Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for July, 2010

Pre-Ramadan Distractions in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 30 July 2010 14:35

This week has been about the Shaabaniyya pilgrimage to Karbala; next week is the last full working week in Iraq before Ramadan starts around 11 August. Alas, signs are that Iraqi politicians have already resigned and do not expect any political movement before the month-long holiday period in which business slows down considerably and at least some appear to be planning an exodus from the summer heat of the Iraqi capital.

More worryingly, the limited activity that can be discerned at the level of coalition-discussion seems to be getting less and less focused by the day. Regretfully, even some of the parties that did best in the 7 March elections are now getting engrossed in nonsensical detours that will only increase the delays in forming the government and could potentially lead to an outcome very far from the wishes of their electorates. Take the secular Iraqiyya, for example, and its recent attempt at declaring the current government a caretaker government. On 27 July, Hani Ashur told media in all seriousness that the “dissolution of parliament” creates a situation in which the government becomes a “caretaker government”:

وأوضح عاشور :” ان الدستور ينص على ان حل مجلس النواب يحيل الحكومة الى حكومة تصريف اعمال

The only problem, of course, is that this paragraph of the constitution is the second part of an article (64) that deals with the special case of parliament dissolving itself by a special majority in case it wants to terminate the parliamentary session prematurely, i.e. before four years have lapsed. But the paragraph quoted by Ashur obviously does not relate to a regular, automatic dissolution of parliament after four years – which is what we are dealing with today – and as such just underscores the futility of the whole idea of bothering about the status of the existing government instead of taking bold steps towards the formation of a new one.

This episode just highlights a series of unfortunate turns within Iraqiyya towards focusing more and more on far-fetched arguments in the coalition-forming process. Not infrequently, these are part of a rather heated anti-Maliki discourse, where the latest idea is that any second premiership by Maliki would somehow be problematic because it would jeopardise “the peaceful rotation of power”.  Again, Iraqiyya is at odds with the Iraqi constitution: There is no limitation on the number of times a premier can serve. Focusing on problems of authoritarianism is of course legitimate, but at least with Maliki there are common views between him and Iraqiyya on a range of basic issues relating to the centralised structure of the state and the centrality of a state-led oil sector, which after all makes up most of Iraq’s economy. Conversely, Iraqiyya’s current conversation partners among the Kurds and ISCI have an opposite, pro-federal position on these key issues, and – lest we get too deeply immersed in the “anti-authoritarian” argument against Maliki – feature a considerable number of autocrats in their ranks.

The latest idea to create distractions in Iraq is the notion that a meeting of the UN Security Council next week will somehow engage in a robust manner with the process of government formation in Iraq. It probably won’t. The Security Council is not more than the sum of its members, and the Obama administration clearly isn’t interested in a pro-active role in the government formation process beyond the repeated expression of a preference for a large coalition of the four winning blocs. Few Americans other than Ken Pollack have suggested more active machinations of the kind associated with the Bush era, and the likelihood that Obama/Biden will pick up these ideas seems limited: “Bush reintroduced democracy in Iraq; Obama cancelled the elections and imposed a salvation government”?? Probably not. Nonetheless, Iraqiyya – which unfortunately has a past habit of often expecting the UN to rise as a sphinx and intervene in Iraq quite irrespective of the explicit disengagement strategies of its constituent elements – seems to be paying attention to proposals that will probably never become US policy and are using them to lull themselves into a state of inaction in the government-formation process.

Finally, by all means, Iraqiyya is not the only bloc that seems to have immersed itself in futile schemes and strange readings of the constitution. Lately, there has been a mushrooming of claims to “entitlements” (istihqaqat) in the next government on the alleged basis of the elections result. Again, this notion – which above all has been articulated by the Kurdish alliance, but has also been found more recently among others – is pure nonsense. In fact, there is only one kind of electoral entitlement in the Iraqi constitution, and it relates to bigness. The biggest bloc which is able to unite and agree on a single, named and identifiable premier candidate has the right to form the government, period. Every other idea of entitlement – whether ethnic, sectarian or demanding the inclusion of a particular number of blocs or even all winning lists – is rubbish without any constitutional basis. Their proponents are either racists, sectarian bigots, ignoramuses, or all of the above – and need a crash course on the Iraqi constitution.

If these trends of unfounded bickering between Iraqiyya and State of Law continue, the result will be the dominance of regional and particularly Iranian forces who stand ready to accept any outcome that produces a weak and oversized government. The fear is that this whole process will take so long that Iraqiyya and SLA forget where it started, and they end up taking a couple of ministries in a 50-strong cabinet headed by a weak compromise figure from the Iraqi National Alliance.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 14 Comments »

Lost in the Blind Alleys of Arbil?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 26 July 2010 15:15

As expected, the much-anticipated “summit” of Iraqi leaders in Arbil over the weekend turned out with poorer attendance than some had hoped for, and also failed to produce any immediate clarification of the government-formation question. What it did do, however, was to consolidate a questionable and potentially distracting trend among the opponents of Nuri al-Maliki towards focusing more on weakening Maliki than on building a new viable government for Iraq.

The contradiction in the approach followed by the secular Iraqiyya and their somewhat strange bedfellows in the Shiite Islamist Iraqi National Alliance (INA) was highlighted in a public statement by Iraqiyya leader Abd al-Karim al-Samarraie subsequent to a meeting with the Kurds, where he dwelled on the supposed unconstitutionality of the current situation of a government not checked by an elected assembly. Samarraie exemplifies the general trend towards a proposal to formally vote out the Maliki government as the best course for immediate action:

وقال القيادي في القائمة عبد الكريم السامرائي خلال مؤتمر صحافي عقده بمبنى مجلس النواب وحضرته السومرية نيوز”، إن “الحكومة الحالية لا زالت تمارس صلاحيات كاملة من خلال إصدار التعليمات والأوامر والنقل والإحالة على التقاعد وغيرها وهذا يعتبر مخالفة دستورية”، مؤكدا أن “الحكومة بعد السادس عشر من آذار كان يجب أن تكون حكومة تصريف أعمال، وهناك نداءات داخلية وخارجية تطالب بهذا الشئ”.

The argument by Samarraie is not totally convincing, even if it does touch on some contradictions in the Iraqi constitutional framework and the practical situation that evolved after the 7 March elections. Basically, the Iraqi constitution does not explicitly change the status of the government pending the formation of a new one, it just stipulates a timeline for getting a new government installed. And so the only valid point made by Samarraie (later in the interview) relates to the fact that Maliki refrained from taking the constitutional oath for parliamentarians when parliament first convened last month in order not to be a MP and prime minister at the same time. However, if pressed really hard on this, Maliki could in theory opt to give up his status as member of parliament and still continue constitutionally as prime minister until a new one has been successfully installed. Also, one wonders, does not the same problem apply to several of the INA and even some Iraqiyya members that are currently still in government technically speaking? Whereas Adel Abd al-Mahdi is known to have been critical of the quick-fix solution adopted at the first meeting, he and several INA and Iraqiyya members (Rafi al-Eisawi, Tareq al-Hashemi and Bayan Jabr, to mention a few) would all be subject to the same kind of criticism as that presented by Samarraie since they reportedly refrained from taking the oath.

More importantly, of course, is that while the characterisation of Maliki’s status in this particular case as “unconstitutional” seems dubious, the behaviour of the Iraqi parliament at large clearly fits this description! It is they who have the responsibility for replacing the existing government by adhering to the timeline for installing a new one and this they are not doing. Instead, it seems there will be another attempt to redefine the existing government as a “caretaker government” with fewer powers or even to formally withdraw confidence from it. Whereas the former solution is not even demarcated in the constitution, the second is and would involve “a maximum 30 days” of caretaker government status “until a new government is formed”. That formation process, in turn, would be according to the same procedures that have so far failed to produce a prime minister, and the net result would thus be a return to square one.

No doubt, some are hoping that the resignation of government might clear the air, but is it not likely to prove a distraction and create added bitterness instead? If the parties that criticise Maliki make constitutional steps towards creating a new government – with or without Maliki and his list – then nothing can prevent them from doing so. But what happens if they instead opt for a vote of no confidence, the 30 days pass by and there is no new government? Isn’t there a prospect for further complications with attempts to involve an increasingly politicised judiciary that could ultimately postpone the government-formation process even further? Another problem is of course that the constitution does not provide any clear definition of the distinction between a caretaker government and an ordinary one; indeed the caretaker government is supposed to continue its “everyday business”.

What this all boils down to is the continued unwillingness of the would-be partner of Iraqiyya, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), to endorse Ayad Allawi as premier candidate. As long as that does not happen, Iraqiyya is pursuing a dangerous game by continuing to play according to INA’s rules. INA has already once suggested an unconstitutional “roundtable” for solving the premiership issue, which in practice means circumventing the majoritarian imperative of the Iraqi constitution that gives the premiership to the biggest parliamentary bloc. (INA as a bloc came third in the elections and cannot hope to obtain the premiership constitutionally so they want to impose a “compromise” candidate from their own ranks). It is particularly painful to see Iraqiyya call for UNAMI to induce adherence to the Iraqi constitution on this since UNAMI has been one of the most enthusiastic defenders of ISCI’s unconstitutional proposals!

The latest idea by INA is to elect some kind of “neutral” speaker of parliament to get the process going (in some versions it is presented merely as a “temporary” solution), with seemingly innocuous proposals about a “Christian” or other minority representative filling this post, or maybe someone from a small party like Tawafuq (such as the current speaker, Ayad al-Samarraie). Hopefully, Iraqiyya is aware of what some of the Shiite Islamist parties have already pointed out publicly: That once that is done, the threshold for electing the president is much lower since it only requires a simple plurality and not an absolute majority (the two-thirds absolute-majority requirement mentioned in the constitution being purely aspirational; the real modalities are outlined in the subsequent paragraph relating to the run-off vote). This in turn means that it is possible to elect the president – whose job it is to nominate  the premier candidate – with less than 163 votes, and the whole spectre of the Shiite alliance (theoretically 159 deputies) automatically comes on the agenda again since at least some State of Law representatives have signalled their preparedness to defect from Maliki to join INA in a sectarian alliance. Does it not matter to Iraqiyya that INA keeps talking about figures like Bayan Jabr al-Solagh and Ahmed Chalabi as the next premier?

Then the next step is an alliance with the Kurds, who some weeks ago announced that local elections would be postponed to 2011 (in the rest of Iraq they went ahead in January 2009) and alongside their usual demands regarding Kirkuk and oil recently reiterated the idea of a “Kurdish president” for Iraq as a constitutional demand (the constitution says nothing of the kind ). All of this because Iraqiyya finds negotiations with Maliki so difficult! The big question, of course, is whether the Iraqiyya-INA-Kurdish scheme is truly viable beyond being capable of unseating Maliki, and whether Iraqiyya is being distracted from the big picture by its obsession with labelling the Maliki government as a “caretaker” cabinet, which began last autumn.

A parliamentary session on Tuesday is supposed to bring greater clarity.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 20 Comments »

The Anatomy of the Government-Formation Talks So Far

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 23 July 2010 13:49

A certain degree of momentum has been building throughout the week in Iraq with an unprecedented degree of “optimistic” statements by several key leaders and with an anticipated meeting this weekend in Arbil of political leaders including Muqtada al-Sadr making the headlines; however as of yet there are zero objective signs of an imminent breakthrough as far as the information available in the public domain is concerned.

One interesting aspect of the negotiations so far has been the relative prominence of the triangle of State of Law (SLA), Iraqiyya (INM) and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), with the fourth big winner, the Kurdish Alliance (KA) so far taking more of a backseat position. Some of this obviously stems from the fact that the prime minister is likely to come from one of the three biggest lists. Another interesting feature, though, is the apparent focus on writing political programmes prior to deciding on the prime minister. Thus, all three main blocs are ostensibly engaged in various sort of committees working on government-programme issues, though it is slightly unclear for example whether the recently-proposed Sadrist-Iraqiyya one is in fact a bilateral affair between the two or part of a more wide-ranging INA-INM effort.

In itself, a focus on issues is of course promising, in theory at least. Since these programmes are likely to eschew the issues of real importance, it is not altogether inconceivable that within some weeks they could be able to paper over many of the real differences with vague language, primarily related to the difference between federalists (ISCI within INA) and centralisers (the rest). There could be some problems regarding the limitation of the powers of the prime minister (SLA versus the rest); this however could get mitigated by the fact that both the others hope to obtain the next premiership in which case such limitations would clearly lose some of their relevance to them. However, it still remains unlikely that the three could agree on a common premier candidate in the end, which raises the question of whether this is all a waste of time.

Another problem is that the anticipated Kurdish drama – which is going to be the real knot – has been postponed due to the trilateral quarrel about who should be PM. So far, rather than serving as the kingmaker many had predicted, the Kurds have been content to wait for a PM candidate to emerge and have also been comparatively subdued with respect to their own desiderata (it is however noteworthy that both INM and INA appear to think that enlisting Kurdish support is the way to marginalise Maliki). In the unlikely event that the three others can agree on a common candidate, this is where the real problem will begin: The Kurds will present demands relating to autonomy in the oil sector and control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories that will be quite impossible for the other parties to accede to – even the Shiite Islamist parties, at the height of their domination in 2007, were unable to give the Kurds what they wanted on this. In a repeat of the debate on the election law in 2009, we can perhaps expect the dramatic arrival in Baghdad of the speaker of the Kurdish parliament Kamal Kerkuki; when that does not work even Masud Barzani at one point may choose to descend from Arbil to announce that any other solution than a Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk is unacceptable. There will be great consternation and more delays.

Absent any miraculous pact between Iraqiyya and State of Law (which would have the potential to circumvent many of these problems and create a government within a reasonable time frame), everything therefore suggests that a solution could still be a long way off. Some found the earlier prediction on this blog in March that the process could last almost into Ramadan (starting in early August) or even until the US troop drawdown (31 August) to be overly pessimistic. We are now moving towards a phase where the next psychological deadlines are likely to be the November midterm elections on the American side, and, as far as the Iraqis themselves are concerned, past records of government formation: 6 months for Iraq in 2006 (which would mean around September 2010), and around 7 months as the world record (at least the European one: the case of the 208 days in Netherlands in 1977; even optimists would probably stop talking about the beauty of consociational democracy if that point is reached in October 2010).

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election | 44 Comments »

The Damascus Summit: Crunch Time for the Dialogue between Iraqiyya and INA

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 19 July 2010 20:01

Today’s meeting with Muqtada al-Sadr in Damascus means that for the second time within a week, Ayyad Allawi, the leader of the secular Iraqiyya party, has had talks with leaders of the Shiite Islamist Iraqi National Alliance (INA) that are described as “fruitful”.

Unfortunately, the initial reports from the meeting have been short on details about areas of agreement and with vague talk about “programme committees” dominating, but for Allawi the real answer should be utterly simple since there is only one outcome that can satisfy Iraqiyya in its dialogue with INA: That they declare the Shiite super-alliance between INA and State of Law (SLA) null and void, and accept the claim by Iraqiyya that they should form the government as the biggest bloc in parliament. Any other outcome, including a premiership by Adel Abd al-Mahdi or some other, less known INA candidate (as reportedly favoured by Syria and Iran) would be worthless: If next Sunday (when another meeting of political leaders has been scheduled) INA is not prepared to sign up for the practical scheme reportedly proposed by Iraqiyya for implementing their preferred vision – giving a second term as president for Jalal Talabani of the Kurdistan Alliance and the speakership of parliament to Humam Hammudi of ISCI within INA – Iraqiyya would be better off by returning to its negotiations with Nuri al-Maliki and his SLA. INA has been dithering in its attitude to the pan-Shiite alliance for weeks now, and if they cannot declare it dead then Iraqiyya is only deluding itself by continued talks.

Meanwhile, there are unfortunately signs that even as Washington is giving up its leverage in Iraq by the day, what little remains is being employed for entirely useless purposes. During a recent press conference, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi made it clear that during his visit to Baghdad Joe Biden reportedly voiced concern about a government scenario in which none of the three leading positions (president, prime minister or speaker of parliament) would be given to a “Sunni personality”! In a healthy sign, Hashemi told him not to worry, reflecting the fact that with the exception of the Kurds, most Iraqis are generally unhappy about the idea of enshrining ethno-sectarian identities in the administrative structure of the state. Nonetheless, this is in fact the scenario that currently seems to be on the cards, and it is deeply worrying that Washington appears to spend energy at the highest level of government worrying about the least troublesome aspect of it all. It is of course not the least surprising after the string of failed US attempts at understanding sectarianism in Iraq: The search for a “Sunni region”, the Sunnis as the sahwat, achieving Sunni satisfaction through gas finds in Anbar, the importance of getting Tawafuq back in government, the Sunnis as Ayad al-Samarraie… The list goes on and on. But this situation is particularly disconcerting at a time when politicians from both Iraqiyya and SLA like Izzat Shabandar and Haydar al-Jawrani explicitly protest against the Biden paradigm when they advocate an anti-sectarian approach, Shabandar even making it clear that it is the perpetuation of Biden’s way of thinking in the shape of a “Shiite” alliance between his own SLA and INA that would cement Iranian dominance in Iraq.

There are many things to worry about concerning the proposed INA-Iraqiyya alliance, perhaps not least related to procedure: Is it really wise of Iraqiyya to surrender control of so much of the process (i.e. both the presidency and speaker of parliament) in a context when people may suddenly change their minds and the Shiite alliance could re-emerge? But few others than Biden need worry about the absence of a Sunni figurehead from the proposed line-up of state leaders; instead the key question should be whether INA is truly prepared to move in the direction Iraqiyya wants within the coming week.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 58 Comments »

No Realism in Government-Formation Talks

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 16 July 2010 12:25

Everyone is talking to everyone in Iraq, it seems, but the kind of talk they are engaged in comes across as pretty futile.

Earlier this week, Ayyad Allawi emerged brimful with optimism after meetings with Ammar al-Hakim, apparently hoping that the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) alongside the Kurds would be prepared to endorse him as prime ministerial candidate. The only problem with that prospect is that INA leaders later in the week kept talking of what seems to be their real preferred scenario: Using the theoretical construction of a Shiite alliance including State of Law (SLA) to give them the right to form the government while at the same time marginalising the SLA premier candidate, Nuri al-Maliki to instead impose a compromise candidate through an informal (and unconstitutional) “off-the-record” meeting of parliament. Such was the plan detailed by Abd al-Hadi al-Hakim in an interview last week; the names of the possible compromise candidates included such celebrities as Bayan Jabr (minister of interior and various death squads in 2005) and Ahmad al-Chalabi, plus less known independents like Qasim Dawud and Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum (who was oil minister for a short period in the Jaafari government in 2005). In other words, there is every indication that INA are dreaming of a weak prime minister from a small political entity, and are not thinking of an Allawi premiership.

As for the slightly more hopeful attempts at dialogue between Maliki and Allawi, there really isn’t much good news to report, with both sides presenting distinctly unrealistic bargaining positions lacking in generosity towards the other side. For their part, SLA has reportedly offered Iraqiyya the speakership and the “presidency of the senate” (a reference to the still non-existent second chamber of the Iraqi parliament which is unlikely to come into existence until after the next parliamentary elections), or, according to some reports, leadership of the national security council. These offers – the first of which was publicly confirmed by SLA politician Haydar al-Jawrani – are pathetic non-starters as far as they relate to positions that have no existence in the real world (the senate) or the constitution (the national security council). Iraqiyya, in turn, has been equally unconstructive, with a very public rejection of a second Maliki premiership as well as a suggestion, reported in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, that INA and SLA divide the presidencies of the republic and the parliament between them in return for supporting Allawi as premier. The suggestion will no doubt raise eyebrows to the extent that it excludes the Kurds even though it is framed as a “national unity” project (rather than a “political majority” one), and it will likely fail to satisfy the aspirations of INA and SLA. It should also be added that even if the others were to go along, it would be distinctly foolhardy of Iraqiyya to surrender so much control of the process: First they gave up the premiership of the first session when the oldest deputy Hasan al-Allawi of Iraqiyya excused himself for health reasons and handed over to Fuad Masum of the Kurdistan Alliance; if this second scheme is brought to fruition they would elect both a speaker and a president from outside their list who might well create surprises along the way, including, potentially, a reversion to the idea of the Shiite bloc as the biggest in parliament.

In sum, although there appear to be some genuine enthusiasts for an SLA-Iraqiyya alliance on both sides, the leaders themselves seem to think of other scenarios and are mainly using the SLA/INM talks to gain leverage in their respective “plan A” machinations. Those plans, in turn, seem likely to remain frustrated since INA is not prepared to let neither Maliki nor Allawi become premier, ultimately meaning that a government of the “four big ones ” in fact remains quite unrealistic despite foreign players including both Iran and the United States clearly preferring this scenario. In brief, while the end goal is clear, the procedural obstacles seem unsurmountable. Probably the only thing that could help solve the stalemate within a reasonable time frame would be for Iraqiyya to stop thinking about “priority” (ahaqiyya) and premiership and instead focusing on the totality and what they would gain by leaving all the others aside and making a simple “political majority” deal with SLA. If they formed a bloc with SLA and gave the premiership to Maliki they could likely get the presidency of the republic, the speakership of the parliament and the key ministries of oil, finance and foreign affairs. And much more in terms of smaller ministries. This is far more in terms of overall policy influence (and reducing Iranian and other foreign interference) than they could ever dream of in a big coalition government headed by a Shiite Islamist from INA.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, UIA dynamics | 27 Comments »

Another Artificial Deadline for the Iraqi Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 12 July 2010 14:23

The decision by Iraqi politial leaders, announced today, to postpone for two weeks the resumption of the first meeting of parliament (which started on 14 June and which technically remains ongoing), is in reality something of a non-story.

This is so for several reasons. Most importantly, tomorrow’s “deadline” for electing a president was in technical terms artificial and even incorrect. That is the case because according to the constitution, the 30 days timeline for electing the president is counted from the end of the first meeting. And since the first meeting has not ended yet, the counting process hasn’t really started; the “deadline” was just hype, even though both the media, politicians and Iraqi judicial experts made their contributions to it.

The real culprit in all of this is of course the device of the “open-ended session”: Parliamentary meetings that can continue for weeks and months even though the parliamentary chamber itself is deserted. The precedent consists primarily of the government-formation process in March and April 2006 (when an “initial” meeting technically lasted for more than 40 days), and, importantly in this context, also the counting rules used later in 2006 when legislation for forming federal regions was adopted. Counting from the beginning of the first meeting of parliament in mid-March, the 6-month constitutional deadline for adopting legislation on region-formation would have been mid-September; however at the time it was agreed that the first “open meeting” of parliament had lasted until the end of what was physically the second meeting on 22 April and hence the deadline for passing federalism legislation was similarly extended to late October (that deadline, in turn, was actually met).

For these reasons, one should perhaps not make too much of the promise by the Iraqi politicians today to meet again in two weeks’ time with an agreed package of candidates for parliamentary speaker, president and prime minister. Meanwhile, as a reminder of where we stand in terms of the coalition­ landscape, today’s meeting of the blocs (yes that is kutal, the plural of kutla, as per the relevant constitutional language for identifying the biggest parliamentary entity) apparently did not produce any unified representation by the would-be Shiite bloc. However, for Iraqiyya, today’s postponement should serve as a clear indication that the Kurds and the Iraqi National Alliance are not prepared to back an Allawi government – otherwise a deal should have been possible by now. On the other hand, Maliki will be under considerable pressure from Iran to step down and allow a unified all-Shiite alliance of INA and SLA – it is noteworthy that some of the more sectarian leaders of the Daawa have been in the forefront of criticising their own party’s dialogue with Allawi, including people who advocated union with INA back in the summer of 2009. INA, in turn, is simply waiting for the marginalisation of Maliki (and not for the emergence of Allawi as a premier candidate, which they could have had today if they truly wanted it). For these reasons, generosity by Iraqiyya towards SLA may be their best bet for securing a pre-eminent role in the next Iraqi government.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 35 Comments »

Shiastan Strategist Criticises Maliki-Allawi Rapprochement; His Boss Meets with Hill

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 11 July 2010 20:14

Predictably, the signs of increasing dialogue between Iraqiyya headed by Ayad Allawi and State of Law (SLA) led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are met with alarm not only by the Kurds, but also by the Iraqi National Alliance, the more sectarian Shiite group of parties that received 70 seats in the new parliament.

The latest contribution to this chorus is from Basim al-Awwadi, a political adviser to Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). In a statement to the press, Awwadi suggests that SLA and Iraqiyya cannot cooperate because their political programmes are incompatible and “180 degrees from each other”.

Clearly, Awwadi is not a supporter of the “180 solution” ! Also, he is not very good at analysing political programmes. The fact is that SLA and Iraqiyya agree on a number of salient issues in Iraqi politics, including the importance of a strong centralised state including a powerful oil ministry, respecting Islam but without giving clerics too much power (unlike Awwadi’s own INA, State of Law does not have adherence to the diktats of the Shiite priests as part of its official programme), boosting Iraqi oil production (even in a situation where Iran may not like this because prices may go down), and not ceding the mixed city of Kirkuk to the Kurds. In fact there is greater agreement on these issues between Iraqiyya and SLA than there is internally within INA (where at least some Sadrists are more centralist and anti-Kurdish than the rest).

But there is also some more interesting background to this. Awwadi, who has become more prominent as a Hakim adviser lately, used to be a strong advocate not only of the idea of a Shiite federal entity stretching from Baghdad to Basra, but indeed for full Shiite independence. In articles written back in 2004 and 2005 and published on websites such as that of the “Committee for the Independence of the Shiites of Iraq” (on which more here), Awwadi claimed that “the Shiites of Iraq are a separate nation, totally distinct from the others”. He advocated emulating the Kurdish strategy of independence, aiming for the liberation from the rest of Iraq of the territory in the triangle between Fao, Samarra and Kirkuk/Diyala. He strongly criticised the Allawi government and suggested the Shiites do more to get on par with Sunnis and Kurds with respect to military capability.

Little wonder, then, that Awwadi is critical to an alliance between SLA and Iraqiyya that could once more push his beloved sectarian identities slightly to the background. Meanwhile, however, his primitive kind of thinking still appears to command some interest in American circles, not least as far as Ambassador Chris Hill is concerned. He made sure to follow in the footsteps of Joe Biden and UNAMI representative Ad Melkert to make his nth meeting with Awwadi’s boss, Ammar al-Hakim, over the weekend. Characteristically, the ISCI communiqué from the meeting said the meeting resulted in “reassurances… that a government would be formed of all the political forces of all the factions of the Iraqi community”. In fact, that sounds very 2004, but some players apparently still want to keep the idea of a “factionalised” Iraqi society on the agenda…

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | 3 Comments »

Kurds Abandoning the Constitution

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 8 July 2010 17:32

A recurrent theme in US commentary on Iraqi affairs is that things are moving in the right direction as far as a greater emphasis on democratic values is concerned.

The latest comment on constitutional matters by Faryad Rawanduzi, a Kurdistan Alliance official, offers some intriguing insights into the current level of respect for the constitution in Iraq. Or, rather, the lack of such respect. In an interview with the Aswat al-Iraq news agency, Rawanduzi yesterday bombastically declared that “the Kurdistan Alliance will not accept that two leading positons [prime minister, president or parliament speaker] are awarded to two persons from the same sect”!

وقال راوندوزي لوكالة (اصوات العراق) إن “التحالف الكردستاني لا يقبل ان يخصص منصبين سياديين الى شخصيتين من مذهب ديني واحد

Needless to say, these criteria are one hundred percent his own innovation (or possibly that of the Kurdish leadership at large). Apparently, some still need to be reminded that the presidency council and the special majority requirements that came with it were a unique transitional feature of the 2005–2010 period and have now expired. Formal sectarianism is not part of the Iraqi political system, and there is nothing that prevents, say,  three Shiites or three Sunnis from taking all the leading positions if there is political support for this in parliament, i.e. absolute majorities for the speaker and the government and a simple plurality for the president. (Incidentally, Rawanduzi seems to forget that most Kurds are Sunni Muslims; in order to square his own path-breaking criteria with another stated Kurdish demand – that of having a Kurdish president – they would probably have to nominate a Kurdish Jew.)

This is of course not the first time the Kurds are seeking to undermine the constitution which they previously seemed to hold in such high regard. Perhaps the best known example is their insistence on implementation of article 140 (on disputed territories) and their complete disregard of article 142 (on constitutional revision, which could ultimately cancel 140). Similarly, late last year, amid discussion of French weapon sales to Iraq, another Kurdish politician, Adel Barwari, claimed the constitution dictated that a share of weapons procured by the Iraqi central government should be given to the Kurdish regional authorities in accordance with the constitution!

قال عادل برواري عضو مجلس النواب العراقي عن قائمة التحالف الكوردستاني في تصريح خاص لوكالة انباء بيامنير وراديو زاكروس: وقّعت وزارة الدفاع العراقية عدة عقود مع وزارة الدفاع الفرنسية، وذلك بهدف شراء بعض الهليوكوبترات والمصفحات الحديثة وآلات لكشف المتفجرات والعديد من المعدات الأخرى من فرنسا. مضيفاً أنه وبحسب الدستور، لإقليم كوردستان حصة من تلك المعدات والأسلحة، لأن إقليم كوردستان جزء من العراق، وقوات أمن الإقليم هي جزء من قوات الدفاع العراقية.

The context of Rawanduzi’s outburst is of course the intensified rapprochement between State of Law headed by Nuri al-Maliki and Iraqiyya led by Ayad Allawi. Perceptive Kurds correctly read this as a sign that their votes are not really needed to form a government this time. If that realisation in turn helps them reframe their own demands in a more moderate fashion, then it is a good thing and could offer good possibilities for their inclusion in government (as Allawi’s recent visit to Arbil may have indicated). If on the other hand it means a collective flight into the fantasy world of Faryad Rawanduzi, then it will lessen their prospect for participation in the next Iraqi government. Not much is expected to happen this week, which is a long holiday weekend in Iraq (though with both Allawi and Maliki currently in Lebanon according to reports). But suspense appears to be building towards next week, when the “first meeting” of parliament will have lasted exactly one month.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues | 27 Comments »

Delahunt, Biden and Obama’s Contradictive Public Diplomacy in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 July 2010 12:30

The contradiction in the Obama administration’s public diplomacy in Iraq is encapsulated in a recent letter to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from Congressman Bill Delahunt and signed by some 30 other members of the US congress, mostly Democrats. In it, they congratulate the Iraqi electorate for having voted en masse for what is described as the two “cross-community” lists in Iraq, Iraqiyya led by Ayad Allawi and State of Law (SLA) headed by Nuri al-Maliki. That is just about right: Both Iraqiyya and SLA started out as non-sectarian projects, and although they both ended up looking more sectarian (leaning Sunni and Shiite respectively) thanks to de-Baathification, there was no doubt that the pressures towards sectarian repolarisation came from the other parties. Those other, sub-identity-oriented parties, in turn, did a lot worse: The Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdistan Alliance could manage only around 115 seats altogether, which is markedly less than the 180 seats shared by Iraqiyya and State of Law.

So, having correctly taken note of this important distinction, the congressmen presumably go on to recommend that the two cross-community lists join each other in a strong alliance? Alas, this is where the logic stops. The letter from Delahunt goes on to talk about a “national unity” government and while in theory this could have meant just Allawi and Maliki, the accompanying press release makes it perfectly clear that the US politicians want Maliki to include all the “winning coalitions”. In other words, they want to add the “retrograde” sectarian lists (their implicit judgment) to the “progressive” cross-sectarian ones (ditto) in government! What a remarkable way of reasoning this is:  “Even though you brave Iraqis clearly prefer a non-sectarian government, we, fat-cat congressmen in Washington feel a little uneasy about that prospect. You see, certain highbrow think tank types over here who just recently did a terrific crash course on Iraq keep telling us that in order to avoid a complete unravelling of the situation we must also include the straw men of Masud Barzani and Ammar al-Hakim in the government. Oh, yes, we know those two are the authors of many of the problems in Iraq over the past five years including the silly idea of a Shiite sectarian region and the purge of most competent bureaucrats from the machinery of the state in the name of de-Baathification but you see these men are very important, and if they feel ever so slightly unhappy things could go seriously wrong. So it does not really matter what the electorate said about cross-community dreams; unfortunately you will just have to put up with another dysfunctional, incompetent and weak government in Iraq for the next five years. We really do hope you may understand our concerns.”

And unfortunately, this is precisely the message Biden has been pushing publicly in Iraq during the weekend. After having held his cards tight to his chest on his first day, some worrisome signs were beginning to emerge after the visit to Ammar al-Hakim early Monday. According to an ISCI statement, Biden had “conveyed the respect of President Barack Obama to Ammar al-Hakim and his praise for ISCI’s role in bringing about rapprochement between the Iraqi parties [!] in order to form a government of real partnership of all Iraqi factions…” Of course, this was an ISCI press release and it could have been suspected of perhaps bending the message a little to fit the party’s own agenda. But shortly afterwards, Biden himself spoke to the media, and there it was: “In my humble opinion, in order for you to achieve your goals you must have all communities’ voices represented in this new government, proportionately… Iraqiyya, State of Law, Iraqi National Alliance, the Kurdistan Alliance, all are going to have to play a meaningful role in this new government for it to work”. In fact, the basic idea of including “all the winning lists” was also conveyed during the meeting with Maliki on Sunday according to his spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

This is the Paul Bremer fallacy repeated. It just seems America will never pass ontological puberty in Iraq: Even as they celebrate non-sectarian tendencies they still want to make sure all the sectarian parties are in there, disregarding that the Kurds have actually already been empowered locally through federalism and the fact that Shiites and Sunnis clearly dislike the idea of enshrining sectarian identity at the level of the state. The element of proportionality, in turn, is of course a veritable cave-in to the Iranian agenda in Iraq – Tehran has openly argued in favour of a “strong Shiite-led government” of the kind Biden’s formula will produce if it succeeds. No one should be surprised though, since Biden previously spoke glowingly about the idea of “bringing in the region” in Iraq, and has been unable to move beyond the paradigm of “Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” ever since he was charged with the Iraq portfolio by Obama.

Even more worryingly, with respect to the practical aspect Biden repeated his own past mistake of not reading the Iraqi constitution properly. For a long time back in 2007 he thought there were constitutional mechanisms in place that could easily produce his preferred vision of a tripartite Iraq of three ethno-sectarian regions. Only gradually did he realise that the federalisation law passed in October 2006 is a lot more complex and if activated can produce countless scenarios, with the tripartite one being one of the least probable. And so this time, he wants four parties in government. But in 2010, does he realise that if the constitution is followed, the chances of getting his four preferred ones into government are actually quite small? And that if it does succeed, it is likely to take a lot more time than most other scenarios? What Biden does not appear to understand is that Iraqiyya will disintegrate in an oversized government where they are not given the premiership and that Maliki is unlikely to go quietly if there are attempts by other Shiites to use his votes while at the same time marginalising him as premier candidate (did Biden even notice that relations between SLA and INA deteriorated to a new low in the middle of his visit?) Absent any rewriting of the constitution, the particular four-way alliance preferred by Biden is actually a rather unlikely outcome, no matter how much some Iraqi politicians may pay lip service to the idea.

Curiously enough, Iraqi newspapers keep publishing rumours about “secret” American support for rapprochement between Allawi and Maliki. If such a thing exists behind the scenes but within the overall context of a four-party unity-government scenario, then it is hardly sensational. If on the other hand these rumours really relate to US backing of a bilateral Iraqiyya-SLA alliance, then it is at variance with everything the Obama administration says publicly about Iraq. That kind of double game would be uncharacteristic of Obama, and for Iraqi politicians who favour that scenario it is time to realise that it is first and foremost they themselves who must turn it into reality.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 36 Comments »

The Death of Fadlallah and ISCI-Daawa Relations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 5 July 2010 17:38

In an interesting move, both the governorate councils of Maysan and Najaf have declared three days of mourning for the late Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Lebanon-based Shiite cleric of Iraqi origins.

Fadlallah was deeply respected among many Iraqis, not least among many Daawa members who looked to him as an alternative to other clerics that were considered more subservient to Iran. However, others were engaged in criticism to undermine his scholarly credentials, and entire websites devoted to repudiating him as a scholar exist. His enemies included not least his pro-Iranian competitor on the Iraqi scene, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. Below is an electronic fatwa from Hakim’s office dating from late 2002 in which it is suggested that Fadlallah has not reached the scholarly stage at which he can be emulated by other Shiites as an example and a point of reference for issuing fatwas.

Of course, Hakim was himself not considered a “source of emulation” until some SCIRI devotees posthumously elevated him to this status. But his attacks on Fadlallah serve as a reminder of the differences between different Iraqi Shiite factions when it comes to their degree of enthusiasm for the Islamic Republic of Iran and its system of government.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 8 Comments »