Iraq Maliki Getting U.S. Oil, Shiite, Sunni Squeeze

An increasingly besieged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is striving to define himself and demonstrate his authority in the face of mounting pressure from the Bush administration in the US, his own political base in Iraq and Arab leaders throughout the Middle East. The two issues currently courting the greatest conflict are related to Shiite militias and oil revenues.  

Clearly, the most urgent order of business is cracking down on Shiite militias who have been terrorizing Sunnis in Baghdad for at least two years. This has been a major point of contention for the US since the failure of Operation Together Forward last summer, when Mr Maliki prevented US troops and Iraqi security forces from carrying out raids on the Mahdi Army and later intervened to end a US blockade of Sadr City. 

Sunni Arab leaders in the region – in particular, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt – have also been complaining bitterly to the US about the Shiite militias and death squads’ slaughter of Sunnis, most recently when Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited the Middle East last week. Saudi Arabia is known to have threatened to directly enter the sectarian conflict in Iraq if the US withdraws its troops before halting the rampage on Sunni civilians. 

At the same time, car bombings targeting Shiites, the bloodiest of which killed over 100 people on Monday and 215 people on November 23 last year, always result in increased support for the militias from local Shiite communities and their Members of Parliament, who form Mr Maliki’s political power base. 

Mr Maliki has been especially reluctant to crack down on the Mahdi Army loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls thirty seats including six cabinet positions in the Iraqi parliament, because Mr Sadr’s support is important for the stability and functioning of the coalition government.  

Sadrist loyalists began boycotting the Iraqi parliament in November, to protest Mr Maliki’s meeting with President Bush in Amman. This reflects Mr Sadr’s long-standing position that the US should withdraw all its troops immediately. However, Mr Sadr ended the boycott last Friday and ordered the MPs back to work in an effort to avoid an all-out military offensive against his militia. 

Two days earlier, Mr Maliki had demonstrated his resolve to take on Mr Sadr when he announced  that over 400 militiamen of the Mahdi Army had been arrested in Baghdad. Then on Friday came the news that US forces had taken a key Sadr aide, Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, into custody. Since ending the boycott late on Friday, Mr Sadr himself has lowered his profile and cooled his rhetoric.  

Mr Maliki’s turnaround on the Mahdi Army is said to have followed meetings with US intelligence officers in Iraq, who convinced the Prime Minister that Shiite militias have been operating death squads targeting Sunni civilians. Critics have pointed out that this had been clear for some considerable time. Nevertheless, Mr Maliki’s unequivocal support is crucial to the success of renewed efforts by the US to crush both Shiite militias and the Sunni insurgency.   

In the course of defending his decision to send more troops to Iraq, President Bush made it known that he has been losing patience with Mr Maliki’s slow pace of reform. He also criticized the Maliki government for ‘fumbling’ the execution of Saddam Hussein, which alienated Iraq’s minority Sunni community. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also publicly rebuked Mr Maliki by warning that he and his government were ‘on borrowed time’.  

Confronted with the perception that he was being publicly ‘whipped’ by his US ‘masters’, Mr Maliki hit back that Mr Bush had “given in to domestic pressure” and that “Secretary Rice is expressing her own point of view if she thinks that the government is on borrowed time.” 

Mr Maliki must walk a fine diplomatic line with the US because, while he needs to demonstrate that he is no puppet of the Bush administration, he also cannot afford to alienate the US at such a critical time for his government.  

Over the next few weeks, the issue of oil revenues will come to a head and test Mr Maliki’s ability to reconcile conflicting agendas of the Bush administration and the best interests of Iraq. 

To date, the forthcoming hydrocarbon legislation has mainly been discussed in terms of introducing an equitable distribution of revenues throughout Iraq’s regions. Certainly, this would go a long way to easing the anxieties of Sunni provinces who fear being starved of funds. Meanwhile, the Maliki government will need to come to an agreement with the Kurds, who ultimately want regional autonomy, and will be fighting to keep any oil revenues generated in their northern provinces. 

However, there are indications that a much greater conflict is looming with the Bush administration. It was reported earlier this month in The Independent that the Bush administration has been pressuring Mr Maliki to use the same legislation to privatize the Iraqi oil industry and hand over the lion’s share of profits – up to 75% – to oil companies based in the US and the UK for the next 30 years.  

This would be an almost impossible ‘sell’ to the people of war-ravaged Iraq, and would stoke long-standing suspicions that Iraq was invaded so foreign occupiers could assume control of Iraq’s vast oil reserves. Legislating such unfavorable terms for his own people would also reignite criticisms that the Maliki government has been little more than a puppet regime of the US.  

Such unfavorable production-sharing agreements with foreign oil companies are unprecedented in the Middle East. Indeed, such arrangements would almost certainly ensure that Iraq will be heavily dependent on foreign aid for its reconstruction. 

With the stakes high and the implications clear, Mr Maliki would do well to stand up to the powerful foreign interests circling Iraq’s oil fields and do what is right for his country’s future. It seems fair to say that the ownership and the profits of the country’s oil wealth will make or break the future of Iraq.

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