Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia

The Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), which is rendered in English as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, is a large and prominent Sunni insurgent group in Iraq. JRTN endorses violent strategies and is a nationalist/Ba’athist group rather than a quasi-religious group.

JRTN was established in December 2006 following the execution of Saddam Hussein ostensibly as a reactionary force to protect Naqshbandis from extremists such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS from which ISIS evolved). It works closely with and is part of the Baathist “Majlis al Askeri” or General Military Council which meets in Mosul. JRTN is the lead Baathist command and is the second largest military force in the uprising after ISIS (indeed it almost certainly is actually numerically superior to ISIS but ISIS is far better equipped and has far greater financial resources).

The Naqshbandia (i.e. the religious movement rather than the JRTN military force) is a major spiritual order of Sunni Sufism which traces its spiritual lineage to the prophet Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and Muhammad’s companion. There are other Naqshbandia orders that trace their lineage through Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and the fourth Caliph. Izzat al-Douri has been a Naqshbandi sheikh since the late 70s.

The JRTN military force has Ba’athist colouring and is also led by Saddam’s former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the last surviving plotter of those who brought the Ba’ath party to power in the 1968 Iraq coup (and the man elected to the leadership of the Iraqi Ba’ath after the execution of Saddam). It is unclear as to what extent al-Douri has a role in the day-to-day running of the group. He has rarely been seen since the 2003 invasion though a video surfaced in 2012 showing him to be alive. There are reports that he requires regular dialysis and if these reports are true, as is likely, al-Douri is more of an insurgent figurehead than an operational leader.

Al-Douri’s authority and history as a member of the Ba’ath party leadership has been important in driving up recruitment numbers among Sunnis. He is a regarded as a veteran networker and coalition builder, with extensive contacts. Izzat al-Douri has up till recently been outside Iraq fundraising for the insurgency and for its monthly magazine publicising the group’s operations and promoting its ideology through which it solicits donations. He is in Iraq now. According to local sources, al-Douri visited the Mosul governorate headquarters of JRTN on 12th June in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul prior to which he was hiding in a “country in the region” (presumed by many to be Qatar).

The group operates in Baghdad, al-Anbar, Ninaweh, Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces. JRTN utilises guerrilla tactics that include attacking soft targets first to minimise its own casualties. The group uses a two-pronged strategy which has a so called “defensive phase” which involves attacks from a distance, typically with missiles, followed by an assault phase.

Role played in the 2014 Iraq Conflict
The JRTN played a significant role in the capture of Mosul earlier this month. The JRTN took responsibility for “liberating” the five bridges that connect the western and eastern parts of Mosul. They have assumed an increasingly commanding role in the administration of the insurgent occupied cities. Some of their generals have been proclaimed “governors” of captured cities. For instance Ahmed Abdul Rashid has been appointed the governor to Tikrit.

JRTN has been increasingly prominent in this anti-government insurgency taking an active part in what are known as the Tribal Military Councils since the commencement of the Anbar crisis in January 2014.

There are three or four strands to the insurgency:

1.      The smaller Islamist groups like Jaish Ansar al Sunnah
2.      The neo-Baathists of the General Military Council, foremost among which are the JRTN. Sunnis who want to restore a Saddam-style dictatorship but don’t share ISIS’s hard-line interpretation of Islam.
3.      The tribal groups.
4.      ISIS, the strike force spearheading much of the combat.

JRTN is very well organised, but they’re not as large as ISIS and they don’t have the financial resources that ISIS do.

It might seem that ISIS and the JRTN will sooner or later have a fall out. At a local level there was a minor squabble that resulted in some infighting over the spoils of war but by and large the two theoretically diametrically opposed forces have coexisted on the age old formula of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Ever since 2003, when the Ansar al-Islam group, the Kurdish Islamists thrown out of Halabja by US Special Forces, took refuge in Mosul, Islamist and Baathist groups have coexisted.

The story of how ISIS evolved is convoluted and perhaps appropriate for a separate report; but sufficient to say that after 9/11 2001 these Islamist groups gradually grew stronger and they ended up headquartered in Mosul from 2003 on - along with the former Baathists – and these groups have a history of working closely, very closely, together, despite their totally incompatible ideologies. Having said which, ISIS holds a very specific and particular view of Islam, which is not compatible with the views of the JRTN (a group which only has a nominal quasi-Sufi affiliation). In any case, both Sufism and Baathism stand in stark contrast with Salafism (Islamic Puritanism) and Takfirism (the rejection of those who do not share your beliefs as heretics). Both groups currently push their religious differences aside to unite against their common enemy. However, any such Sufi-Salafi alliance is unlikely to survive in the absence of a common enemy, and in time may provoke a new and bitter conflict in strife-torn Iraq. ISIS wants to create an Islamic Caliphate whilst JRTN want to restore Baathist rule. These differences are not going to go away anytime soon.

Furthermore, JRTN was opposed to AQI (led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who leads ISIS today) when the group was first founded in 2006. This past conflict between JRTN and AQI suggests that there would be tensions between the JRTN and ISIS leadership. In May 31, there were clashes between the JRTN and ISIS, which took place in Salah ad-Din (admittedly between local militia men over who would take home captured oil tankers) and recently there have been clashes in Hawija, near Kirkuk, between the two groups. Other clashes have taken place, including in Mosul itself, which are often reported as having been over ideology, but the sordid truth is that these are invariably squabbles over money at a local level.

The Naqshbandi Sufi movement from which JRTN takes its name has a formulaic spiritual code which involves watchfulness, solitude, contemplation and restraint.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Feasibility of a Confederal Iraq

In this second report on current developments in Iraq, we look at the aspiration for “confederalism” rather than mere federalism that various members of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been giving voice to since the outbreak of the present troubles. One KRG representative spoke directly to the NCF during an MESC meeting a couple of days ago and stated, “Kurds participated in the writing of the Iraqi constitution. Federalism was the chosen political structure, as stated in the constitution, but it was never implemented. We cannot go back to the pre-ISIS situation. There must now be a move from federalism to confederalism.” However there is clear blue water between the concept of a “federal” Iraq and that of a “confederal” Iraq and the difference represented by the new Kurdish position should be understood. There are few truly confederal nations in the world today. Switzerland is a “soft” confederation as is Belgium. There is a sense in which the Gulf Cooperation Council states or the European Union are “confederations”. The following short report by NCF interns is an attempt to clarify the implications of the new position being advocated by the KRG.
The feasibility of a confederal Iraq
“The only hope to keep the country together is probably through three different regions with a confederation”      Kirkuk provincial governor Najm al-Din Karim speaking on 25 June 2014
A confederation is an association of states and groups that are loosely bound by a treaty. Most importantly these constituent states retain their national sovereignty and consequently their right to secession.
In some models a constituent state in a confederation will be able to pursue an independent foreign policy (eg. negotiating treaties with other countries); whereas under a federal system the central government would have laws and regulations that supersede those of a constituent state.
In multi-ethnic Iraq, a confederal Iraq could be divided into three large states, reminiscent of the way there were once three distinct Ottoman provinces (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra Vilayets). The new confederal states envisioned would each have one of the three main ethnic groups of Iraq as its majority population: A Kurdish majority state with borders similar to the present borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, a Sunni majority state and a Shia majority state.  
One way of interpreting Iraq’s move to a “confederal” system would be a transition to the “new” type of confederation pioneered by the European Union. An EU-style confederation would result in a stark transfer of powers to the different member states. Regional parliaments would have almost complete control over their own state and could pursue an independent foreign policy. There would still be a “national” parliament for the whole of Iraq, which could direct common economic policies with numerous common laws facilitating a single economic market within Iraq with open internal borders, and a common currency along with other key aspects found within the EU confederal system. However, this national parliament would be largely toothless in dictating the budget and public finances of the sovereign regions.
The least radical approach would be the Belgian form of quasi-confederalism.  An Iraqi state modelled on Belgium would not include the right of secession for the various regional groups but would ensure significant powers were transferred from Baghdad to the regional capitals. This would be similar to the Iraq that US Senator Joe Biden called for in 2006, an Iraq where “the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security, the central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues.”
Whilst some would welcome a looser Iraq under a confederal system in the hopes of de-escalating sectarian tensions, others have warned against it. Iraqi scholar, Sami Ramadani, stated that "those who claim [Iraq] could only have peace if it is divided into three states do not appreciate the makeup of Iraqi society; the three regions would quickly fall under the rule of violent sectarians and chauvinists. Given how ethnically and religiously varied Iraq's regions are, particularly in Baghdad and central Iraq, a three-way national breakup would be a recipe for permanent wars in which only the oil companies, the arms suppliers and the warlords will be the winners".

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why Iraq should consider separate Sunni and Shia regions: Article for The Guardian by Ranj Alaaldin

Below is the article for The Guardian, 13th June 2014 by Ranj Alaaldin
Why Iraq should consider separate Sunni and Shia regions

The seizing of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, by jihadists has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. TheIslamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), now controls or operates with impunity in territory stretching between Syria and Iraq, and will attempt to push to the south, take control of Baghdad and effectively put an end to Iraq as we know it.

But Iraq can still be saved. In the short-term the country, with the support of either regional powers such as Iran and Turkey or the broader international community, must hit back fast and hard at the Sunni north.

The Iraqis have already asked the US for air strikes. That could go a long way. It is imperative the government reassures the Iraqi people that Isis is no match for it; that Isis is not a force for the future, lest it swells its ranks with more Iraqis and expands its support bases. It must be given a bloody nose.

The military option in the short-term might empower and give moderate Sunni Arab forces a chance in the longer run, but for this to happen – and for Iraq to sustain itself – the country must accept that the notion of a centralised and unified Iraq has been a failed exercise.

The problem is essentially one of authority. The Iraqi state and its armed forces are seen as being Shia controlled, and therefore lack respect and recognition in the Sunni north. It is no coincidence that Iraq's most stable areas are those that are most homogeneous, where security and governance is in the hands of local actors seen as legitimate by a supportive local population, as in the case of the Kurdish north and the Shia south.

As the Americans did, the government has tried to rely on local tribes to stabilise Sunni Arab areas. However, they are seen as government proxies. During the course of conflict in the north, particularly in Anbar, most switched sides to fight against the state.

This week in Mosul, Iraq's Arab Sunnis effectively welcome Isis with open arms because of a sense of fear as well as widespread agitations toward the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The continued rejection of the post-2003 Iraq by Arab Sunnis has given Isis the chance to capitalise, with maximum effect, on feelings of marginalisation among the Sunni Arab community.

Giving moderate Sunni Arab leaders the chance to self-govern within an autonomous region, if and when extremists elements such as Isis have been contained, constitutes a realistic way forward that accepts the Shia-dominated Baghdad government lacks the legitimacy and support to challenge militants for the hearts and minds of Sunni Arabs.

Regionalising Iraq into different ethno-sectarian regions has been proposed in the past. It can no longer be dismissed. Sectarian conflict is no longer identified simply as a problem that came and left with the Americans, but as an Iraqi problem that will dominate Iraq for decades to come.

Further, moderate Sunni Arab actors now welcome the idea of an autonomous region, accepting that they miscalculated when mobilising their communities to reject the new Iraq in 2003. They now hold prestigious government posts, accept the new Iraq is here to stay, and regret that it was their mobilisation of Sunnis that allowed extremists to rise.

The Kurds have proved that autonomy is not synonymous with partition. It is ironic that the Kurds, long derided by their Arab partners for making the most of their autonomy and weakening Iraq, are now its most unifying force.

The Kurdish peshmerga forces are Iraq's most organised, effective and disciplined military force and have deployed heavily in areas that separate Iraqi Kurdistan from Arab Iraqi areas currently controlled by Isis. In Syria's north-east, the Kurds have fought Isis and other Islamists with great effect and have proved they have the capacity to contain and eliminate them.

If Isis becomes too much of a threat, then the Kurds will act to protect their own population and territory. But the Kurds will not save Iraq at the expense of Kurdish interests. They suffered heavily in the past in the hands of either dictatorial or Sunni Islamist entities, and will look to avoid being dragged into a conflict that is not yet theirs to fight.

Therefore, unless Kurdistan's interests are threatened, a Kurdish intervention can take place only if the Kurds' Arab partners guarantee Kurdistan's interests in Iraq. That means giving the Kurds increased autonomy, energy rights and control over oil-rich disputed territories like Kirkuk. But the Kurds may now get all that anyway.

Control of Kirkuk takes the Kurds all the more closer to independence. The Kurds have also proved their worth by taking in more than 700,000 displaced Iraqis from Mosul. The question and litmus test for them is whether their Arab partners are ready to reciprocate.

The Price of Failure: An article by Sam Morris for RUDAW

Below is the text from Samuel's article for RUDAW, 14th June 2014.

The Price of Failure

The situation in Iraq is currently in a constant state of flux. Mosul has fallen into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and large parts of the country are out of government control. With Iraq’s second city lost and the spread continuing, the coming days and weeks will define the country’s future. ISIS have made staggering gains, defeating an army that is many times its size. While predictions may be difficult,it is not hard to predict that this will be a difficult period for not only Iraq, but the region as a whole.The questions to be raised now are: Can Iraq be brought back from the brink? And how did it get this bad?

It can be argued that the Sunni insurgency never really left Iraq,The Government of Iraq has never managed to deal effectively with the Sunni Arab sense of disempowerment and consequent discontent following the fall of Saddam. However real blame for the empowerment of Sunni extremists has to be laid at the door of Premier Al Maliki.

Al Maliki’s decision, in December 2013, to tear down protest camps in Anbar while targeting ISIS camps in Wadi Horan, near the Iraqi-Syria border, really started the ball rolling. A power vacuum was created in Anbar against a backdrop of growing discontent in the general population and a feeling of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. ISIS capitalized. They fought hard for the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

In the run up to the elections Maliki managed to use the situation in Anbar to his advantage. War-time presidents do well and Maliki did better than many expected. Had people known what the situation would be like just a few months later things would not have been the same. With vast areas of Iraq in the hands of ISIS, Maliki has lost control.

To let Iraq’s second city fall was a major military failure.A huge underestimation of ISIS. This was combined by the lack of awareness of the low morale in the army. Many soldiers have been fighting in Anbar for the last year, watching their brothers in arms die around them.Whilst soldiers in provinces like Mosul may be drawn from all communities, including some who are Sunni Arab, senior officers tend to be predominantly Shiite, with a few from key loyal minority groups. The consequence in Mosul was that the officers were those that felt most vulnerable and decided to run first. After only a few days of fighting Mosul was lost, getting it back will be hugely difficult if not impossible, if left to Maliki.

Getting closer and closer through the areas of Salahaddin, Anbar and Diyala, Baghdad will be partially surrounded. Maliki has lost the support of his army. The country is out of control and currentlyMaliki has no ability to fight back.

Strengthened by their success in Syria and Anbar, ISIS have made a clear decision to push in Iraq in an attempt to bring the country to its knees. ISIS managed to consolidate its strength in Syria. Carving out areas of influence and control, fighting more with other opposition groups than with the government.ISIS have a core aim, the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. The organisation has been merciless in this regard.

Fighting with other groups in Syria for power. Power, influence and access to resources is of huge importance to ISIS. Claiming Al-Raqqa as its capital in 2013, many ISIS supporters believe that the dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the borders of Iraq and Syria may be near.If the situation continues as it is,it will.

There has been a clear strategy by ISIS.Stepping up operations over the last 6 months.Now at its crescendo, ISIS appears to be surging south to Baghdad. Capitalising on Maliki’s weak position, the low morale in the Iraqi Army, and their own brutal reputation, ISIS have been ruthlessly effective. Bolstered by support, the prominence of the uprising in Syria both regionally and internationally has encouraged elements of the Sunni minority in Iraq to fight against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Fuelled by their successes and gains, geographically, militarily and economically, ISIS will be strengthened by its advances. Rising out of the ashes of the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS may change the dynamics in the Middle East.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States have had a policy of disengagement with Iraq since they have pulled out. Their focus put on other foreign policy issues and their own internal problems. The support for an active policy in Iraq has not been there.

This has been a major failure. Iraq was and remains of huge strategic importance to Western nations and its complete implosion will prove negative for all involved, except for those waving the black flags of extreme Islamist groups. International engagement was hugely important for Iraq to maintain its borders and security with a brutal civil war taking place next door in Syria.

Iraq never stopped being an important strategic partner for the West. Not only economically but also, now ironically, from a counter-extremism and radicalisation perspective. The impact of radicalisation in Syria has become the key security issue for Western states, however the West’s lack of foresight will now see Iraq join Syria as a hotbed for radicalisation. As the situation in the region degraded, Western governments should have recognised the importance of Iraq however unpalatable this may have been to western politicians. Now without significant foreign intervention Iraq may be lost.

The US government should act now. Support should be given to both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The flow of ISIS through Iraq has been fast. To stem the tide the West should act. Boots on the ground is impossible. Strategic targets should be identified and the flow weapons and military vehicles into Syrianeeds to be stopped. This combined with direct military support may be the only options left if Iraq if is to survive.

Maliki has few options. Either, surge forward, attempting to gain lost ground, in what will be a bloody venture and a hard fight to get parts of Mosul under control. An option that may be impossible. This is not Saulat Al-Fursan. The other option is to consolidate his forces and defend Baghdad and the south. The second, will be effectively conceding half of the country. Iraq will, de-facto, be split. A situation of a long term war of attrition as we are witnessing in Syria is possible.

What comes next will be important but what is clear now, is that Maliki has failed. Through neglecting the situation in Anbar, with failed attempts to bring an end to a situation he created, Maliki has underestimated the force and desire of ISIS. As Iraq Army losses continue, it becomes apparent that many are unwilling to fight under his command.

What has become clear is that 2014 is an important year in the long history of Iraq.

IRAQ: Of Dreams and Nightmares

Blog from Jonathan Mueller - Former U.S. State Department diplomat

On 19 December 1944 Eisenhower convened a commanders' conference to consider how to respond the the Ardennes Offensive the Germans had launched three days before.  All was doom and gloom until George Pattoon took the floor.  He said, 'The Kraut has stuck his head into a meat-grinder and my hand is on the crank.'  

Patton had recognised that the German breakthrough was an opportunity as well as a threat.  

Likewise, when ISIS advanced from Mosul on Baghdad, they stuck their heads into a meat-grinder, with the Kurds' hands on the crank.  

The difference is that, while Patton was determined to turn that crank, it is not clear what the Kurds will do.  After all, what reason has Nuri al-Maliki given them to pull his chestnuts from the fire?  So the Peshmerga has occupied Kirkuk and other disputed areas around the margins of the KAR, but made no offensive move against ISIS.  They have even stopped short of an attempt to take Mosul, probably calculating that it is too big, with too many different factions, some of whom would welcome them, but others of whom would not.

The last, best hope, though, for preserving a united Iraq, though, is a Kurd-Shia alliance.  But even at this juncture, Maliki, despite having his back against the wall, is not reading the handwriting on it.  Divisively sectarian to the last, he is still looking for a Shia solution, and at last report had not even spoken to Barzani since the fall of Mosul.   

That Shia solution, a people's army of Shia militia fighters, is likely to defend Baghdad and the Shia south, but is unlikely to regain significant Sunni territory, and still less likely to pacify any territory it does regain.  So as things are unfolding, the Peshmerga sit in Kirkuk, the Shia hold Baghdad, and, e voila, Iraq is partitioned.  

If the U.S. still wishes a united Iraq, the best thing it can do now is provide logistical and tactical air support for a Peshmerga raid aimed at taking ISIS forces advancing on Baghdad in the rear.  One swift stroke to destroy or disperse ISIS forces, and withdraw -- any attempt by the Kurds to hold Sunni territory would end in disaster.  

This would require the U.S. and Maliki to concede more to the Kurds than they wish, but probably no more than the Kurds will take in the course of current trends.  

The Iraqi army is a corpse, and any plan based on them will fail.  By 2011, the Americans could just about claim to have built an army for Iraq, but since then, reduced training, flourishing corruption, and promotions and command assignments based on sectarian loyalties instead of professional competence, it has been all downhill.  Soldiers enlist because it is better than being unemployed, and with no training, no leadership, and a nightmare trying to maintain the sophisticated weapons the Americans gave them (the beauty of the Peshmerga's old Soviet tanks is that they can be maintained in the shade tree garage; not so the Iraqi army's M-1s), what do you expect?  It is really just the Job Corps in HUMMVEEs.  

The KRG position appears to be that if Baghdad cannot provide security it should not claim sovereignty.  The Kurds have come a long since 1991, when friends who dealt with them in Operation Provide Comfort found them a frustratingly quarrelsome gang of mountain-men.  They have used the autonomy they have had to learn to conduct their own politics and order their own affairs.  Now they stand at a historic moment, on the threshold of their dream of an independent state.  When one compares the KAR to the rest of Iraq, I am not too sure I see a reason to fear that.  

ISIS, on the other had, will not be a big winner in the end,  It is only the most notorious of a number of Sunni factions who currently cooperate out of hatred for the Maliki government, but which will, in due course, turn on each other, and I expect we shall then see that ISIS does not represent the aspirations of a majority of Iraqi Sunnis.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Al-Hashemi comments on Anbar

Interviewed by Reuters fugitive Iraqi former Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi accused Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shiite, of conducting a political witch-hunt against Sunni politicians and persecuting Iraq’s Sunni population. Al-Hashemi fears that the current conflict in Anbar, which borders Syria, could spread to other regions, and blames the Prime Minister’s treatment of Sunnis. In his own words:

“I’m not optimistic about the future… I think this spark in Anbar will spread to other provinces… Al-Maliki is targeting Arab Sunnis (in Iraq) in different provinces, with the use of army forces, or handing them death sentences in a way that has never been seen in Iraq’s modern history, and therefore it’s the right of these individuals to defend themselves in every way possible.”

Hashemi, who has not lived in Iraq since a warrant was issued for his arrest, for running death squads, in 2011, said that it would be ‘disastrous’ if Maliki won a third term in Parliamentary elections set for April 30th. Hashemi’s comments come in the wake of violent conflict in Anbar, notably Fallujah, and the arrest of prominent lawmaker and anti-Maliki Sunni Ahmed Al-Alwani, taken from his home in the same province. This is the latest high profile Sunni arrest. In 2012 it was former finance minister Raffi el-Essawi. Many Sunnis believe Maliki is marginalizing the Sunni population. They complain that federal forces have been disproportionally deployed in Sunni neighbourhoods, random arrests have increased, and Sunnis feel left out of the decision making process.

Many Sunnis, some of whom fought with the US and government forces against al-Qaeda insurgents in 2008, are finding themselves caught up in a three-way conflict between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the government, and tribal militias. The solution to the problem, as many see it, is for Maliki to radically alter his approach to Sunni opposition. Up until now he has responded to Sunni protest and dissatisfaction with military force. Maliki must start to include Sunnis in the political process and reach out to the community to heal the wounds of the last few years.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Exclusive NCF Interview with Dr. Akram Al-Obaidy

In an interview with the Next Century Foundation, Dr. Akram Al-Obaidy, Spokesman of the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, outlined his future hopes for Kirkuk and its position within Iraq at this present time. With a round of parliamentary elections due in April 2014, Dr. Al-Obaidy was keen to present them as a crucial moment for the future development and prosperity of Kirkuk.

After 10 years of what he described as an “unsuitable” situation in Kirkuk with “very little communication between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen”, Dr. Al-Obaidy has called for a strengthening of links between the three groups.

Indeed, he cites Mosul as an example of how communication between the various ethnic groups “free from any interference from Baghdad” has provided the foundations for rising levels of peace and promising infrastructural development. Moreover, Dr. Al-Obaidy states that, “any desire for Baghdad to involve themselves in Kirkuk would be unwise due to the problems surrounding the Central Government at the moment, particularly with the recent dramatic rise in sectarian violence and bloodshed across Iraq”. Additionally, he fears that, “any interference could see Kirkuk being drawn into this wider Iraqi sectarian agenda, losing sight and focus of what needs to be done in Kirkuk alone”.

Once effective communication is established between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen in Kirkuk, Dr. Al-Obaidy notes that discussions must be had on the following issues: power-sharing, security, a fair and equal distribution of wealth, revenue and supplies and above all, more representation and attention towards the under-developed Arab areas of Kirkuk.

Therefore, the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections are being highlighted by Dr. Akram Al-Obaidy as an important opportunity for potentially the next decade in Kirkuk. Dr. Al-Obaidy believes his Motahadon party, which acts in coalition with other Arabic parties under the umbrella of the Arabic Kirkuk Alliance (a group of 12 parties and 24 candidates), represents a new breed of politicians that can “finally bring true and fair Arab representation to politics in Kirkuk”. He claims that Arab representation has often lagged in contrast to Kurd and Turkman in the region.

Dr. Al-Obaidy is optimistic that the contingent of the 875,000 voting population in Kirkuk can produce as many as four winning MPs in the upcoming elections. Al-Obaidy’s parties will also be putting forward a number of female candidates, with the hope of at least one being successful. The elections see a total of 12 seats available in Kirkuk with one additional seat exclusively given to a Christian candidate.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

America is heading for the hills

Fighting is escalating between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda linked militants in the Sunni dominated Anbar province of Iraq. According to the news reports, on 17th of January, a suicide bomber attacked a gathering of anti Al Qaeda militia, which resulted in death of at least five people. The attack took place on the second week of sporadic clashes erupted between Iraqi forces and al Qaeda backed militants to recapture the key two cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, which have been under the control of militants.
The UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon urged both parties to act with constraint and pursue a political solution. Yet, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ruled out any dialogue with the militants. According to the UN, since the beginning of the conflict, more than 11,000 families have fled their houses.
The US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed allegations that the US has turned its back on Iraq following its withdrawal from the war-torn country in 2011 and suggested that even though at the end of the day, they could help the Iraqi forces in fighting the `terrorists`, they would also want to enhance the capacity of Iraqi security forces to do it themselves.  America is heading for the hills.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Siege in Fallujah

The jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have claimed they control the city of Fallujah in the volatile province of Anbar. Residents are leaving the city, avoiding the air strikes that have already begun to fall in some areas. Fallujah is known in the West as the sight of the deadliest battle of the Iraq War in 2004. Currently ISIL, tribal leaders, and government forces wrestle for control. Anbar, in the West of Iraq, has a largely Sunni population that feels marginalised and under threat from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Iraq’s Sunni population see Maliki’s administration as authoritarian and discriminatory, and they are worried by the examples of violent response to protests. This most recent surge in violence seems to have begun when government troops forcibly broke up a yearlong peaceful protest in Ramadi.

The first five days of 2014 have seen 250 deaths in Anbar province, more than the death toll for the entire month of January last year. This is a continuation of the violence that resulted, according to the UN, in at least 7,818 civilian deaths, and 1,050 deaths amongst the security forces in 2013, the highest in five years. Despite Maliki’s calls for locals to expel the fundamentalists; this death toll is likely to continue to rise as the government prepares to retake Fallujah, Ramadi and Tarmiya from ISIL with military support from both the US and Iran.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Old evils re-emerge

The disgusting habit of policemen and soldiers kidnapping and killing innocent civilians has re-emerged in Baghdad. It is the worst sort of violence because it undermines all confidence and is the action of truly venomously evil men. In the days of Anglo-American rule we used to euphemistically say that people "dressed in police / army uniforms" had conducted the kidnapping and killing and the Western press would swallow the PR lie and print the lie as the truth. The real truth being that these were soldiers, these were policemen, conducting these evil acts. All credit to Malaki, he does not descend to the PR gutter that the Western administration of Iraq used. He calls a spade a spade. None the less, it is profoundly sad to see this evil back again.

39 dead in throwback to Iraq's sectarian bloodshed    
Khaleej Times - 30 November, 2013
The killings come amid a surge in violence that has seen victims snatched from their homes, only for their corpses to be found later.

Authorities found the bodies of 28 people on Friday, most of them kidnapped by men in army uniforms, and attacks killed 11 more in Iraq.

The killings come amid a surge in violence that has seen victims snatched from their homes, only for their corpses to be found later, fuelling fears Iraq is slipping back into the worst of the bloodshed that plagued it from 2005 to 2007.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bombings claim 21 lives in Baghdad's suburbs

Sunni on Shiite violence - in response to Shiite on Sunni violence - engenders more Sunni on Shiite violence. Brutal tit for tat killings are taking place on an ongoing basis in Iraq. What evil men are funding and supporting this? To what end? How will they ever face God? 

Kuwait News Agency - 18 November, 2013
Up to 21 Iraqis died and 65 others were wounded in a wave of blasts in Baghdad and several surrounding regions of the capital on Sunday, security sources said.

The sources said cars packed with explosives blew up in Al-Radwaniah, Al-Husainiah, Al-Sadr City, New Baghdad, Al-Ghadir district, Maysaloun square, Al-Dora and Al-Karradeh neighborhoods.


Saturday, November 09, 2013

Double bombing, shooting kill 7 people in Iraq

Sectarian violence is on the increase in Iraq. Up until the last few months it was always one sided. The Sunnis attacked the Shiites and the Shiites behaved. Now the Shiites are hitting back. It's a dangerous scene.

Double bombing, shooting kill 7 people in Iraq:

Gulf Today - 09 November, 2013

A double bombing of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad and a shooting west of the Iraqi capital killed seven people on Friday, officials said, the latest attacks in a wave of violence roiling the country.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Are the increasing anti-Sunni attacks indicative of a new twist to Iraq's sectarian conflict?

Levels of sectarian violence are increasing exponentially in Syria and are likely to continue to grow whether or not we see the fall of Bashar al Assad. Meanwhile the increasing intensity of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq has almost gone under the radar. On Monday 30th September, a wave of bombings hit Baghdad which according to the BBC, took the death toll to more than 5,000 people for this year. More than 800 of that number lost their lives in the month of August alone. The attacks on the 17th are the latest in a string of attacks across Iraq. 

Unrest has been building between the Shia majority and the minority Sunni community. Much of the blame for Sunni discontent lies with the Shia-government led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, which remains crippled by a stalemate that has led to no significant legislation being passed since March 2010. The Sunnis also cite what they believe to be deliberate exclusion from the decision-making process as well as abuses from government security forces. Indeed, Prime Minister Maliki has also been accused of not devoting enough attention to increasing anti-Sunni attacks, such as the 13 September attack on a Sunni mosque near Baquba.

Divides in Iraq are not solely centered on the Sunnis and the Shias. The larger Kurdish community in the North of the country currently enjoys a degree of autonomy from a central government lacking firm control. However, Sunday saw Irbil, usually a stable Kurdish city, hit by a series of bombings on Sunday 29th September. The attacks have been linked to fighting between jihadist groups and Kurds in neighbouring Syria. Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sharm (ISIS) have clashed in recent weeks with the Kurdish People’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) on secular grounds. The fear is that a cycle emerges in which ongoing events in Syria will further fuel Iraqi sectarianism, which in turn will only worsen the issue across the border. Indeed, increasingly influential armed groups in Syria actually have direct links to Iraq, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sharm (ISIS).

Perhaps the most indicative sign of the rising tensions in Iraq is that the Shias are now attacking the Sunnis. Ali al-Sistani has spoken out many times in the past against sectarian conflict, instead pledging for unity amongst all Muslims. Has Al-Sistani hardened his stance in the wake of the increasing anti-Shia attacks (which continued on 21 September in three attacks that killed over 70 people)? Alternatively, the changing trend towards anti-Sunni strikes could indicate that the Shia community is now beginning to operate out of Al-Sistani’s control as it looks to defend itself in the continuing Iraqi sectarian war.

Adam Mazrani

Thursday, October 03, 2013


The results of the Iraq elections are in. Alas however, Talabani's PUK is so unpopular and did so badly that the Kurdish Regional Government has now decided to abandon the local government elections which were slated to go ahead and are way overdue.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, secured 38 seats in September’s vote for the 111-seat regional parliament, Independent High Electoral Commission spokesman Safaa al-Moussawi told a news conference in the regional capital, Irbil. The KDP previously held 30 seats.

The main opposition party Gorran, or Change, won 24 seats. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which ran in coalition in with the KDP in the last election but on its own this time around, won only 18 seats.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Iraq governments persecutes Iranian opposition to please Tehran

The government of Iraq has continued its brutal and unwarranted persecution of the refugees in Camp Ashraf. Why the international community permits this incredible behavior without a murmur is hard to credit:

Iraq has ordered Iranian exiles to move from a camp where 52 of their members were killed a week ago "without delay", a government official and UN said.

Baghdad opened a probe into the events surrounding the deaths of the members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, which occurred on Sunday at Camp Ashraf in Diyala province, but accounts of the unrest still differ markedly.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will Kurdish nationalism be affected by the Syrian refugee crisis?

Massoud Barzani’s recent statement of firm support for all Syrian Kurdish refugees and those facing ‘’death and terrorism’’ in Syria clearly signals his commitment to his fellow Kurds, or at least a policy of giving that impression. 

It’s possible that with this move to play a more active role in managing the fallout from Syria, the KRG may just have brought on itself a responsibility it cannot handle. The pressure placed on the administrative and economic capacity of the region will cause significant problems for the government, and the numbers of refugees will just keep growing. Complaints have been made by the KRG that they have received little or no help from the central government in Baghdad or the international community in trying to support the refugees. Their efforts are not sustainable without this outside help. Amongst the population of Iraqi Kurdistan, moreover, there is already a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the KRG itself, which is seen as stultifying and corrupt.
It would though be a mistake to expect the problems that the Syrian Kurd refugees will cause to translate into a sense of resentment towards them from the wider Iraqi Kurd population.  
There is a hugely strong sense of duty to help those Syrian Kurds fleeing the conflict and to protect those still there. In the past, the enormous numbers of Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam’s al-Anfal campaign were received by their Kurdish brothers in Syria and Turkey. The numbers involved in the current situation are large but nothing yet near the numbers of Iraqi Kurds involved then, and the Iraqi Kurds will continue to do as much as they can to ensure the support and safety of their Syrian counterparts. Such is the strength of the Kurdish national movement (the idea of ‘Greater Kurdistan’) and the deeply rooted desire for some degree of Kurdish unification. In fact, the lack of outside help being given to KRG efforts to support the Syrian Kurdish refugees will likely further this perception of unity, solidarity and brotherhood for the Kurdish people in the face of a hostile, uncaring region and wider world.

A three day Kurdish conference is to be held in Erbil this month. Roughly 600 diplomats will be attending, representing political parties of ‘Greater Kurdistan’ – Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. One of the hopes of the conference is to establish some sort of Kurdish League (similar to the Arab League) and to spread Kurdish political unity.  It is not likely that much will actually come of the meeting due to ethnicity being the only real thing they all currently have in common. Divisions exist between the PYD and PKK and Barzani’s KNC. Political disunity is also apparent in Iranian Kurdish parties and in Turkey, where the PKK control Kurdish affairs without reference to most any other group. The opposition Change party in Iraqi Kurdistan is increasingly strong, and claim that the ruling coalition in Erbil will use the meeting’s timing to engender goodwill for their own advantage before the elections in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 21st this year. The conference will though set a significant precedent.

Even if these practical divisions remain and nothing comes directly of the conference (and it probably will not), ideals of Kurdish unity and nationalism are so strongly held and deeply attached in the hearts of the wider Kurdish population that they shall continue to be pursued regardless of the problems caused by the mounting pressure of the weight of the Syrian Kurdish refugees.  

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Kurds choose November date for local elections

This comes in today from the UN:

In a letter addressed to the IHEC (Iraq High Electoral Commission) Chairman, the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) Prime Minister officially informed IHEC of the decision to hold the region’s governorate council elections on 21 November 2013. The decision confirms IHEC’s suggestion on the election schedule as contained in its 17 July letter to the region’s authorities. The region’s Parliamentary elections remain as scheduled on 21 September 2013.

The vetting process for candidates for the Kurdistan Region’s parliamentary elections has been completed. The number of candidates now stands at 1133, of which 367 or more than 32% are women candidates. The political campaign period has started albeit in a muted tone with no major public campaign activity held so far in the region.

AND with regard to controversial proposals to amend the national elections law:

UNAMI continues to monitor developments in the Iraqi Council of Representatives on proposals to amend the electoral law for the 2014 Iraq parliamentary elections. The most contentious point remains to be the seat allocation formula – with political blocs diverging on their views regarding the D’Hondt, St. Lague or modified St. Lague formula.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Iraq's elections

The following is an edited version of the latest UN report on Iraq's elections:

 On 20 June, governorate council elections took place in Anbar and Ninewa. Voter turnout reached 50% in Anbar and 38% in Ninewa, with figures likely to increase further once special voting data is incorporated.

 On 19 June, the Kurdistan Regional Parliament passed amendments adopting the semi-open list voting for the region’s parliamentary elections and removing the provision on both the parliamentary electoral law and the governorate council electoral law requiring that each component candidate be elected by voters from the same component.

 On 23 June, the Legal Committee of the Council of Representatives also forwarded to the Presidency the proposed law for holding the governorate council elections in Kirkuk.

For further information please consult IHEC and UNAMI websites: www.ihec.iq  www.unami.unmissions.org

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Spreading Conflict: Challenges to Iraq

These personal notes represent the views of the NCF’s Secretary General. They should not be taken as an NCF position but have been compiled using the resources of the NCF team.

The spreading conflict: Challenges to Iraq

The Syrian conflict has always threatened to engulf the neighbouring countries. Its impact on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan has been considerable. Now Iraq is being affected. It begs the question: how stable is Iraq and can it withstand the turmoil across its border? But the thing is you can’t just look at Iraq to get a good overview of the situation. You need to examine the whole region. So we’ll start with the big boy:


The Turks are negotiating with the Kurdish PKK. Now why? You know how bad relationships have been between the Turkish government and the PKK[1] – or like me do you forget things? There have been so very many terrorist attacks in Turkey. And if you take the long view over a thirty year period then 40,000 have died in the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish militants (mostly during that huge operation to restore government control of South East Turkey in the late 80s and early 90s).

So I’ll answer my own question. Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has messed up on Syria. His Syrian policy has already prompted some Turks to express concern. But the Syria issue is not at the heart of the “what is the Turkish motive” question.

In the 2011 elections, Erdoğan’s AK party (which has links with the Muslim Brotherhood[2]) won power again but the problem is that Erdoğan, Turkey’s most successful politician since Ataturk, wants to retain power. Now Turkey has a powerful Premier and less powerful President. But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time the President was powerful[3]. Erdoğan’s plan is to restore the power of the Presidency and to take the post himself.

Erdoğan is not worried that AKP will lose popularity as a result of Syria – it might have an effect in the provinces adjacent to the Syrian frontier, but we doubt whether it would have a serious electoral impact elsewhere.  There is no serious alternative party around to challenge AKP. 

Erdoğan’s problem is a personal one:  the AKP has a couple of party rules which are unique to it – the other parties do not have them.  One states that an individual cannot be adopted by the party as a parliamentary candidate more than three consecutive times.  The other says you cannot run for party leader more than three consecutive times.  Erdoğan is thus now in his last parliamentary term and stint as party leader.  Rules of course can be changed, but he has made a big thing about AKP being different from other parties, and he has repeatedly stated that he will not be standing again.  Thus the only serious option for him to have a political future is to become President.  

The election will be next year – and for the first time (as a result of a 2007 constitutional change) the President will be directly elected by the people.  Erdoğan is most unlikely to face any serious competitor unless the political elements underpinning the ruling party fragment in some way.  There is general agreement between the parties about the need for a new constitution – but not about what that constitution should contain.  The AKP wants to introduce a presidential system (thus of course reducing the competence of parliament) – the other parties don’t.  However, Erdoğan might get the support of the Kurdish BDP[4] (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi = Peace and Democracy Party) for a new draft constitution which could be submitted to referendum.  That is the motive (for the ruling party) in pushing the PKK agreement.  Of course, if the Kurdish question is “solved”, he would reap a considerable reward, both domestically in terms of votes and internationally in terms of prestige, which is perhaps another motive.

Oh and by the way – that being the case there is little or no prospect of any Turkish invasion of Syria.

As we move deeper into this winter of discontent, civilian casualty figures finally show signs of decreasing, while government and rebel figures have stabilized (the NCF carefully compiles and assesses death tolls from all available sources – we regard our figures as closer to an approximation of the real position than those of any other single source – especially if used to indicate trends). The steady emptying of the cities and countryside as the people flee the fighting to take refuge in neighbouring states accounts, in part, for the lower civilian death toll. Those displaced have expressed great anger at the negligence of the Arab world and the international community for not acting. Over 700,000 refugees continue to live in dire conditions in refugee camps. If, as seems likely, present trends continue, these numbers will reach over 1.1 million before the summer. 

Meanwhile  Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Western backed National Coalition faction of the Syrian Opposition, stated he was willing to hold direct talks with the Syrian Government. This came following talks with Russian and Iranian foreign ministers on 2 February 2013. However, some of his supporters from the Syrian National Council reacted negatively, rejecting any negotiations with the Syrian government whilst other more secular groups not in the National Coalition said they favoured talks which, in common with Moaz al-Khatib, they argued could halt the killings and destruction.

The US has remained staunch in its stand regarding the situation in Syria. Although the Obama administration has called for President Assad to step down, they claim a direct military intervention would trigger more violence and this could lead to greater chaos and carnage. According to UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Syria is being destroyed “bit by bit” and “unprecedented levels of horror have been reached”. He urged the UN Security Council to overcome their differences and “grapple with this problem now”.  

Russia remains in the lead on Syria and everyone is heading for Moscow in droves. The opposition is having a hard time and has started the usual rumour mill. They’re spreading around the rumour that Maher, the President’s brother, is dead. According to them he died in Moscow having been flown there for treatment after being severely wounded in the legs. This is quite untrue – Maher is alive. Then they have also been saying the President’s mother and sister fled to Abu Dhabi. They certainly went there to visit and it is unclear whether they are back home yet.

The main point is that Syria is on the road to an interim salvation government prior to Bashar stepping down in May 2014 and everyone is invited to the ‘negotiate the future’ party. Even the Iranians have agreed. Therefore it is important to watch what Sayed Jalili has to say. He is Iran’s National Security boss and says that, “On Syria we support national dialogue and say no to violence but yes to democracy”.

Everyone’s focus now is on who will replace Bashar as the new ruler of Syria. They need and will have a non-Salafist. That’s an absolute red line for the USA, Russia and Iran. Beyond that they don’t care too much.

Names in the frame include some of the old guard. An older person is viewed as acceptable because at least he or she is a known quantity. By way of example: The communist Turkman, Abdulrazak Eid, is a name that has cropped up. He’s a 62 year old writer and reformer. Another possibility is Michelle Kilo, the 72 year old Christian intellectual and human rights activist. But it’s anybody’s guess really and there are a number of possibilities. There is a danger too that naming people too soon ‘burns their credibility’, so we will not try to compile an accurate list of frontrunners.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis have generally dug their heels in. Their conflict with Qatar has reached new heights since they stomped on the Qatar-Bahrain causeway plan. We can but hope that they are stepping back from their policy of backing the Salafists.

At least there is a new team at the top of the Saudi Government which seems like it could potentially be much more progressive in responding to some of the critical issues facing the region, including Syria and Bahrain.

Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, next in line to the Saudi throne, died in Switzerland following an illness on the 16th of June 2012. He had been Deputy Prime Minister and was the long-standing (since 1975) and hardline Interior Minister. Nayef was the most conservative of the leading Saudi princes, and with his son, Muhammad bin Nayef at his side as his deputy,  spearheaded the country's post-September 11 crackdown on al-Qaeda.

Nayef’s younger brother, Prince Salman, became Crown Prince after being the Minister of Defence since the death of his full brother Sultan and the governor of Riyadh for nearly five decades.

Now, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, former head of the Saudi intelligence and Governor of Madina and Hail and the youngest son of the kingdom's founder Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, has been recently named the country's second deputy prime minister by King Abdullah. The announcement places Muqrin third in line to the throne and at the top of the kingdom's power structure.

Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Doha-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank, described the move as “buying time for the next generation" -- especially as the first Deputy Prime Minister and second in line to the throne, 77-year-old Prince Salman, is reported to be in ill health.

Stephens further noted that it is anticipated that Muqrin will “continue Abdullah's policy of slow and cautious change and ensure that his legacy as a moderniser is secure”.

With Prince Muqrin ascending to third-in-line to the throne and with competent second generation princes, Muhammad bin Nayef and Khalid bin Bandar, now in key decision-making positions as the Minister of Interior and Governor of Riyadh respectively, it is hoped that the wise King Abdullah has put into place a government strong enough to withstand the serious challenges which are currently buffeting both the region and the kingdom itself.


Iraq is really the worry. The Syrian uprising has been spreading. There has been trouble in the provinces of Anbar, Salaheddine, and Nineveh.  Largely this has been in the nature of demonstrations, very well organised demonstrations, promoted by the Baathist / Islamist alliance. And they are getting out of hand. This in an Iraq which is already riven with tensions.

Many Iraqis used to blame Saudi Arabia and Qatar for their problems. Not so today. Today the Saudis are sending positive signals to the Iraq government and vice versa (an Iraqi delegation paid its respects in Riyadh on 16 February on the occasion of the death of Prince Sattam bin Abd al-Aziz.

Today, rightly or wrongly, Turkey and Qatar are viewed as the problem nations, though of course the suicide bombers are still largely young Saudis. “The Qataris are paying money for the Saudis to kill themselves,” one Iraqi told me.

But the demonstrations keep coming. The grievances are expressed clearly. They want less “debaathification”  by which they mean the policy by which people are kept out of politics, even out of employment in certain circumstances if they were ever senior members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, for instance as university professors. The trouble is that some people (around about 4,000 Iraqis) were senior members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. When the liberation of Iraq was on the cards the American State Department had an idea of starting a Truth and Reconciliation committee for Iraq as was done in South Africa, but the US Defense Department stomped on the notion. Such a shame.

Less debaathification is one demand. Another is the release of prisoners. Another is the rescinding of article four on the anti-terrorist legislation which is one of the more widely used articles in the judicial system and says, basically, that life imprisonment is the punishment for “anyone who intentionally covers up any terrorist act or harbors a terrorist with the purpose of concealment.” Sunnis see this law as disproportionately targeting them and the controversial Speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Osama Najefi, has said it would be rescinded.

Iraq’s Deputy Premier Hussein al-Sharistani is negotiating with the demonstrators. But the problem is that some of them are very radical, wanting the removal of all debaathification laws and the release of all prisoners (whatever their crime), indeed some of the demands border on the ridiculous and perhaps are deliberately couched in terms that can never be satisfied.

The view in Iraq is sanguine. Many members of the government think that the West is promoting Salafism in unrelenting fashion. Meanwhile Iraq has to face provincial elections on April 20th of this year. Well let me re-phrase that. Most of Iraq will face elections. The Kurdish region will not as they refuse to have them. They are frightened that the traditional parties (Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK) will do less well. Indeed there is a danger that Talabani’s PUK have grown so unpopular they will be wiped out. The thing about these elections is that they are an indication of what may happen in the January 2014 parliamentary elections. They need to go well and against a backdrop of increasingly aggressive sectarian demonstrations that will not be easy.

In other respects things are better in Iraq with one big caveat. The infrastructure law has not been passed which would allow major projects, like port building, to get moved forward. This is because parliament is not functioning. If they meet, the MPs just fight, by which I mean they thump each other. Malaki’s Dawa could force it through with the cooperation of the Kurdish bloc but the Kurds are demanding 17% of the money and the money is $70 billion. Seems reasonable but the difficulty is they are double-counting because they, in theory but not necessarily in practice, already get 17% of the national budget. You’d think this issue could be resolved in negotiation. It is ridiculous that Iraq’s development is being held back because of childish petty infighting. This is one reason we need free and fair parliamentary elections swiftly. January 2014 is just not soon enough. And we do not need the streets in chaos to do it. This spill over of Syria into Iraq bodes ill.


Elsewhere things bode well. Another country facing elections in 2014, though fortunately perhaps towards the end of the year, is Bahrain. Their ‘national dialogue’ has just got underway and the opposition would like to see it lead to powersharing with a constitutional monarchy. At least there is something going on to try and find a way forward. The key issue is to strengthen those calling for moderation like Sheikh Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s most influential Shi’a cleric. The difficulty from the government’s perspective is that more and more Bahrainis are rejecting parliamentary democracy in favour of street protest. If we see the mainstream opposition fail to participate in the 2014 elections, it bodes ill for Bahrain’s future and indeed for the future of the moderate opposition.
The deaths of both a protester and a policeman at Friday's demonstrations might complicate the national dialogue process which had been helped by the government agreeing to become a "party" to the talks, instead of just a "convening" entity between the "loyalist" and "opposition" political societies.
Ultimately however, political reform will probably only succeed if the Government of Bahrain is permitted by the Saudis to sacrifice the long-standing Prime Minister (Bahrain has the longest serving premier in the world and his removal is a key opposition demand).

On Iran
The forthcoming elections in Iran bode well for the future too, largely because they mark the end of President Ahmadinejad. Key contenders are Valiyati and Qalibaf. Qalibaf (Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf) is the one to watch. He is a pilot and he’s good with media. He was a General in the IRGC and is Mayor of Tehran. He knows Europe. He did many positive things whilst in charge of Tehran. His emphasis is on the economy. He is not radical, not narrow minded. He is middle-aged. Valiyati could win and has his own network, but he’s an old man now.
The reformists will also put forward a candidate of course. It will be either Mohammad-Ali Najafi or Hassan Rohani or Mohammad-Reza Aref – just one of them.
Perhaps 20 candidates will stand in all. But there are four principal groups:
  1. The Ahmajinedati
  2. The Principalists
  3. The Reformists
  4. The Independents
These groups will all watch each other hopefully ensuring that the elections are reasonably fair this time. The Principalists and the Reformists are pragmatic. The election will be in June.
Better times ahead then? Maybe. But if the Syrian civil war spills into Iraq all bets are on hold. Here at the NCF we will be focussing on Iraq a little more in the coming months. Do not expect us to pull our punches.