Political risks to watch in Iraq

By Patrick Markey – Reuters  – 11.4.2013 – BAGHDAD,—Attempts to resolve a power-sharing crisis in Shi’ite premier Nuri al-Maliki’s government, disputes over oil with autonomous Kurdistan and spillover effects from Syria’s war on Iraq’s internal politics and insurgent violence are areas to watch.

Violence has surged since the start of the year with al Qaeda’s local wing gaining from the Syrian conflict next door, and feeding off Sunni Muslim discontent in western provinces along the Syrian border. To the north, Exxon Mobil is caught in a dispute between Baghdad’s Arab-led central government and ethnic Kurd-run Kurdistan enclave over which controls oil and land.


Maliki is locked in a crisis with Sunni and Kurdish partners in the power-sharing government. Critics accuse the prime minister of consolidating power and refusing to live up to agreements. Political turmoil is likely to drag on until parliamentary elections in 2014.

Local elections in April will give some indication of the fortunes of Maliki and rivals. Voting has been postponed in two Sunni-dominated provinces because of threats to electoral workers and violence. Sunni protesters, who feel marginalised, have been protesting since December in western provinces.

What to watch:

– Major shifts in Kurdish, Shi’ite blocks against Maliki.

– Outcome of April provincial vote.

– Deals to unblock passage of laws.

– Violence during Sunni protests.


For Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership, the Sunni rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a political nightmare. They fear if Assad falls, it may bring to power a hardline Sunni regime hostile to Baghdad and lead to Sunni Islamist fighters crossing the border to carry out attacks in Iraq. Iraq’s leadership is close to Assad’s Shi’ite ally Iran, and says it takes no sides. But Maliki has come under pressure from Washington to prevent Iran flying arms to Assad through Iraqi airspace. Washington is Iraq’s largest arms supplier.

What to watch:

– Any shift in Baghdad’s position on Assad.

– Frontier clashes destabilising border areas.

– U.S. Congress pressuring Iraq through arms deals.


Violence has surged this year, especially suicide bombings, as insurgents tied to al Qaeda have hit Shi’ite targets to try to stoke sectarian tensions. So far Shi’ite militias have stayed out of the fray but attacks on Shi’ite holy sites could draw them in as it did during the sectarian bloodshed of 2006-2007.

Al Qaeda’s local wing, Islamic State of Iraq, says it has joined forces with the al-Nusra Front in Syria to forge one theatre of war. Security forces say insurgents are using the remote western desert in Anbar province bordering Syria to regroup, recruit and train.

What to watch:

– Militia retaliation after an attack on Shi’ite sites.

– Signs of al Qaeda openly controlling border areas.

– Attacks against government offices in Baghdad.


Tensions between Baghdad’s central government and the autonomous Kurdistan region are at their worst in years. While Baghdad says it has control over the country’s oil resources, Kurdistan says it has the right to sign oil deals and develop its fields. Both governments sent troops to reinforce their internal border, a potential flashpoint.

At the heart of the dispute is Exxon Mobil, which has signed deals with Kurdistan, but also operates the huge West Qurna oilfield in the south. Baghdad says the U.S. major must chose between the south or Kurdistan. Turkey also wants access to Kurdistan’s oil and gas, but also risks its investments in the south if it moves ahead too quickly and angers Baghdad.

– Concrete moves by Kurdistan, Turkey for a pipeline deal.

– Decisions by Exxon on its southern assets.

– Build-up of troops along the internal border.