Iraq on brink of disintegration as rift with Turkey deepens

In the midst of a massive wave of political transformation across the entire Middle »»

In the midst of a massive wave of political transformation across the entire Middle East, Iraq’s Tehran-backed Shiite leadership has turned a blind eye to the country’s fragile truce among various ethnic and sectarian groups, throwing Iraq’s key power-sharing agreement into disarray in an attempt to consolidate power and further stoking concerns that the unprecedented political crisis in the war-torn country may risk its division.

“The current political situation in Iraq is like a time bomb that could explode at any moment,” Sadrist lawmaker Bahaa al-Araji, whose group backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2010, recently told the media.

The lawmaker accused the prime minister of creating the current political impasse in Iraq and said the Kurds could be the first domino to fall in a broken Iraq. “Baghdad has the same problems with other provinces,” he said, adding that “this will lead to the dividing of Iraq, and there will be no Iraq on the world map.”

Araji’s remarks have illustrated a prevailing sense of fear that reigns in Ankara among Turkish officials, who have added fuel to the escalating war of words between Ankara and Baghdad. Turkey’s intervention into Iraq’s domestic politics prompted an undiplomatic reaction from Maliki, who bluntly said Turkey is becoming a hostile state in the region.

The political crisis engulfed Iraq shortly after US troops left last year, when Maliki’s government moved against two Sunni politicians, seeking the removal of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on charges he had run death squads.

Hashemi, who is now in Turkey, had initially fled to the Kurdish region, angering Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani had refused to hand him over to the central government for trial, saying the criminal case had political implications.

Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has told Sunday’s Zaman that Maliki is trying to export the problem he has created by saying that Turkey is interfering in its domestic affairs. He added that Turkey has been warning both Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad and Maliki. “There is a real danger unless Maliki tries to establish a national unity government,” Gerges said.

Turkish officials have claimed that Turkey’s interference in Iraq’s internal affairs is closely linked to Turkey’s national and security interests. The largest security threat to Turkey in the past several decades, after all, has been from northern Iraq, which harbored Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) camps. Turkish warplanes frequently bomb PKK facilities in Iraq.

Iraq saw a devastating civil war in 2007-2008 in which more than 100,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed. But Iraq’s distinct ethnic and sectarian factions may simply opt to secede instead of vying for Baghdad, which risks repeating the worst-case scenario -- a resumption of full-fledged civil strife. The first signal of division came from the president of Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region, who demanded in an interview with The Associated Press that Shiite leaders agree on sharing power with their political opponents by September, or the Kurds would consider seceding.

“What threatens the unity of Iraq is dictatorship and authoritarian rule,” Barzani said, adding that if Iraq heads towards democracy, there will be no trouble. “But if Iraq heads toward a dictatorial state, we will not be able to live with that.”

Many have played down Barzani’s remarks as a bluff, intended to press Maliki to consider the seriousness of the crisis. The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius told Sunday’s Zaman that he agrees Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis are uneasy about Maliki’s rule, but a breakup of Iraq is unlikely.

“One of the important positive developments in the region are the increasing ties between Turkey and the Kurdish regional government, and that’s a good protection for Kurdish interests. But I don’t think the Turks, or any other regional powers, want to see Iraq divided,” Ignatius said.

Turkey, along with Iran, is weary of the danger of an independent Kurdish state, which may destabilize Turkey’s sizeable Kurdish population.

One of Turkey’s leading experts on international politics, Tayyar Arı from Uludağ University, said possible secession in Iraq could risk igniting a new conflict which may have regional repercussions.

He warned that Kurds in both Syria and Iran may have similar desires for emancipation and division in Iraq may spark new rebellions in the region.

Mehmet Seyfettin Erol from Gazi University said the Kurdish region in northern Iraq is Turkey’s sphere of influence and that heralded a more cooperative era of Turkish-Kurdish relations.

Arı said the authoritarian rule of Maliki also irritates Shiites, whose political leadership helped him secure power in 2010. He speculated about new initiatives that could bring a Sadr-led government into power. Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visited Barzani on Thursday, seeking to ease tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds, but it was not immediately clear if both politicians spoke about a new coalition.

Along with Iraq’s fugitive vice president, Turkey was also hosting Maliki’s political rival Barzani, whose talks with Turkish officials yielded a burgeoning partnership with Ankara. Barzani also weathered concerns in Turkey that his political ambitions may spark a wider call for emancipation in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish populated areas.

Sunni lawmakers and cabinet ministers also feel the heat of Baghdad, whose Iraqiya political coalition won the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections but were outmaneuvered by Maliki for the right to form the government. They complain that Maliki is not complying with the power-sharing agreement and sidelining the Sunni politicians.

Erol said it will be difficult to maintain the unity of Iraq under the leadership of Maliki and warned against wider rivalry between Turkey and Iran over grabbing power and influence in Syria and Iraq.

He said Turkey’s success in Syria depends on to what degree Turkey succeeds in securing its influence within Iraq, and warned against confrontation between Turkey and Iran if Ankara and Tehran do not cooperate on several regional matters.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also been working on a comprehensive plan to reinvigorate the 2006 Mecca agreement -- a 10-point compromise deal reached by major Iraqi factions in which Muslim Shiite and Sunni groups called for an end to the bloodshed and sectarian violence -- in order to resolve the disputes in Iraq, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, secretary-general of the OIC, has told Sunday’s Zaman.

The OIC reconciliation conference at which the Mecca agreement was signed had helped to stabilize Iraq.

İhsanoğlu has said the request to renew the Mecca agreement actually came from Maliki himself.

Touching upon Maliki’s request for the OIC to renew the Mecca agreement, Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from the Turkish think tank Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), has stated that Maliki’s attempt was to show that the Hashemi case had nothing to do with the Sunni issue.

“Maliki distinguishes the Sunni issue from Hashemi, which is a very wrong approach. But, he is also aware that the Hashemi event will turn into Sunni-Shiite tension. So, this concern prompted Maliki to make the request,” Semin has said.

When asked what could be the reason behind Maliki’s request to renew the Mecca agreement, Professor Birol Akgün, a specialist from the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking (SDE), told Today’s Zaman that Maliki might be worried about the messages that have recently come from the US and Turkey.

“Maliki does not want to show that he is surrendering to Turkey. So, he is trying to decrease the tension via the OIC. He also wants to show his good intentions to the international community. But he is insincere about his request,” Akgün said.

2012-04-29

Diplomacy