He apparently came to the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan to “bless” the new union of two of the major political parties there. However, the visit by former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, may well cause more trouble than blessings.
The former Prime Minister, who is regularly blamed for a lot of Iraq’s current troubles, visited Sulaymaniyah, the area in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Goran, or Change, movement are based, on July 18.
Given the current constitutional crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan that has seen splits deepen between the two major political parties in the region and all parliamentary business suspended, the new union looked likely to make the PUK and the Change movement stronger. It seemed that al-Maliki also saw some advantages in this. The PUK and the Change movement also have seats in the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad. If al-Maliki could woo them, it would give him more leverage in Baghdad and possibly the parliamentary majority he has publicly been wishing for.
Although the current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, is also a member of al-Maliki’s Dawa political party, the two men are often opposed; many believe that al-Maliki wants the job back, or at least, the sanctioned power that comes with it.
We need a majority government in Baghdad and we are depending on the PUK and the Change movement to support us in this.
In a press conference after his earlier visit al-Maliki stated that he was in the semi-autonomous region, which has its own military, laws and parliament, that he was there to “bless the agreement between the PUK and the Change movement”. “Al-Maliki has welcomed the agreement between the PUK and the Change movement and he has said that he hopes it will be binding and successful,” Shorsh Haji, a leading member of the Change movement and spokesperson, said at a press conference.
“Al-Maliki told us that our agreement with the Change movement is a good thing and that he hopes this new union will work with him to improve the relationship between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan,” Refaat Abdullah, a member of the PUK who was in the meeting with al-Maliki, told NIQASH. “Because the problems between Iraq and Kurdistan impact everyone.”
Despite the pleasantries it is possible that al-Maliki’s visit will cause trouble. There are three main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, of which the PUK and the Change movement are two. The other is the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, headed by Massoud Barzani, who is currently holding onto the position of Iraqi Kurdistan’s President, even though other parties are opposed to this and say it is illegal.
In practice, Iraqi Kurdistan is split into two broad zones of influence between the KDP and the PUK. The Sulaymaniyah area is controlled by the PUK and the Erbil area is controlled by the KDP. Al-Maliki did not visit Erbil while he was north.
In the past the PUK and the KDP have been opponents; the Change movement is a breakaway from the PUK. In the past al-Maliki has also had a lot of trouble with the KDP and with Barzani.
But al-Maliki’s visit is completely normal, Mahmoud Muhammad, a senior member of, and spokesperson for, the KDP, played things down. “But this visit shouldn’t be used as a political card to play against certain other parties,” he stressed to NIQASH. “This visit could be a way for al-Maliki to try and curry favour, so he can return to power. And,” Mohammed added, “during his time in power, al-Maliki created a lot of problems for Iraqi Kurdistan and did nothing to solve them.”
“Being close to al-Maliki is important,” Kawa Mohammed, a senior member of the Change movement told NIQASH. But he too doesn’t think the visit should be used against other Iraqi Kurdish political parties. “The fact that the KDP has made these statements about al-Maliki’s visit only indicates their concerns about our new union, between the Change movement and the PUK.”
We will only find out the impact of al-Maliki’s visit to Sulaymaniyah over the coming days, suggests Abdul-Illah al-Nayli, an MP for the Dawa party. “We are convinced that we need to form a majority government and we are going to be depending on the PUK and the Change movement to support us in this,” al-Nayli told NIQASH. “At the same time it will be helpful for the political problems in Iraqi Kurdistan in that it will put pressure on the KDP to give up its monopoly on regional power.”
In Iraqi Kurdistan, local politicians say it is almost as though al-Maliki is certain he will be returning to power and that he is smoothing the way to better relations with Iraqi Kurdistan before he does so.
“The PUK, the Change movement and the Dawa party all need each other at the moment,” says Ahmad al-Sharifi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “Al-Maliki wants their support in Parliament to make a change in Baghdad and the two Iraqi Kurdish parties need al-Maliki to put pressure on the KDP.”
Al-Sharifi told NIQASH that, if this alliance works out, then it could have a major impact on national and regional politics, but that it may take some time for that impact to be fully realized.