Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, expected to be named Iraqi president by the newly elected national assembly this weekend, will be heading to Washington very soon for crucial talks on Iraq’s future with President George W. Bush. But the subject has changed since the White House invitation reached the Kurdish leader last week.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, the date was left open until the problems of putting together a new Iraqi government were overcome. Now, the agenda has much expanded from its original purpose of finding a role for the pro-American outgoing interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, to a bid for Bush’s stamp on a far more ambitious project: Iraq’s division into three self-ruling provinces with varying degrees of autonomy among its three dominant communities, Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni.
Talabani, the prime mover in the project, has been buzzing between Shiite and Sunni leaders to advance his design. The country’s partition into separate federal entities would blaze the path to his overriding goal of maximum Kurdish autonomy, a structure that would inevitably cut into the authority of central government in Baghdad. This conflict was the main cause of the foot-dragging on a new administration and the political deadlock that followed the swearing in March 16 of the newly elected national assembly.
Under the Talabani plan, control of national oil assets and the distribution of oil revenues would act as a bonding agent for the component parts of the Iraqi federation.
It’s not just about politics. The Kurdish leader’s selling point would present partition with a generous stake for Sunni Muslims as be the recipe for cooling the Sunni-led insurgency. With stable government, increased security and a measure of national equilibrium in hand, US and allied forces could begin thinking about a timeline for exiting the country.
Wednesday, March 23, Talabani held his most important interview for sealing the plan, a long talk with the all-powerful Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf. Its precise outcome is under wraps, but our Iraqi sources report that the Kurdish and Shiite leaders got down to such practicalities as the future of the northern city of Kirkuk and its oil fields and steps for translating their understandings into square kilometers and the shape of governing institutions.
Oil interdependence as a unifying agent
This is the outline Talabani presented for Sistani’s approval.
The autonomous Kurdish state would consist of northern Iraq, including Kirkuk and its oil fields.
The Shiite entity will range across all the territory south of Baghdad, up to the Iranian border in the east and the Persian Gulf in the south, and take in southern Iraq’s oil fields.
The autonomous Sunni Muslim entity would encompass Nineveh Province and its capital, Mosul, in the northwest; Salah a-Din province further south, including the Sunni Triangle cities of Samarra, Tikrit, Baiiji and Baqouba; Al-Anbar province to the west, including the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Hadithah; and the al-Qaim area abutting the Syrian border.
The Baghdad province, the capital and its suburbs, will be a federal enclave, much like the District of Columbia in the United States.
Before meeting Sistani, Talabani was able to persuade Sunni leaders, mostly tribal chiefs, that their only hope of gaining dominance over the three Sunni provinces and building an independent army was to create an autonomous Sunni state.
At the bottom of the Talabani plan is the perception that for each autonomous Iraqi entity to go it alone and break up existing pipeline and refinery links crossing their neighbors’ borders would be a historic mistake, strategically and economically, for each. Instead, he has devised a system based on interdependence and continued cooperation among them. Each of the three entities would hold down a key element of the national industry.
The Shiites would retain control of the southern oil fields around Basra and pipeline connections with the Persian Gulf; the Kurds, their grasp of the northern oil fields and export outlets to Turkey; the Sunnis, their hold on the refinery hub town of Baiji and the pipe links between Iraq’s southern and northern oil fields that crisscross their land.
The Sunni hand would control the tap on energy supplies to Shiite and Kurdish autonomous states alike as well as oil exports from the north to Turkey and from there to the Mediterranean.
A large, tempting slice for Sunnis
The Sunnis would charge for their services to the Shiite and Kurdish states. Talabani told Sistani he saw no reason why this revenue should not be put to use for developing new oil fields in central Iraq, either around Haditha in the north or Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad.
With this plan in prospect, a sharp decline is reported in guerrilla sabotage attacks on refinery installations and pipelines running through Sunni areas.
Talabani advocates the creation of a council of oil ministers by the three federal states to jointly administer Iraq’s energy resources. This troika would collectively and individually override the federal oil minister in Baghdad and hold ultimate control over the industry. Each self-ruling state would also name provincial finance, foreign and defense ministers who would collaborate with their central government counterparts in Baghdad in the conduct of federal affairs. This would provide another insurance policy against violent rebellion.
In effect, the federal government’s main function would be to coordinate the three autonomous states.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraqi sources, Talabani’s master plan has gained enough credibility and momentum to put the current wheeling and dealing for cabinet posts and influence in the federal government in the shade. The deal that Talabani and Sistani sew up will determine Iraq’s future to a greater extent even than the January 28 parliamentary election.
Even after a sweeping 146 in the 275-member national assembly, the Shiite bloc can only rule in conjunction with the number two power, the Kurds. The more so when the United Iraqi Alliance which Sistani created for the poll is already coming apart at the seams under pressure from its size. As we predicted before the election, the bloc is splintering into rival factions and running out of spiritual the Shiite leader’s control. No single political leader has emerged to hold the UIA together.
Sistani dropped any notion of the UIA controlling the new parliament when the alliance named Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party as candidate for prime minister.
Dawa is not popular with most Shiites, but Jaafari has a powerful backer – Iran. His main ally in the UIA, which Dawa joined to shore up its own support, is Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the current head of SCIRI and brother of the assassinated Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. Sistani is worried by Jaafari’s drive to catapult himself into the premiership and his Dawa to national influence. He does not want to see Iran’s footsteps in Baghdad or Dawa lording it over Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.
Talabani and Sistani will join to box al-Jaafari out
Talabani’s plan to dilute the powers of the federal government comes at the right moment therefore for the Shiite spiritual leader. As mere president-in-waiting, the Kurdish leader is short of the clout for forcing Jaafari to withdraw his bid for the premiership. He is therefore maneuvering to make sure that Tehran’s stooge is no more than a figurehead. To achieve this, Talabani needs Sistani’s approval for Allawi’s appointment as security affairs minister, a post formed by merging the defense and interior portfolios. He would also count on Kurdish backing and a number of Shiite leaders in addition to the Sistani following. The Kurds are also assured of the energy and foreign ministries.
A lineup of this caliber would, according to Talabani’s game plan, box prime minister al-Jaafari out of the key functions of government and leave him with very little authority.
Tuesday, March 22, the Kurdish leader, before seeing Sistani, outlined his strategy to Allawi when they met in Irbil.
He is convinced he can win Bush’s approval. If he gets his way, this is how the new Iraqi government due to be formed early next week at latest should look:
President – Jalal Talabani (Kurd)
Vice Presidents: Adel al-Mehdi (a Shiite and a Sistani man);
Hajam al-Husseini (a Sunni allied outgoing president Ghazi al-Yawar and a former trade and industry minister)
National Assembly Speaker: Ghazi Yawar
Prime Minister – Ibrahim al-Jaafari (Shiite)
Vice Prime Minister – Braham Salah (Kurd)
The Shiite factions will nominate 16 cabinet ministers; the Kurds, eight, including the all-important foreign affairs and oil portfolios; the Sunnis, will be assigned six ministries; and the Christians and a Turkomen, one each
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraqi experts point to Sistani’s concession to the Kurds of the northern Iraq oil fields as the most noteworthy event so far in Iraq’s post-election political evolution. By ceding a stake in northern Iraq, the Shiites have removed the last obstacle to the formation of an economically viable Kurdish state.
There is much in the federal package that the Kurdish and Shiite leaders have put together to tempt the US president – most of all a visible timeline for the exit of US troops from Iraq. But he is also bound to consider its negative impact on Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They will latch onto the fact that the US military has not only wrought regime change in Baghdad but is backing the near partition of Iraq and conferring self-rule on two ethnic communities systematically persecuted and repressed in the Arab Sunni world for decades.
Allowing control of Iraqi oil to pass out of Sunni Arab hands to Kurds and Shiites will send an alarming message to oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. They too have large Shiite minorities.