Dizzying choreography in Iraq

Dizzying choreography in Iraq

Ten years have passed since the invasion of Iraq by the United States and 18 months since the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Yet Iraq has not found its much-sought stability, let alone peace and reconciliation. Communities live together peacefully only where there exist shared values and norms. Respecting each other is also an inescapable principle to live in harmony. Power struggles, on the other hand, are usually the main underlying element triggering competition, disputes and finally violence among people.

Iraq has been in the grips of a widespread power struggle ever since the U.S. invasion. Violence followed inevitably. The U.N. statistics name 1,045 people who were killed in Iraq only in May this year, the deadliest month since June 2008. Bomb attacks across Iraq are common daily occurrence. The political atmosphere has been unstable, to say the least, since the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.

The instability stems mainly from the sectarian and ethnic divides engulfing the country. The disputes between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as the Shiite-dominated central government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), have been particularly tense over the last year. Yet, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited northern Iraq on June 10 for the first time in more than two years, and Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, reciprocated on July 7 by visiting Baghdad. These are not just symbolic visits.

While al-Maliki’s move was considered a first step toward resolving a long-running dispute over oil and land as well as an attempt to secure Kurdish support to relieve some of the pressure his Shiite-led government is feeling from the Sunnis and the surge in sectarian violence spilling over from Syria, Barzani’s visit aimed at a much larger goal of “national reconciliation,” with an underlying strategy to move to Baghdad replacing Celal Talabani as president. Talabani’s term is finishing in April 2014, and he has been in intensive care in Germany since he suffered a stroke in December 2012.

The fact that the al-Maliki government lost its popularity after the provincial elections in April 2013 forces him to form new coalitions before the forthcoming elections in 2014. While Sunni groups accuse him because of his policies marginalizing Sunnis, mending ties with the Kurds would become the best alternative for al-Maliki.

Barzani’s term as the president of the KRG was extended two more years on June 30, with the cooperation of his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), despite others opposed the extension. The future of this cooperation between the KDP and the PUK will depend on the result of upcoming parliamentary elections in September 2013 and the health of Talabani. Thus Barzani is focusing on working with the central government to strengthen his position.

The timing of the visits are also opportune to get some long-sought energy concessions from the central government, as al-Maliki approved a concession in June in favor of Sunni groups, allowing the transfer of some powers from the central government to the provinces. If Barzani is successful getting a concession, this will increase his popularity in the Kurdish region. Also, being seen in dialogue with the central government instead of cross accusations would increase his political presence in Baghdad. In the absence of Talabani, Barzani is clearly the key figure in the relationship between the Kurdish region and Baghdad and one of the main contenders in the upcoming presidential elections in Iraq.

One thing is certain though; there will be many more twists and unexpected turns before these maneuvers create a new balance of power in post-Talabani Iraq. Meanwhile, Middle East watchers need to pay closer attention to the hot summer in Iraq.