Turkey, Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government

Conference on: Turkey, Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government
Venue: Wilson Centre, Washington DC
Date: 25 August, 2014
Keynote speech transcript: Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, President of MERI
On video via C-SPAN, or Podcast 

There are many hot topics that have occupied people’s minds these days. They include the war against terror, the change of Government in Baghdad and the US military intervention in Iraq and the possible changes in the US administration’s policies in the region.

Iraqis, however, are busy dealing with a series of never ending crises, one of which is the ISIS war, and the least of which is the change of Government in Baghdad. They face these crises in the presence of a failed political process and a non-functioning state that is now divided and on the brink of disintegration.

May be I should start by giving you the latest on the formation of Government in Baghdad, and branch out from there to touch on other issues, but later to be guided by questions from the floor.

Mr Haider Al-Abadi was nominated by the President to form the next Cabinet. He has until 10 September to win everyone’s trust, sign all sorts of agreements with fellow Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, before winning the vote of confidence in the Parliament.

This is going to be a protracted process and by no means certain or guaranteed. There is pressure from USA and Iran on Mr Abadi to form his Government well before the deadline. This is to help remove the greatest barrier for progress, namely Mr Maliky. In fact, the USA made its military support to Iraq against ISIS conditional on the removal of Mr Maliki. Mr Abadi himself is in a hurry to form the Government and has not rested since nomination, 24/7. He asked for ministerial nominations by tomorrow, which is very optimistic. Failure is not option, would be disastrous for all stakeholders, but then again it is a real possibility.

There are those who are working on it, to make sure it fails, and others, including Shias, Sunnis and Kurds who have put forward tough preconditions, which might prove impossible to meet. So far, the negotiations have been progressing relatively well, but Mr Abadi has not yet gone down to the details, and has been busy trying to bring the ceilings downs. If the Government is to be that of national unity, he will need to bring irreconcilable interests together, and satisfy everyone, an impossible task.

Mr Abadi’s brethren in the State-of-law and House of Shia will be asking for the lion share of government posts. They are not united and not easy to satisfy. More difficult is to bring the Sunnis on board. One might think that the Sunnis are in the poorest state, their power-base is occupied by ISIS and in desperate need of help. However, their hand is now stronger than ever. Everyone now believes that defeating ISIS in Iraq and liberating the major towns in the Sunni triangle will require their active engagement. Everyone insists that the Sunnis’ political and tribal leaders must be embraced by the Baghdad, rehabilitated and fully supported financially and militarily. The Sunnis, on the other hand, will no longer accept sectarian rule by the Shia majority.

The Kurds have lost faith in Iraq, and wished that they did not have to go back to Baghdad, but they are doing so out of necessity or lack of choice. The Kurds could not comprehend how the central government could starve people and the Peshmarga from funds at the time of war against terror. Or, how it denies humanitarian and military help from arriving in Kurdistan when people are being slaughtered, religious minorities facing genocide and increasing number of displaced people needing basic needs.

Had it not been for US airstrikes and international help, it would have been extremely difficult for the KRG to stop ISIS advances and help the IDPs.

In any case, the Kurds have now come round and invested seriously in Baghdad’s political process. They now have a President in Baghdad who was instrumental in stopping Maliki from extending his premiership into a third term. The Kurdish political parties are seriously engaged in negotiations with Abadi.

The Kurds have a long list of demands and preconditions for Mr Abadi, some of which might even be beyond his powers.

  • They want guarantees from the House of Shias as well as Iran and USA that Abadi would not be another Maliky.
  • They want to be sure that the next PM is not in a position to use the Budget and people’s salary as a political tool to punish political rivals.
  • He should not repeat the Shahristani policies on Oil and Gas, and genuinely try to reach middle grounds and amicable arrangements.
  • The Kurds want to make sure the future Prime Ministers are not selective in the implementation of the constitution’s articles, and deal with article 140 with sincerity. This article relates to the disputed territories which are now under Kurdish control after the withdrawal of the demoralised Iraqi Army in June.

In short, the Kurds want greater sovereignty within the boundaries of Iraq. They want to retain autonomous decision-making powers over their economy, airspace, international relations and security. Otherwise, they see no reason to reconstruct Iraq and remain vulnerable.

Kurdish politicians are under increasing pressure from their people to go independent, and increasing number of political leaders are becoming convinced that their future is not in an Iraq that remains highly centralised and grossly dysfunctional.

Finally, a few words about ISIS. I do not need to tell you what ISIS has done and what it is capable of. However, I would like to emphasise that ISIS is a real existential threat to us all. ISIS managed to grow and undermine two sovereign states, and is now deeply entrenched in highly populated and oil-rich provinces. Defeating ISIS will not be easy or quick. It requires long term strategies and international collaborations. It needs radical rethinking of methods and alliances. If the KRG-USA collaboration was a model to go by, i.e. US airstrikes and KRG ground troops, then the USA will require repeating it in Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria. More importantly, defeating ISIS requires Regional powers to rethink their strategies.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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