Iraqi Kurdistan fears Maliki returning to power

Iraqi Kurdistan fears Maliki returning to power
Analysis: Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's former prime minister, previously said he would use Baghdad's air force against the autonomous northern region, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
20 February, 2017
The spreading sectarianisation under Nouri al-Maliki's rule facilitated the rise of IS, analysts say [Getty]

Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, recently declared that if former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were ever to return to power, he would instantly declare an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The two leaders were at odds when Maliki was in power, and the former Iraqi prime minister continues to verbally attack the autonomous Kurdistan region, particularly Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

"I think Barzani's statement was more opposition to Maliki returning to power than actually moving towards independence," Iraq analyst Joel Wing, who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, told The New Arab.

"Everyone pretty much agrees that Kurdish independence will come about through extended negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil and not via declaration. Not only that but Kurdistan, with its economic and political problems right now, is not in a stable situation to declare independence."

Erbil worried about the possible threat from a powerful Iraqi military during Maliki's tenure. Barzani tried to lobby Washington not to sell Baghdad F-16 jet fighters while Maliki was in power - for fears they might be used against his region. And he had reason to be fearful - Maliki told his generals that he might one day send his army into Erbil, but only when Baghdad received those jets.

The conflict between Erbil and Baghdad has been, and will be, about struggle of power regardless of who comes to office in Baghdad

"The conflict between Erbil and Baghdad has been, and will be, about struggle of power regardless of who comes to office in Baghdad," Yerevan Saeed, an analyst at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington told The New Arab.

"Iraq as a state would want to project its power on every inch of its soil, when possible. Thus, Kurds live in a constant security quandary as long as they remain within Iraq. This is not to say such security dilemmas ends once Kurdistan declares independence, but rather to say Kurds are more vulnerable within Iraq and international norms support Baghdad to have control over its territory.

"Maliki is a like a wounded leopard who seeks to return to power in the upcoming election, if it's even held," Saeed added.

"He has tried to bring Sunnis into his camps, such as the speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, and other prominent Sunni figures. Given his bad track record, losing a third of Iraqi territory to IS, marginalisation of Sunnis and Kurds and escalation of tensions with the Arab Gulf states, I see little chance he will retake office as prime minister. If he does he will do massive damage to Iraq as a whole."

Just last year, from behind the scenes, Maliki reportedly sought to undermine Barzani, from choosing to visit Barzani's rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party officials in Sulaimania, and completely snubbing Barzani's KDP in the process.

In October, Maliki branded Kurdistan's leadership "Israeli sympathisers". A KDP statement countered by calling Maliki "the worst enemy of the Kurds since Ali Hassan al-Majid", aka Chemical Ali, Saddam Hussein's first cousin who infamously gassed Kurds in their tens of thousands during the infamous Al-Anfal campaign of the 1980s.

Its also quite clear that Maliki's efforts to bring down incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - who has been receptive to negotiating Kurdish independence - include a secret ballot parliamentary no-confidence vote in Hoshyar Zebari, Baghdad's finance minister and Barzani's uncle.

More recently, Maliki lashed out at Erbil from Tehran, demanding that all Kurdish Peshmerga forces should withdraw from "disputed territories" between Iraq and the Kurdistan region which Kurdish fighters liberated from Islamic State group militants.

"For sure, Maliki knows well that Kurds were partially instrumental in his removal from power in September 2014," Saeed said. "Based on his rhetoric and his control over the Shia militias, one can conclude that he will pose a far greater danger to Kurds than anyone else in power in Baghdad."

Our nation is under threat, and the big war is coming after [IS]

One senior PUK official, Mahmoud Sangawi, even went as far last as claiming, last summer, that these Shia militias "are now making plans on how to attack us after [IS]" was defeated. He consequently called on all Kurdish parties to unite, "because our nation is under threat, and the big war is coming after [IS]".

Erbil has reasons to fear Maliki's return to power. Iraq has amassed a sizable military in recent years, including newly delivered F-16s which had their combat debut last year bombing IS militants, and modern Russian helicopter gunships, which have also seen action.

The Kurdish Peshmerga's known possession of anti-aircraft weaponry is extremely limited, reportedly amounting to a few Russian-made anti-aircraft cannon, which would only really have effect against slow low-flying aircraft, not jet fighters capable of bombing targets from high altitudes.

Also, the Iraqi military's push into Mosul has included its largest armoured assault since the military under Saddam Hussein infamously overran and sacked Kuwait in August 1990. All of this is being done in cooperation with the Kurdistan region thanks to cooperation between Barzani and Abadi.

This could well be compromised were Maliki to succeed in his efforts to bring down Abadi's government by systematically having key ministers removed.

Given his history of fighting the Iraqi Baathists, Masoud Barzani knows the perils a hostile leader in Baghdad can pose to Kurdistan. Back in 2007 he gave an interview to Al-Arabiya in which he discussed the litany of potential threats that faced his region. When asked what scenario he and his people feared the most Barzani simply answered: "That the dictatorship will return to Iraq."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon