Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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.

20 Responses to “Lost in the Blind Alleys of Arbil?”

  1. Jason said

    Iraqiya is playing with fire. INA’s endgame is to bypass Maliki first, and then Allawi. If Iraqiya succeeds in helping INA to force Maliki to stand down, thereby breaking apart SLA, most of SLA’s members will defect to INA, potentially leaving Allawi out in the cold. Surely, Allawi must understand this?!

  2. Mohammed said


    It seems that the purpose of these moves are to humiliate Maliki as much as possible so that he will step down.

    However, I really do not see what the point for such maneuvers is from a practical point of view.

    Even with Maliki out of the picture, INA will NEVER endorse Allawi (Allawi is many things, but he is not stupid). What I conclude from all of this is that Iraqiya must be giving up the idea that their group will get the PM position. Thus, it seems that Iraqiya prefers INA (somebody other than Maliki) lead the new government with a weak PM, leading to another term of dysfunction. A weak PM is also in the kurds best interest. Any time a PM shows some back bone (Jaafari and Maliki), the Kurds turn against him.

    Nobody on this forum has yet been able to offer a realistic scenario for Allawi getting the PM slot. Are we are missing something?

    Observer has repeatedly said nobody trusts Maliki, but I guess the saying goes: “there is no honor among thieves.”


  3. Reidar Visser said

    Tawafuq just announced they don’t like the caretaker-government idea. It is interesting how Tawafuq (and possibly at least some of the Kurds) still seem to prefer to remain on talking terms with Maliki as long as possible. It is pretty much the same dynamic as we saw in the struggles about the “electoral behaviour law” and the budget last January. Of course, at one point in April 2009 Samarraie was elected as speaker by the INA parties and Iraqiyya to lead the assault against Maliki.

  4. bb said

    “It is interesting how Tawafuq (and possibly at least some of the Kurds) still seem to prefer to remain on talking terms with Maliki as long as possible. ”

    Heh, heh, that’s why I was asking if the Tawafuq ministers were still drawing their salaries. I can’t imagine the scenario where the Kurds would vote for no confidence without alternative government having been negotiated.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    The newswires say there is agreement…. to postpone indefinitely the scheduled meeting of parliament today. What a big surprise.

  6. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, since, as far as I know, only 2 people (Tariq al-Hashemi and Jalal Talabani) have said they would stand for the post of the President, why can’t they hold Presidential elections right now? Let’s see if one of them can get the required 66%.

  7. Reidar Visser said

    They would need a speaker before they can go ahead and do that, and that’s where there is greater disagreement linked to the idea of bundling the three jobs in a single deal.

  8. J said

    Reidar, I’ve heard conflicting reports about how important the role of the parliamentary speaker will actually be over the next few years. Some people say irrelevant, others suggest the person will act as a crucial gatekeeper for all parliamentary activity. Can you possibly give me a sense of what holds true? Many thanks.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    J, the position of the speaker remains unchanged from the previous cycle, it is only the powers of the president (or his subsitute, the presidency council) that change. Potentially, the speakership is one of the most important positions in the whole Iraqi political system, since it can be used to control the agenda of the national assembly, albeit in some kind of uneasy symbiosis with the two deputies.

    By way of contrast, the presidency loses nearly all power in the next cycle and is reduced to a ceremonial job with few privileges other than a fat salary. The one exception is that it will be the president’s task to identify “the candidate of the biggest bloc” to be premier, both in the initial government-formation process as well as in any future crises resulting from the resignation of the government.

  10. Jason said

    Reidar, are there term limits on PM position in the Iraqi Constitution?

  11. Reidar Visser said

    No there isn’t. Only the presidency is limited to two terms. The idea of “peaceful rotation of power” quoted in the interview is another unfortunate concept introduced by Iraqiyya which seems to suggest that a second premiership by Maliki would somehow be prima facie undemocratic or even unconstitutional, which is not correct.

    We saw something similar today after the collapse of the planned parliamentary session. INA and Iraqiyya rushed to construe statements by SLA representatives as an “admission” that the current government is in fact already in a “caretaker” mode. Of course it isn’t – it would in fact be unconstitutional to try to make it into a caretaker govt without first formally dismissing it, as discussed above – and Ali al-Dabbagh has since said the government will produce a statement to this effect.

  12. Tareq Harb said Maliki’s government at present cannot declare emergency or war or even sign contracts or agreements or fire or hire civil servants according to the current budget. I think Maliki could fire him :))

  13. Reidar Visser said

    Yeah, he is saying it is a caretaker government in a practical sense and therefore that there is no need to declare a change of status – which I think just underlines the futility of wasting energy on a no-confidence motion.

    The interview does not spell it out, but I am pretty sure what he says about state of emergency and war has to do with the fact that as per the constitution, these areas explicitly require the consent of parliament and hence with no functioning parliament they cannot be brought into play. It is just the civil-servant part that has to do with the budget; this was in fact the early stage of the Iraqiyya-INA attempt at subduing Maliki ahead of the elections.

  14. bb said

    So all the present civil servants can’t be fired from their jobs either?

    Hilarious. The constituency for the status quo grows by the day.

  15. Kermanshahi said

    So basicly, first they have to elect a speaker, then they have to elect a President and than they can form a government. Well, in that case I hope they elect a speaker as soon as possible.

  16. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, it’s just about hiring, not firing – the latter was not part of the original report or the budget law as far as I can recall. Also, the budget law really relates to the confirmation of people who already work for the state.

    At any rate, I would caution against getting too submerged in this scenario of “no new government”. It is the same mistake that Iraqiyya is doing by focusing so much on the idea that Maliki will somehow try to stay in power through undemocratic means. There really are no objective reasons to believe this is going to happen, but the idea is getting hyped because the storyline is so deliciously dramatic: Maliki as the new autocrat of Iraq etc.

    Look, unless they manage to at least choose a speaker the Iraqi parliament cannot meet and when 325 deputies continue to draw salaries without working there will be reactions. So at some point this will reach crisis point and a speaker will be elected and then things will snowball in the right direction. It’s just gonna take a lot of time – and this whole idea about a debate concerning the “caretaker” status of the government means it will take even longer.

  17. mostafa said

    Hi Reidar,
    Today I read this article:
    it asys that Iran prefers Maliki to be the PM as the strong man who can confront Allawi.
    Could that be true giving the fact that Iran’s closest allies in the INA refuse him?

    Also, the following paragraph talks about the formation of Iraqyya from the standpoint of a sadrist leader very close to Moqtada Alsader:
    وتقول إن «العراقية كلها ليست سوى نتاج للتقارب السوري السعودي. عندما استؤنفت قنوات الاتصال بينهما، جرى الاتفاق على تجزئة الملفات. قالوا وقتها: حسناً، نحن مختلفون في لبنان، لكن أين نتفق؟ لنتّفق في العراق. كانت هذه النواة التي تقاطعت مع مصالح تركية وإماراتية وأردنية ومصرية. السعوديون والإماراتيون قدّموا الأموال، والسوريون والأردنيون المعلومات الاستخباريّة والأتراك الجهد السياسي».
    مصادر قريبة من دمشق ومن طهران تقول إنّ «السوريين يدركون علاقات علاوي بالسي آي إيه (وكالة الاستخبارات الأميركية) وبالسعوديين وغيرهم كثيرين. جاءهم وقال لهم: استفيدوا من علاقاتي، فاقتنعوا ووجدوا في ذلك مصلحة. الكلام نفسه نقله علاوي لطهران، لكن الإيرانيين لم يقتنعوا بذلك». وتضيف، في تأكيدها على أنّ علاوي «مجرد طربوش لكتلة لا يمتلك قرارها»، أنّ «صالح المطلق (22 مقعداً) وأسامة النجيفي (20 مقعداً) هواهما سوري، وطارق الهاشمي (14 مقعداً) هواه تركي، ورافع العيساوي (8 مقاعد). ماذا يبقى لعلاوي؟».

  18. Reidar Visser said

    Mostafa, thanks, I think we need something more than this to corroborate the idea of Iranian support for Maliki who after all for so long was the number one obstacle for Tehran’s desire to reunify the UIA. Also, Iran seems to have far more leverage in their relations with ISCI/Badr and the Sadrists than with the Daawa. I think there is still no real indication that INA are willing to accept an Allawi premiership, which would be the real litmus test. Absent such explicit support, everything else is just maneouvering & playing for time.

  19. Ali W said

    Hi Rediar, have you read this article, have you heard more of this from other sources? (I doubt it will happen).

  20. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, I am goig through the news now and my immediate reaction is that this report – pretty much on the lines of the Khalilzad proposal of some kind of shared/rotational power between Allawi and Maliki with Kurdish support – is at odds which much of the other stuff that is making the headlines today. Instead there is criticism from Iraqiyya that the would-be Shiite alliance fails to recognise its right to form the government and people from the putative Shiite alliance, for their part, are looking into more premier candidates from their own ranks. But as said, I haven’t finished reading the newspapers yet!

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