Maliki’s Menage-a-Trois

It has not been an easy month for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Domestically, the Basra Provincial Council announced a lawsuit against the national Ministry of Oil and the central government in Baghdad is still locked in arguments with the Kurdistan

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (www.foxnews.com)

Regional Government (KRG) over the issuance of exploration permits and oil payments. More significantly, the worsening crisis in Syria, continuing talks over an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, and Turkish attacks on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq are testing Maliki’s foreign policy and domestic sovereignty credentials. This week, facing a menage-a-trois of American, Iranian, and Turkish interests in Iraq, Maliki decided to send some powerful messages.

The first shot was aimed at Turkey who in recent months has worked, largely unsuccessfully, to build a Sunni-Kurdish coalition to advance Turkish interests in Baghdad. In a move to assert Baghdad’s control over Iraq’s borders and aimed directly

Turkish soldiers patrolling the Iraq-Turkey border in 2011. (photo from Reuters on http://www.almonitor.com)

at Turkey, whose troops are stationed in northern Iraq to combat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Baghdad voted to erase all agreements which allow foreign troops to be stationed in Iraq and expel all foreign troops currently based there. An agreement signed with Saddam Hussein in 1995 allowed Turkey to station up to 35,000 troops in the Kurdish region of Iraq to combat the PKK. The PKK uses Iraqi Kurdistan to launch attacks against Turkey in the quest for regional independence from Ankara. For their part, Turkey’s parliament recently voted to renew a mandate allowing its government to send troops into northern Iraq, despite objections from Baghdad.

The second shot was aimed at the United States through a $4.2 billionarms deal between Baghdad and Moscow that will send Russian helicopters, fighter jets, radar, and anti-aircraft missiles to Iraq. For Maliki’s tough talk toward Turkey to be effective, the Iraqi military needs advanced weapons to protect their borders and airspace. This

Delivery of 36 F-16 fighter jets worth $12 billion from the US to Iraq has been delayed. (www.fas.org)

need was supposed to be filled by the sale of 36 American F-16s. The deal, worth around $12 billion, would have given Iraq the power to secure its airspace and given the US a lever of influence over Baghdad through the need for spare parts and armaments. However, Iraqi sources recently claimed that “the entire deal now hinges on regional and Iraqi security developments, and it is possible that the planes will not be delivered at all.” The U.S. wants assurances that their jets will not be used against Israel, especially if they enter Iraqi airspace to attack Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. also wants Baghdad to promise that it will limit its coziness with Tehran. Unhappy with American demands and delays Baghdad turned to an old friend, Russia.

Maliki’s final message was sent to Tehran who has been accused of supporting Syria’s embattled government by flying weapons to Damascus through Iraqi airspace. Last week, to appease U.S. concerns, Baghdad forced down and searched an Iranian cargo plane headed to Syria. No weapons were found, but the move enraged Tehran and did

Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi. Iran wants Shahroudi to replace the aging Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. (www.thefullwiki.org)

little to ease U.S. concerns. Recently, Iran has posed the biggest international quagmire for Maliki as he struggles to balance Iraqi sovereignty with a growing Iranian Shiite influence. With a nod to Tehran and a cold shoulder to Iraq’s Shiite hierarchy, Maliki allowed the former head of Iran’s judicial system, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, to open a religious office in Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shiite leadership. This constitutes the next step in Tehran’s plan to appoint Shahroudi as the aging Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s successor. However, as Fadel al-Kifaee correctly surmises, Maliki would not have allowed this Iranian encroachment if he believed it had a real chance to create a “Guardianship of the Jurist” within Iraq.

It is too soon to tell if Maliki’s responses to the menage-a-trois of foreign interests in Baghdad will lead to meaningful gains or if they are simply tough words. Following Iraq’s expulsion of foreign troops, Turkey’s legislature extended a program that allows Turkish troops to enter norther Iraq. Maliki undercut the strings that came with U.S. arms deals by turning to the Russians for advanced military equipment. However, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s continued rush for arms, evident in talk of a new deal with the Czech Republic, suggests that the Russian arms may not come fast enough to fend off the next Turkish incursion. The Iranian question continues to force Maliki to walk a fine line between Tehran and the Shiite religious establishment that his own Da’wa party hails from. He must maintain the balance between a growing Iranian influence and the powerful Iraqi nationality that makes his own Shiite community unique. What is certain is Maliki’s need to confirm Baghdad’s central control and build domestic support ahead of the next election cycle.

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