May 22nd, 2014
04:13 PM ET

Iraq’s future looks more like Kurdistan

By Marina Ottaway, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has emerged as the clear winner of the Iraqi parliamentary elections. His State of Law coalition has won at least 92 seats of the 328 seats in the Council of Representatives, three times as many as the next largest party. In the 2010 elections, in contrast, al-Maliki lost by two seats to Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya Party, a coalition of secular Shia and Sunni organizations that has now completely disintegrated.

There is therefore no doubt that al-Maliki will be asked by the president (when parliament can agree on one) to form the new government. In 2010, he had to battle with Allawi for months to get that chance. But putting together a coalition with the needed 164 votes may prove even harder than in 2010, when the process lasted nine months, only coming to an end with an agreement to form a government of national reconciliation in which all parties participated.

This time, al-Maliki has already announced that he does not want another government of national unity, but he will find it difficult to get sufficient support. After four years of increasingly authoritarian rule, the prime minister has little backing among Sunnis and Kurds, and has even failed to unite Shias behind him. Eventually, al-Maliki will probably succeed, but not without making major concessions that would give him a third term as prime minister but also change the country toward a confederal form of government.

The Shia parties of Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr (theoretically now retired from politics but still quite involved) have a combined 65 seats and are on record as opposing a third term for al-Maliki. So is Allawi’s Wataniyya coalition, which secured 21 seats. The Kurdish parties, with 62 seats, are also against him and threatening to organize a referendum on independence if he stays on as prime minister for a third term. And there is no love lost between al-Maliki and the major Sunni parties. If all these declared opponents remain lined up against him, al-Maliki would face an opposition bloc block of about 180 seats and thus could not prevail. (Figures are not precise because some seats are still object of disputes)

So, can he get the support of some his present detractors? In the case of Hakim and Sadr, the answer will come from Tehran. If Iran continues backing al-Maliki, as it did in 2010 together with the United States, it will press all Shia parties to stay together. Al-Maliki could then put together a majority with the help of smaller parties. But a predominantly Shia government would be weak, encourage Kurdistan to move toward independence, and increase anger – and with it the influence of Islamist radicals – among Sunnis.

Kurdish parties, which are negotiating as a block, would probably agree to back al-Maliki if offered what they really want: an agreement by Baghdad to let Kurdistan export its oil and gas directly, though paying Baghdad the 83 percent of revenue both sides agree is the central government’s share. With a pipeline linking Kurdish fields directly to Ceyhan in Turkey, and two and a half million barrels of oil stored there waiting to be sold, Kurdistan can export oil. An agreement with Baghdad has proven elusive so far, but in an attempt to press the Kurdish authorities into submission, al-Maliki has suspended the payment of Kurdistan’s share of oil revenue, causing anger and increasing pro-independence sentiments among the Kurds. But if he allowed Kurdistan to export its oil and gas directly, implicitly agreeing on their interpretation of the constitution, the Kurds would likely be willing to back him and shelve the idea of independence for the time being.

Such an agreement would have far reaching ramifications for Iraq because a growing number of provinces, including all Sunni and even some Shia ones, are talking openly of following the example of Kurdistan and becoming autonomous regions, as the constitution in theory allows.

Kurdistan, much criticized in 2005 for insisting on a constitution that granted them autonomy at the expense of Iraqi unity, is now seen by many as the example to be emulated – compared to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is a model of stability and its economy is flourishing. If Baghdad recognized the right of Kurdistan to export its own oil, other provinces would demand the same and Iraq would turn into a federation with a weak central government or even a confederation. There is much talk of such a solution, particularly in the embattled Sunni provinces.

Elated by his victory, al-Maliki is sounding uncompromising, and although he has declared that he is open to work with any political party, he has made it clear that it would be strictly on his own terms. For example, he has told the Kurdish party that they are welcome in a government coalition as long as they accept his interpretation of the constitution, thus renounce their ambition to export oil independently.

Ultimately, all sides will try to stare each other down before they finally start bargaining in earnest. But while at the end of the process al-Maliki will probably still be prime minister, Iraq will be a different country.

Post by:
Topics: Iran • Iraq

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    What Noor al-Maliki sorely needs to do is to give the Kurds a plebiscite and abide the results. If the Kurds want their own home state, then let them have one.

    May 22, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      I did not write that post.
      If any group of human beings wants its own state, and wants that state to endure, it needs to get some guns and fight for it.

      May 23, 2014 at 9:41 am | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        ADDENDUM:
        Bravo Darwin!

        May 23, 2014 at 9:56 am |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

        That they do, whoever you are. In fact, they've been fighting the Turks since 1984 just as the Israelis fought the British for some 20 years before setting up their own home state.

        May 23, 2014 at 11:36 am |
      • Ferhat Balkan

        You mean they've been terrorizing the Turks since they took up weapons given to them by the Soviet Union at that time. An extremist Communist terrorist organization called the PKK that's killed more than 30,000 people (including Kurds).

        May 23, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
  2. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    May 22, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Reply
    • Capri Manali

      +In 1979 helping the brutal dictator Khomeini to overthrow the brutal dictator Shah and brought him to the power through a persian spring revolution made by CIA like the arab spring revolutions. The persian islamic regime in Tehran has full support of US and they control Iraq and and it's islamic sectarian government with 100% help of the America.

      May 24, 2014 at 3:56 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Good grief Capri Manali, there is not inasmuch as one word of truth in what you posted above! Are you trying to be funny or what? the Ayatollah Khomeini may have been brutal but was a gigantic improvement over the brutal Shah Reza Pahlavi who was just another Washington stooge in the Middle East.

        May 24, 2014 at 11:51 am |
  3. Lawen

    Thank you for this very objective and realistic article.

    May 23, 2014 at 6:03 am | Reply
  4. hmirwaisi

    The US Government made many dictators for Iraq before departing

    Each dictators are similar to Saddam Hussein, PM of Iraq is in control of Shi’a region with large Iraqi army, Kurdistan region of Iraq is divided into two part one is controlled by Barzani family and other one by Talabani family, the US Government created 100,000 military forces for each families in Kurdistan region of Iraq.

    They are holding election to fool people and the US Governments knows that very well. They are openly stealing everything from population and depositing money in the US and Europe Banks. For example Qubad Talabani son of Jalal Talabani are billionaire without working one day in his life.

    The Us Governments lost many valuable lives and trillion of dollars to create wild animals for Iraqi people. They are not human and killing any one speaks up in Iraq.

    The US Governments call this liberation. It is shame for the US Governments, the US congress and the US people for what they did to Iraqi people.

    May 23, 2014 at 8:31 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      Well put, hmirwaisi. Thank you.

      May 23, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
  5. chri§§y

    Lol we knew that wasnt you @ Joey (in blue)

    May 23, 2014 at 11:19 am | Reply
  6. DeborahLayne

    No offense, but you don't have an accurate grasp of Iraqi politics. The party Maliki belongs to got the most votes. But Maliki isn't now and is likely not going to be whom they put forward as their party's candidate.

    The State of Law cannot win this election without another party joining them. And there is a very strong coalition among the other parties who are risking their very lives to stand against another term for this dictator. He is everything Saddam was and more. It is not the practice of mainstream media to cover the real news about Iraqi politics, since the current administration plugged in and left a bloodthirsty dictator at the helm. That fact is to much appreciated by our servicemen and their families.

    The coalition that stands for power sharing in the GOI has proven to push back harder than Maliki's threats, crime, and intimidation pushes them.

    Look deeper into this subject, from non- Maliki or Obama owned media and learn how their election system works before declaring that Maliki won it is even poised to win. He isn't – not by a long shot. In fact the coalition that stands for freedom and shared power has been talking a lot today. Only they don't get coverage on mainstream USA media.

    Look more closely, and learn the facts and what's actually going on. Don't be a sheep, and please don't mislead people by a false or ignorant grasp of the truth.

    May 23, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Deborah, until Iraq is split into three different states, first by giving the north to the Kurds and then the south to the Shi'a and the west to the Sunnis aka ISIS, there is little chance of any peace in Iraq anytime soon! Why are people too stupid to see this simple fact?????

      May 23, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  7. chri§§y

    Ya know @ Deborah i got that impression just from the little that ive read about him. Sounded like a dictator to me. Good luck to the people of Iraq!

    May 23, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  8. Joseph Nunez

    I only saw this less than stellar article because it showed on my Iraq article feed. Clearly another think tank "expert" who has spent little time in Iraq. No mention of the security dilemma or the actual standing of the current PM. As for me, I spent over five years in Iraq, dating back to the surge. Will the Kurds support Maliki? Will the Sunnis support Maliki? Will other Shia parties support the PM for a third term? Do not expect this to be a lock, especially since the PM's electoral gains were not that great, especially given serious concerns about corruption. Hey Fareed, you can do much better – really!!!

    May 23, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    Al Maliki is too intransigent to see the realities on the ground. Perhaps he should have to learn a lesson the hard way. He ought to know that it is much better for Iraq to "turn into a federation with a weak central government or even a confederation" than to have a Yugoslavian style breakup. Yet he is so obsessed with power than he doesn't want to devolve any. His authoritarian rule will prove his undoing.

    May 24, 2014 at 8:53 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Quite true, j. von hettlingen. Such are the kind of tyrants we Americans put into power. Like I said before, Iraq needs to go the same way Yugoslavia did some twenty years ago.

      May 24, 2014 at 11:54 am | Reply
  10. Chuck

    Give Iraq back to the Kurds and Chaldeans and tell the Arabs to go south to Arabia where they
    came from

    May 28, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  11. Marlon

    The news does not reflect the truth. Northern Iraqi future lies in Turkey and Iraq altogether. They are squeezed. Sooner or later the non-nationalist Turkish government will be abolished and Erdogan will receive the biggest kick ever had and will be forced to answer all the corruption cases. The Kurdish population in Turkey in the close vicinity of the Northern Iraq cannot be help to them because first of all the Kurdish population distributed in Turkey Irak Iran and Syria even Armenia and Azerbaijan does not have the major prerequisite of being a nation. They speak totally different languages. They cannot understand each other even the kurds in various cities can’t. Therefore Kurds have to make reconciliation. The US diplomatic efforts cannot force Turkey to let Kurds get away from this situation. Sooner or later the traitors at Turkish side will be unsuccessful so the USA.

    May 29, 2014 at 8:00 am | Reply
  12. a

    At this moment I am going away to do my
    breakfast, later than having my breakfast coming over again to read other news.

    June 24, 2014 at 5:08 am | Reply

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