Maliki's tenure on ice as rift with Kurds widens

The Iraqi premier is increasingly at risk as cracks in his Shiite-Kurdish coalition grow in the waning days of the Bush administration, his other main ally.

Ahmed Alhussainey/AP
Iraqi premier: Nouri al-Maliki, seen campaigning Tuesday, will lose a key ally when Bush leaves office.
Jane Arraf
Kurdish influence: Kurds in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, walked by a Kurdish flag, which is seen flying across this semiautonomous region. Kurdish leaders are increasingly at odds with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and have threatened to withdraw from a coalition with him.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition of support is fraying. The Kurds, his chief Iraqi ally, are increasingly at odds with the Shiite premier over issues of power, oil, the military, and Kirkuk. Mr. Maliki's other main sponsor – the Bush administration – will also soon disappear.

While the growing Kurdish-Shiite rift may be the biggest threat yet to Maliki's tenure, what may ensure his survival are fears of the political battle that would follow his ouster and wreck many of the gains in Iraq's young democracy.

"In the absence of a good viable alternative that can be put in place quickly, the country cannot tolerate the chaos," says a senior Kurdish official.

But even though Maliki is likely to survive this increasingly bitter fight with the Kurds, he will not emerge unscathed.

"Kurds have made a judgment that he cannot be trusted and that's the worst part of this – it's not about the technicalities of oil law and this and that – this issue of trust was shattered," says the Kurdish official who, like all of the people interviewed for this story, would speak only on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

"A lot of the issues that are involved … are characteristic of nation building and characteristic of competition for power and resources in nascent systems and that's what we are witnessing," says a senior US official. "I think relations obviously have deteriorated. What tangible impact that has on Maliki's ability to govern [is] hard to say but clearly this is problematic for him and for [the Kurds]."

Experts suggest that Iraq will weather many more of these internal power struggles as the US pulls back its military and political oversight in the years to come. They say the country could see pitched battles over resources, control over the military, and regional autonomy. The real challenge will be trying to contain the fights to parliament and keep them from spreading into fighting on the ground.

Ahead of provincial polls next month, the United Nations has cautioned that extremist violence could flare as rival parties jostle for power.

The current Kurd-Maliki rift is indeed volatile. A dispute over security at the parliamentary buildings recently shut down the buildings for two days, Iraqi officials say.

The buildings in Baghdad's Green Zone have been protected by Kurdish soldiers after Sunni and Shiite Arab parties failed to agree who should secure the premises. When Maliki tried to bring in more than his four allotted body guards last month, the detail was stopped by Kurdish soldiers, who were later ordered by Kurdish officials to temporarily withdraw their protection of the buildings.

One of the key disputes between the Kurds and Maliki is over oil. The infighting has stalled already-delayed oil legislation that is eagerly awaited by foreign investors. So far many have been unwilling to invest in Iraq because of the uncertainty over the Iraqi oil law.

Iraq's cabinet passed a draft oil law more than a year ago but Kurdish officials withdrew their support saying it gave the central government too much control. After agreeing to allow Kurds to cut oil deals on their own in exchange for supporting the draft legislation, the Oil Ministry recently rescinded that offer.

The Kurds, as well as Sunni political factions, also want a more formal power-sharing deal with Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition, more participation in the Iraqi Army, and checks on Maliki's power, which critics say has grown too much. And in the background of these Kurdish-Maliki feuds looms the issue of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.

One of the main flash points has been the issue of tribal councils, which are government-financed groups that Maliki is setting up to facilitate reconciliation and fight insurgent activity. But the Kurds have protested the plan and say the move is really an effort for the central government to extend its control.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who also heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said he would contest the legality of the councils in court. Maliki's Shiite partners in the coalition, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, also oppose the councils, which they say bypass local governments.

For his part, Maliki accuses the Kurds of contravening the Constitution by unilaterally deploying Kurdish soldiers outside of the country's semiautonomous Kurdish north.

"Things like who has the authority to tell regional forces where to go – that's part of the teething pains of institution building," says the US official.

Maliki has proved in the past that he can endure political attacks. Early last year he appeared to be teetering on the brink – with members of his coalition in open revolt. With a parliamentary deadlock holding up passage of the oil law and other legislation seen as key US goals, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear they would not tolerate efforts to remove him, Iraqi officials say.

Officials say Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, personally went to bat for Maliki.

"The Kurds have sustained his government when the Sunnis walked out. The Kurds were instrumental in bringing the Sunnis back to the government, yet the minute they came back Maliki tried to reach a compromise with the Sunnis saying, 'Let's unite against the Kurds,' " says a Kurdish official.

"Last time last year it was Bush and Rice who saved him," says the official. "He has squandered the opportunities he had."

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