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Maliki Becomes Commander-in-Chief

On Thursday, September 7, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki signed an agreement with the Commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq General George Casey taking over command authority of Iraqi Security Forces, on ground, sea and air (New York Times/AP). News reports indicated that Maliki would only be taking over tactical command on one of the ISF’s ten divisions. Yet Major General William Caldwell made clear at a September 6 press conference that the prime minister could take tactical control of the remaining divisions just as quickly as his administration felt comfortable doing so, with a takeover rate of two divisions per month expected:

…that’s the prime minister’s decision how rapidly he wants to move along with assuming control of his — he’s going to assume complete control of the naval forces, the air forces, and the decision is made that tomorrow be the 8th Army Iraqi Army Division. They can move as rapidly thereafter as they want. I know conceptually they’ve talked about perhaps two divisions a month as they work through all the systems, the reporting procedures, the command and control.

So it’s going to be up to the prime minister how rapidly they move after that. Our anticipation is, from what we understand from his staff, is that it may be about two divisions a month thereafter. But again, I’d really defer to the government of Iraq on how rapidly they want to move. It’s not our decision. And we’re prepared to support whatever they want to do… And again, not just the division, but the navy, too, the air force. And then, of course the chain of command will run directly through his joint force headquarters to his Iraqi ground forces command headquarters, down to the division and down to the individual soldier…

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, in reporting on the issue, wrote of the agreement as “making the prime minister commander-in-chief of the Iraqi Army. The agreement provides for the establishment of an Iraqi joint chiefs of staff having full authority over all Iraqi military units, whether on land or on sea or in air, and which includes now 115,000 soldiers.”

The same article also reports on a tribal reconciliation conference taking place in the Kirkuk area in north-central Iraq. It notes that some of the Sunni tribes, not supportive of al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadist groups, have demanded the release of Saddam Hussein as a condition to reconciliation. Leaders from several tribes were quoted by name, and they tended to stress that they did not seek to return Saddam to power but to reintegrate Baathists into Iraqi society, suggesting that freeing Saddam was a way to do this. One tribal leader stated that he supported attacks on American troops but not on Iraqi troops, while another said that he supported Maliki’s reconciliation plan because it brought security and “satisfied the Americans.” All supported the reconciliation plan in principle. Sunni tribal leaders are not entirely monolithic in their views, but they consistently emphasize the importance of stopping debaathification, which is natural since it targets them. As there is no chance that the release of Saddam will be granted, at least for some the reconciliation process still has some distance to go. Yet these statements, which are typical of views reported in the Iraqi media by Sunni political leaders, suggest that the transfer of security control from U.S. to Iraqi forces and perhaps a more forgiving policy toward former Baathists could bring them into the government.

This week also saw the eruption of a flag controversy between the Kurdish autonomous administration led by Masoud Barzani and the central government in Baghdad. The spat began late last week when Barzani ordered that Iraqi federal flags, which resemble the old flags of Baathist Iraq, be pulled down (picture of Iraqi flag here; only the style of the Arabic script and the spacing of the stars was changed). Iraqi Arabs argued that this threatened the unity of the country, while unionist Kurds said that this move was necessary to force Baghdad to change the design of the flag.

Thus the Iraqi parliament is now working on designing a new flag. As reported by Al-Jazeera, a “constitutional gap” was created when a new flag was adopted in 2004 by the interim government but then rejected by the new government, which made some style changes but kept the basic design adopted by Saddam Hussein in 1991. Al-Jazeera quotes Barzani as directly challenging the prime minister over the issue, referring to the murder of members of his own party by the former regime, saying that “Maliki knows very well that it was under this flag that Saddam signed an order for the execution of 600 members of the Dawa Party in a single day.”