Shiite and Kurdish Self-Rule – Bedrock of Future US Influence

The bones of three separate entities are surfacing in Iraq. Their shape is more distinct than their future status: a Kurdish autonomous region in the north, a Shiite semi-autonomous region in the center and a Sunni Arab entity wedged in between. (See attached map.)

This still fluid structure was in the mind of President George W. Bush when he marked out the five-step path to self-governance Monday, May 24, in the first of the six speeches on Iraq he has promised up until Sovereignty Day. Addressing the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, he spoke of a 26-member cabinet ruled by a prime minister, president and two vice presidents.

In the Sunni Triangle, US troops are still battling Baath guerrillas and foreign fighters coming in through Syria – Saudis, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Palestinians, Chechens and al Qaeda.

Since the new prime minister will be a Shiite, the precise status of the Shiite region is still up in the air. Bush has staked heavily on complete cooperate with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the three senior clerics allied to him in the southern city of Najaf, leaving the next prime minister’s limits of authority open.

Whenever Iraq’s future is mentioned, the oil issue invariably comes up next.

The oil fields in the Shiite south and in the Kurdish north will clearly remain under US control. Therefore, pious statements about transferring all oil revenues to the future central government in Baghdad aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Iraq and our oil experts, the United States and Britain will seek initial understandings with the Shiite leadership in Najef and the Kurdish leaders of Irbil on the disposition of Iraq’s oil fields and the distribution of revenues. Central government in Baghdad will not be included in these negotiations.

Last week, Iraq’s total oil revenues reached $80 million a day. Sistani, as spiritual leader of a potentially self-governing Shiite region, is not about to forego a strategic tool that will confer on Iraqi Shiites equal standing with the oil producing countries of the Persian Gulf, including Iran, and give them a dominant voice in the world oil market. With US help, this cleric is growing into a Khomeini-like figure in the sense of a religious leader who stands to gain secular ruling powers over half of Iraq, 70pc of its oil output and over the Shiite representatives who will dominate the central government in Baghdad. Sistani will be in a position to win approval for the New Iraq from the world’s most important oil consumers, Japan in particular, which has been withheld until now from the Bush administration.

The two leaders of united Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani will be similarly placed with regard to the smaller oil fields of northern Iraq. The Kurds virtually control the most important refinery center at Baiji and the large pipeline carrying oil from Kirkuk to Turkey. The central government in Baghdad will have to wait in line behind the Americans for a slice of this pie too.

(Separate article in this issue deals with Iraqi oil and the world oil price crisis)

Sunni Triangle remains most dangerous flashpoint

The United States counts on Sistani’s authority to quell the month-long rebellion staged by the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army in southern Iraq. In the last ten days, this militia was cornered by US forces in the shrine cities of Najef, Karbala and al Kufa in bloody clashes. After losing hundreds of men, Sadr was reported early Thursday, May 27, to have bowed to a Sistani fatwa to retreat from the three holy cities. He then changed his mind.

Sadr’s revolt is the last barrier to relative stability in southern Iraq. The north is relatively quiet but for sporadic acts of terror. But the new Iraqi administration will be further battered and weakened by the continuing insurgency in the Sunni Triangle and in Baghdad. Sunnis, Arab guerrillas and al Qaeda fighters have pledged to go all-out to liquidate members of the new Iraqi presidency and government. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq experts see no alternative for the incoming administration but to lean heavily on the US army, thereby rendering the transfer of Iraqi sovereignty more symbolic than real.

This means that the main federal link between the Shiite entity in the south and the Kurdish autonomous region in the north will not be the central government in Baghdad, but the United States and its military forces. The Baghdad government’s dealings with the leaders of Najef and Irbil will depend very much on America’s say-so.

The future United Nations position in the country will likewise depend on American grace and favor. Important American political and military voices have warned that UN secretary general Kofi Annan and his emissary to Iraq, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar al-Brahimi cherish ambitions to call the shots in Baghdad. However President Bush and his top strategists, as well as Brahimi’s boss, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, have a different perception. They know perfectly well – as do Annan and Brahimi – that the interim Iraqi government they are shaping will be fragile. Yet they are pushing ahead determinedly, joined by the mutual dependence of the world body and the Bush administration. To keep the UN afloat Annan cannot do without Washington’s political and financial support, while Washington needs the legitimacy of the United Nations seal for the handover of sovereignty in Iraq.

The UN secretary also sees himself in the role of middleman between the new Iraqi government and Washington through the new US ambassador to envoy to Iraq, John Negroponte, with whom he cultivated excellent relations during Negroponte’s stint as US ambassador to the United Nations.

Brahimi’s Iraq agenda may look different from that of Washington. But in the last reckoning it reflects the mutuality of interests between the United States and the UN.

More foreign hands in the game

Bouteflika has a strong interest in weakening the al Qaeda-backed Sunni resistance in Iraq. By doing so, he hopes to sap the vitality of the extremist Sunni Muslim terror movement working against his own government with Osama bin Laden‘s support. Bouteflika is also keen to follow in the footsteps of his fellow North African, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and distance himself from the Arab bloc and OPEC. Enfeeblement of the al Qaeda-backed Sunni minority in Iraq and the rise of two new oil-producing autonomies in the Middle East – one, non-Sunni Iraqi Shiite and one, non-Arab Kurdish – would suit the Algerian leader’s book very well.

His boss’s new orientation is the key to Brahimi’s eagerness to tackle the Iraq problem, rather than the suggestion coming from former US ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, that Washington turned blindly to the Algerian diplomat in sheer desperation.

Meanwhile, Robert D. Blackwill, the veteran diplomat who, since late last year, has acted on behalf of the White House in Iraq, outranking US administrator Paul Bremer, is Washington’s current point man with Brahimi. (Blackwill’s key role in Baghdad as the president’s watchdog was first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly, 135, on November 28, 2003).

Bush referred obliquely to this rush of developments – and the dangers still ahead – when he said in his address this week, “The way forward may sometimes appear chaotic…”)

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