Turkish threat echoes across Iraq
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who could be days
away from losing US support and with it his job, is seeking renewed Kurdish
support, even expressing his full backing for the Kurds in a potentially
disastrous confrontation with Turkey.
This move could strengthen his position in internal Iraqi politics, but it
looks like political suicide on the regional level, as in
addition to Turkey, Iran and Syria, key players in resolving Iraq's problems,
have Kurdish concerns.
The situation on the border has become so tense that US Defense Secretary
Robert Gates this weekend cautioned Turkey against a military operation inside
northern Iraq to attack outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases there.
Turkey is concerned at the
emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and
the presence there of the PKK, from where it
launches attacks on Turkey. The PKK is listed as a
group by not only Ankara but also Washington and
the European Union.
The Turkish military announced on Friday night that troops operating in
northern Iraq had been harassed by Kurdish forces and warned that such acts
would be given a response "at the highest level". The army chief confirmed that
the military is ready for an offensive and is only awaiting orders from the
It is widely acknowledged that the PKK cannot operate out of northern Iraq
without the full blessing of Maliki, President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd), and the
Yet far from trying to defuse the situation, even after being requested to do
so by Turkey, Maliki went to Iraqi Kurdistan on the weekend and met with its
president, Massoud Barzani, a strong ally and patron of the PKK. Maliki said
his government will not allow the relatively peaceful area of northern Iraq to
be turned into a battleground.
And in light of his standoff with former premier Iyad Allawi, the Sunnis and
other Shi'ites, Maliki said he is right behind the Kurds and even added, to
Barzani's delight, that execution of Article 140 of the constitution (which
relates to the oil-rich and disputed district of Kirkuk) is "obligatory".
Maliki was referring to the article that calls for a plebiscite in oil-rich
Kirkuk to decide whether the region should be incorporated into Iraqi
Kurdistan, along with a population census to see how many Kurds live there.
Turkey is particularly concerned that Iraqi Kurds' efforts to incorporate
Kirkuk into their self-governing region would embolden Kurds seeking self-rule
in southeastern Turkey.
In January, a committee (with Maliki's endorsement) said 12,000 Arab families
living in Kirkuk should return to their original homes in southern and central
Iraq. That would be Step 1 in showing that Kirkuk is an all-Kurdish region that
should therefore be incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan.
If Maliki goes ahead with his pro-Kurdish agenda, he will automatically end all
hope of reconciliation with Sunnis, who are categorically opposed to Kirkuk
becoming "Kurdish". It will also bring him into further confrontation with
Allawi. He would, though, be guaranteed Kurdish support in Parliament.
Allawi waiting in the wings
For the past three months in particular, Allawi has been active in drumming up
anti-Maliki sentiment in Iraq, talking with former enemies such as Shi'ite
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, in hope of bringing down the increasingly
unpopular prime minister.
Allawi, and those around him, believe that Maliki has been presented with an
ultimatum from the US to end sectarian violence, disarm the militias, conclude
rapprochement with the Sunnis, and bring security to the country. This is meant
to happen this month, or the US will withdraw the unconditional support it has
given Maliki since he was elected to office in May 2006, although his
constitutional mandate lasts until 2010.
According to the Saudi daily Al-Hayat, which is clearly supportive of Allawi,
Maliki's team accuses him of "conspiracy against the government". If that is
his "crime", it is probable that Allawi would confess to it, since he has never
hidden his desire to replace Maliki. He accuses Maliki of everything from
sectarianism, weakness, double-dealing and political immaturity, to secretly
supporting the militias and not having the will to disarm them because they
protect his interests in the Shi'ite community.
He also says Maliki's behavior has paved the way for Iran to meddle in Iraqi
politics, blaming Tehran for wanting to establish an Iran-style theocracy in
Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, however, has strongly denied charges of
"conspiracy", insisting that it strives to bring down Maliki through a variety
of constitutional ways. These include walking out on Parliament or on the
Haydar Abadi, a senior member of Maliki's Da'wa Party, defended his boss: "We
do not want to give the Iraqi state one political color [as Allawi has been
saying]. Allawi is projecting himself as representative of the secular line.
This is a color that must be represented in the government."
Abadi concluded, "Maliki has expressed his readiness to allow Allawi to play
the political role that he chooses on the condition that he adheres to the
political process." This was a hint that any unconstitutional methods - such as
covert action against the Maliki regime or alliances with regional Arab states
- would constitute a red line that would not be tolerated.
Allawi has visited several Arab countries in recent months, meeting with the
leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, all of whom want a secular man at
the helm of power in Baghdad, rather than a religiously driven person like
Maliki, who comes from a party that preaches political Islam.
Just 24 hours after Abadi's statement, Allawi's former minister of defense,
Hazem Shaalan, was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison on charges of
corruption. Orders were also issued to seize the former minister's assets,
while he condemned the accusations from his home in London.
Shaalan was accused in October 2005 of mismanaging more than US$1 billion from
the state treasury for the ostensible purchase of arms from Poland and
Pakistan, with the knowledge of Allawi. The finance minister in 2005 said at
the time that most of the money allocated for armament "had been taken out of
the country in cash and disappeared". He added that instead of modern weapons,
Iraq got "museum pieces".
Regardless of the relationship between Allawi and Shaalan, the sentence at this
particular time is clearly aimed at tarnishing the former prime minister's
image and reminding the world of wrongdoings during his tenure in power (June
2004 to April 2005).
In another blow announced last week, a former comrade of Allawi, Mahdi Hafez,
said he was leaving the Allawi-led Iraqi National List, a coalition of parties
that won 25 of 275 seats in the December 2005 elections. Hafez confirmed,
however, that he will stick to Allawi's program of fighting sectarianism,
disarming the militias and working for security in Iraq. It does bring the
List's members of Parliament down to 24.
Hafez is a respected Shi'ite official, having served as minister of planning
and development under Allawi, and he has echoed Allawi's views regarding
Maliki. He was Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations from 1978 to 1980, during
the early years of the Saddam Hussein era. It is unclear why Hafez abandoned
Allawi at this critical period, and whether Maliki had anything to do with it,
but one thing is certain: it will mean more hardship for the prime
Last month Allawi called for a party conference in Amman to announce his
withdrawal from Maliki's cabinet and the creation of a new front of secular
Shi'ites, anti-Maliki Shi'ites and Sunnis. It would be aimed at bringing down
the prime minister and led by Allawi. But the meeting failed, much to the
pleasure of Maliki, as its leaders were divided over how to deal with the
crisis between Allawi and the premier, such as whether or not to walk out of
There were also divisions within the party over whom to include in the new
anti-Maliki front. There were strong objections to welcoming certain Sunni
figures, such Adnan al-Dulaimi, Mishaan Juburi and Salih al-Mutlak.
Meanwhile, Muqtada, although traditionally allied to Maliki, is engaged in
talks with Allawi. The two were at loggerheads when Allawi was prime minister
in 2004 and Muqtada was leading an armed rebellion against both him and the
Americans. If talks between the two former enemies succeed, it could mean the
end of Maliki.
On the ground, Maliki is having a hard time. The much-touted "surge" and
Baghdad security plan are now producing more deaths than ever, and Maliki took
a severe blow when five British officials were kidnapped from the Ministry of
Finance last month, an act blamed on the Sadrists.
Amendments to the constitution, changing de-Ba'athification laws to bring
Sunnis back into the political process, and an important new oil law all remain
There could be a silver lining, though. David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to
General David Petraeus, the commanding US general in Iraq, recently warned
against parting with Maliki, despite all of his setbacks, blunders and
The consequences of toppling Maliki, given his alliance to militias such as the
Mahdi Army, could bring complete chaos to the already war-torn country,
Kilcullen said. During any transition period, all hell could break lose in
Iraq, so keeping Maliki might be the better of two poor options.