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Archive for the ‘UIA dynamics’ Category

The Iraqi Parliament Completes the First Reading of the 2014 Annual Budget

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 17 March 2014 14:23

In a significant move, the Iraqi parliament has completed the first passage of the 2014 annual budget despite boycotts by the Kurds and the Mutahhidun bloc loyal to the parliament speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi.

The sheer arithmetic behind the successful quorum at Sunday’s session speaks volumes about shifting political winds in Iraq ahead of the 30 April parliament elections. In order to go ahead with the first reading, 163 MPs needed to be present to reach the legal minimum requirement for taking parliamentary action. According to the official parliament record, 164 deputies attended. In the context of boycotts by Kurds and Mutahhidun alike, this is a remarkable achievement. It means, firstly, that the Shia bloc in parliament is exhibiting internal discipline at a level not seen since 2005. Altogether the three main Shiite factions – State of Law, Muwatin and the Sadrists – command around 161 deputy votes. The numbers suggest that despite internal turmoil among the Sadrists (or because of it?) a majority of these deputies will have been present during the budget reading. Whereas previous occasions involving Kurdish opposition to Maliki have seen widespread ISCI solidarity with the Kurds, no such major Shiite challenge to Maliki appears to have materialized this time around. But beyond this, importantly, there must have been some MPs from the Sunni and secular camps attending as well. The numbers don’t lie: even on a good day, there are no more than aroundd 160 Shiite Islamist MPs, and most of the handful of minority MPs from small non-Muslim groups and ethnic micro-minorities are loyal to the Kurds. Accordingly, in the context of continued criticism of PM Maliki by Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi, it makes sense to assume that at least some of the breakaway elements of Iraqiyya that materialized in 2012 were present to secure the necessary quorum.

Substantially speaking, the conflict involves primarily Kurdish opposition to proposed measures of control regarding oil export from the Kurdish areas. For their part, the Sunni Mutahiddun appear to be boycotting more out of personal opposition to Maliki than a coherent anti-centralism agenda (although the tendency in the latter direction is more pronounced today than it was a couple of years ago). It is interesting that Maliki is using the issue of the budget and the question of Kurdish oil exports to mobilize popular opinion ahead of the elections. This is unprecedented: In 2010, neither the question of Kirkuk nor the budget tension was brought to the fore in a big way. At the same time, when seen within the context of the election campaign more generally, this is Shia chauvinism within a shell of Iraqi nationalism, quite different, for example, from the 22 July movement of 2008 focused on representation issues in the Kirkuk provincial council. Alongside assertiveness on the part of the central government in oil issues comes new governorate proposals clearly speaking to Shia Turkmen minorities, as well as the cabinet’s recent passage of retrograde Shia personal status law that would enable underage marriage – an apparent concession by Maliki to hardliners in the Fadila party ahead of the elections.

Still, this is only the first reading of the budget. Parliament speaker Nujayfi will be able to stage filibuster-like obstacles to delay the second reading and the decisive vote. It is however noteworthy that Nujayfi himself chose to be present and chair the budget first reading on Sunday, quite despite his own bloc’s boycott.

Three further parliament meetings are scheduled for this week. For now, the second budget reading is not on the agenda.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Oil in Iraq, UIA dynamics, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Is Maliki About to Fall?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 31 May 2012 16:59

Two articles discuss the political showdown in Iraq as critics of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claim they have the 163 votes needed to bring him down. One focuses on the question of Iran’s interest in Iraq and the possibility that Iran may have fabricated some aspects of the current political crisis to demonstrate its leverage in Iraq for world powers; another highlights the contrast between a government in Baghdad that for all practical purposes remain operative and the multiplication of gatherings of Maliki enemies in the autonomous region in Kurdistan, where many are more focused on the prospect of eventual Kurdish independence than the fate of the rest of Iraq.

Discussion section open as usual below.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, UIA dynamics | 89 Comments »

Maliki’s Meeting with Shahrudi in Iran

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 24 April 2012 14:04

If you look at the website of Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s premier, it offers ample coverage of his two-day visit to Iran completed this week. One item is however not reported: His meeting with Mahmud Shahrudi, a member of the Iranian guardian council of Iraqi origin.

The meeting, which was covered by the Iranian news agency IRNA, was different from the string of other meetings held by Maliki in Tehran. Meetings with key Iranian leaders like Ahmadinejad, Jalili, Larijani and Khamenei could plausibly be construed as bilateral meetings between the Iraqi premier and key Iranian officials. Shahrudi, however, has a strictly domestic role in the Iranian government focused on internal power-broking. True, Shahrudi is in some ways an Iraqi exile living in Iran, but then again there are thousands of other Iraqis living in Iran with whom Maliki could have plausibly met.

Inevitably, the meeting between Maliki and Shahrudi will fuel speculation about the links between Maliki’s Daawa party and Shahrudi. Historically – and unlike other Iraqi Shiite Islamist parties – the Daawa has been reluctant to impose adherence to a particular Shiite cleric on its members, leaving this as an individual choice. However, since autumn 2011, rumours about a move by the Daawa to adopt Shahrudi as a collective marja have  mushroomed. Indeed, at times this has been linked to a reported attempt by Shahrudi to establish a presence in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf with a view to contesting the successor struggle expected when the current leading cleric, Ali al-Sistani, passes away.

Any such move would be of momentous significance for Iraqi politics. Unlike Sistani and the Najaf scholars, Shahrudi belongs to the school of the Iranian revolution and advocates a leading role for the clergy in government. If Shahrudi should succeed in emerging to prominence in Najaf with the help of the Daawa it would transform the outlook of the city entirely. Indeed, it would change Iraqi politics more broadly: Those arguing  that Maliki is moving towards ever greater coordination with the Iranian clergy would feel vindicated, and rightly so.

For the time being, numerous factors militate against such a scenario. In the first place, historically, the Daawa has been more reluctant than other Shiite parties in Iraq to embrace the Iranian doctrine of clerical government (wilayat al-faqih). After all, this was what prompted its split from SCIRI as an umbrella organization in the 1980s and the relocation of several Daawa leaders from Iran. Even very recently, it is being reported that Maliki’s parliamentary bloc alongside the Kurds and Iraqiyya are resisting attempts by ISCI and Fadila to impose a federal supreme law clause that would provide clerical veto on Iraqi laws on the Iranian model. And of course, historically, Najaf has a record of posing resistance to Qum in Iran as a centre of Shiism.

These tendencies may well prevail in Iraq. But by visiting Shahrudi yesterday Maliki did nothing to kill the rumours about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest centre of Iraqi Shiism.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics, Uncategorized | 38 Comments »

Targeting Mutlak and Hashemi: Towards Full Political Disintegration in Iraq?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 18 December 2011 13:15

Only days after Maliki’s Washington photo-op and with the US withdrawal formally sealed, Iraqi politics is alive again – but for all the wrong reasons. Yesterday saw unprecedented statements by people close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that a move is afoot to withdraw confidence in Deputy Premier Salih al-Mutlak of Iraqiyya (on charges of incompetence) and to bring legal charges against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, also of Iraqiyya, for alleged involvement in the recent terror attack against the Iraqi parliament.

It should be stressed that so far much of this remains rumours and statements. Iraqiyya leaders say no formal request to parliament nor any arrest warrants have been seen so far. However, to some extent, the exact formal status of these proceedings does not really make that much difference. Mentally speaking the cat is out of the bag anyway: Here are two abrupt attacks by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against participants in his own government. Two lines of attack are being followed, one political and the other judicial.

With respect to the Mutlak case, given his latest comments to US media about the nature of Maliki’s regime it is perhaps unsurprising that Maliki should take some action: When Mutlak accused Maliki of being a dictator, Maliki allies quipped back that Mutlak was the deputy dictator! Whether Maliki has the parliamentary support base to do this remains to be seen. In this matter, Maliki can probably count on the Shiites outside the State of Law alliance (Sadrists and ISCI), since many of them are bitterly opposed to Mutlak for his past association with the Baath party (after previously having been targeted judicially, Mutlak was formally exempted from de-Baathification proceedings as part of the December 2010 government-formation compromise). It is also interesting that the move against Mutlak and the Iraqiyya boycott comes at a time when the general amnesty law is making progress in parliament: That was a case of Iraqiyya and the Sadrists uniting against Maliki.

It is more unclear what the Kurds would do and their votes should be needed even if Iraqiyya continues to boycott parliament since sacking a minister in theory requires an “absolute majority”. Given his penchant for exploiting potential legal loopholes, it is however not entirely unlikely that Maliki may try to make use of ambiguity that arguably exists in that the constitution regarding the definition of an absolute majority in this particular case: In most instances, the constitution explicitly refers to an “absolute majority of the members of parliament”, but with regard to the sacking of individual ministers it speaks only about an “absolute majority” (aghlabiyya mutlaqa). This may well have originated as a simple clerical omission, especially since the concept of a “simple majority” (aghlabiyya basita) occurs elsewhere in the constitution. In other words it would be a an exercise – far-fetched perhaps? – of redefining all of this as plurality, simple majority and absolute majority respectively. Under that kind of scenario, of course, the Shiite Islamists might theoretically seek to sack Mutlak singlehandedly.

As regards Hashemi, this very much looks like a judicial attack on a political enemy that Maliki would probably not be able to get rid of in parliament: Last spring, Maliki had more trouble getting his own vice-presidential candidate, Khudayr al-Khuzaie, confirmed than Hashemi had with respect to his own candidature. Today, there is a statement from the higher judicial council to the effect that it will create a special investigatory committee to look into the accusations against Hashemi’s security detail – a judicial approach that in itself seems ad hoc and extraordinary.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect in all of this is that Maliki is targeting people with a record for compromise. Both Mutlak and Hashemi have at times taken chances with their own constituencies for the sake of cooperating within the Iraqi political system. Back in 2009, Mutlak led a rapprochement attempt towards Maliki, whereas Hashemi was vice-president in the previous parliamentary cycle despite opposition from many Sunni Muslims. When Hashemi was labelled “Baathist” by the Sadrist Bahaa al-Aaraaji in autumn 2009, the revulsion against Aaraji in parliament included many Shiite Islamists and Kurds.

Symptomatic of all that is going on are perhaps today’s developments in Diyala. The embattled, pro-federal governorate council is in emergency session in the Kurdish-dominated Khanaqin. They complain about armed Shiite demonstrations in Baquba and the inability of the government security forces to provide adequate security. This is a pattern we have seen before: Secularists and Sunnis withdrawing to the Kurds in times of trouble with Maliki.

So far the Kurds have a track record of hosting Iraqiyya in a friendly manner and then ultimately betraying them in bilateral deals with Maliki.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 20 Comments »

Maliki, the Fayli Kurds, and the Return to an Ethno-Sectarian Political Discourse in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 2 October 2011 19:34

Ever since he came to power in 2006, a key issue for Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki has been the tension between, on the one hand, a majoritarian, all-Iraqi politicial discourse, and, on the other, a discourse that instead emphasises the identity of separate ethnicities and sects.

In a speech to a gathering of Fayli Kurds yesterday, Maliki certainly emphasised ethno-sectarian identity. Firstly, Maliki stressed that the Faylis had suffered more than any other Iraqi community because they are “both Kurds and Shiites”. But not only that. Maliki advised the Faylis to seek “unity” within the component (mukawwin), meaning he demanded political conformity across the imagined “Fayli Kurd community”. He went on to suggest that the census to be carried out in Iraq in the future would make clear how many Fayli Kurds there are in Iraq! This would effectively transform the census to a questionnaire about more than mother tongue (Arabic, Kurdish or Turkish) and main religion (Muslim versus Christian): It is mainly their Shiite sectarian identity that sets the Faylis apart from other Kurds.

Seen in isolation, one could wonder whether Maliki perhaps was simply following a strategy of reinforcing sub-divisions among the Kurds, as seen before in Iraqi history and perhaps most prominently in the case of the Shabak around Mosul. But Maliki’s tendency to focus more on the components than the whole has been a consistent trend since the disappointing result for his State of Law coalition in the 7 March 2010 parliamentary elections. Back then, Maliki expressed disappointment that his hope of building a political-majority government had been crushed, and that the alternative of an ethno-sectarian power-sharing formula would likely lead to ineffective government. However, Maliki soon seemed to adapt to the new realities. Already in August 2010, people in his alliance (and the US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill) expressed the view that the prime minister “had to be a Shiite”. This year, Maliki and his State of Law allies have increasingly expressed the view that certain posts should be given to sects, as seen especially in the call for the defence ministry to go to a Sunni. These are all important steps towards the permanent Lebanonisation of Iraq.

There are of course examples of brave resistance and cases where Iraqi national sentiment clearly does survive. When Turkmens in Kirkuk recently demanded an ethnic Turkmen militia to protect them, Sunni Arabs from the same area instead called for central government intervention, notwithstanding the fact that the Iraqi army is now Shiite-dominated. Similarly, those Sunni Arabs were among the first to reject the idea of a Sunni federal region when it hit the political agenda this summer.

Away from political elites, many ordinary Faylis continue to express unhappiness about being labelled as anything other than Iraqis. However, it seems Prime Minister Maliki is now giving them pretty little choice.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 13 Comments »

Washington Heads Buried in Middle Eastern Sand

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 28 September 2011 19:57

Here is what Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, had to say about Iranian influence in Iraq during the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:

“I think Prime Minister Maliki – I think he understands that he – his country cannot allow Iran to be able to conduct that kind of influence within his country, provide those kinds of weapons and basically undermine his government.

That’s what’s happening and I think he gets that message. But we’re going to have to continue to make sure that – that they take the right steps and I think Iran needs to understand that we’re going to be around awhile here, making very clear to them that we’re not – we’re not simply going to ignore what Iran is doing in – in Iraq.”

Once more, it seems, the United States government is pre-occupied with so-called “special groups” as the prime instrument of malign Iranian influence in Iraq. Kataib Hizbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and the Promised Day Brigades are reckoned as the most dangerous pro-Iranian challenges to political stability in Iraq and have even been elevated to the status of an acronym (SG) in American military terminology – probably the safest possible indication that you are taken seriously in DC. Of course, some US analysts also include the mainline Sadrist movement on their lists of potential Iraqi troublemakers.

The problem with this approach to the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq is its myopic, one-sided character. It ignores at least two other key aspects of Iranian strategy: Maintaining a sectarian definition of politics and keeping de-Baathification as a key issue on the political agenda in Iraq. We can probably add a third aspect: A touch of “divide and rule” once a sectarian Shiite governing coalition had been safely put in place again in December 2010. This could include encouraging general state fragmentation, be it through federalism or consociational “power-sharing” with merely symbolic value.

The problem in Iraq is not so much that these aspects of Iranian grand strategy go undetected by Washington. The problem in Iraq is that Washington actively abets Iranian strategy in these areas. In 2010, during the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Ambassador Christopher Hill basically extended support to the process of ad hoc, illegal pre-election de-Baathification. Once the elections had been done with, Hill went on to endorse the sectarian idea that the next Iraqi premier “had to be a Shiite”.  With this kind US support for most of its strategy in Iraq, Iran can afford to use the “special groups” as an auxiliary to its general approach, adjusting its force in a secondary cat and mouse game with what remains of US military forces there.

Alas, in the Middle Eastern region more broadly, there are worrying signs that the Americans are unable to comprehend what went so seriously wrong in Iraq. In a recent (20 September) New York Times article on Syria, an unnamed US official declared that “nobody wants another Iraq”. But the whole article suggested that precisely those same epistemological mistakes that derailed US policy in Iraq are still thriving in Washington. Here were quotes from Vali Nasr, talking as before about “Sunnis” and “Shiites” as if these constituted coherent monolithic  communities. And the article author, Helene Cooper, remarked, “the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among the Allawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects in Syria” before adding that the US ambassador remains in the country “so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of Syria’s myriad sects and religious groups.”

In Iraq it was “mosaic”; maybe in Syria it will be “myriad”. It is a good thing that the US cannot seem to have the courage to intervene in Syria. Maybe it would be even better if Washington and the US mainstream media at large would simply shut up before they talk Syria to pieces exactly like they did with Iraq?

This is a companion article to a more analytical piece published in the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, titled “Religious Allegiances among Pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq”. The comments section is open for both articles below.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 23 Comments »

Another Parliamentary Defeat for Maliki

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 24 September 2011 20:19

Today’s vote in parliament on a law for Iraq’s anti-corruption commission was in some ways another defeat for Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. On a key article of the law, namely the mechanism for appointing the leader of the integrity commission, Maliki and his political allies had sought a different formula than that eventully agreed to by parliament: Whereas Maliki had asked for prime ministerial appointment powers, parliament reserved that prerogative for itself in article 4 of the new law. As usual in Iraq, no details on the votes of individual deputies were published but it has been made clear in press reports that the supporters of the anti-Maliki measure were generally Iraqiyya, the Kurds and possibly some individual members of ISCI.

Still, despite these developments in parliament today, two important caveats pertain to the image of Maliki coming under pressure. Firstly, today’s decision was in the realm of simple-majority decisions rather than anywhere near the absolute-majority territory in which the most crucial decisions – such as sacking the government itself – are made. With 248 deputies present, no more than 125 votes were required to win the vote, meaning we are still far away from the magical 163 needed to withdraw confidence in Maliki.

Second, today’s vote against Maliki was enabled precisely because it focused on a single anti-Maliki clause that attacked him personally. Conversely, when the issues are broader, this sort of cross-party political consensus that could form the basis for a challenge to the government simply does not exist. This can be seen for example in the debate on the oil and gas law. Seemingly there is a parallel challenge to prime ministerial power in the parliamentary oil and gas committee version of the oil and gas bill, which differs from the government version above all when it comes to the role of the PM in the projected, all-powerful federal oil and gas council. But in other areas of the oil and gas legislation – and especially in areas concerning centre-periphery relations - fissures in the anti-Maliki coalition are evident. Firstly, it seems unclear whether the Kurds are wholeheartedly supporting the committee version of the bill at all, since their latest tirade against the “Maliki draft” included criticism of items concerning central government powers that can in fact be found in the committee version of the bill as well. In other words, maybe the Kurds are not terribly serious about the committee bill at the end of the day and instead are just trying to heap pressure on Maliki in order to get a better deal from him bilaterally in KRG-Baghdad negotiations.

Second, even parties often seen as pro-Kurdish are at variance with Arbil when the specifics of oil and gas and other “big issues” (like disputed territories) come up for debate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which despite its reputation as a pro-Kurdish party has recently found it necessary to issue criticism of alleged oil smuggling from the Kurdish areas as well as what is seen as Kurdish attempts at grandstanding through reducing the oil output from the KRG area. Issues like these have over the past few weeks been highlighted by pro-ISCI deputies such as Qasim al-Aaraji and Falih al-Sari. Indeed, when it comes to the disputed territories, even Iraqiyya – which has recently gone quite far in accommodating Kurdish sentiment with respect to oil, at least at the level of the party leadership – have strongly protested developments in Diyala province, where the recent visit by the Kurdish president Masud Barzani prompted strong protests locally.

The lack of cohesion among Maliki’s opponents in turn explains how he is able to remain in power despite a decidedly flimsy parliamentary support base. The Kurds took at face value his promises on oil and gas and other issues in late 2010, overlooking the fact that these issues belong to the realm of parliamentary decisions and even referendums rather than to that of the premier. Maliki clearly is not strong enough to produce parliamentary decisions on these matters; however, he is quite capable of  hanging on to power thanks to the inability of the opposition to unite to sack him. In the end this may suit Maliki well, since it means he can escape or postpone painful decisions on issues like oil and Kirkuk that would potentially bring him into conflict with the limited power base that he still retains in parliament.

Posted in Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Oil in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 31 Comments »

Shahristani and Maliki in Federalism Crossfire

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 September 2011 17:03

A recent statement by the governorate council of Wasit had an extraordinary tone: The council “rejected” the appointment of Vice Premier Hussein al-Shahristani as acting electricity minister (after Raad al-Ani “resigned” subsequent to being forced out), alleging that Shahristani had created problems for Wasit in the past through his opposition to several electricity schemes and his management of the disputed Ahdab oilfield, where a Chinese company is involved. The conflict between the local council and the oil ministry (previously headed by Shahristani) has been festering since 2009 and includes serious accusations by local politicians for example to the effect that Chinese prisoners are doing underpaid work at the oilfield.

The statement would seem like an unprecedented attempt by a provincial council to interfere in the workings of the central government. But it is very real, and reflects intense intra-Shiite disagreement ranging from the very personal to key political issues like the question of the basic structure of the Iraqi state. At the time the Wasit federalism project first emerged around June 2010, it was reportedly supported by ISCI and resisted by Sadrists and State of Law, with the rest of the council (the Shahristani bloc, the Iraqi constitutional party, Iraqiyya and independents) uncommitted.  Unfortunately, the few existing recent press reports on the subject are somewhat ambiguous in that they identify a key pro-federal leader as “Mahdi Husayn al-Musawi, deputy speaker of the Wasit governorate assembly”. This seems to be a mix-up of names since the governor is Mahdi Hussein al-Zubaydi (State of Law) whereas the deputy speaker is Mahdi Ali Jabbar al-Musawi (same bloc but previously the Tanzim al-Iraq faction and with a track record of conflict with Shahristani over Ahdab in the past). In any case, these developments clearly suggest that disagreement over federalism is creating challenges for Maliki as well as for Shahristani in Wasit. It is noteworthy that also in Wasit, ISCI is apparently playing a lead role in forcing the rest of the Shiites towards a remorseless approach in the de-Baathification question, in April this year even challenging a decision by the de-Baathification commission to reinstate former Baathists in the education sector.

Similar pro-federal noises have been coming intermittently from Maysan, Karbala, Najaf and Babel, but nowhere is the pro-federal tendency more evident and persistent than in Basra. In particular, Jawad al-Buzuni from Maliki’s own State of Law bloc has been going far in calling for the government to go ahead with a referendum on the question of creating a federal region as demanded by members of the provincial council, claiming it is the only way of solving the current political impasse and indeed of saving the current government. The new federalists of Basra and Wasit fraternise on Facebook with like-minded people as far north as in Nineveh; some of these new federalists even see uni-governorate federalism as an antidote to the dominance of the religious parties.

It is noteworthy, however, that despite all these challenges – on top of the fact that the Iraqi government is breaking Iraqi law by not making the legally mandated moves to hold referendums that have been called  for – even the most pointed attacks at Maliki still seem unable to gather the numerical momentum required to make them real. Symptomatically, perhaps, today, the independent deputy Sabah al-Saadi declared that he has been gathering signatures for a law proposal involving restricting the premier’s terms to two parliamentary cycles, along with special rules for a caretaker ministry in the event of withdrawal of confidence in the cabinet. The targeting of Maliki could not have been clearer, and yet the petition only managed to marshal the signatures of 115 deputies, far below the magical 163 threshold required for doing anything significant with regard to the status of the current government.

In Wasit itself, after an initial open rupture between Maliki and Shahristani over the governorship in February and March and the creation of a challenging bloc consisting of ISCI, the Sadrists, Iraqiyya and the Iraqi constitutional party in April, there have been reports since early August of a reconstituted bloc of 19 more centralist Shiites aggressively opposed to the ISCI-led speaker of the council, reportedly consisting of State of Law, the Shahristani bloc of independents and White Iraqiyya, the (often Shiite) breakaway faction of Iraqiyya. There is a certain geopolitical symbolism to the fact that it is an oilfield operated by a Chinese company that seems to serve as glue for this regrouped alliance of Shiite centralists!

For its part, State of Law has indicated a willingness to pursue a project that would obligate the Iraqi presidency to sign execution orders within 15 days, which would constitute an unusually blunt attack on the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, usually a Maliki ally but also a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Which in turn just seems to emphasise the status quo as the most likely scenario going forward, not least since the Kurds have now made clear that the recently-reported agreement in the Iraqi government on an oil and gas law in fact did not enjoy their support, thereby underlining the persistence of a problem in relations between themselves and Maliki that goes back to 2007.

In other news, the Iraqi parliament is back on the job after the long Eid recess and has adopted an ambitious agenda for Thursday: The second reading of the contentious national council for high policies bill, and a vote, no less, on the equally disputed new parliamentary bylaws . We’ll see.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Oil in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 25 Comments »

The Political-Majority Alternative to the Current Iraqi Government: Conceptual Confusion among Iraqi Politicians

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 3 September 2011 20:09

Several Iraqi politicians have used the last days of the Eid to send public messages about their political visions. Unfortunately, these statements contain few grounds for optimism – whether related to completion of the current Maliki government or the formation of a new government.

One of these voices is that of Ammar al-Hakim, the current leader of ISCI and a returned exile, who spent more than two years from 2005 to 2008 in a futile bid to convince the population of the Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad to join together in a new, all-Shiite federal entity. ISCI subsequently lost much of its influence thanks to poor performances in the January 2009 local elections and the March 2010 parliamentary ones.

Most recently, in his Eid address, Hakim once more proved his limited ability to grasp new currents in Iraqi politics. Hakim reportedly said he would “welcome a political-majority government” if it meant “deepening the representation of the social components in Iraq”!

The whole point of the concept of the political-majority government – as it emerged mainly in the rhetoric of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki following his successful performance in the local elections of January 2009 – is to create an antithesis to the concept of power-sharing based on ethno-sectarian quotas. A political-majority government would ignore any considerations related to “the components of the Iraqi people”, and would instead focus on issue-based political agreement. Such a government would probably include Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Turkmens because Iraq is a mixed society, but this would not be the primary consideration governing its composition. Rather, political views, ability and competence would be the main criteria in the selection of ministers. This in turn might produce patterns of ethno-sectarian participation in the government that diverged somewhat from a proportional model, but such a result would result from historical accident rather than from a systematic attempt at excluding anyone on the basis of ethnicity or sect. For example, throughout the monarchy era there was systematic under-representation of Shiites, but at least in some periods this had to do with the legacy of poor Shiite education during the late Ottoman period. Similarly, Shiites are over-represented on the Iraqi national soccer team, thanks not least to the fact that Shiites did very well in sports during the days of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Of course, Maliki himself has travelled a long way from the principles he professed in 2009. Lately, his attempt at defining the defence ministry as a “Sunni” prerogative that could be held by any Sunni (and preferably one with no links to his rivals in the secular Iraqiyya) has taken him quite far in the direction of contradictions reminiscent of those of Hakim. In 2011 Maliki has been trying to build an alternative rainbow coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, except that the numbers simply do not add up. Basically, Maliki’s strategy seems based on an unrealistic take on what sort of “Sunni” support he can drum up from dissenters in Iraqiyya. Much like Saddam Hussein, Maliki is paying lip service to the concept of Iraqi nationalism and “political majorities”, but in practice he is continuing to recruit from a very narrow ideological and sectarian platform. Thus, when a Maliki ally recently stated that the concept of “balance” (tawazun, a concept used mostly by the Kurds but recently also sometimes by Iraqiyya to demand ethno-sectarian quotas) would “consecrate sectarian divisions and harm the political process”, he was right and wrong at the same time: True, it would be better to ignore quotas if an ideological alternative that could achieve a majority really existed, but the State of Law bloc seems singularly incapable of increasing its number of deputies beyond its Shiite Islamist core to the point where this kind of lofty ideal might be turned into reality.

For their part, Iraqiyya have perhaps been the loudest advocates of withdrawing confidence in the existing government or calling new elections. Lately, Talal al-Zubawi envisioned a coalition of 180 deputies from Iraqiyya, “some of the Kurds”, ISCI and the Sadrists that would withdraw confidence from Maliki. That would be a real “political-majority” alternative. If it existed in the real world, that is. The trouble is that few things other than their hatred of Maliki bring these groups together. In the case of the Sadrists, in particular, one can easily get the impression that their participation in the “political-majority” alternative to Maliki is mainly a smokescreen designed to obtain further concessions from Maliki in the current government – which in turn might further emphasise sectarian antagonisms within it. Zubawi’s allusion to a Kurdish split on what to do with Maliki is nonetheless interesting in itself.

Constitutionally, there are two possible ways to forming a new Iraqi government: Withdrawal of confidence in the current government and the formation of a new one based on the presidential prerogative of identifying the “biggest bloc” in parliament, or new elections altogether. Since Iraqiyya appear somewhat distrustful of President Jalal Talabani – still considered a Maliki ally – their most likely preference would be new elections. But in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi hinted at another problem: Those elections would have to be conducted with an impartial judiciary. That in turn illustrates the dilemma of Iraqiyya in deciding whether to participate in the current government in order to bring about reform from within, or opting for a more radical course such as new elections.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 36 Comments »

A Daawa Militia? The Appearance of Fursan Dawlat al-Qanun

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 28 August 2011 14:25

Throughout the post-2003 period in Iraqi history, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Daawa political party of Nuri al-Maliki has been its lack of any militia component. This set the Daawa apart from other Shiite Islamist movements like ISCI, the Sadrists and even Fadila (which had paramilitary affiliates at least in Basra). Indeed, during the summer of 2009 when other Shiite parties tried to convince Maliki to join them in a wider sectarian alliance, one of the arguments marshalled by Maliki in defence of going it alone was precisely that his party believed “in the state, not in militias”.

Last week, there were some cracks in this image as a previously unknown entity named “The State of Law Knights” (fursan dawlat al-qanun) appeared on the political scene with threatening comments against Kuwait. Unless Kuwait would stop its controversial Mubarak port project, it was said, military and popular action from the Iraqi side of the border would ensue. Despite seemingly frantic attempts by State of Law leaders to dispel the notion of any link between themselves and the new organisation that carries almost the same name, enemies of Maliki seized on the story as evidence that Maliki had finally began formalising a relationship between his own State of Law bloc and a paramilitary organisation.  Some even quoted anonymous Sadrist sources to the effect that the controversial tribal “support councils” that were established by Maliki in rural areas from 2008 onwards are in fact now being converted to a new role as paramilitary fursan.

So who got it right this time, the conspiracy theorists or Maliki’s people? There does in fact seem to be a degree of substance to the story. The secretary-general of the State of Law Knights is one Abd al-Sattar Jabbar al-Abbudi, who claims to have had “an electoral alliance with State of Law in the 2010 parliamentary elections”. This appears to be correct as far as there does indeed appear a candidate called Abd al-Sattar Jabbar Gati Khalifa on the State of Law list for Baghdad in 2010 who is almost certainly the same person (in 2005 he ran as an independent and was then called Abd al-Sattar Jabbar Gati al-Abbudi), although he seems to have run as an individual on the State of Law list in 2010 and not as the head of a separate entity within the State of Law coalition. As candidate number 114 he was hardly the top pick of the leadership, and he must have got less than the 1,300 personal votes that formed the threshold for winning promotion on the basis of personal votes on the State of Law list in Baghdad.

Accordingly, this latest phenomenon appears to be yet another incarnation of something we have seen previously: Political outfits that are clearly pro-Maliki, but that do not enjoy his formal endorsement. This has been seen previously with websites such as qanon302.net (which often but not always toes the Daawa party line). One interesting question is of course why Maliki –  who is being described by his detractors as increasingly autocratic – are unable to control these supposedly fringe elements within his very own coalition circles. Could the whole move be deliberate? The term “knights” has been used by Maliki to amplify his rhetoric in the past  such as during the “Charge of the Knights” operation in Basra in 2008.

As for the Mubarak port issue itself, a good deal of it looks like storm in a teacup designed to redirect attention from the general incompetence of the Iraqi government in making progress on its own harbour projects around Basra. Shiite politicians may find it potentially useful since it distracts from criticism concerning Iranian trespassing on the Iraqi border in the Kurdish areas, but if it is allowed to take precedence at the expense of more pressing domestic issues, Iraq rather than Kuwait is likely to be the main casualty of this whole affair.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 26 Comments »

 
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