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    Middle East
     Jun 5, 2007
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 terrorist 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 government.

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 United States.

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 Baghdad.

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 Maliki cabinet.

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 minister-hopeful.

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 Parliament.

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 stalled.

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 unpopularity.

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.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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