At the beginning of May 2012, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a provocative trip to Kirkuk in Tamim province. There he held a meeting of his cabinet, and declared the city an Iraqi one. This was a bold move aimed at not only his main rivals, the Iraqi National Movement (INM), which won half the votes in the province in the 2010 elections, but also the Kurdish Coalition, that wants to annex Kirkuk. The event was meant to bring back Maliki’s nationalist image, which he had dropped for sectarianism in the last vote, as well as drive a wedge between the National Movement and Kurds who had increasingly been working together to oppose the prime minister.
|Premier Maliki arrives in Kirkuk, May 8, 2012 (Getty Images)
On May 8, 2012, Premier Maliki visited Kirkuk. He held a cabinet meeting there, part of which was televised. He said that the city, and Tamim province overall, was representative of Iraq as a whole, because it was the home to all of the country’s major groups including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians. The prime minister went on to say that the governorate had an Iraqi identity as a result. He remarked that force could not be used to resolve Tamim’s problems, and demanded that all “unofficial” security forces leave. Those were both references to the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, and their security force, the Asayesh, which have been in Tamim since the 2003 invasion. A parliamentarian from Maliki’s State of Law was more explicit the next day when he declared that only the central government could provide security to the provinces, that as commander and chief of the armed forces, only Maliki should have control over those forces, and that the Kurdish peshmerga and Asayesh were only allowed in Kurdistan. Maliki’s visit was a calculated move to try to split his main rivals, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) and the Kurdish Coalition. The two lists had increasingly been consulting with each other to oppose the prime minister. By going to Kirkuk, and calling for the Kurdish forces to withdraw, he was trying to highlight the differences between the two, and portray himself as a nationalist leader. The Kurds moved into Kirkuk after the 2003 invasion, and see it as the centerpiece to their plans to annex disputed territories that stretch from Ninewa to Salahaddin to Tamim and Diyala. By saying that Kirkuk was Iraqi, Maliki was saying that he was against those plans. The INM also won half of the parliamentary seats in the province in the 2010 elections, partially because it too said that it stood for the Arab and Turkmen populations of the governorate who were against the Kurds’ aspirations. The National Movement has largely ignored its campaign promises however, and focused upon Maliki instead. That has drawn it into working with the very Kurdish parties it ran against two years ago. The premier was trying to usurp the INM’s standing in Kirkuk with his statements, and portray himself as the only nationalist leader in the country willing to fight against the Kurds’ plans.
It was no surprise then that the Kurdish Coalition and the Iraqi National Movement condemned Maliki’s trip. The Kurdish parties objected to his visit, and its ministers boycotted the cabinet session. A spokesman for Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani criticized Maliki for not mentioning Article 140 when he was in Kirkuk. When Maliki got the Kurds’ support for his second term in 2010, he agreed to implement 140, but has never followed up on that promise. A Kurdish parliamentarian went on to say that the cabinet meeting in Kirkuk was illegal, and that Maliki was interfering in the province’s local affairs. The Kurds even responded in kind after the prime minister left, by sending its own delegation to the city, and saying that it had a Kurdish identity. A spokesman from the INM accused Maliki of raising tensions between Arabs and Turkmen, and a leader from the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the National Movement, said that he was causing problems between the major parties as well. The two lists were obviously concerned about the prime minister, and his provocative statements. They had to respond to his challenge in kind, but in the war of words and image, they seemed to be playing catch-up.
Not everyone was upset however with Maliki’s arrival in Kirkuk. The Arab Political Council in Tamim welcomed the prime minister, saying that he was standing up to the Kurds, and showing the power of the central government. The head of the party stated that the premier was attempting to resolve the outstanding issues over the future of the city, which was a first, because he condemned the previous governments for only giving lip service to the region, but never doing anything about it. He went on to condemn the INM for not standing up for the Arabs of Tamim even though they mostly voted for it in 2010. The National Movement has always been a fractious lot, and one of its lawmakers told the press that Maliki’s visit seemed to make the Kurdish forces back-off from what he claimed was a campaign against the province’s Arabs. These politicians were exactly the type of people that Maliki was aiming at when he went to Tamim. He wanted to portray himself as a nationalist leader, something he did in 2008 and 2009. Before the 2009 provincial elections, for example, he challenged the Kurds in Diyala over the disputed territories. He was trying to repeat that by going to Kirkuk. That seemed to win over some of the Arabs there, who have generally felt ignored by national politicians as they are caught up with their battles in Baghdad. That didn’t mean that Maliki was actually going to do anything substantive there, but again, he was trying to score political points, and divide his two opponents, and he seemed initially successful at doing that.
The Iraqi National Movement and the Kurdish Coalition have become Prime Minister Maliki’s two main opponents. They have been calling for Maliki to share power with them or be removed. Unfortunately for them, they do not have the votes in parliament to actually do anything against him. Instead, they have delivered a daily barrage of verbal attacks upon the premier. Maliki responded by making a bold trip to Kirkuk to split the two parties by playing up the differences between them over the fate of the area. Their heated responses showed that he hit a nerve. While the two are willing to work together now against Maliki, they have deep seated divisions, and those are what have kept them from making a real challenge to the prime minister. Maliki has also consistently been able to outplay them, using divide and conquer tactics, and this is the latest example. As long as he continues with these adept moves he can keep his opponents off balance, and remain in office.
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