Iraq needs neutral mediator to resolve Anbar crisis

Civilians paying a heavy price

BAGHDAD - National tension is running high due to the events in Anbar province over the past fortnight. Now that an all out military confrontation – between the Iraqi army and non-army forces in the southern province - appears to have been avoided several senior politicians in Baghdad have come up with plans to try and resolve the situation politically.

Some of the plans seem to have come about as a result of diplomatic pressure from Iraq’s allies, from countries like the US, and others may well be popularity ploys aimed at Iraq’s upcoming federal elections, due to be held in April. However whether any of them gets off the ground is a whole other issue.

The first of these initiatives came from former Iraqi Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, Ayed Allawi. Allawi is a Shiite Muslim politician who leads an opposition bloc made up mainly of Sunni Muslim politicians and who always emphasises the non-sectarian nature of his political positions. His suggested plan involves withdrawing the Iraqi army from Anbar province and looking seriously at the legitimate demands of Sunni Muslim protestors who have been conducting anti-government demonstrations for almost a year now.

Allawi also wants a committee formed to look into the issues – the committee should be made up of representatives of the government and other main parties in Baghdad as well as representatives from Anbar’s tribes and the Sunni Muslim demonstrators – and which would uphold the Iraqi Constitution and ensure that the first two parts of his plan are carried out.

A second plan was announced by Ammar al-Hakim who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. His party is part of the ruling, mostly Shiite Muslim coalition headed by Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. But in recent times, the Shiite Muslim organization has been forging its own path and maintaining a healthy distance from the increasingly unpopular al-Maliki.

Al-Hakim suggests the formation of a council of elders made up of representatives from Anbar’s tribes as well as constructing self defence militias made up of members of Anbar’s tribes. Additionally al-Hakim thought that accelerating reconstruction projects in Anbar would also help increase satisfaction in the area and give demonstrators less to complain about.

“Al-Hakim's initiative is aimed at preventing military intervention in Anbar,” Habib al-Tarfi, an MP for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, explained to NIQASH. “It reassures Iraq’s Sunnis while stressing the importance of peaceful dialogue as the only way out of this crisis.”

The latest – but probably not the last – plan came several days ago from the President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. In a press release, Fadhil Mirani, a senior member of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, said that the President was working on a comprehensive initiative to contain the Anbar crisis.

Mirani suggested that, “currently Iraq’s Kurds might be more acceptable mediators to work with each opposing party in this conflict because they’re not a part of the problem.”

Unfortunately the current state of politics in Iraq may put a stop to any one of these initiatives being acted upon, as sensible as some of them sound. Almost all of those suggesting the plans have some kind of conflict with one other member involved in the conflict. For example, the Iraqi Kurdish may not be directly involved in what is seen as a sectarian conflict between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims. But they are at loggerheads with al-Maliki’s government over issues like oil, the national budget and the disputed territories.

And Ayed Allawi is widely seen as al-Maliki’s rival – the two men have had a hostile relationship since the 2010 elections.

Additionally al-Hakim’s plan has been coloured by critics as pre-emptive election campaigning, meant to gain voters’ approval rather than solve the problem. The other problem is that Sunni Muslims in Anbar don’t have a lot of trust in Shiite Muslim politicians right now.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, visited Iraq this week and spoke about the need to ensure that no parties were excluded from any negotiations. “The challenges facing Iraq require all political leaders to fulfil their responsibilities to ensure social cohesion, dialogue and progress over political obstacles,” Ban said.

But gathering Iraqi politicians together for dialogue seems like a particularly tricky task.

Iraq’s biggest problem since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 is the lack of an impartial mediator. It is almost impossible to get Iraq’s major political powers around one table without brushing up against some kind of long standing antagonism. There’s a lack of trust between them and there is really no neutral party in Iraqi politics who can gather all parties in one room and get them to negotiate.

Prior to the US withdrawal, diplomats from Washington often played that role. And prior to having a stroke in late 2012, Iraqi Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani was also capable of playing that role. The elder statesman was a veteran at persuading opponents to come closer together. But his illness and long absence – he remains in a German hospital – has resulted in a vacuum.

Some analysts have suggested that the United Nations could step in and take on a mediation role but many Iraqi politicians, including al-Maliki, have already ruled out any external interference in Iraqi affairs.

Complicating things further are the upcoming federal elections in Iraq. Any party that succeeds – or is perceived to succeed – in finding a resolution to the situation in Anbar will increase its popularity with Iraqi voters – so the need to succeed here is also riven by electoral competition - and doubtless the desire to not see one’s political rival doing well at the expense of one’s own party.

Still, no matter what happens next, or whether any of the proposals are taken seriously or even acted upon, the situation in Anbar will certainly impact on federal elections. There are only just over three months to go before Iraqi voters decide on their next government and in Baghdad; the topic of Anbar continues to overshadow any other political debate. NIQASH