Monday, April 02, 2007

Kirkuk in play ?

It's easy to forget, but the question of the status of Kirkuk was one of the main issues that eventually sunk the candidacy of Jaafari to succeed himself as Prime Minister following the December 2005 general elections. The reason was that the two big Kurdish parties thought he had been dragging his feet on implementation of the constitutional provision that calls for a referendum in Kirkuk by the end of calendar 2007 on whether or not to join the Region of Kurdistan. Kurds expect to win any such referendum. The Kurdish parties rejected coalition with Jaafari mainly because of his stonewalling on that issue, and the result was the Prime Ministership of Nuri al-Maliki. Under Maliki, a commission was set up to make recommendations, headed by Justice Minister Hashem al-Shabali, who under the party-allocations system was the nominee for that post of Allawi's Wifaq or Iraqi List party. The commission apparently recommended not only going ahead with the referendum, but also going ahead with a plan to offer compensation to Arab families that had been moved to Kirkuk by Saddam under his "Arabization" scheme, if they would move back to their places or origin in central and southern Iraq, something that would also please the Kurdish parties. Last Thursday, apparently, the Maliki cabinet approved the commission's recommendations (with some unspecified changes, according to one report), and at about the same time, al-Shabali announced he was resigning as Justice Minister.

Reporting on this recent series of events has been vague. The only reported explanations for the timing of the Justice Minister's resignation have to do with the fact he had differences not only with Maliki, but also with Allawi, and since a cabinet shuffle is expected soon, he decided to jump instead of being pushed. Allawi has reportedly proposed a list of three candidates to replace him, for Maliki to pick one of them. So the post still belongs to Allawi, and the big event that has occurred (according to these sketchy reports) is that Maliki seems to have in some way delivered on his commitment to move ahead with the "Kirkuk normalization" scheme.

One possible interpretation could be that Maliki made this concession to the two big Kurdish parties in order to keep them in his governing coalition, so that they wouldn't join with Allawi in toppling him. One problem with that is that the Justice Minister who was in charge of managing the process was Allawi's nominee. Another bit of food for thought is the top headline in the Iraq edition of Azzaman this morning: "Iraqi List [Allawi's group] flirts with the Kurdish [Alliance] in order to lead a future Government".

Azzaman reporters in Amman and Baghdad report: Allawi is still at work on the creating of a large parliamentary coalition that would permit him to lead a future government. The "core" of this, so far, is his alliance with Adnan Dulaimi who (nominally at least) heads the Iraqi Accord Front, to which Allawi still hopes to add the Fadhila and some of the smaller parties, to arrive at a coalition that would have a little over 80 out of the 275 parliamentary total. The purpose of this is described as follows: The formation of the core group is described as "preparatory" to entering into discussions with the Kurdistan Alliance in order to form a voting bloc big enough to take over the government, and this "in spite of the fact that [Talabani and Barzani] have insisted more than once on their alliance with the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim, which (Kurd-UIA grouping) enjoys a parliamentary majority." The reporters don't say on what basis Allawi hopes to make progress with the Kurds.

But I think it would be fair to say, first, that the Kurds will favor the side that will best promote their cause with respect to Kirkuk. And second, that given the sketchy nature of the reports on last week's cabinet decision and the resignation of the Justice Minister, it would be premature to conclude that one side or the other (meaning Maliki or his would-be successors) has already won the everlasting love and loyalty of the Kurdish parties in this issue.

(Footnote 1: The Azzaman piece also says Islamic Party head Tareq al-Hashemi, in Amman, is engaged in "similar" talks with other parties, including Fadhila for example, also with a view to formation of a parliamentary coalition that could take over from Maliki at some future time. The reporters don't say anything about any relationship between the two reported efforts, so this is uncertainty squared).

(Footnote 2: Back in early 2006, Jaafari, whom the Kurds accused of foot-dragging, was seen as closer to the nationalist position of Moqtada al-Sadr than the US-favored SCIRI candidate, and the eventual choice, Maliki, was seen as a compromise. I mention this only to remind readers that "pleasing the Kurds on Kirkuk" and "Iraqi nationalism" are going to be a tough set of issues for Allawi to bring together, if that is in fact what is going on.)