Although his party won the most seats in the recent Iraqi parliamentary election, it’s not easy to see how Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki can form a new governing coalition. And while attention is focused on developments in Baghdad, particularly the dynamics of a bitter inter-Shiite power struggle, events in the Kurdish north may have a more significant long-term impact.
Mr Al Maliki’s coalition has 95 seats, but 165 votes are needed to secure a majority. Where the other 7o are going to come from is distinctly unclear as Mr Al Maliki faces stiff opposition, not only from Kurdish and Sunni parties, but also from within the Shiite community.
To form a governing alliance with the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq and the Sadrist Ahrar group – which are working in close cooperation with each other and could add 65 of the required extra votes, thereby bringing Mr Al Maliki in easy reach of a majority – the current prime minister would have to make some very significant concessions. His Shiite rivals are reportedly demanding the re-establishment of the defunct National Alliance, and in effect conditioning their cooperation with him on a relationship of equality in the government.
The trouble for Mr Al Maliki, though, is that his increasing political vulnerability appears to have created a zero-sum equation with competing Shiite groups. They resent him and sense an opportunity to cut him down to size. However, they, too, face the same dilemma: how to get to a 165 majority with even fewer seats than he has?
Mr Al Maliki knew this all along, and has been hoping to build a new governing coalition around an alliance with Kurdish parties, in particular the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani. Mr Barzani has, in recent years, been emerging as not only the key Kurdish leader in Iraq, but regionally as well. And when it comes to Mr Al Maliki, he is playing distinctly hard to get. Indeed, both sides in the Iraqi Shiite divide are courting Kurdish support against each other.
In a recent visit to London designed to bolster Mr Barzani’s international credentials – and therefore, by implication, the KRG’s global diplomatic profile and prospects for eventual independence – the Kurdish leader launched a blistering attack on Mr Al Maliki. “The authorities in Baghdad want to control everything,” Mr Barzani complained. “It is not acceptable to us. We want to be partners; we don’t want to be subjects.” He described Mr Al Maliki’s governing style as “totalitarianism”. Mr Barzani even threatened to “boycott everything” to do with national governance in Iraq.
Erbil has several significant grievances against Baghdad in general and Mr Al Maliki in particular. The Kurds feel let down by Mr Al Maliki on the resolution of “disputed territories” especially the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. Along with many Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds have also been highly critical of the government crackdown in Anbar province.
But disputes over oil contracts and revenue-sharing are almost certainly the greatest fault line. With negotiations over a new mechanism for managing the KRG’s energy resources and 17 per cent share of Iraq’s national income at a total impasse, Baghdad has effectively frozen the capital transfers on which Erbil’s budget is deeply dependent. An enraged Mr Barzani said the withholding of this money is “as bad as the gassing of Halabja [by Saddam Hussein] – if not worse”.
Kurdish deeds have been even stronger than this hyperbolic rhetoric. Throughout 2013, the KRG worked with the Turkish government and companies in a series of unilateral agreements and contracts that theoretically required, but did not receive, the approval of the authorities in Baghdad. And last week the Iraqi Kurds began independently exporting petroleum through Turkey’s Ceyhan port via a makeshift pipeline that became practically operational last December.
Both sides accuse each other of violating the law and the constitution through these actions. But the Kurds are doing more than simply making a point. Now that they have crossed the Rubicon of unilateral, independent oil marketing and exporting, there’s likely to be no turning back, no matter what political and financial agreements are reached with Arab Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. This, of course, is why Erbil waited half a year after it became technically possible before taking this momentous step.
Mr Al Maliki’s best bet for staying in the premiership may actually be striking a deal with Kurdish leaders and enough Sunni politicians to form a majority in parliament. But that potential coalition is also theoretically available to his Shiite rivals, and it’s not clear which of them may be able to make a more effective and compelling case to these key constituencies. And, despite the profound antagonism between them, it’s still possible that Iraqi Shiites might find a formula that allows them to unite in a coalition to form a new government.
But whatever happens in Baghdad, by beginning to unilaterally market and export its own oil resources without the consultation or approval of other Iraqis, the KRG just took another major step towards independence. When he was asked about the prospect of Kurdish independent statehood during his UK trip, Mr Barzani did not mince words.
After bitterly complaining about Baghdad’s and Mr Al Maliki’s behaviour, he bluntly said: “We are going to have a referendum and ask our people.” It would be folly to dismiss these stated Kurdish intentions as bluster or brinkmanship.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly sited 174 as a majority in the new Iraqi parliament. It is here corrected to 165,