On a superficial level, it should have been considered a major coup for Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of the troubled northern Iraqi state of Ninawa. After a three year boycott of local council business, al-Nujaifi had finally convinced Kurdish politicians to return to their seats on the council. They would return to work in early April.
After the last local elections, Kurdish politicians got 12 seats on the 37 seat council and around a quarter of the votes in the province. But after Arab parties – who got 19 seats - took all of the major positions of power on the council, the Kurdish walked out saying they would boycott the council operations indefinitely due to the unfair imbalance in leadership positions.
That was three years ago. And now after a series of meetings – one of which involved Massoud Barzani, President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan - al-Nujaifi has succeeded in getting the Kurdish politicians from the Ninawa Brotherly List to return to their jobs.
A celebratory reception was held in a council building to mark the return of the Kurdish politicians to work on April 2 and at it, al-Nujaifi was surrounded by his Kurdish colleagues. However the same event was only attended by five members of al-Nujaifi’s own party, the Arab-dominated, and mostly Sunni Muslim, Hadba list that currently oversees Ninawa’s state government and which al-Nujaifi leads.
Almost immediately other politicians began to criticise al-Nujaifi’s achievement. They accused him of a duplicitous attitude, saying that it had been his actions that had sparked the whole boycott situation in the first place.
Al-Nujaifi’s critics also say the governor is just currying favour with the Kurds because he has lost support from his own mostly Arab constituents. His newly friendly relationship with the Kurdish, whom he has not supported historically, stems from his desire to remain in office for a second term – he hopes to get votes from the Kurdish population or their supporters in Ninawa, they argue.
Also at the press conference, it was announced that there were no preconditions to the return of the Kurdish politicians to council business. They were just going to come back. But al-Nujaifi’s critics say they fear a secret deal was done behind closed doors.
The head of the Justice and Reform Movement, one of the largest parties making up al-Nujaifi’s Hadba list - Abdullah Hamidi al-Yawar – has already complained that al-Nujaifi was deviating from the agreements that the Hadba list was based upon.
Some of these relate to other problems between Kurds and Arabs in the area that do not just revolve around the distribution of ministerial positions. Among other major issues in the province there are the disputed territories – that is, areas the Kurds say belong to Iraqi Kurdistan and that the Arabs say belong to Iraq proper.
The problem is supposed to be resolved through Article 140 of the new Iraqi Constitution. Article 140 was formulated in 2003 to remedy the expulsions, the ethnic cleansing and Arabisation led by former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, through three steps.
If Article 140 is acted upon, it could see some parts of Ninawa become part of Iraqi Kurdistan. However the Arab politicians of Ninawa say they will fight this, no matter what Article 140 concludes.
Additionally the Arab politicians have also called for the withdrawal of Kurdish military present in some of the disputed areas; the Kurdish say they are there to protect the lives of Kurdish citizens living in the area but the Arab politicians say they are there illegally.
Arab politicians have also called for the release of citizens of Ninawa being detained in prisons in the state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Often these people have been arrested by Kurdish military in charge of the disputed territories and then taken to prison in Iraqi Kurdistan, rather than handed over to Arab authorities in Ninawa.
To counter what is being seen as al-Nujaifi’s duplicity, the head of the provincial council\'s security committee, Abdul-Rahim al-Shammari, has already tabled five discussion points, to be debated by the Ninawa council once the Kurdish politicians return and quorum is re-achieved.
Al-Shammari wants the council to discuss the issue of Arab detainees in Iraqi Kurdish prisons and he also wants Arab citizens deported from the areas of Ninawa under Kurdish control, to have their identity papers returned.
Al-Shammari wants locals from the Sinjar district –one of the poorest in Iraq – to be allowed to build or restore their homes there. He also wants Iraqi Kurdistan to provide Ninawa with the electricity that Baghdad previously paid for but which, as yet, hasn’t been supplied.
In an expression of his discontent with al-Nujaifi’s supposed political achievement, al-Shammari sarcastically suggested that maybe “the Peshmerga [Kurdish military] that control areas such as Sinjar and Shikhan could host a visit by the governor to those areas”.
Meanwhile Yahya Mahjoub, a leading member of the local Iraqi Islamic Party, which has three seats on Ninawa’s council, requested that both the Hadba List and the Kurdish politicians reveal what he described as “the secret deal” behind the return of the Kurds to local government.
Mahjoub was also critical of the compromise because it contravened local bylaws that call for the dismissal of any council members who missed more than four sittings of the council. Mahjoub also said that al-Nujaifi had acted alone and had not consulted with other political parties in Ninawa before bringing the Kurdish politicians back.
Another politician from the Justice and Reform Movementwas not only critical of al-Nujaifi but also of the Kurdish politicians. “They re-joined the council so that they could ensure their pensions,” Mohammed al-Jibouri complained to the media. “According to Iraqi law, they could lose these if their service is less than a year in length.”
“The decision to end the boycott was taken in the interests of Ninawa’s citizens,” Qasim Saleh, head of the Kurdish dominated Ninawa Brotherly List, said in reply to the latter. “And to establish some sort of unity between the various components in the province. Remarks like this are just detrimental to the province and also to any unity here.”
Al-Nujaifi himself was also keen to respond to the various criticisms. He said that controversial issues, such as those to do with Article 140 and to the deployment of Kurdish military within Ninawa, would need to be decided by the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad - and not by the local council.
“Article 140 is not within our realm of responsibility,” he told NIQASH. “We can only resolve these issues through dialogue and decisions should not be made unless all parties are part of the consultation process.”
At the same time though, Ninawa’s governor was also eager to stress that he was still opposed to the annexation of parts of the province to Iraqi Kurdistan, a policy that would be unpopular with Arab voters if it were to happen.
“Presently we are sticking to the current administrative borders of the province,” he stated. “If we can convince Iraqi Kurdistan that their relationship with Ninawa is a good one, then we’ll be able to unify the province.”
The move to bring the Kurdish politicians back to Ninawa’s council may have more far reaching implications too. At the press conference held to announce the return of the Kurdish politicians, the governor was asked several tricky questions.
One of these, from NIQASH: Was al-Nujaifi’s move actually part of a possibly more important, new alliance at federal level that would have far reaching consequences?
Observers have been speculating about an alliance between Kurdish politicians in Baghdad and the main opposition Iraqiya bloc.
Al-Nujaifi’s local Hadba list belongs to the Iraqiya bloc and the Kurdish in Ninawa are allied to Kurdish MPs in Baghdad. Current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has recently been being accused of monopolizing power in Baghdad by both of these groups.
Drawing the power sharing out along sectarian lines, Al-Nujaifi is a Sunni Muslim politician and the Iraqiya party is mostly Sunni Muslim too. Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc is mainly Shiite Muslim. And the Kurdish parties in Baghdad tend to hold a balance of power between the two major, most popular blocs, State of Law and Iraqiya.
So, the question is: is this new friendly relationship in Ninawa actually a sign of a new, important alliance brewing at federal level? And in that sense, is the newly united Ninawa council really aimed at Baghdad, and another way of preventing al-Maliki from monopolizing power – something that al-Nujaifi himself has been critical of?
Al-Nujaifi responded to the question enthusiastically and seemed to give the theory of a new alliance some credence.
“The two parties feel that there are real threats - bigger than the conflicts they were engaged in,” he said. “They have looked at the entire situation in Iraq in a different light in order to stop the country from slipping into new crisis.”