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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kurds fight out internal rivalries in Iraq vote

Kurds fight out internal rivalries in Iraq vote Tue Apr 29, 2014 1:03am EDT 0 Comments inShare.1Share thisEmailPrintRelated TopicsEnergy » * President's stroke opens dangerous power vacuum * Shots show potential for violence between Kurdish groups * Turkey, Iran jostle for influence By Isabel Coles SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq, April 29 (Reuters) - Celebratory gunfire broke out in Iraq's Kurdish north as the octogenarian was shown on television raising an ink-stained finger after casting his vote thousands of miles away in Germany. The man was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his silent appearance at an early ballot for the election due at home on Wednesday was the first footage of him since he suffered a stroke late in 2012 and was flown abroad for medical treatment. In Sulaimaniyah, capital of the province of the same name where his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is headquartered, cars blared their horns and people, some wearing T-shirts printed with Talabani's face, danced on the streets. Cause for festivities may be short-lived. Wednesday's election marks a new round in an internal power struggle that risks turning violent and skewing the balance of power in Kurdistan between influential neighbours Iran and Turkey. The parliamentary vote is being contested as bitterly within each of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian constituencies as between them -- if not more so. Among the Kurds, long at odds with Baghdad and in charge of their own quasi-state in the north of the country, rivalries have prevented the formation of a government more than seven months after elections in the oil-rich enclave. true This election, amounts, for them, to a referendum on Talabani's PUK, left rudderless and internally riven without the ailing statesman, known affectionately as "dear uncle". The PUK's fading star has upset the region's time-worn political order, raising concerns about stability, particularly in Sulaimaniyah province, which Talabani's party has controlled since Kurdistan gained autonomy more than three decades ago. Last week, gunmen waving the PUK's green flag drove past a branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on Sulaimaniyah's main street and opened fire. The mayor said "dark hands" were behind the incident, in which there were no casualties. Member of parliament Ari Harsin later stood guard at the scene with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. "I took up arms because no-one is in charge of Suleimaniyah," he said in a television interview. "I am defending democracy". The shooting took place just days after an agreement was signed to finally form a new cabinet that would sideline the PUK, which has shared power with the KDP for almost a decade but fell to third place at the polls last September. It was overtaken by opposition party Gorran (Change), which grew out of a former wing of the PUK and quickly gained popularity among Kurds fed up with the corruption of the region's traditional ruling elites. In this election, the PUK is hoping to regain stature through Kirkuk - an ethnically mixed city where the party enjoys support outside the formal boundary of Kurdistan. That would give the PUK much-needed leverage in ongoing negotiations over government formation. "They lost the (local) election and they must accept it," said the head of Gorran's electoral list Aram Sheikh Mohammed at the party's hilltop headquarters in Suleimaniyah, from an office that commands a view of the mountains surrounding the city. "The PUK needs to wake up: they are still in a deep sleep". SHIFTING SANDS Formed at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus in 1975, the PUK gathered disparate left-leaning Kurdish groups under its umbrella as an alternative to the KDP, which revolves around the Barzani tribe and dominates the region's other two provinces. With no clear chain of command, cracks in the PUK have widened and the party is now incapacitated by competition between different factions, one of which is led by the wife of its infirm leader. But talk of its demise may be premature. In Sulaimaniyah, the PUK's financial and military muscle is still unrivalled. The party has its own security apparatus, "peshmerga" fighting force, and a vast network of patronage built around a business empire that includes fuel trading and real estate. Faced with being left out in the cold, some members of the PUK have made veiled threats, reminding people they owe allegiance to political parties over and above the institutions of the relatively young Kurdish regional government. But if the PUK's patronage system begins to unwind, loyalties could shift. Several members of the PUK have already jumped ship and joined the KDP in recent weeks. "It's never going to simply slide away into nothing quietly," said Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "It could change with more defections from the party to others; it could see some form of reunion with Gorran, as seemed to be happening before Talabani's illness; or it could fail catastrophically, and by that I mean a decline into conflict." The acid test may be provincial elections, to be held this week alongside the Iraqi national vote, but in Kurdistan alone, and for the first time since the birth of Gorran, which could come out on top. "It's difficult to envisage how they will behave," said a source close to decision-makers in all three main parties. "I don't think any party wants to go as far as confrontation." For now, they are waging war through the media. PUK outlets have sought to smear Gorran's candidate for governor by publishing poems he wrote for a newspaper of the Baath party of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, who presided over the mass killing of Kurds in the 1980s. But many worry there is a potential for conflict in a region where many men own firearms and the older generation fought a guerilla war against Saddam's forces before turning their weapons on each other. "Kurds don't point fingers, we point guns," the head of Kurdistan's security council Masrour Barzani told a U.S. diplomat in 2009 during a discussion about elections, according to a cable released by anti-secrecy site Wikileaks. "CHAOS" Officials in the KDP are worried about the PUK's implosion at a time when insurgents are gaining ground in the rest of Iraq, and across the border in Syria, warning that security in Suleimaniyah is a "red line". A rare bombing in the regional capital Arbil days after the election in September has been followed by several smaller attacks in Sulaimaniyah. Sticky bombs were attached to the vehicles of two officers and an explosive device was detonated outside the house of a colonel. The head of the security services in Sulaimaniyah took umbrage at the suggestion the province was not secure, and said his men had recently managed to thwart an attack by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The PUK's health is also of concern for Iran, which shares a long border with Suleimaniyah province and has historically been close to Talabani and his party, counteracting Turkey's growing influence over the KDP. "Iran is very, very concerned about the future of the PUK," said a senior KDP official on condition of anonymity. "Talabani is out of the picture, but the PUK has some institutions Iran needs". As early as 2008, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani fretted about PUK succession, predicting "chaos" could follow Talabani's exit and create opportunities for Iran to meddle more in Sulaimaniyah, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks. Since the September election, PUK leaders have gone to Tehran for talks, and Iranian officials have visited Kurdistan to lobby on behalf of the ailing party and preserve its own interests in the region. "It's a dangerous neighbourhood," said another KDP source who declined to be named. "They (our detractors) can easily destabilise us, especially if we are not united". (Editing by Philippa Fletcher) =================== Frustrated Iraqi Kurds hope vote will bring new PM By W.G. Dunlop | AFP – 9 hours ago View Photo.AFP/AFP - A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga force casts his ballot in special voting ahead of Iraq's upcoming election on April 28, 2014, in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil ...... View Photo.Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga force wait to cast their ballots ahead of Iraq's … . View Photo.An Iraqi Kurdish street vendor holds banners bearing portraits of President of Iraqi … . View Photo.A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga force casts her ballot in the northern Iraqi Kurdish … ....Iraqi Kurds frustrated with the federal government dream of independence for their autonomous region, but for now they want widely disliked Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki out of office. Maliki's "policies against the Kurds were not good", said Mohsen, 38, after dusting off sunglasses for sale in front of his shop in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil. Instead, Mohsen wants a premier who "treats all of the (ethnic) components of the Iraqi people equally". Maliki, a Shiite Arab vying for a third term in Wednesday's parliamentary polls, has repeatedly clashed with the three-province Kurdistan region's leadership in disputes over territory, resources and power-sharing, making him a prime target for Kurdish ire. Massud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has frequently spoken out against Maliki, accusing him of monopolising power. He has voiced fears Maliki would use F-16 jets ordered from the United States against the Kurds, and called for his removal from office. - 'Not beneficial for anyone' - "Maliki has not been beneficial for the Kurds or any Iraqis," and it is time for a new prime minister, Tariq Jawhar, a Kurdish parliamentary candidate, told AFP. Jawhar, from federal President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said the premier's policies and government had raised tensions between Kurds and Arabs, and also between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Jawhar likened Maliki's actions to those of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, reviled for launching military operations against Iraqi Kurds that killed tens of thousands of people. "Saddam Hussein was ousted, but (his) methods and legacy still exist in the mindsets of many Iraqi leaders," Jawhar said. "Saddam resorted to military options against the Kurds" while Maliki "resorted to economically sanctioning" them, he said. Kurdish politicians have in recent months criticised what they say have been delayed and insufficient payments to the region this year that have caused financial difficulties and seen salaries go unpaid. "So long as the threat of economic sanctions remains over Kurdistan, the viability of Kurdistan's independence... becomes more a reality," Qubad Talabani, a senior Kurdish official and one of the president's sons, told AFP in the city of Sulaimaniyah. Kurdistan has repeatedly been at odds with the federal government in a series of long-running disputes, including over a swathe of northern territory he region wants to incorporate against Baghdad's wishes, and the clashing interests of federal desire for control and Kurdish assertions of autonomy. The region's decision to sign contracts unilaterally with international firms to develop its energy sector is another point of contention, with Baghdad insisting that all such deals -- and any oil exports -- are its exclusive purview. Jawhar said Baghdad's treatment of the Kurdistan region ultimately contributes to dividing Iraq, and that Kurds are increasingly "willing to be independent". - 'Split from the Arabs' - Kurds interviewed in Arbil were almost unanimously in favour of at least eventual independence for the Kurdistan region, and against Maliki remaining in office. Bestoon, a 35-year-old member of the Kurdish peshmerga security forces, said he wanted "the independence of Kurdistan" and "to be split from the Arabs". "It was always the Arabs who suppressed us," and they might try to do so again, said Bestoon, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying an assault rifle, with extra magazines at his waist. And Tarza, a 25-year-old university student, said she thought the federal government was mistreating the Kurds, and that she too was in favour of independence. "I don't feel part of" Iraq, she said. One of the main obstacles to Kurdish independence is economic. The region would need to produce enough oil to cover the revenue from lost federal funding, which it does not currently do. "We have to obtain economic independence before political independence," said Jutyar Adil, a parliamentary candidate for Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, the main party in the region, while making clear he was not advocating independence at this time. At night, convoys of cars drove through Arbil flying political flags, horns blaring. But not everyone is as enthusiastic about this week's election. "I don't expect lots of change," said Zhilwan, a 38-year-old who teaches at Salaheddin University. Referring to widespread corruption, he said: "It's only a different group of people who become rich." ==== There is something truly paradoxical about Iraq's April 30 parliamentary elections. Although there is near unanimity among observers that the past four years have been disastrous for the country, many are still willing to defend Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's tenure -- even going so far as to suggest that there is no one else who is capable of governing the country. However, the sad reality is that -- given all the developments of his eight years in office -- very few Iraqis are less suitable to be prime minister today than Maliki. Indeed, Maliki's third term would likely be even more disastrous than his second, leading to a deterioration in security and causing the country to relapse into a new authoritarian era. Maliki's defenders usually argue that the prime minister was largely responsible for the improvement in security that took place in 2008, that he is a shrewd political operator who has outmaneuvered all his opponents, and also that he has made himself indispensable to the state's survival. That analysis seemed ludicrously generous as early as 2010, when it was first made, but it now borders somewhere between the comical and the suicidal. It is true that Maliki has outmaneuvered his opponents -- but he did so at the expense of Iraq's institutions. The prime minister merely seized control over the security forces and threatened all his opponents into submission. He has monopolized all decision-making at the Defense and Interior ministries and has taken to providing direct instructions to individual units -- often with a view to intimidating enemies or suppressing perceived threats, thereby completely undermining the concept of a professional chain of command. Whenever his opponents demanded that he change his ways, share power, or respect the rule of law, he would simply refuse -- safe in the knowledge that his enemies had no leverage to speak of. Maliki has always been very good at using the security sector to bolster his political power, but has been an utter failure in restoring actual security to Iraq. Maliki has always been very good at using the security sector to bolster his political power, but has been an utter failure in restoring actual security to Iraq. Although he was quick to take credit for the improvement in security that took place in 2007 and 2008, U.S. military officials who were responsible for overseeing the "surge" have since written detailed memoirs in which Maliki is hardly ever mentioned -- and when he does come up, Maliki is almost never portrayed in a positive light. Even his decision to confront Shiite militias in the city of Basra and the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City -- often cited as evidence of his nonsectarian credentials and his daring on the battlefield -- was a disaster in its early stages, precisely because Maliki was solely in charge. It was only after U.S. forces intervened that the battle was won. Maliki and his inner circle have also exacerbated security risks through a series of elementary mistakes, including subjecting thousands of innocent young men to unjustified detention and allowing corruption to get so out of hand that it has now seriously impacted the capacity of the security sector. Military units and police throughout the country now either stand aside or actively participate as local mafias force businesses to pay protection money. Security forces in the capital are still forced to use fake bomb detectors simply so that the government (which was responsible for buying the devices) can save face. The result is that the number of security-related deaths has roughly tripled over the past year, as car bombs continue to rip through army units and civilian areas with ruthless efficiency. Meanwhile, armed confrontations between gunmen and government forces have become more frequent. Security has deteriorated so terribly that Iraq is now once again at risk of splitting apart. Many areas of the country are now out of the government's control: Large swaths of the western province of Anbar are in open rebellion; security forces have essentially given up trying to control parts of the northern province of Nineveh, which has become a major financial hub for terrorist organizations; and the eastern province of Diyala has witnessed another round of brutal bloodletting as militias and government forces shell civilian areas. The state's army and police have revealed themselves to be little more than a paper tiger. They are very willing to arrest and torture the innocent and defenseless, but are essentially powerless to control the actions of powerful militias that are now running riot throughout the country. With security forces incapable of facing the threat, Shiite militias have actually begun providing instructions to the military -- sometimes even replacing them in battle altogether. These developments have exposed Maliki's strongman image as the house of cards it always was. The prime minister's supporters regularly refer admiringly to his capacity for survival, but it is precisely Maliki's stubborn insistence that he should remain in control of government that has hindered the provision of services. Hospitals are in such a poor state that Iraqi doctors would never imagine turning to one of their colleagues for treatment; they travel to any number of capitals in the region for even minor ailments. Electricity production has improved only slightly, to the extent that summers and winters are still invariably punctuated by daily power cuts, some of which can last for days. Rather than trying to resolve these problems, Maliki has allowed a grotesque form of nepotism to gnaw away at the state's bureaucracy, marginalizing the few competent officials who survived Baath Party rule and Iraq's wars. These failures also have served to prevent alternatives to the status quo from emerging. Maliki's greatest success may have been creating the impression that he is indispensable -- that the state will collapse if the man in charge is removed. The truth is that what makes Maliki and his clique indispensable is their willingness to burn the whole house down to protect their positions. In fact, many competent politicians are far better placed than Maliki and his inner circle to guide the country to a better place. Iraq does not lack competent administrators or politicians -- it merely lacks the democratic traditions that would allow them to play a greater role in revitalizing its moribund government. Several names come immediately to mind: Mohammed Allawi, a former communications minister who resigned in protest when Maliki kept appointing incompetent party loyalists to his ministry; Ali Allawi, a former defense and finance minister who left government in 2006 in disgust at the corruption; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a respected politician who could have sufficient backing to form a government; and Ali Dwai, a governor of a southern province who is renowned for his effectiveness in very difficult circumstances. While Maliki may want observers to fear that his departure would cause a security deterioration, the truth is that life in Iraq is already becoming more desperate by the day -- in large part because of the toxic role that Maliki has been playing. Sectarian relations have worsened considerably, and the general population is terrified of a renewed conflict. A change at the country's helm is needed precisely in order to restore the possibility of an improvement in the country's direction; with Maliki, that possibility does not exist. For Iraqis to place their trust in the possibility that he might change his style of governance after eight years in power would be borderline suicidal. There is in fact a serious possibility that Maliki will not obtain sufficient popular support to retain his position. His electoral popularity peaked at around 24 percent of the vote in 2010, when many Iraqis still believed in his nonsectarian and strongman credentials. However, Iraq's complex and dysfunctional parliamentary system has allowed him to negotiate his survival. This election season, Maliki's fortunes will necessarily decline from the previous poll -- the only questions are by how much and how his electoral rivals will react. After the votes are counted, Iraq's future will depend on its leaders' ability to ===============

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