May 27, 2014

Iraq's Political System Is Fragmenting (And Its Geopolitical Implications)

There are allegations that the recent parliamentary elections in Iraq, in which 58 percent of the country's population participated, were rigged. Salah Nasrawi wrote in the Egyptian paper Ahram Online on Thursday, May 22:
The main bone of contention has been the al-Maliki government’s direct or procedural interference in the elections. Reported irregularities include the unfair use of state resources and bribery to induce voters.

A video widely circulated on social networks showed a member al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance inducing voters in a southern province to vote for his bloc in exchange for plots of land, saying that he was speaking on behalf of al-Maliki.

During the election campaign al-Maliki himself was filmed distributing title deeds for plots of land owned by the government.

Al-Maliki's coalition had largely based its electoral campaign on promising government jobs, especially in the police and the army which are under al-Maliki's direct control.

The party of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki emerged as the victor, but it needs to gather others to form a governing coalition.
By using these fraudulent tactics the party of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki managed to stay in power. But it needs the support of others to form a strong government, and that is where things get complicated. Maliki has made a lot of enemies during his eight-year reign in power. Reports say that he has a vindictive personality, and that he keeps files on his political rivals. Sunni leaders, emboldened by rising public anger at the government, the Kurds in the North, and rival Shiite parties, have all voiced their discontent with Maliki's style of rule.

If Maliki remains the face of Baghdad then restive Sunni provinces and the Kurds may finally reach a breaking point. Sunni leaders want to break free from the capital, and eye the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has begun to export oil on its own, as a model for their provinces.

Meanwhile, Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, said that authorities in Kurdistan will hold a referendum on the question of independence from Baghdad if Maliki gets a third term in office. He said, "If Maliki secures a third term in office, our choice will be a public referendum in Kurdistan on a new formula for our relations with Baghdad."

If the Kurdish North breaks away completely from Baghdad then the Shiite provinces in the South, home of a great amount of Iraq's oil, may also demand their separation. Such a move will have immediate geopolitical implications. It will embolden the Shiites in Eastern Saudi Arabia, which is where the Ghawar oil field, the biggest oil field on the planet, is located.

Read this excerpt from, "Mid-East contagion fears for Saudi oil fields" by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph, January 31, 2011:
There has been less focus on the risk of instability spreading to Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, headquarters of the Saudi oil giant Aramco. The region boasts the vast Safaniya, Shaybah and Ghawar oilfields. "This is potentially far more dangerous," said Faysal Itani, Mid-East strategist at Exclusive.
"The Shia are 10pc of the Saudi population. They are deeply aggrieved and marginalised, and sit on top of the kingdom's oil reserves. There have been frequent confrontations and street fights with the security forces that are very rarely reported in the media."
The government of Saudi Arabia has alienated its Shiites by ignoring their demands for greater participation in all areas of society. For more information, read this excerpt from, "Saudi Arabia's Shiite Problem" by Toby Matthiesen, Foreign Policy, March 7, 2012:
The Eastern Province is home to virtually all of Saudi Arabia's oil and to a sizeable Shiite minority, estimated at between one and a half and two million people or around 10 percent of Saudi Arabia's citizen population. The Wahhabi creed of Sunni Islam that the state sponsors in Saudi Arabia has developed a special hostility toward the Shiites. Saudi Shiite citizens in turn have long complained of discrimination in religious practice, government employment, and business, and overall marginalization.

For decades, opposition groups formed by Saudi Shiites, both leftist and Islamists, as well as hundreds of petitions by Shiite notables, have had the same demands: an end to sectarian discrimination in government employment and representation in main state sectors including at the ministerial level; more development in Shiite areas; the strengthening of the Shiite judiciary; and an end to arbitrary arrests of Shiite for religious or political reasons. None of these demands would significantly undermine the position of the royal family, or otherwise threaten the integrity of Saudi Arabia. They would rather cement the current political system and buy the allegiance of two million people living on top of the kingdom's oil.

Since last year, the demands have also included the release or retrial of nine Shiite political prisoners and a withdrawal of Saudi forces from Bahrain, or at least a negotiated solution to the conflict there, as well as more general political reforms in Saudi Arabia. The government promised youth activists that their grievances would be addressed in April 2011, so following a call from senior Saudi Shiite clerics to halt protests, they did so. But the government did not follow through, and answered with repression over the summer, even though it released some prisoners that were arrested during the February to April 2011 protests. Therefore, the situation remained tense, and when four Shiites were shot dead in November their funerals turned into anti-government rallies with up to a 100,000 participants.
The best course of action would be reconciliation between the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government, as well as reconciliation between the KRG and Baghdad, but the chances of either of those things happening are dropping faster and faster. Border changes in Iraq and beyond is an inevitability. Syria is splintering into regions, the greater Levant's current political systems are coming under heavy pressure because of regional events, and the House of Saud's days are numbered. Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute, said in November 2013:
But, what has happened is that the three nation states - Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq - have effectively collapsed as national projects. Lebanon effectively collapsed as a united nation in the seventies. Iraq over stages and then, is still not a nation. It’s broken. And Syria over the past two years has broken as a national project. In all three cases, also, the states are no longer sovereign. Lebanon doesn’t control its borders. Syria doesn’t and Iraq doesn’t nor all of its territory. So, we have broken nations and broken states in a border order that is not open to change and that perhaps is a problem.

We are also in a region which is terribly contested. In the first panel today, we talked about how Tunisia or Libya or even Egypt is in a geostrategic environment, which is not hotly contested. The Levant obviously is contested between Iraq and the Gulf, between Turkey and Arab countries, between the U.S., Russia, and China to some degree. You see it in Syria. You saw it in Lebanon. You see it in Iraq today. Not only are these sort of broken nations and broken states, the region itself is, in a sense, a proxy war zone. Until the regional conflicts or regional negotiations take place, I don’t think we’ll see any major progress.
A disintegrating Syria doesn't bother Washington, in fact it is encouraging it, but it wants to see Iraq remain a whole nation for energy and geopolitical reasons. Read this excerpt from, "An Independent Kurdistan? Not if the US Can Help It" by Emre Uslu, Al-Monitor, September 12, 2013:
The US prefers a stable Iraqi government that flirts with Iran to an unstable Iraq. That is why Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Iranian attitude has gone unnoticed— what Iran stands to gain from such a tryst is less significant than what the US might lose from an unstable Iraq. Al-Maliki is well aware of the American quandary and plays up his relations with Iran to test the limits of his opponents.

The fourth reason is Saudi Arabia. It is a fact that the Saudi attitude towards Iran is more hostile than any Arab position against Israel. The real struggle in the region is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If the Kurds declare independence in the north and Iraq is divided into three parts, then the Iranians — with their access to the Shiite region — will be land-neighbors with Saudi Arabia. Such a situation will provide Iran with a substantial opportunity to provoke the Shiites in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Saudis, who intervened in Bahrain to prevent the outbreak of the Arab Spring, will do everything possible to prevent Iraq’s fragmentation.

In a nutshell, Barzani’s independence would mean destabilizing not only Iraqi energy resources, but Saudi energy resources as well. No White House can live with $ 5– 6 per gallon of gasoline for its citizens, and the key to that is in Barzani’s hands. This is why the US is the biggest obstacle to an independent Kurdistan. For the time being at least…
Iraq's unity will be defended by Maliki, but he is not popular or powerful enough to accomplish this task. Read this excerpt from, "For Maliki, Retaining Power Trumps Iraqi Unity" by Charles Recknagel, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 10, 2013:
Crispin Hawes, head of Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa Program, says Maliki has never made good on promises to reintegrate minority Sunnis after they were banished from power with the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"He has very little interest in securing mass support within the Sunni Arab communities, largely based in western, northwestern Iraq, although he has done a very effective job of, from time to time, co-opting different political parties that represent elements of that community," Hawes says. "His main goal is to be prime minister of a large, somewhat amorphous Shi'ite coalition, which he can continue to dominate through a divide-and-conquer approach and he has proven exceptionally capable of doing this."

Many analysts see Maliki as locked into a game plan that today prevents him from rising above being a nimble sectarian leader to become a trusted national leader. So long as he fails to make the transition, they warn, Iraq will continue to suffer sectarian violence that ebbs and flows but never disappears.