The following commentary originally appeared in Musings On Iraq
Since March 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been forming Tribal Support Councils. Originally, these were created to help the security forces crackdown on the Mahdi Army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr. Beginning in the summer however, Maliki has been creating councils across the south and north to establish his control over the country, and increasingly to challenge the rule of his main coalition partners, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Kurdish parties, in the provinces. This is coming to a boiling point as both groups are increasingly criticizing Maliki’s rule, and rumors are beginning that they might even make a move to unseat him from power.
There have been several reports that the SIIC and Kurds might be looking to replace Maliki as prime minister of Iraq. First, Nibras Kazimi, former Iraqi National Congress member, New York based writer, member of the Hudson Institute, and operator of the Talisman Gate blog, wrote that he had heard that the Kurds and Supreme Council were considering replacing Maliki with either current Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi of the SIIC, former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari who broke away from the Dawa Party and formed his own National Reform Party this summer, or Ali al-Adeeb of the Dawa Party. Al-Quds al-Rubi reported that while Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was meeting with members of parliament he said that Maliki’s government needed to be reformed, while Iraq-Ina wrote that Talabani was trying to depose the Prime Minister.
That followed a public dispute between Maliki and the Presidential Council, which consists of President Talabani, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of the Iraqi Islamic Party, and Vice President Abdel-Mahdi. On November 18, they sent a letter to Maliki suggesting that the government should stop wasting money forming Tribal Support Councils, and instead use the funds on the existing security forces. They also said that the Prime Minister should stop forming the councils until there is a formal framework to integrate them into the government. Two days later, Maliki gave a televised speech in which he said that Talabani was picking on the Support Councils, while the Kurds were breaking the constitution by deploying their Peshmerga militia outside of Kurdistan, and signing oil contracts without government approval. Maliki also said that the constitution needed to be amended so that the central government could have more power, implying that the Kurdish Regional Government needed its authority to be curtailed. That was an empty threat since the changes to the constitution have been held up for over a year, but upped the war of words between the two sides. The Presidential Council was not pleased by Maliki’s comments, and told him on November 21 that he shouldn’t have made their differences public.
Tribal Support Councils have been formed in 4. Wasit, 5. Maysan, 6. Basra, 7. Dhi Qar, 8. Muthanna, 9. Qadisiyah, 10. Babil, 11. Karbala, 12. Najaf, 17. Tamim, and others to support Prime Minster Maliki
All of this began back in March 2008 when the government moved against the Sadrists. During the crackdowns in the south, Maliki reached out to various tribes to help deal with the Mahdi Army. This first happened in Basra when Maliki gave 10,000 tribesman jobs in the provincial police in return for fighting the militias. Tribal Support Councils were also formed in Babil, Karbala, Maysan, and Dhi Qar as the fighting spread across the south. After that initial wave, the Prime Minister moved ahead creating councils in Qadisiyah Wasit, Najaf, Kirkuk, Muthanna, and other areas. Each was paid $21,000 by the government, and then $10,000 a month afterwards. They reported to the Committee for National Reconciliation in Baghdad, although there is talk of forming a National Tribal Support Council. Tribal sheikhs have been eager to join these councils because it gives them power and new standing, as well as jobs for their followers. As reported earlier, many of the country’s tribes were weak after the invasion because they had become dependent upon Saddam and his patronage to maintain their positions. Working for Maliki then, is an all too familiar relationship for many of these sheikhs. Many of these tribes are also national in character, which means that the Prime Minister is building up support not only in the individual provinces where the councils are, but across the country.
The Supreme Council was the first to object to this policy. As they rule most of the south, they saw the Support Councils as a brazen attempt by Maliki to build up his support and challenge their authority in the upcoming provincial elections, scheduled for the end of January 2009. SIIC officials in Babil, Wasit, Karbala, Dhi-Qar, Basra, Muthanna, and Qadisiyah have all protested the tribal groups. Governors and provincial councils have all complained that Maliki never consulted with them when forming the Support Councils, and that they are not part of the local governments, answering to Baghdad rather to them.
The Kurds became concerned later in the year when Maliki began focusing upon the north. As mentioned several times before, in August 2008 government forces moved into the disputed Khanaqin district in Diyala province, which the Kurds have occupied since the 2003 invasion. That caused a confrontation between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government that could have led to violence. By September, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani gave an interview where he accused Maliki of acting like an autocrat, never following through with their promises to the Kurds, and questioning whether Kurds should stand behind the Prime Minister’s government. Maliki then set up Support Councils in Kirkuk and Mosul, and attempted to form one in Khanaqin, while also trying to move Kurdish forces out of Mosul.
As a result, the Kurds have stepped up their attacks upon Maliki. Beginning in November, they have said that Maliki is acting like a totalitarian, and that the Support Councils are illegal and unconstitutional. The Patriot Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party issued a joint statement that compared the tribal groups to Kurds that fought for Saddam in the 1980s and 90s. Kurdish President Barzani followed that up with a TV interview with al-Jazeera in which he said that the the councils were mercenaries and would be treated as enemies by the Kurds. Maliki responded by organizing two days of protests by his new tribal allies. On November 15, tribes came out on the streets to support Maliki and the Support Councils and protest against the Kurds in Tikrit in Salahaddin, Hawijah in Tamim, Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar, Samawah in Muthanna, and Hilla in Babil. Demonstrators said that Kirkuk, Mosul, and Diyala were parts of Iraq, responding to the Kurd desire to annex districts in those areas.
The Kurds and SIIC have been close allies since before the 2003 U.S. invasion. They were the main reason why Maliki was able to stay in power in 2007 when various factions were trying to unseat him. The Prime Minister has been emboldened after his successful crackdowns on the Sadrists earlier this year however, and now feels as if he can take on his allies in the provinces that they control. He is building up support across the country before the provincial elections, but it could come at a cost. If the Kurds and SIIC want, they can depose him in parliament with a no confidence vote. Worse, his moves could lead to violence between the Tribal Support Councils and local police and Peshmerga controlled by the SIIC and Kurds. So far these disputes have stayed verbal, but the rhetoric is increasing, and shows the deep divisions that remain in Iraq.
For more on the Tribal Support Councils, Inter-Shiite Power Struggles, and the Kurdish-Baghdad Dispute see:
Cold War Between Baghdad and Kurds Turns Hot
Deal Struck To Defuse Kahanqin Issue
Disputes Over Tribal Support Councils
Khanaqin Deal Off?
Kurdish-Baghdad Tensions Over Diyala
The Kurds Come Out Swinging
Maliki Responds To His Critics On Tribal Support Councils
Maliki Still Pushing The Kurds On Khanaqin District
Maliki Ups the Ante in Khanaqin District of Diyala
Maliki’s Tribal Support Councils Appear To Be Paying Off
Shiite Rivalries Increasing As Provincial Elections Near
Agence France Presse, “Iraqi Sunni And Shiites Demonstrate In Favour Of US Pact,” 11/19/08
Alsumaria, “Al Maliki defends tribal awakening councils,” 10/9/08
- “Maliki meets Kirkuk’s tribes’ leaders,” 11/5/08
- “Rows growing between two major Iraqi parties,” 9/18/08
Aswat al-Iraq, “Barazani criticizes al-Maliki on al-Jazeera,” 11/16/08
- “Diwaniya sahwa council meets in defiance of protests,” 11/10/08
- “Gov’t seeks national support council,” 11/6/08
- “Karbala governor says no-confidence vote proposal is political pressure tool,” 10/1/08
- “Meeting to Discuss Disagreement over Forming Support Councils,” 11/12/08
- “MP’s decision to cancel partisan support councils welcomed,” 10/9/08
- “PM Accuses Kurdish Leadership of ‘violating’ the Constitution,” 11/20/08
- “Premier to cancel partisan support councils,” 10/9/08
- “Pro-sahwa protests in Thi-Qar,” 11/15/08
- “Sahwa councils could stir sedition, says key legislator,” 11/12/08
- “Thi-Qar governor slams govt’s plan of installing support councils,” 10/3/08
- “Tribal chieftain announces opening 20 Supports Councils offices in Thi-Qar,” 10/1/08
- “Wassit province refuses to establish support councils,” 9/24/08
Farrell, Stephen and Glanz, James, “More Than 1,000 in Iraq’s Forces Quit Basra Fight,” New York Times, 4/4/08
Garcia-Navarro, Lourdes, “Competition Between Iraqi Shiites Gains Strength,” All Things Considered, NPR, 10/22/08
IraqSlogger.com, “Najaf Forms Tribal ‘Support Council,’” 10/27/08
- “New Tribal Groups Buck Wishes of Wasit Council,” 10/23/08
Kazimi, Nibras, “Ousting Maliki, Maybe,” Talisman Gate Blog, 11/21/08
Krauss, Joseph, “Iraqi PM feuds with Kurds over militias,” Agence France Presse, 11/12/08
KurdishMedia, “Massoud Barzani on Kurdistan Region’s conflict with Baghdad,” 9/5/08
Levinson, Charles and Nabhan, Ali, “Iraqi tribes caught between rival Shiite parties,” USA Today, 10/20/08
Missing Links Blog, “What’s up with Maliki’s latest tribal-council proposal,” 7/1/08
Mohsen, Amer, “Iraq Papers Mon: Australian Troops to Depart,” IraqSlogger.com, 6/1/08
Muhammed, Ako, “Kirkuk Tribal Militias Trouble for Kurds,” Kurdish Globe, 11/13/08
Niqash, “southern tribes: security or politics?” 11/6/08
al-Obeidi, Hassan, “Thousands of Iraqi Arabs attend anti-Kurdish protests,” Agence France Presse, 11/15/08
Parker, Sam, “ISCI/Da’wa alliance showing strain,” Abu Muqawama Blog, 9/17/08
Roads To Iraq Blog, “Talabani’s attempt to oust Maliki, demonstrators hanged a statue of George Bush,” 11/21/08
Rubin, Alissa, “Rejection of Oil Law and Move to Create Tribal Councils Add to Tensions With Kurds,” New York Times, 10/28/08
Russo, Claire, “The Maliki Government Confronts Diyala,” Institute for the Study of War, 9/23/08
Ryan, Missy, “Kurd-Arab tension may threaten Iraq calm,” Reuters, 11/12/08
Weiner, Scott, “Maliki Makes a Play for the Southern Tribes,” Institute for the Study of War, 11/6/08