guaranteed, Iraqis turned out in droves for the legislative elections. And the most recent provincial elections were an even greater success, with the Iraqi security forces, not the Americans, overseeing the security of millions of Iraqis queuing up to cast their votes.
Even the results tend to show that a sectarian Iraq made up of ethnically cleansed regions divided between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds is not what most people want. The prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and his Dawa party made huge gains in the polls on a platform advocating an Iraq unified under a strong central government. The biggest losers were the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Kurds, both of whom have pushed for a loose federal structure.
The long-term implications for their defeat are not clear yet. One argument is that the victory of the Dawa party and its like-minded compatriots will allow for greater progress on vital parliamentary issues, such as a unified hydrocarbons law. Thus far, debate on these issues has been poisoned by the Kurds seeking to control the vast oil resources of the north and Shiites in Basra trying to reap the benefit of those in the South. This is entirely plausible.
The declining political power of the Kurds and secessionist-minded Shiites means that the current composition of the government could be upset and made to include Mr Maliki’s allies, rather than his rivals. But the true litmus test for the proponents of this belief will come in the national elections at the end of this year. If the trend towards greater centralisation continues, a likely scenario, then the blocks on productive parliamentary debate could indeed be removed.
This would not necessarily be a positive thing for Iraq. Already there are troubling signs that Mr Maliki is abusing his popular mandate to exploit his rivals’ weaknesses to the detriment of Iraq’s long-term security.
The greatest concern is the final status of Kirkuk in the north of Iraq. Claimed by the Kurds and sitting on 12 per cent of the country’s known oil reserves, the city and the province from which it takes its name have been embroiled in a bitter tug-of-war between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Kurds and other non-Arab minorities were expelled from the city and the provincial lines were redrawn to create a de facto Arab majority in what was once a mainly Kurdish area. Thus the city of Kirkuk has taken on a Jerusalem-like status for the Kurds, symbolising the repression they suffered under the previous regime. So they are not likely to surrender their claims on the city, regardless of what the rest of the country may say in the polls.
Yesterday, the United Nations delivered a report on Kirkuk to Baghdad, which according to western government sources advocates a set of power-sharing options for the province and the city. This is unlikely to please either the Kurds or Baghdad.
The Kurds already feel betrayed that both Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution and its predecessor, Article 58 of the Transitional Administration Law that called for a reversal of the ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk and a referendum on the final status of the city and province, were never implemented. The UN report will only cement in the minds of the Kurdish leadership that their dreams of a Kirkuk incorporated into an autonomous Kurdish region are becoming increasingly distant.
Yet a compromise must be struck. The Kurds must understand that their vision of a Kurdish nation are not realistic and their continued intransigence only weakens their position in the long term. Iraqis are tired of the fruitless debate and the citizens of Kirkuk, which has not received the reconstruction funds it desperately needs because of the uncertainty about its future, want progress and care less about the ideological considerations.
For his part, Mr Maliki must not be too emboldened by his recent successes, Iraq is increasingly secure and his ability to boost the authority of the central government is indeed impressive; but Iraqis do not want another strong man, they want a unifier. And unity between the various sects, ethnicities and interests means compromise.
Finally, the United States must do more to shepherd the parties through this debate. Until now, it has preferred to leave it in the hands of the United Nations to foster agreement, but the UN lacks the clout to do so. It was a brave decision to provide the additional troops needed to quell the growing violence in Iraq in 2007. Perhaps it is time for an equally brave move to commit diplomatic resources to the debate over Kirkuk — a diplomatic surge, if you will.