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Iraqi Leaders Respond to Baker-Hamilton Report

While the Baker-Hamilton Commission report continues to be debated within the United States, recent days have seen almost universal rejection of the report’s recommendations from Iraqi leaders. Kurdish and Shi’a leaders have been especially critical, and even Shi’a figures with ties to Iran have stated that the report’s recommendation of direct U.S.-Iranian dialogue on Iraq should be postponed.

Perhaps the strongest and most particularized rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report was given by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish autonomous region. As reported in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, Barzani issued a point by point rebuttal of the report’s recommendations. Noting that none of the members of the Commission had even visited the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Barzani’s chief criticisms included the recommendation that the Iraqi constitution be amended and Iran and Syria be allowed a direct role in shaping Iraq. Barzani’s administration has cordial relations with Iran, but is often at odds with Tehran over the treatment of Iranian Kurds and Iran’s current informal role in Iraq.

Barzani’s fellow Kurd, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, also strongly rejected the report’s recommendations in comments to the Associated Press (New York Sun/AP). Criticizing several aspects of the report, Talabani called it “an insult to the people of Iraq.” Among other things, he, like Shi’a leaders, called for Iraqi security forces to take more responsibility for security.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hushari Zubari, who is also Kurdish, spoke to Al-Hayat about the report on the sidelines of an investor conference he was attending in Morocco (see: Zubari Worries About Interference of Syria and Iran in Iraqi Affairs). Describing the report as “rather superficial,” and “not dealing with the full picture in Iraq,” Zubari said that he agreed with the acceleration of the training of Iraqi forces (apparently interpreting it differently than Talabani in this regard), but worried about recommendations dealing with Syria and Iran. Saying that U.S. relations with these countries was “America’s business,” he feared that they would exact a “price” for their cooperation in Iraq that Iraqis would have to pay.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq’s largest political faction, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIIRI), visited Washington when the report was being released. Hakim presented his views in detail in a speech before the U.S. Institute of Peace on December 4 (full text in English, full text in Arabic). Hakim argued that a winning strategy in Iraq required more forceful attacks against Sunni terrorists, saying that up until now coalition and Iraqi Security Forces operations against al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorists were too weak, allowing them to continue to strike at Iraqis. Hakim has consistently supported the U.S. presence in Iraq but often criticized the U.S. for what he views as excessive restrictions on the role of Iraqi forces.

According to a Dec. 6 article in Al-Hayat, Hakim brought with him a letter from Tehran regarding its role in Iraq, saying that he could be a mediator between the U.S. and Iran, although the article contained no further information on the contents of the letter. The Washington Post has also published excerpts of an interview it held with Hakim. The Post quotes Hakim as saying that some elements of the report are the same or close to the Iraqi government, some are inaccurate, underplaying the political progress which Iraqis have made.

A Dec. 9 article from Al-Hayat (“SCIRI Emphasizes Stengthening Maliki Government Before Any U.S.-Iran Dialogue”) surveyed remarks given in mosques by a large number of Shi’a clerics, including both SCIRI representatives and grand ayatollahs who stand above the political fray. The general tenor was one of strong rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report, emphasizing the need for a “national solution” and not a “foreign imported one.” It quoted Shaikh Mahmud al-Sumaid’i of the Mother of Villages Mosque in Baghdad as remarking that it sought “‘to solve the American crisis in Iraq without regard to Iraq itself,’” putting forward nothing but ‘half solutions’” to problems. SCIRI leaders emphasized that any U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Iraq should wait until the Iraqi government was strengthened.

Shaikh Sadr al-Din al-Qabnaji of Najaf criticized the report’s impatience, saying that Iraqis stood firm because the shedding of innocent blood was not new, but continued from the days of Saddam, yet “we had no voice and no one talked about us then.” A representative of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who supports the Maliki government, said that the revered cleric did not approve of the government’s current handling of the differences between the political factions, but that he also did not support a solution from outside.

Prime Minister Maliki himself emphasized that the only solution to Iraq’s problems was through the strengthening of Iraq’s current government, not its amendment or its replacement by a authoritarian “national salvation government,” as advocated by some Sunnis (Karbala News Agency).

Some comments by Iraqi officials indicate that they are working toward some of the goals of the Baker-Hamilton Commission through their own means, as Iraqi leaders may be nearing an agreement on oil resource management. While Kurdish leaders have forcefully rejected the Commission’s recommendations on the centralization of power over Iraq’s oil resources, the New York Times reports that Iraqi officials have reached the outlines of an agreement on a draft law allowing for oil revenue to be distributed to the provinces according to population rather than location, since most of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in the Shi’a south and Kurdish north. The article indicates that Kurdish leaders are insisting, however, that the provinces have final say over the approval of oil contracts and that the draft has not been given final approval.

Al-Rafidayn is also reporting that Foreign Minister Zubari has announced that in four months time Baghdad will host a regional conference assuming all sides can agree to it. This might be seen as an attempt by Baghdad to take the initiative and give itself the ability to set the parameters of any discussion with Syria and Iran over the future of Iraq, rather than allowing Washington to do so.