Thursday, May 10, 2012

Iraq’s Premier And Kurdistan’s President Spar Over Weapons As Part Of Larger Political Dispute

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani are currently caught in a war of words about the future of the government. As part of that dispute, the two recently traded barbs about the Iraqi security forces. While visiting the United States, President Barzani told American officials that they should delay the delivery of F-16 fighters to the Iraqi Air Force, because they might be used against the Kurds. Barzani also claimed that Kurdish officers in the armed forces were being sidelined. The central government retaliated by demanding that the Kurdish peshmerga turn over their heavy weapons. These charges will likely continue, and even escalate as the current political crisis remains deadlocked.
While on a trip to Washington in April, Kurdish President Barzani warned the Americans not to deliver F-16 fighters to the central government as long as Maliki was in power (Rudaw)
The dispute over the Iraqi military started in March 2012 with the Kurds attacking Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s intentions. On March 20, President Massoud Barzani gave a speech saying that the premier was attempting to take over the armed forces. He went on to say that the F-16 fighter jets, which are on order with the Americans, could be used to threaten Kurdistan. Barzani went on to question why the prime minister was the commander in chief of the armed forces, the head of the national security council and chief of intelligence, and the temporary Defense, Interior, and National Security Ministers. In no other country, Barzani noted, did this situation exist. The next month, Barzani gave an interview with Al Hurra TV, in which he said that Maliki was appointing division commanders in the Iraqi Army without having them approved by parliament as required by law, while marginalizing Kurdish officers. He repeated his claim that the Iraqi forces could be used against the Kurds, and called on the United States to delay the delivery of the F-16s as a result. Barzani went on to tell the Americans directly of that request when he travelled to Washington in mid-April. The Kurdish President told the Obama Administration that as long as Maliki was in office, the jets should not be sent to Iraq. A Kurdish parliamentarian and then Barzani followed up those comments, by saying that they did not mind the security forces buying new weapons, what they were concerned about was the central government’s ideology. Barzani elaborated in May that he was afraid that Baghdad would return to using violence against its opponents, a likely reference to Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqi governments before him that all used force at one time or another to subdue the Kurdish population. The Kurdish president said that violence should not be used to solve the country’s problems. These broadsides by Barzani were aimed at three specific groups. First, the Kurds have actively been lobbying Washington for a special relationship, outside of the one that it has with Baghdad. Kurdish officials hope that if one were able to be brokered, it would be a huge guarantee of their continued autonomy in northern Iraq. Barzani’s comments while in the U.S. therefore, were meant to paint Baghdad as untrustworthy and possibly dangerous, while Kurdistan was a more reliable partner. Second, Barzani is in the middle of a political dispute with Maliki over the structure and workings of the current national unity government. Since the beginning of 2012, the Kurdistan president has increasingly attacked Maliki for concentrating power in his hands, and not following through with his promises to the Kurdish Coalition before the government was put together to pass a new oil law, resolve the disputed territories, pay for the peshmerga, and compensate oil companies working in the north. Last, Barzani was aiming at the Kurdish public, because provincial elections are scheduled for this September, and the president would like his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to remain the dominant one in the region. Saber rattling about protecting Kurds against the central government plays on nationalist themes in the north.

Prime Minister Maliki replied in kind to Barzani. In April, a member of the premier’s State of Law list, accused the Kurds of trying to prevent Iraq from acquiring new military equipment, and thus keep the country weak. Another said that Barzani aspired to annex the disputed area of Kirkuk, and thus wanted to prevent the military from gaining new equipment that could be used to block that move. A third one told the press that the Kurdish president was acting out of selfish and jealous reasons, because he wanted a share of the F-16s, but was turned down. A fourth, accused the Kurds within the security ministries of delaying the purchase of new tanks from Eastern Europe. Finally, at the end of April, State of Law deputies started demanding that the Kurds turn over any heavy weapons they confiscated from Saddam’s military after the 2003 invasion. They claimed that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was not allowed such equipment, and that people in the disputed territories along Tamim, Diyala, and Ninewa feared that they would be used against them. Another lawmaker from Maliki’s list said that Kurdish weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, meaning the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that operates out of Kurdistan against Turkey, and its offshoot, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) that works in Iran. Legal experts were quoted in the Iraqi press, saying that the constitution did not give the Kurds the right to arm themselves, only have their own internal security forces. Again, these were simple tit for tat statements made by Maliki’s party to counter Barzani’s earlier statements. State of Law felt that if the Kurdish president was going to attack them for buying F-16 jets, then the Kurdish weapons and intentions were fair game as well.

This was all part of the political theater that is Iraqi politics. President Barzani and Maliki’s State of Law had no intention nor power to follow through with any of their statements. The Iraqi government has signed a deal with Washington to buy several dozen F-16 jets, and Barzani has no way to stop it. Likewise, Maliki has no way to get the Kurds to turn over any weapons since he has no authority in Kurdistan. This was just an example of two politicians finding a new avenue with which to attack each other over. Unfortunately, the prime minister is indeed trying to assert his power throughout the security ministries and forces, which definitely could pose a serious threat to Iraqi democracy. Barzani is just trying to make points off of it, rather than seriously confront the issue. More important to him, is that he is dissatisfied with the deal the Kurdish parties brokered with Maliki for him to remain in office after the March 2010 elections. They are currently harping about the premier as a result, and this flare up about weapons is just another manifestation of that. They and other opponents of the prime minister do not have the votes in parliament to do anything about his rule however. They will have to wait until 2014 elections role around, which will be the real test of Iraq’s ruling class on whether they can organize against Maliki and orchestrate a transfer of power or whether they will remain weak and divided and the prime minister will stay in office once again. Until then, more accusations will be thrown around between the feuding factions.


Ahmed Hevidar, “Maliki Given Ultimatum at Leaders Meeting in Erbil,” Rudaw, 4/29/12

AIN, “Kurds have concerns over IA ideology, says Kurdish MP,” 4/25/12

AK News, “Barzani: We told US, Kurds do not accept delivery of Maliki’s military aircrafts,” 4/23/12

Ali, Hiba, “Candidates for Kurdistan provincial elections to be registered next month,” AK News, 4/3/12

Alsabawi, Jasim, “Kurdish President Barzani Criticized for Resistance to F-16 Deal,” Rudaw, 4/29/12

Griffis, Margaret, “Kurds Approve Heavy Weapons For Themselves, Baghdad Says No,”, 4/29/12

Hassan, Rebin, “Barzani: We are not afraid of F16 jets,” AK News, 5/4/12

National Iraqi News Agency, “Legal Expert: Acquisition of heavy weapons by Peshmerga contrary to the Constitution,” 5/1/12

Rao, Prashant, “Iraq PM ‘monopolising power:’ Kurdish leader,” Agence France Presse, 3/20/12

Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics, No. 37,” 5/1/12

Van Wilgenburg, Wladimir, “Barzani Suggests Baghdad Might Use F-16s Against Kurds,” Rudaw, 4/9/12
- “Iraq Analysis: Kurdistan’s Contest with Prime Minister al-Maliki Heats Up,” Enduring America, 4/29/12
- “US State Department: F-16 Sale Will Go Ahead,” Rudaw, 4/29/12

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