Saturday, January 1, 2011

What Does 2011 Hold For Iraq?

As Iraq enters 2011 it faces a number of important decisions regarding politics and economics. In the coming weeks and months Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new cabinet has to be completed. Next the government has to decide how it will deal with the Kurds’ demands, which are directly linked to oil, the country’s most important resource. International energy companies are expected to begin major production increases this year as well. By mid-year Baghdad will have to decide whether it wants to re-negotiate the Status of Forces Agreement to allow American troops to stay in Iraq past the end of 2011. Finally, the new year could give a taste of how Maliki plans on governing this time around. The end of his last term was marked by a turn towards autocracy and confrontation. Will there be check and balances this time around or will the premier continue to concentrate power in his hands? These issues are all too familiar for Iraq, as they are largely the same ones dealt with in the preceding years. 2011 could therefore be déjà vu for Iraq.

PM Maliki’s cabinet is yet to be completed (Agence France Presse)

Iraq’s first order of business is to complete the formation of Prime Minister Maliki’s new government. When the premier’s cabinet was introduced on December 21, ten ministries were leaderless. Those included Defense, Interior, and National Security. Currently, all three of those are being run by Maliki, but politicians have said that the State of Law-Sadrist led Iraqi National Coalition will get Interior and National Security, while Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement will receive Defense. The newest twist to those negotiations is that the Kurds are demanding that they receive the National Security Ministry based upon an ethnosectarian quota. The Kurdish Coalition claims that since a Shiite will get Interior, and a Sunni Defense, than a Kurd should be named to the remaining ministry. Arab politicians have countered by saying that the Kurds have gotten their just due already, and that there will be no quota system for the security posts. Another issue is the creation of the National Council for Strategic Policies, which Allawi is supposed to head. Officials have increasingly talked about the bill to create the new office being completed. The Council will include Allawi, Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Speaker of parliament Osama Nujafi, and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, but the other members have not yet been decided. The National Coalition will get 50% of the seats whoever they are, the National Movement 30%, and the Kurds 20%. The Council will require an 80% vote to have its decisions be binding, but recommendations will only need a simple majority. The real issue is whether the Council will have any real power, because Maliki’s allies have said it won’t. If it doesn’t, Allawi will likely be an absentee member, and his list could break apart into its constituent parts. Figuring out who will control what will be the most important issues facing Iraq at the beginning of 2011, dragging out the government formation process for almost an entire year.

Afterward determining the relationship with the Kurds could be a problem. The day that Maliki’s cabinet was voted on he signed the Kurds’ 19 demands. Those include allowing Kurdistan to export oil again, and to have Baghdad recognize their petroleum contracts. New Oil Minister Abdul Karim Luaibi claimed that a breakthrough had been achieved on both of those issues, but that’s disputed by the Kurds. Luaibi said that there was a signed agreement between the two sides over exports, which could begin in days, and that the central government would approve the Kurdish deals. The Kurdistan Regional Government however, stated that there was nothing signed, only talks, and that no foreign sales will occur without recognition of their oil contracts, which Baghdad has called illegal. The Kurds have also threatened to hold up passage of the 2010 budget that includes 150,000 barrels a day in Kurdish production unless this matter is solved. If the two sides achieve that it would be an early victory for Maliki. If not, it will be a sign that the government will continue to be deadlocked over the major differences facing the country.

2011 is also supposed to be the year that oil production takes off due to the work of foreign companies. Oil Minister Luaibi has said that Iraqi output will rise from the current 2.4 million barrels a day to 3 million by the end of the year. The country has to overcome its infrastructure and transportation limitations to achieve this goal. New pipelines have to be built, Um Qasr port in Basra has to be repaired and expanded along with another possible access to the Gulf, along with the expansion of roads, storage facilities, and water supplies. So far, the companies have had little affect because the petroleum industry is working at capacity. A lot of construction has to be done before the businesses can move the country forward.

By the middle of the year, Iraqi politicians will have to decide whether they want U.S. troops to stay in the country past the December deadline. Maliki recently gave an interview with the Wall Street Journal where he said that there would be no amending or extending the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allows American forces to only stay twelve more months in Iraq. That might have just been politicking after the announcement of his cabinet, but if the prime minister does want to change the SOFA it will be difficult because the Sadrists, who were a major player in Maliki returning to office, oppose any stay by the U.S. If he gives into the anti-occupation forces Iraq will be left even more vulnerable to interference by neighboring countries because the Iraqi military will not be able to defend the country from outside threats within a year, nor maintain most of the high-tech equipment its in the process of purchasing such as M1A1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighters without Washington’s aid. This will be a mid-year test for Maliki to see whether he will bow to political pressure within his own coalition or not.

That points to the most important topic in the new year, how will Prime Minister Maliki act in his second term. From 2008-2010 the premier assumed more control of the security forces and government offices. He confronted the Kurds in the disputed territories and over oil. He created his own State of Law list, and won a sweeping victory in the 2009 provincial elections. He tried to repeat that success in 2010, but ended up splitting the Shiite vote and came in second to Allawi. All of those were part of Maliki’s turn towards nationalism, in an attempt to break free of the other major parties such as the Sadrists, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the Kurds, that had backed him previously. At the same time, the prime minister continued to follow sectarian policies by cracking down upon and neglecting the Sons of Iraq after they were turned over to Iraqi control by the Americans, and supporting the deBaathification bans on candidates before the March 2010 vote. Maliki was able to keep his job through all the arguments and horse trading over forming a new government, but what will the deals he cut to get that far mean for his position is unknown. As the winner in the national election, many fear that he will slowly but surely assume more power around himself and his party at the expense of his rivals as he did before. Others think that the political parties have learned from the first Maliki administration, and will attempt to restrain him, and force the premier into compromises. Politicians like Speaker Nujafi and Allawi, if the National Council is given any real authority, can do that by requiring Maliki to forge a consensus over policy and calling his ministers to account for their actions in front of parliament. On the other hand, if the government ends up weak, divided, and deadlocked like the last one, that will free the prime minister to do what he wants.

While Iraq faces many important decisions, 2011 shows how much the country has changed. Since 2009 the major issues have been political and economic rather than about security. While the insurgency and Special Groups still operate and people are killed every day, violence has reached an “irreducible minimum” that’s unlikely to change for some time. Reviving the oil industry from years of neglect and sanctions so that Baghdad has the money necessary to develop and employ the rest of the country is of paramount concern instead. That may require an understanding with the Kurds over their independent energy policy. At the same time, Kurdish petroleum production is so small that the rest of Iraq can progress and profit without its contribution for now. Maliki also needs to complete his government, and his coalition has to assert itself otherwise the prime minister is likely to amass more power, which will inevitably lead to more conflicts. While this is all happening the Americans are on their way out, and even if the SOFA is amended and some military personnel stay to help Iraq with national defense, they will have less and less say in the country. Rather Iraqis will make the final decisions. The problem is that their politicians are immature, selfish, and venal, often choosing the path of least resistance, which is to do nothing or drag things out as long as possible in petty arguments. That’s likely to be the real news of the new year.


AK News, “Iraq’s other stage of govt formation: naming security ministers,” 12/28/10

Ali, Yaser, “KBC: Maliki signs agreement to Kurdish conditions,” AK News, 12/21/10

Aswat al-Iraq, “Iraq targets 3m bpd by 2011 end – minister,” 12/25/10
- “Iraq’s Kurdistan ready to export oil according to Baghdad govt.’s export level, official,” 12/20/10

Cordesman, Anthony, “Victory And Violence In Iraq: Reducing the ‘Irreducible Minimum,’” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2/25/08

Dagher, Sam, “Iraq Wants the U.S. Out,” Wall Street Journal, 12/28/10

Hafidh, Hassan, “Impasse On Kurdish Exports Signals Broader Iraq Oil Uncertainty,” Dow Jones, 12/31/10

Iraq Body Count, “Iraqi deaths from violence in 2010,” 12/30/10

Al-Nashimi, Fadel, “the changing face of nouri al-maliki,” Niqash, 12/28/10
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraqi Parliament Blocs Agree On New National Council,” 12/30/10

Sly, Liz, “Maliki’s governing style raises questions about future of Iraq’s fragile democracy,” Washington Post, 12/22/10

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