The threat of Iraq’s collapse has forced conciliatory tones from the country’s Sunni and Shia Arab populations – but the Kurds, once the kingmakers of Iraqi politics, are vowing to play hardball.
Prime minister designate Haider al-Abadi has 20 days left to put together a cabinet, and foreign powers are pressing for a national unity government that can bring Iraq’s main parties together and slowly heal divisions along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The race to reach the political consensus Iraq needs to unlock greater foreign and internal support for its fight against Islamic State fighters (formerly known as Isis) takes place as its army, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shia militias separately battle to contain the territorial gains made by the group in a lightning offensive this summer.
The list of grievances and demands of Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis, who feel they were discriminated against and sidelined by former premier Nouri al- Maliki, is endless and some politicians say they expect some 300 to 400 laws to be amended, issued or abolished.
Despite needing military support from the US – and occasionally even Baghdad itself – to fend off an Islamic State advance into their semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq, Kurdish officials say their hand in negotiations is still strong.
Difficult test Roj Nuri Shawes, a senior Kurdish statesman and Iraq’s outgoing deputy prime minister, said
Abadi faces a “difficult test” to ease Kurdish wariness of his ruling Shia party and secure their support, and cited a long list of Kurdish demands.
“We need to solve these problems before we enter a new government – or have a road map for the solution put in place before we accept to form a government,” he said.
Other Kurdish officials waved the secession card: “The government isn’t in a place to put conditions on anyone . . . If they don’t accept our legal, constitutional and just demands, we have other options,” said former Kurdish negotiator Adel Nouri.
Most crucially, the Kurds are eager to get back eight months of budget revenue Maliki withheld over a dispute on oil exports. They want a modified oil and gas law that would allow independent Kurdish exports. And they want Baghdad to help fund their peshmerga forces, who, despite setbacks, are still more intact than Iraq’s army, which melted away during Islamic State’s June blitz.
Iraq’s Sunnis have a different set of demands. They want Abadi to give them a greater share in Iraq’s Shia-dominated political and legal branches. They are also demanding an amnesty for tens of thousands of Sunnis arrested without trial, the formation of militias to help fight Islamic State and a pledge for greater Sunni self-rule in a more regionalised federal system.
“It seems to me we’re going back to the early days of the Iraq war . . . making a big tent that’s supposed to be open to everyone, a sort of levelled playing field compared to the later Maliki government where Maliki was pre-eminent,” said Reidar Visser, an independent Iraq analyst.
“The challenge is whether any sort of unified government can emerge. My suspicion is it probably won’t.”
Too many promises for too many demands could be less satisfying than specific concessions on a smaller set of demands, say some analysts, who warn that if every group ends up frustrated, Iraq could end up even more polarised than before. They add that Abadi, with the threat of Islamic State uppermost in his mind, may be more focused on Iraq’s Sunnis than the country’s Kurds as he forms his government.
Moderate Sunni leaders, who are keen to get Sunnis back into Iraqi politics, are optimistic about a deal and hope it will encourage their constituents to fight Islamic State – many Sunni tribes allied themselves with the militant group because of their disenchantment with Maliki.
Goodwill initiatives The Sunni parliamentarian Jaber Jaberi says his Sunni bloc is willing to accept “goodwill initiatives” in exchange for its participation in government. These include an end to government bombings of Sunni majority cities, which he says kill civilians as well as Islamic State
fighters, and financial aid to the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis displaced by the violence.
“It’s impossible to solve all our problems during the constitutional period for forming a government,” Jaberi said. “But we agreed that we have to start negotiations about our problems and get a guarantee to implement such promises by the [ruling] National Alliance bloc – not just the prime minister.”
The Kurds vow to drive a harder bargain. Even the soft-spoken Shawes gave a sharp ultimatum for a referendum on disputed territories claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, which the peshmerga seized during the Islamic State offensive. “It can be no more than three months,” he said.
Visser argues the Kurdish posturing is bluster to overshadow an underlying need to reconcile with Baghdad and get back their budget.
Publicly, Kurdish officials insist there is enough international support for a succession bid – and deny that US air strikes that helped them keep Islamic State at bay require them to curb their political ambitions. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)