There was an interesting political development in Iraq yesterday: the announcement of a new political alliance between the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (Tareq al-Hashemi) and the two major Kurdish parties (Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani). I haven't seen any coverage of this yet in the English-language media, but it's at least potentially kind of important.
The actual text of the agreement (as published online in several places) is fairly bland: assorted agreements to pursue a democratic and federal Iraq, reject terrorism, push for genuine national reconciliation, and so forth. In a nod to the Sunnis, the agreement promises to work for the release of innocent prisoners; in a nod to the Kurds, it promises to respect and defend the Constitutionally protected special place of the Kurdish provinces. The most interesting parts of the text are probably a brief rejection of any external interference in Iraqi affairs, without elaboration on whether that meant the United States or Iran, and a barely veiled criticism of the sectarian nature of the Iraqi security forces couched in a call for professionalism and for balanced representation. While al-Hayat reports agreement on Kirkuk, the purported text online refers only to disputed areas which would be resolved according to Article 140.
More interesting than the text is the sheer fact of a Sunni-Kurdish alignment, given the long-standing and deeply felt legacies of the genocidal Anfal campaign and the battles over Kirkuk as well as the seemingly durable Shia-Kurdish alliance which has dominated Iraqi politics the last few years. Talabani and Barzani, of course, were parties to Nuri al-Maliki's Four Party Agreement in August (along with Maliki's Dawa and Hakim's SIIC), which cemented and symbolized the stripped-down sectarian, Shia-Kurdish nature of his government. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Aswat al-Iraq that it didn't abolish or challenge the existing alliance, but it's difficult to see how it doesn't. How this new Sunni-Kurdish alliance fits with the existing Shia-Kurdish alliance is the crucial question - whether it will align with it, like an overlay which allows the Sunnis a back door to return to the existing regime, or whether it will be in opposition to the governing bloc. It's hard not to notice that Maliki's Dawa Party and SIIC were noticably absent from the parlay.
What explains the new deal? I haven't got a particularly convincing theory at this point. Arab media coverage has thus far been heavier on description than on analysis, and few reactions have yet been recorded. Most of the Arab coverage of the Sunni-Kurdish deal puts it in the context of Kurdish anger over the Turkish attacks in northern Iraq. Other stories associate it with Talabani's announcement voiding the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran contrary to Maliki's reported position. It comes at a time when the simmering political controversies over the Sunni Awakenings that I've been tracking for so long have begun to reach a highly visible boil - which might affect Hashemi's calculations (either by forcing him to make a dramatic move to fortify his own political position against the Anbar Salvation Council, or by strengthening the Sunni position against the Shia, or something else - all this will have to be the subject of another post when I have the time). I'm sure others can think of all kinds of possible explanations - and it will likely take a while to sort it all out.
What does it mean politically? It's easy to imagine it breaking in two diametrically opposed directions. On the one hand, it could pave the way for Hashemi to broker a return of the Sunni members to the government. On the other, it could finally trigger the collapse of Maliki's government, if he loses the guaranteed support of the Kurdish parties. (And on yet another, it could head quickly to the dustbin, to keep good company all the other failed political initiatives of the last few years.) Either way, it could signal some new flexibility and new pressure points which could finally offer the hope for movement in the long political stalemate. It's not even immediately clear whether this should be taken as good or bad news from the American perspective, since so much depends on which way it falls out (is it a preface to moves on national reconciliation - at last! - or harbinger of a new round of political crisis? is it a sign of further fragmentation of politics, or of the formation of an effective new alignment? is it shuffling the same chairs on the collapsing deck? is it aimed against Iran or against the US, or purely internal?). We'll see how it shakes out - for now, just an important political development worth noting which thus far has not been.
UPDATE (12/26): Here's how it's shaking out so far: Al-Hayat reports Adnan Dulaimi, of the Sunni Tawafuq Bloc, dismissing the alliance with the Kurds as unlikely to accomplish anything. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports Hashemi's IIP describing the alliance as a message to Maliki. Al-Jazeera reports the Sunni-Kurdish agreement as paving the way for a new Iraqi government. Iraq's Al-Sabah newspaper calls the Alliance "an important step to support national unity government." Obviously, those can't all be right. And from what I can tell, the English-language media reports nothing at all.