It is not surprising that they had reached such a conclusion because, for well over a year, Iraq has been consumed by pure politics devoid of policy: a fierce battle for electoral votes and, even more brazenly, nine months of jockeying by politicians about who would form the government and who would get what, with little regard for the problems of the country or the needs of its citizens. Even the government formed in December remains focused on politics without policies; witness the large amount of legislation that has been accumulating in parliament without being passed.
In the same period, protest has also broken out in Kurdistan, although it has been largely limited to Suleimaniya. While all demonstrators in Iraq share some similar concerns—particularly about economic hardship and government corruption—protests in the two parts of the country have followed different paths and engendered different government responses. Indeed, the protests highlight the degree to which Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq function separately from each other. Protesters in each part of the country organize independently, and there is no discernible spillover effect from one to the other.
Maliki Turns to Carrots and Sticks
First came the economic promises. The parliament’s financial commission declared the government would create 288,000 jobs once the budget was approved—which Maliki confirmed officially several weeks later—and Maliki announced the government would give 15,000 dinars (about U.S.$12) monthly to each citizen to make up for the decrease in food rations. He also promised that electricity shortages would end by winter.
Then came the political steps, which were modest in terms of substance but belied the government’s fears. In a populist gesture, Maliki immediately declared that he would cut his own salary—believed to be over 41 million dinars (about U.S.$350,000) a year—in half, putting pressure on other officials to do the same. On February 5, he announced that he would not run for a third term—a strange promise because a prime minister does not “run” for office—and that he would seek a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the position. Meant to allay concerns that Maliki intended to become prime minister for life, the promises showed that he saw himself more as a president with a popular mandate than as a prime minister responsible to the parliament. Maliki and other government officials, including Parliament Speaker Osama Nujeifi, also hastened to reassure the public that, because the government was being responsive, protests need not escalate.
As protests continued in the following days, government officials made more concessions, at times appearing to compete with each other to demonstrate that they considered the public’s demands justified and would do their best to implement appropriate reforms. Speaker Nujeifi pledged that the parliament would make sure the electricity shortages would be addressed and that the food supplies needed to service the ration cards would be available. Maliki exhorted ministers and governors to mingle with the protesters and listen to their demands and grievances.
But the government also used force to end the protests. When demonstrators in Wasit province set the governor’s house and a section of the governorate building on fire—allegedly after waiting for hours for an official to open the door and hear their demands—security officials reportedly responded by firing live ammunition, killing at least one person. Maliki called for an investigation, but the governor called the protesters thugs with no justifiable demands. Baghdad Operations Command denounced all protests as a Baathist plan to create chaos, while the Baghdad Provincial Council accused al-Qaeda of being behind the demonstrations.
On February 21, Maliki himself, while continuing to promise to address the grievances swiftly, declared there were too many protests and accused unnamed parties of fomenting unrest to reap unspecified advantages. The next day, he accused the Baathists of being behind the Wasit protest. In another venue, he declared that people with “evil intentions” were determined to destroy the political process and bring back the days of armed groups and foreign intervention. And when protesters called for a “day of rage” on February 25, the Baghdad Operations Command responded by imposing a curfew on vehicular traffic beginning the night before the protest, in an attempt to reduce the number of participants by forcing them to walk long distances.
With the call for a February 25 day of rage, the protest took on a more political tone. It was no longer isolated groups asking for better services, but angry citizens challenging the government. As a result, politicians started positioning themselves to avoid becoming targets. Maliki declared that people had the right to protest but also said that this was not the right time to do so. He warned of infiltrators determined to create violence and appealed to Iraqis not to participate. President Jalal Talabani announced he would defer to the prime minister and kept silent.
The ministry of interior (still headed by Maliki as caretaker minister) claimed to possess numerous documents showing al-Qaeda intended to commit terrorist acts targeting the protest. In response, eight militant groups—including some suspected of having links to al-Qaeda—announced they would suspend all activities on February 25 to give protesters a chance to demonstrate peacefully. The heads of the Sunni, Shi’a, and Christian endowment offices issued a joint statement pleading with would-be protesters to give the government time to implement the newly approved 2011 budget, which they said would address many of the problems. At the same time, though, some Shi’a religious authorities backed the protest, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who declared through a spokesman that protest was a democratic right—and, indeed, a representative of Sistani even joined the protesters in Baghdad.
The day of rage turned out to be a relatively minor affair, certainly compared with what was happening elsewhere. Protests took place simultaneously in many cities, but the scale was unimpressive—reports from most cities cited participation only in the hundreds of people; even in Baghdad, a few thousand people, at most, took to the streets. But the protests were definitely angrier and more political than past demonstrations, and so was the government’s response.
In Baghdad, demonstrators took down some barriers around the Green Zone and proceeded inside, where they denounced the U.S. occupation and the police state in Baghdad. In Nineveh, protesters asked for the resignation of the provincial council and for the reform of the central government, dramatizing their demands by setting fire to the provincial council building; Speaker Nujeifi and his brother, Nineveh Governor Atheel Nujeifi, were inside. Protesters also set fire to a government building in Mosul.
While February 25 hardly qualified as a day of rage, its political impact was remarkable. First, the protests triggered a wave of resignations, not in the central government but on the part of governors and local police officials. Second, the protests shook the already tenuous governing alliance, leading several parties to put some distance between themselves and Maliki and to reconsider their options. Third, the demonstrations affected the relationship between the central government and the provinces, as Maliki and other officials at the center sought to scapegoat provincial officials, who in turn pushed back.
Beleaguered Officials Resign
The relative decentralization of the system affected the protests as well. The crowds taking to the streets targeted not only issues of common concern throughout the country—from electricity shortages to corruption—but also specific local grievances, often expressed as demands for local officials to resign.
And resign many did, with surprising speed. The day of rage led in short order to the resignation of Governor Shiltagh Abboud in Basra and Governor Salman al-Zirkani in Babil, both State of Law coalition members targeted specifically by the demonstrators. A number of police chiefs and some high-ranking provincial officials around the country quit as well.
Shifting Center-Periphery Relations
Maliki sought to blame the provincial and local councils. Shortly after the day of rage, he called for early provincial council elections, as well as for the renewal of local councils. But provincial council elections had been held in January 2009, and their members, not surprisingly, were united in rejecting early elections, arguing that the dismal status of service delivery was due not to their neglect but to the sluggishness of the ministries and the central government.
Maliki also tried to force the resignation of the governors of Wasit and Nineveh. He was successful in Wasit, where Governor Latif Hamad al-Turfa (a State of Law member) was forced to resign by the provincial council. The issue there was essentially corruption. In addition to the accusation that his mishandling of earlier protests had led to casualties, allegations of corruption against Turfa had already been referred to the independent Commission on Integrity.
But Maliki was not successful in Nineveh, where the situation was more complex. First, Governor Atheel Nujeifi, a brother of the parliament speaker, did not belong to Maliki’s State of Law coalition. A Sunni with a strong power base in an important province bordering on Kurdistan, he had joined the Iraqiya coalition in the elections and had opposed Maliki’s bid for a second term as prime minister. Not surprisingly, Nujeifi refused to resign, stating that he would do so only in response to popular demand or if dismissed by the provincial council.
Nothing would be remarkable in this round of totally predictable reciprocal accusations—after all, nobody wants to take responsibility for failure if he can blame it on someone else. Yet in the context of Iraq and even more broadly of the Arab world, with its highly centralized political systems, the exchange indicated something remarkable: a real degree of decentralization, with provincial governments having their own power bases and thus some independence. There was politics both at the center and in the provinces.
It was far less clear, however, whether decentralization was also achieving what decentralization is supposed to produce in theory—namely, governance that is responsive to citizens’ demands. Governors and provincial councils have demonstrated clearly that while they will jealously protect their power and autonomy, they have yet to show a commitment to effective governance.
Part of the shift in center-periphery relations was the renewal of the discussion about forming new self-governing regions like Kurdistan. In early March, twelve of the 28 members of the Najaf provincial council signed a petition demanding the transformation of Najaf from a province into a region similar to Kurdistan. The petition was particularly significant because the signatories belonged to different parties, including the Sadrist Trend, State of Law, Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s Reform Party—all Shi’i parties, to be sure, but Najaf is a heavily Shi’i province.
The Iraqi constitution recognizes the right of provinces—individually or as part of a group—to demand recognition as regions, allowing them to enjoy the autonomy and self-government that is present now only in Kurdistan. If at least one-third of a provincial council’s members demand the formation of a new region, the government is obliged to consider it. No such petition had been submitted until the Najaf initiative; an early discussion about the possibility of forming a mega-region comprising nine predominantly Shi’a provinces in the south and center of the country was quickly abandoned. Proponents of a Najaf region claimed that they wanted Najaf to be recognized as a region because they believed it would bring larger financial transfers from the central government to Najaf. Protesters saw this as a political maneuver to avoid responding to their demands and angrily rejected the idea.
By the time the protests started, government formation was still incomplete. Many cabinet posts were occupied by caretaker ministers because the parties had been unable to agree on specific nominees. Most important, Maliki was personally acting as minister of defense, interior, and national security, and he appeared to be in no hurry to cede the posts to permanent appointees. While sources close to the prime minister indicated that the delays were due to the lack of a consensus on the candidates by the various coalitions, Maliki was more blunt, stating that he did not see a consensus developing. And the National Council for Higher Strategic Policies, a mechanism that Maliki had agreed to form as a means to bring a reluctant Allawi into the government, had not yet been set up because there was no agreement about its role. Allawi, slated to head the council, argued that it must be a powerful executive body that could curb the prime minister’s power, but Maliki insisted it would simply be an advisory council. As a result, legislation languished in the Council of Representatives.
Once the protests started, the rival parties in the governing coalition became more interested in accusing each other of having caused the problems than in working together to find a solution. Most Iraqi politicians probably did not want to see the government fall, but their attempts to deflect the public’s anger from their party by pinning it on another one undermined the government.
Moqtada al-Sadr was the first important figure to distance himself from the government, declaring on February 14 that Iraqis had the right to demonstrate for better services and against the occupation. The Sadrists were in a difficult position: Having chosen, in the hope of gaining popularity, to control ministries that delivered services to the public, they now risked losing support if blame for poor performance was directed at them.
Criticized by Maliki and others in the State of Law coalition for attacking a government of which he was a part, Sadr did not desist. He announced that his party planned a referendum of sorts on people’s views of the state of services in the country, but he also pleaded with the protesters to give the government six months to address their grievances. If the government did not perform, Sadr said, he would fully support the protesters.
Not surprisingly, when the survey results were published in mid-March, they indicated that the vast majority of the 3.8 million Iraqis from across the country who allegedly participated agreed that services were in bad shape and that they would support protests if services did not improve in six months. Less flamboyantly, the ISCI and its leader, Ammar al-Hakim, also criticized the government’s handling of the protests and expressed support for the protesters’ demands.
Desertions also took place inside Maliki’s own State of Law alliance. Safiya Suheil, one of the few women in the organization, resigned shortly after the protests began and declared her independence. And Jaafar Baqir al-Sadr, a son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, resigned from the Council of Representatives. Jaafar al-Sadr had run for parliament as an independent on the State of Law slate and received the second-largest number of votes in Baghdad. He quit the parliament on February 17, claiming that a few individuals were monopolizing decision making in the State of Law coalition, that the parliament was ineffective because of sectarianism, and that neither the parliament nor the government could devise policies or had a vision for the future.
Adding to Maliki’s woes, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani openly backed the protesters. He sent a personal representative to participate in the February 25 day of rage and subsequently praised the participants for peacefully asking for their rights. The highly revered religious leader also called for concrete reforms, warning of dangerous ramifications if the government continued down its current path.
At the time of this writing in mid-March, it was still too early to judge whether the cracks appearing in the governing alliance would widen to the point of causing a collapse. Certainly, tensions were increasing: the distrust of Maliki that delayed for months the formation of the National Alliance had resurfaced; Allawi was sulking; and factions were emerging in Iraqiya. But no party was confident that it would be any more possible to form an alternative governing coalition today than it was in the past. All factions were testing how far they could push each other without provoking a break and causing the government to fall.
Protests in Kurdistan
Unrest started in Suleimaniya on February 17. The demonstration was called ostensibly as a show of solidarity with the youth of Tunisia and Egypt, but before long the protesters started marching to KDP headquarters, calling for reform and reportedly chanting that “the corrupt must face justice.” It is unclear who took the initiative but it was Gorran, the upstart party, which took the blame for the anti-KDP demonstrations—although it denied playing any role.
Presumably in response to the protests, Gorran’s headquarters in Irbil were set on fire, as were the headquarters of KNN, a television station owned by Gorran’s leader Mustafa. At the same time, units of the peshmerga, Kurdistan’s defense force, were moved from Irbil to Suleimaniya to avert any possible escalation. The next day, Gorran offices in another northern city, Dohuk, were looted. Journalists sympathetic to the protesters or linked to Mustafa’s media company, Wusha, were also subject to attacks and harassment. Small-scale protests also took place in a few other towns but quickly died down.
The KDP and PUK tried initially to handle the protests as a security issue. Without naming any organization, they claimed that the protests had been planned deliberately to destabilize Kurdistan. But when protesters started calling for the resignation of Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a PUK member, the two parties changed tactics. Betraying how worried it was about the unrest, the PUK leadership announced that it supported holding early elections and forming an enlarged government, presumably with Gorran’s participation. KRG officials also set up a special committee to study the demands of the protesters and opposition in order to address the problems.
The promises did not mollify the opposition, however. On March 3, Gorran and two smaller opposition parties boycotted the session of the Kurdish parliament. Clearly alarmed, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani immediately called for a dialogue with the opposition to devise a reform program. Most recently, he said he would step down if the reform program failed, though his pledge was made only after the nine Kurdish parties—including PUK, KDP, and Gorran—signed an agreement not to mobilize the street against each other.
Barzani also called for early elections, denying that he intended to remain as president for life. Prime Minister Saleh, a fairly reform-minded member of the PUK, then expressed his willingness to step down if the parliament called on him to do so—probably an empty gesture because the parliament is dominated by the KDP and PUK and thus unlikely to ask for his resignation. Taking advantage of the major parties’ moment of weakness, Gorran continued to push for faster change, rejecting the president’s promises as insufficient and calling for the government to step down without waiting for new elections.
The Kurdish leadership also played another card to end the political crisis: it sought to unite all Kurds around an issue on which they agreed—the annexation of the disputed town of Kirkuk. On February 27, Barzani ordered two peshmerga units to deploy around Kirkuk, claiming that terrorists had infiltrated the city to organize protests and that the deployment of the peshmerga was necessary to protect residents. Despite calls by Maliki, Arab and Turkoman residents, and even by the United States to demobilize, the KRG refused to withdraw the peshmerga—former KRG prime minister Neshirvan Barzani even threatened to deploy more troops if the situation did not improve. In a totally unexpected move that called into question his allegiance to Iraq as a whole, Talabani on March 8 declared that Kirkuk was “Kurdistan’s Jerusalem” and called for a Kurdish-Turkmen strategic alliance against the “terrorists and new occupiers” of Kirkuk.
By creating a crisis in Kirkuk, the KDP and the PUK may have succeeded in silencing the Kurdish opposition, which cannot be seen as lukewarm on the issue of Kirkuk. They have also succeeded in reviving the issue of the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which calls for a referendum in which the residents of Kirkuk will decide whether they want the city to become part of Kurdistan. While beneficial in the short run to the dominant Kurdish parties in their attempt to silence the opposition, in the long run the crisis could dearly cost Iraq as a whole by renewing tensions that threaten the country’s unity.
Already changes in Kirkuk’s political makeup are occurring as Governor Abdul Rahman Mustafa and Rezkar Ali, the head of the provincial council of Kirkuk, announced their resignations on March 15 for personal reasons. In reality, the resignations were the result of a political agreement between the Kurdistan Alliance and the Turkoman Front, which will now probably head the provincial council. This may be the beginning of the strategic alliance Talabani called for, and will put greater pressure on Maliki to implement Article 140.