Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Can Go Your Own Way

Here's a question I pose in earnest: if you're an Iraqi Kurdish leader, does the current stalemate over the formation of a central government in Baghdad really concern you? Think about it. What do the Kurds stand to gain and lose from the emergence of a centralized government? From what I can tell, most potential outcomes that stem from the creation of such a government accrue to the negative side of the ledger, with the positives amounting to little by comparison. At least from the Kurdish perspective.

It is no secret that the Kurds have been diligently pursuing their own form of autonomy since the end of Gulf War I, enabled, largely, by the policing of the northern no-fly-zone by British and American forces. Throughout the political process in post-Saddam Iraq, the Kurds have resolutely pushed their agenda, deftly using their middle-man position between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and their coveted seats in the Iraqi parliament, to secure their interests. And their gains have been notable.

Kirkuk is slowly being ethnically "re-cleansed" - with Saddam's previous Arab imports being exported, and some legitimate, long standing Arabic/Turkmen Kirkuk residents getting the boot as well. Whether by some future local referendum in the re-cleansed Kirkuk, or by political deal between the Kurdish faction and the incoming government, oil-rich Kirkuk will likely be a part of Kurdistan going forward.

More importantly, the draft of the constitution that was ratified in the October referendum directly responds to the Kurds' most coveted objectives: (a) there is strong language regarding the legitimacy of semi-autonomous regions - with considerable power reserved for local capitals; (b) control over oil production will be largely regional and not centralized; and (c) each region's share of oil revenues will be determined using a vague formula accounting for an undefined amount of reparations for regions that suffered under the Baath regime, as well as increased portions for the regions that actually produce the oil.

Since most of the oil in Iraq resides in the Kurdish north and Shiite south (both regions that suffered greatly under Saddam), these provisions will create clear economic winners and losers in the new Iraq. Suffice it to say, the Sunnis - currently fueling the insurgencies - are none too pleased. And that is why I argued against ratification of this draft of the constitution way back in October of 2005. Inclusion of the Sunnis in the political process will require a constitution that better protects their interests and insures them a share of the country's economic spoils. Without such a pact, they have greater incentive to keep fighting.

In response to this dilemma, there was an eleventh hour deal forged by the various factions at the behest of Zal Khalilzad prior to the ratification of the constitution in October that ensured that a constitution-amending committee would be enpaneled by the new government after the December elections. This committee would be charged with the task of making non-binding recommendations for amending the current draft. Nevertheless, after the UIA's victory in those elections was secured, SCIRI's leader, Abdul Azziz al-Hakim, announced that there would be no significant changes to the constitution. Hakim and SCIRI are squarely behind the regional autonomy structure - which is one of the reasons the Kurds would prefer a prime minister from SCIRI over Dawa's Jaafari who is not as committed to this principle.

From the Kurdish perspective, a government headed by SCIRI would be decent in terms of preserving key elements of the constitution. But no government at all would be even better - for reasons that extend beyond the constitution. Without such a central government, there would be no possibility for amendment of the constitution to accommodate the Sunnis, no potential resolution of the Kirkuk issue to the detriment of Kurdish designs, no nationalization of armed forces and dismantling of the pesh merga and other militias and none of the other myriad encroachments on Kurdish autonomy that would be made possible by a new central government.

So while Baghdad is burning, and the political process is creating a jarring cacophony, the Kurds have been busy making their own melody with Kurdish fiddles. They don't appear to be in any rush to push through a resolution - especially one that could jeopardize their prior gains. For example, in December, the Kurds took their constitutionally-sanctioned regional autonomy for a test drive by signing an oil exploration deal with a Norwegian company without consulting, in any way, the central government in Baghdad. Then, in January, the Kurds announced the creation of their own Kurdish foreign ministry. An extremely irregular move for a sub-state.

Today, according to the LA Times (via Juan Cole), the Kurds have gone one step further by moving to create their own separate an distinct oil ministry:

Leaders of Iraq's Kurdish north have unveiled a controversial plan to consolidate their hold on the region's future petroleum resources, raising concerns about how the ethnically divided nation will share its oil revenue.

The Kurdish parliament will be asked to vote on the creation of a Ministry of Natural Resources that would regulate potentially lucrative energy projects in newly discovered oil and natural gas fields within the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The new ministry, if established, would be another step in the Kurds' gradual retreat from the Baghdad government, as well as a potentially destabilizing development in a country already on the verge of fragmenting along ethnic and religious lines.

"They have the right to make a decision in their territory, but it is dangerous," said Mohammed Aboudi, a divisional director-general of the national Oil Ministry and a government advisor. "They are starting to search for oil without any consultation with the central government. What if Basra does the same, or any other province?" [...]

Officials in Baghdad, including allies of the Kurds, said they were blindsided by news of the proposed ministry.

"We know what the ambitions of the Kurds are," said Iyad Samarrai, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab group. "But everybody agreed to make such moves within the [national] political process."

When confronted with their Norwegian oil deal, the Kurds claimed that the constitution granted them this right. Once again, they rely on that document to justify their current moves. As written, they're probably right. But there is a tinge of double-speak and disingenuousness in this defense. Consider these two statements by Kurdish "advisor" Peter Galbraith. The first one seems to make a legal argument, within the framework of the nascent Iraqi state:

"Forming a new ministry is an arrangement that will help increase oil production," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who has advised the Kurds. "If oil production increases in Alaska, it may be that the Alaskans get a major part of the benefits, but Alaska is still part of the U.S."

But then he tells us what he's really thinking:

"There are people who haven't faced the reality of what has gone on in Iraq," Galbraith said. "They still think that the old central state is going to be put back together again. It's not going to happen in Kurdistan. It's not going to happen in the south. It's not going to happen in Baghdad."

One gets the impression that the Kurds will push their agenda under whatever justification is available. Not that I blame them in a normative sense. And Galbraith may be right that the Iraqi state will disintegrate and be replaced with multiple states regardless of recent moves by the Kurds.

But this outcome of becomes more certain if the Kurds push ahead with their oil industry agenda, and the Shiite south follows suit. This could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. The violence and chaos wrought by the Sunni insurgencies, and Shiite/Kurdish reprisals, will not die down if the political/economic framework does not take the Sunni position into account. And before that, the various factions would have to agree on a government that could even address these concerns. Given the various competing incentives, I'm not overly optimistic.

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