Maliki-Barzani feud in Iraq is music to ISIS ears
LONDON - A war of words has broken out between former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, fuelling tensions surrounding the war raging around Mosul.
Maliki threw the first punch in a broadcast interview, accusing Barzani and other leaders of his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of being “Israeli sympathisers” who were working with Iraq’s foreign enemies, including the United States, Israel and Turkey.
“The Kurdistan region has become a strategic and developed platform for the implementation of the US-Israeli policy,” Maliki told Euronews. “And by Kurdistan I do not mean all the Kurds. I mean only Masoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.”
He also accused the KDP of facilitating the entry of 2,000 Turkish troops into northern Iraq, a development that has strained relations between Ankara and the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has said their presence was illegal.
It seemed unlikely, however, that Maliki’s intervention was motivated by a desire to support his successor. Recent political developments support the theory that he is manoeuvring to regain the prime ministerial post he was forced to surrender in mid-2014 after his armed forces lost Mosul to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Maliki has been accused of stirring up existing splits within rival Kurdish parties with a visit in July to Sulaymaniyah in eastern Kurdistan where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Movement for Change (Gorran) hold sway.
In September, the Iraqi parliament dismissed Hoshyar Zebari, the Finance minister, in a move that many, including Zebari himself, said was engineered by Maliki. Zebari was the most high-profile Kurd in successive Baghdad cabinets and, as Foreign minister, frequently accompanied Maliki on visits abroad. He also holds high positions in the KDP — and, incidentally, is Barzani’s uncle.
The personal animus between Maliki and Barzani was well-established before the former launched his tirade in late October. Back in 2012, the Kurdish leader accused the Shia prime minister of turning himself into a dictator.
“Where in the world can the same person be the prime minister, the chief of staff of the armed forces, the minister of Defence, the minister of Interior, the chief of intelligence and the head of the National Security Council?” Barzani said.
The KDP was not slow in responding in the latest verbal spat. “Maliki’s role in inciting sectarianism, his involvement in corruption and the damage he has done to Iraq’s political, security and economic standing is evident to all Iraqis and to the international community,” the party said in a statement.
It also compared him to Saddam Hussein’s notorious henchman “Chemical Ali” — Ali Hassan al- Majid — in terms of crimes he had committed against the Kurdish nation, especially the March 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in which more than 5,000 men, women and children were killed.
The statement added, for good measure, that the army Maliki controlled had collapsed without a fight in the face of the ISIS offensive in 2014, relinquishing territory that the Kurdish peshmerga and the reconstituted Iraqi armed forces are now jointly fighting to liberate.
So, what of Maliki’s allegations that Barzani is an Israeli and a Turkish stooge? The KDP’s relations with Israel are well-documented from the era when Israel’s Mossad intelligence service supported the 1970s rebellion led by Barzani’s father, Mustafa, and subsequently ditched the Kurds as part of a 1975 agreement between Saddam and the shah of Iran.
Maliki gave little evidence of a conspiracy beyond saying: “Israeli sympathisers and elements are abundant in Kurdistan.”
On Turkey, he may have been on slightly more solid ground. The KDP has a close relationship with Ankara, based in part on the level of Turkish investment in the land-locked Kurdistan region and dependence on Turkey as an outlet for oil exports.
The authorities in Erbil, casting themselves as peacemakers in the tensions between Ankara and Baghdad, insist that the presence of Turkish military “trainers” at Bashiqa, on the front line with ISIS, had been signed off by the central government. KDP officials say they welcome the participation of any party that opposes ISIS.
Maliki perhaps has a different agenda. Shortly before his verbal assault on Barzani, he said during an Iranian-sponsored conference in Baghdad that the campaign to liberate Mosul was just the first step to liberating other cities, including Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, in Syria.
That implied liberation by the Iranian-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad rather than by rebels backed by Turkey and the West.
The Maliki-Barzani spat perhaps underlines, once again, the fact that what divides the enemies of the Islamic State is greater than what unites them.