The indefinite postponement of a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s controversial draft constitution just days after a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has given rise to speculation that Washington may have played a role in the delay.
Despite initial expectations that the charter would be put to a vote on Jul. 25 amid Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections, just a few days after Biden landed in Iraq, the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) said it was impossible to hold the vote on that date.
While there has been no official confirmation of Biden’s possible role in the delay, a series of events and statements strongly indicate possible behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the U.S. to prevent new problems from emerging as the Barack Obama administration desperately lobbies for national reconciliation.
Biden, who was appointed by Obama to oversee the administration’s Iraq policy on Jun. 30, arrived in Baghdad on Jul. 2 to push Iraqi leaders for "political progress that is necessary to ensure the nation’s long-term stability," a White House statement said.
After his visit to Iraq, Biden told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that he had been asked by Iraqi officials in Baghdad to "communicate to the Kurdish leadership, who I have a close relationship with, that their passing a constitution through their parliament in Kurdistan was not helpful to the process that was under way."
The Kurdish draft constitution had heightened tensions between Kurds and other ethnicities in the country such as Arabs and Turkomans, as well as the Iraqi government.
The major source of contention was provisions declaring oil-rich Kirkuk and a number of other areas deemed disputed territories to be "historically" and "geographically" part of the Kurdish homeland. Those areas are currently outside the jurisdiction of the Kurdish government.
Although Biden had planned to visit the north to meet with senior Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, a severe sandstorm prevented his plane from taking off. But after returning to Washington, the vice president called Barzani and Talabani to press "the need to reach a resolution on Iraq’s outstanding reconciliation issues", according to a statement from Biden office on Jul. 7.
A statement posted on Barzani’s website, in turn, described the "outstanding issues" as territorial disputes, oil and gas legislation and political reconciliation.
But it was Iraq’s Shia Arab Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who gave near confirmation of the U.S. influence. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Jul. 9, Maliki said Biden had promised him to urge Kurdish leaders to delay the referendum. The prime minister added that he and Biden had both agreed that the proposed Kurdish constitution was bound to "make a lot of trouble and create a lot of differences".
Following Biden’s visit, the IHEC took many in Iraq by surprise when it announced on Jul. 7 that it could not hold the referendum. The IHEC cited technical reasons as well as concerns that its "integrity and credibility" could be tainted if it yielded to immense pressure from Kurdish leaders to hold the referendum.
Many inside Kurdistan had also criticized the draft, but on different grounds. Kurdish critics believed the constitution granted too much power to the president of Kurdistan and had called on the IHEC to postpone the vote.
The document was seen mainly as an artifact of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Barzani is the president of the Kurdistan autonomous region, while his longtime rival and now "strategic ally" Talabani is the president of Iraq.
But, ignoring domestic calls, the Kurdish leadership rushed to pass the charter as quickly as possible. They were optimistic that the IHEC would heed their demand to hold the referendum on Jul. 25.
Tariq Sarmami, an advisor to the Kurdish parliament speaker, told the Kurdish official news agency AKnews on Jul. 1 that the IHEC "had shown readiness to prepare grounds for a referendum on the constitution" on the presumed Jul. 25 date.
Nevertheless, Kurdish officials’ efforts were for naught as the IHEC rejected their demands.
Two days after the IHEC’s rejection, on Jul. 9, enraged lame-duck Kurdish parliamentarians had to give in to the fait accompli. They voted to delay the referendum but did not set a new date, raising speculation that due to outside pressure they may not want to pursue it for a while to come.
During the session, Kurdish parliamentary speaker Adnan Mufti voiced his suspicions of interference in the IHEC’s work by Maliki’s government and implicitly accused the U.S. of playing a role.
More signs of U.S. involvement are emerging as Adm. Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military, visited Kirkuk on Monday with the aim of urging Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans there to reach a power-sharing agreement. The U.S. had been widely criticized in the recent months for not doing enough to settle disputes among Iraqi factions, especially Kurds and Arabs.
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group (ICG) believes that unilateral decisions by Kurdish leaders such as the draft constitution were partly due to U.S. reluctance to throw heavier diplomatic weight behind efforts to address the ethnic problems in the country.
But Biden’s very new central role to steer U.S. policy in Iraq, he says, shows that "Obama’s administration means business".
"And his visit to Iraq is a sign that the U.S. is serious in its efforts to broker a deal (on problems between Kurds and Iraqi government)," he told IPS in a phone interview from Jordan.
However, as attempts to forge an agreement intensify, the key question is what kind of a deal is possible and sustainable.
"We proposed a grand bargain on this issue in our most recent report that combines territory with oil and sharing powers between Baghdad and Irbil (the Kurdish capital)," said Hiltermann, referring to a Jul. 8 ICG report. "These issues cannot be resolved in isolation, they have to be combined as they are really so the ground."
Upcoming polls may further complicate ethnic relations in Iraq. In addition to regional Kurdish elections due in a few weeks, Iraq’s national elections will be held next January. If the current deadlock is to be broken, some argue, politicians in Iraq need to avoid inflammatory remarks and think outside election cycles.
"The game so far is to drag their feet and appear uncompromising but at the end there is a realization that things need to be brought to the negotiation table," Scott Carpenter, an expert at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told IPS. "They know if problems aggravate, there will be real difficulties and that will not be in anybody’s interest."
Carpenter believes the Balkans should stand as a stark lesson to Iraqi policymakers.
"People need to look at Sarajevo and what happened in Serbia and Bosnia," he said, referring to the bloody ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. "You don’t want this and if you really believe that way, then leaders have to stand up and avoid more tensions."
(Inter Press Service)