In a repeat of the procedure used in April 2006, the Iraqi parliament today met and elected not only its speaker (Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya) but also the president (Jalal Tabalani of the Kurdish alliance). Talabani went on to nominate Nuri al-Maliki as premier candidate of “the biggest bloc in parliament” – the National Alliance, consisting of Maliki’s own State of Law alliance (89 deputies) plus its newfound partners from the disintegrated Iraqi National Alliance including the Sadrists (40 deputies), Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Ahmad Chalabi. It is noteworthy that constitutionally speaking, parliament could have delayed the president election until one month after the speaker had been elected and then the president in theory would have had 15 days to nominate the premier candidate. For some ten minutes of the session, this appeared to be a real possibility as Iraqiyya deputies objected to persevering with the election before parliament had discussed the political deal by bloc leaders that brought about today’s meeting, including the question of the de-Baathification status of some of its leaders. They also correctly pointed out that the original invitation to the session did not have the presidency question on the agenda, only the speakership, and there were outright lies about the constitution from some Shiite Islamist leaders, with both Humam Hammudi and Hassan al-Shammari erroneously claiming the election of the president in the same meeting was stipulated in the constitution. However, instead of using his newfound authority to throw the session into disarray, Nujayfi continued to chair the session for a while even as many of his fellow Iraqiyya deputies stormed out (some reports say in the range of 50 to 60). Eventually Nujayfi himself temporarily withdrew, allowing his newly elected deputies, Qusay al-Suhayl (a Sadrist from Basra) and Arif Tayfur (of the Kurdish alliance and a deputy speaker also in the previous parliament) to go along with orchestrating vote on the president. Nujayfi returned to chair the final part of the session, and embraced Talabani as he entered the stage to make his acceptance speech.
Many will try to claim credit for the apparent “breakthrough” after more than 8 months of stalemate. For example, ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim has suggested that the recent flurry of talks reflected his own desire for a “roundtable”. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masud Barzani, has tried to acquire ownership of the process by referring to it as his own initiative and demanding that the last round of meetings be held partly in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, and partly in Barzani’s private house in Baghdad. The United States will doubtless construe developments as a triumph for its own behind-the-scenes diplomacy!
The really significant developments took place on 1 October, when the Sadrists and State of Law with Iranian support agreed to nominate Nuri al-Maliki as premier candidate, and on 24 October, when the federal supreme court went ahead with a decision to bring an end to the open session of the parliament. Whereas that decision was the least the Iraqi voter could have asked for, its timing seemed pegged to Maliki’s calendar and the loud protests from Iraqiyya and others signified suspicion about political pressure on the courts once more. The 24 October decision, in turn, put pressure on the Kurds to make up their mind, and the “Barzani initiative” ended up as an attempt to maximise Kurdish gains within the parameters of a future Maliki government. For the past weeks, Maliki’s nomination as such has not appeared to be under realistic threat, and even if all the big winning lists are nominally committed to taking part in the next government, it is Maliki that is the big winner so far.
In analyzing the deal that was made, it may be useful to recap what the main players actually managed to achieve. Iraqiyya has moved the furthest away from its original position of demanding the premiership and is making a big gamble. Indeed, it is unclear whether it will return to the political process at all. True, it has ostensibly secured the powerful speakership, which is a more valuable asset than Iraqiyya (and, for that matter, the United States) seem to appreciate. But other than that, it has based its participation on the presidency of an institution that is not even in the constitution, and whose powers are ill-defined today: the so-called national council for strategic policies. That job will supposedly go to Ayad Allawi, and parliament is supposed to adopt the relevant legislation later on. But the position does not enjoy any constitutional protection, and until the council is up and running with truly effective powers, it could in a worst-case scenario end up as the fraud of the century , with Allawi as a minister without a real portfolio (symptomatically, unlike Nujayfi, Maliki and Talabani, Allawi was just an ordinary MP after today’s session).
Reportedly, Iraqiyya will also be shut out from all the security ministries, which makes it even more important to them that what is currently merely a fantasy institution will actually come into existence in the real world. Its voters may certainly want to reflect on how much better they would have come out in a bilateral deal with Maliki, and Iraqiyya leaders are already facing threats from the more militant elements of its electorate. Still, Iraqiyya has not formally withdrawn from the process. Until it does so, the newly formed “centrist” alliance of Tawafuq and Unity of Iraq (10 seats) will have a little less leverage as an alternative bloc to represent supposed “Sunni interests” and is looking a little stupid with the leak in the Iraqi media recently of its extravagant and explicitly sectarian demands for taking part in the next government. It is noteworthy in this context that Nujayfi, an Iraqi nationalist with a Sunni Arab background from Mosul who has faced frequent accusations about Baathist sympathies, eventually did return to the session to fulfil his duties as newly elected speaker and install a Kurdish president of Iraq. Nujayfi had managed to obtain 227 votes in the assembly for the speakership, in other words more than Talabani’s 195 for the presidency. At the same time did not shy away from talking frankly about problems in the previous government and the need for constitutional reform during his acceptance speech.
The media will make a big point out of the fact that the Kurds got the presidency, but many will fail to notice that, firstly, in the moment Jalal Talabani was elected he lost the veto power he had as a member of the transitional presidency council (which expired in that second), and, secondly, that he also lost every almost every other power when he some ten minutes later designated Nuri al-Maliki as the premier nominee. Absent a failure on Maliki’s part to put together a new government (in which case Talabani can designate whomever he pleases as a second candidate), Talabani henceforth will enjoy symbolic and ceremonial power only. The other big problem for the Kurds is the fact that their long list of demands for taking part in the next government refers to radical legislative action (including on an oil and gas law and a referendum on Kirkuk) that many parliamentarians continue to find unrealistic, so they may easily end up getting disappointed for a second time despite the promises from Maliki.
The big winner is of course Maliki, but it may be useful to see what the rest of the Shiite Islamist camp got from the deal. Relatively little attention has been accorded to the fact that the Sadrists look set to take over a number of governor positions (Maysan and Babel or Diwaniyya) in exchange for their participation. So much for decentralisation in Iraq! Inhabitants of the south are already expressing despair… In other news on this front, there are reports that Hadi al-Amiri is seeking to reconnect with the all-Shiite National Alliance to bring the Badr organization back into the fold, but right now the other INA defectors who rebelled against Maliki, especially ISCI, are looking a little lonely even though they say they intend to participate (Adil Abd al-Mahdi was prominent at today’s meeting).
As for the regional and international players involved in this, the outcome is a mixed one. In one way, the United States managed to secure its goal of having all the players “inside the tent”, if only just. Its mission civilatrice of teaching the rest of the world how to peacefully kick the can further down the road has apparently succeeded! But there are some major caveats too. Recently, the Obama administration spent an awful lot of energy trying to convince the Kurds to give up the presidency to Iraqiyya. This in itself signalled diplomatic incompetence since the presidency is more or less worthless in its current shape and cannot be upgraded to something more powerful except through constitutional change with a special majority in parliament and a subsequent popular referendum. Additionally, the failure of Washington to sway the Kurds, even after direct phone calls from President Barack Obama, did not play well in the region in terms of prestige. If the US president was unable to get what he wanted, he should have avoided such a humiliating sequence of events. Still, the most important problem lies in the fact that the United States has staked its policy on some kind of informal premiership for Ayad Allawi, with Tony Blinken even going as far as trying to portray today’s deal as an alliance of the Kurds and Iraqiyya against Maliki! That narrative, repeated in a series of hapless media reports that talk about “power-sharing between Allawi and Maliki” and even an Allawi–Maliki “coalition” (BBC) rather distorts the fact on the ground as of today, where Maliki remains premier and commander in chief of the armed forces with his constitutional prerogatives in good order and the support of the Sadrists, the Kurds and Iran. With the expiry of the presidency council today, no one has a veto power on laws passed by the legislature with even the smallest of majorities, and for the time being the new political council for strategic policies remains a projected annexe to the rest of the sprawling political architecture of Iraq – it remains to see whether the powers that be (and the neighbours!) will accept it. It is not totally unlikely that Maliki will try again what he did back in 2008, i.e. once more marginalizing the Kurds, the Sadrists and even Iran and try to be an Iraqi nationalist, but this kind of development will be despite the policies of the Obama administration, rather than a consequence of them.
Finally, as cannot be stressed enough, the government has not yet been formed. Beyond the major structural problem already referred to of actually empowering Iraqiyya in the next government, numerous smaller shoals lie ahead as well. One potential flashpoint is the oil ministry, where the Kurds and Maliki’s people, like Hussein al-Shahristani and Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani, have clashed in the past. It is also a little unclear whether the new president is cognizant of the fact that he has no power anymore. The only thing that seems certain is that once nominated, Maliki will probably not let go of this opportunity. In 2006, forming the complete government took a little less than two months from the prime ministerial nomination in April (the constitution says it should take one month); it is however not unrealistic that some time in the foreseeable future, and certainly in early 2011, Maliki should be able to come up with a list of ministers that will secure the 163 votes he needs in parliament.