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The U.S. withdrew one year ago today — if anyone in Iraq cares to notice.
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Here, one should compare with the behavior of Egypt’s Islamist and autocratic president Mohamed Morsi and his attempts to consolidate control over the Central Bank in his country, although Maliki’s approach is not quite as forward and confrontational as that of Morsi, who unlike Maliki does not have nearly as many sympathizers in the judiciary on whom he can rely to issue verdicts in his favor as regards executive-branch government control of various institutions.
Similar concerns exist for the question of press and academic freedom in Iraq. For instance, individual journalists out on assignment may be subject to arbitrary arrest and other forms of harassment by the security forces. However, it is important to emphasize that — as when looking into allegations of monopolizing control over government institutions — each case must be judged on its own terms, and not reduced to a dogmatic paradigm of analysis.
In this context, take the case of the TV station al-Baghdadia, which is owned by Iraqi exiles residing in Egypt. On November 24, the Iraqi security forces barred it from covering the festival of Ashura in Baghdad, and have most recently compelled the outlet to go off-air, with the Ministry of Interior citing a refusal to sign a list of regulations (unclear as to precisely what) and lack of payment of proper broadcasting fees. The latter allegation also exists against the women’s radio station al-Mahaba, which has been compelled to shut down as well.
While it is tempting to see the move against al-Baghdadia as simple intolerance of a media outlet critical of the government (recall that Mundathar al-Zaidi — the journalist who gained international renown for throwing his shoe at George Bush in a meeting with Maliki — worked for this station), a closer analysis should show that there is at least one other factor at play here. The fact is that the station was forced to shut down briefly before for giving a voice on air to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) terrorists who massacred 52 people in the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October 2010.
In a speech at the opening ceremony marking the restoration of the church this month, Maliki urged the EU not to encourage Iraqi Christians to emigrate. Yet around the same time, on December 13, al-Baghdadia TV broadcast a fatwa by Ayatollah al-Baghdadi (who currently resides in Syria), declaring Iraq’s Christians to be “polytheists” and “friends of Zionists” who should either convert to Islam or die. Catholics from Baghdad speaking to AsiaNews said that the fatwa could trigger alarm in some quarters.
From the above evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that at least part of the reason behind the recent shutdown of al-Baghdadia TV is a need on the part of the government to demonstrate some form of commitment to protecting Christians against extremist incitement, even if such a justification for moving against the station has not been declared specifically as an official reason.
For comparison, one should note the uproar triggered when al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office was ordered shut for a month in August 2004 by the interim Iraqi government on charges of inciting extremist sentiment.
Kurds, Border Disputes and Violence: Much media attention has focused on the recent build-up of Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen and Iraqi army forces in the disputed areas in the north of Iraq. The build-up began with an incident in the town of Tuz Kharmuto in which there were alleged clashes between Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga.
Before assuming an impending all-out Arab-Kurd conflict, however, it is important to realize that much of the current tension between Baghdad and the KRG is centered on the personal rivalry between Maliki and KRG premier Massoud Barzani, who not only gave refuge to Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi (handed multiple death sentences on terrorism charges, which — issued as they were in the context of political rivalry between Maliki and Hashemi — nonetheless probably have basis in reality) but also aimed to have Maliki unseated in the efforts to bring about a no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister.
In contrast, Jalal Talabani, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in coalition with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party in the KRG, has remained an ally of Maliki: indeed, it was Talabani’s indication that he would not support a no-confidence vote that proved most decisive in preserving Maliki’s position. When these personal rivalries and alliances are noted, it comes as no surprise that Talabani appears to have played a role in mediating between Baghdad and the KRG and defusing the latest round of brinkmanship.
In fact, as I predicted, the entire affair was brinkmanship all along. It is of course true that much heated rhetoric is thrown around by both sides. For example, Barzani accused Maliki of planning to bomb KRG sites with fighter jets, and has said that all disputed areas should be renamed “Kurdish” areas, while Sami al-Askari — a member of Maliki’s State of Law bloc — has threatened war if Exxon Mobil goes ahead with its plans to explore for oil and gas resources in disputed areas following its signing of such contracts with the KRG (considered illegal by Baghdad).
Further, the remnants of the Sunni Arab insurgency — principally al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Baathist Naqshibandi — are attempting to whip up further sectarian tensions in the disputed areas with opportunistic bomb attacks.
Nonetheless, the fact is that both the KRG and Baghdad recognize that an all-out open conflict is not in anyone’s interests, and so the heated rhetoric remains no more than just talk. Given a similar incident of brinkmanship on the Syrian border back in the summer, the outcome here was somewhat predictable. All that said, issues like the status of the disputed town of Kirkuk and the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command by the central government in the area seem likely to continue to evade full resolution.
On a concluding note, something should be said about recent speculation on a pending energy deal between the Turkish government and the KRG. According to journalist Ben Van Heuvelen, this deal is essentially as follows: “A new Turkish company, backed by the government, is proposing to drill for oil and gas in Kurdistan and build pipelines to transport those resources to international markets.”
Since Baghdad is responsible for supplying most of the KRG’s budget, a deal could over the next several years greatly reduce the KRG’s financial dependence on the central Iraqi government and prove a significant step towards independence if so desired. One of Turkey’s main considerations as regards importing energy resources from Iraqi Kurdistan is the fact that energy demand is rapidly growing in Turkey, and unsurprisingly Ankara feels a need to diversify its range of suppliers.
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H/T to National Review Online