Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Nujayfi, Talabani and Maliki – Plus Lots of Hot Air

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 11 November 2010 22:00

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.

25 Responses to “Nujayfi, Talabani and Maliki – Plus Lots of Hot Air”

  1. amagi said

    Excellent, comprehensive summary.

    Who stands to gain the security portfolio if Iraqiyya is shut out? If the new council Allawi is allegedly going to head falls by the wayside (and honestly, I cannot see how it would not) is there anything credible that INM can do but go into the opposition?

  2. Tarik said

    What’s the role of ISCI going to be in all this?

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Amagi, thanks. I would imagine “independents” that are leaning towards Maliki perhaps? I do think the idea of giving the Sadrists some governorates could be in order to compensate for not giving them as much influence at the central level in terms of security. I think the best thing Iraqiyya could do right now would be to focus on the speakership. In the long term, if Maliki wants to turn against the Kurds and the Sadrists again, there could be a role for them in the government, but right now it seems they will end up feeling disappointed with this new concoction of a council.

  4. Reidar Visser said

    Hakim today said they wanted to participate. Hadi al-Amiri of Badr, alongside Ahmad Chalabi, took turns trying to get the Iraqiyya deputies back into the chamber!

  5. Santana said

    Excellent analysis….Iran is the winner here too- not just Maliki.Maliki is a notorious back-stabber…the Kurds screwed up bigtime but realistically- they can’t go against the grain (Iran) there are no “Kurdish” decisions anymore …with the weak U.S role since the elections this has taken it’s toll on how the Kurds think and left them terrified. Talabani runs for his medicine everytime Suleimani calls….so what is happening now is expected.

  6. Kairena said

    Santana mentioned that Mutlaq would be the foreign minister.. is this confirmed? and if so, how can he be the foreign minister if he was excluded for running by the de-baathification process?

  7. Tariq A said

    Inarguably, today’s winner in Iraq’s political horse-trading is Iran.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Kairena, just today the foreign ministry has been allotted to several Iraqiyya individuals, including Mutlak and Hashemi. There is much talk about all kinds of promises. The only facts are the 5 positions that were confirmed in parliament (speaker with 2 deputies plus president plus premier nominee).

  9. Santana said

    No Kairina- Nothing is confirmed anymore…when I posted it I was assuming the de-baath Monster chasing Mutlaq was dead per what a U.S State Dept official told me !!

  10. Jason said

    Reidar, great reporting.

    Now that the PM nominee is off and running, do you foresee any chance that Maliki and Allawi might reconsider greater cooperation as an alternative to granting the Kurdish demands which both of them strongly oppose?

    I agree that governorships are a better place to park the Sadrists than one of the security portfolios, but aren’t those supposed to be elected positions?

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, I don’t see Maliki making any turn against the Kurds until the government has been voted in. Will be interesting to see how he handles the census in December! You’re quite right that the governors are supposed to be elected by the governorate councils, but as I hinted at in the article, who are the poor local politicians to make such demands? Maliki and the Sadrists have a majority in Maysan but not in the two other governorates mentioned so it is not entirely clear how the change is going to come about…

  12. IMARK said

    As always, very comprehensive and down to earth analysis.
    I am not overjoyed by Maliki’s victory mainly because of his Islamic sectarian background but It has become more and more clear to me that all Iraqi politicians who wish to hang to power are bending to the voter’s will which is neither Islamic or sectarian. Maliki must be credited with this: being the first to realise this fact and he seems to have been steering Daawa from its original agenda towards the Turkish Islamic parties model. (after all, Iraqis, with all their faults, are perhaps unique among other Muslims for being genuinely moderate and tolerant in their holding of their religious beliefs).
    To me, the major achievements embedded in the Political deal are the following:
    1)The firm accommodation and commitment of Arab nationalists and former Bathits in the political process (after defeat of their insurgency)
    2)The firm accommodation and commitment of Al-Sadrists in the political process (after defeat of their Al-mahdi army )
    3)The realisation by the Kurdish parties that their demands (reasonable to them and unreasonable to the rest of Iraqis) can only be resolved through the political process .
    4)The fact that the deal came about by Iraqis and not quite to the design of US, Iran, Saudi, etc.
    Can you comment on that?

  13. Laura Knapp said

    What are your predictions for MOI and MOD? Is it too much to hope for that the icumbents retain thier positions?

  14. robinson said

    Seeing as by some reports Allawi did not get his prefered selection of Speaker from within Iraqiyya, and seeing as his propective position is fairly theoretical at this point while Nujaifi and quite possibly Mutluk may have fixed positions of power, is it fair to say that Allawi control over Iraqiyya may well be evaporating?

  15. Steven said

    As the Kurds think the Americans are the best thing since sliced bread, they will I am sure let the US Army set up a nice BIG base in Kurdistan anytime they want to
    Enough of the time wasting get the dinar going up you know it makes sense

  16. Phil said

    Did Talabani get 195 votes in the first vote (which requires two-thirds majority) or the second vote (which only requires a simple majority)? And was there another candidate that Talabani ran against in the second vote? The reason I ask is because the constitution states that the top two presidential candidates compete in a run-off to determine who will be the president. But if there was no other candidate, Talabani’s election could be considered unconstitutional? It’s probably just academic now, but I’m curious of your thoughts.

    Also, do you think Maliki will have trouble securing a quorum within the 30 day limit when he tries to get his Cabinet elected? I wonder if Iraqiyya will try to use this strategy if things aren’t going according to their plans. And do you think they’ll try to legislate the NCSP before the Cabinet is elected?

    And finally, what have you heard about the election of Vice Presidents?

  17. The biggest loser from this late procedure is the political process itself: When the incumbent can stall the process until he gets the agreement that suits him and gets away with it then its a disfunctional democracy, and when the biggest opposition bargains over its own gains and losses instead of defending the process for the future of democracy then the process is beyon repair from within, and when the US blindly takes the position of the incumbent of stalling the process until complete agreement is reached then not much hope of reform coming from the U.S.
    The petition calling for U.N. intervention in forming a “Government of National Salvation” is being recirculated, no wonder only dreams are left of reform.

  18. Reidar,

    Great analysis. Certainly agree the Kurds made a foolish mistake. They could have taken the speakership, have Iraqiyya’s Sunnis take the symbolic but powerless presidency (which Hashimi was begging for), and allowed the pro-Kurdish Adil Abd al-Mahdi to become prime minister. Instead they’re powerless, the chronic promise-breaking Maliki is in charge, and Nujaifi of all people is speaker! Certainly to be the most irrational political move ever taken by a political party in post-Saddam Iraq. Where is Galbraith when you need him? This makes me think that the Kurdish leadership has no doubt that Maliki will deliver on his promises, which is downright naive.

    But the more pressing question going forward is how Maliki will govern this time around? The goal is to always have the support of 163 MPs; the only factors are “when” and “who” to marginalize, and on what specific “issue.” How would you break those aspects down? We all know how this delicate balancing game is going to be played. We’ve seen it before from Maliki, and frankly, I am quite impressed.

  19. Reidar Visser said

    Thanks for the input. The one question I’ll answer very briefly right away relates to the presidential vote. In the first round, Talabani ran against Hussein al-Musawi, a self-nominated anti-establishment candidate and a judge. Talabani got 195 and Musawi around 12. Since Talabani didn’t get a two-thirds majority (216) a second round of voting was held in which the highest number of votes would win regardless. Musawi withdrew but Nujayfi went ahead with the vote anyway to fulfill the constitutional requirement. Talabani got 195 once more and thereby acquired the presidency. Each round of voting lasted around an hour because the names of all the 325 deputies were read out, perhaps with the aim of giving the Iraqi people the impression that the parliamentarians are working for their fat salaries! This whole thing could have been done in 45 minutes with more up-to-date technology.

    As for the presidential deputies, none were elected since the method for their election and their numbers are not described in the constitution (the president should not be mixed up with the presidency council, a powerful transitional institution for the 2005-2010 parliamentary cycle which ceased to exist with the election of Talabani as president yesterday). The deputy of a president with zero power will have less than zero power. It is remarkable that some Iraqi media apparently have yet to discover this, with vivid scenarios of named candidates for potential “vice-presidents” circulating.

  20. Reidar Visser said

    Phil, one more thought. Trying to legislate the new council is clearly one option for Iraqiyya. Indeed, for a few minutes yesterday, Nujayfi was arguably the most powerful politician in Iraq and Iraqiyya could have filibustered Maliki’s coronation if they had acted in concert. Instead, the focus on de-Baathification guarantees for 3 specific indiviuals came across as a little clumsy and impromptu (obviously that item was not on the official agenda either). But in theory, Nujayfi retains the initiative and could try to get a process of legislating the new council going, which may take some time to complete. The main problem for them is that Maliki stays in power anyway, either in Maliki I or in Maliki II. Constitutionally there is no longer any difference between the two after parliament is up and running again.

  21. JWing said

    1st my take on yesterday’s session of parliament:

    The question now seems to be what is Iraqiya to do? Reports of a split appear to be real, and yesterday they already got backstabbed on what the other lists promised to do. There are also reports that there are loopholes in the powers of the new National Council on Strategic Policies. Latest I’ve read they are going back to parliament, but what next?

    Also, regards to the Kurds, I was able to talk to Qubad Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani yesterday before he gave a speech. I asked him why the Kurds demanded the presidency even though it was losing its executive powers. He said they wanted it for the symbolism because they want to portray to the region and world that Iraq is a multi-ethnic country, not just Arab so that’s why they still wanted the post. He also said that they will be more involved in Baghdad this time around to make sure Maliki keeps his promises and if necessary they would withdraw their support and bring down the ruling coalition.

  22. Reidar Visser said

    “Loopholes” is an understatement, since the council is not in the constitution or in any law. As for the Kurds, I think it is more useful to listen to Barzani than to Qubad. He and most Kurds are frank about what they describe as a “racial entitlement” to the presidency.

    The main problem for the Kurds is probably the scenario of INA defectors starting to trickle back to Maliki so that eventually he can rule with the “centrist” bloc of Tawafuq and Unity of Iraq and potential defectors from Iraqiyya alone.

  23. Jwing said

    Al Jazeera is reporting that it was Nujayfi who declined to deal with the debaathification issue and pushed for Talabani to be elected. That led to the walkout which he temporarily joined. What’s up with that?

  24. Reidar Visser said

    Well to some extent that is true and could be glanced from the proceedings. One of the Hiwar guys started what was first a backbench revolt, Nujayfi let them go along for a while but it was him who ultimately proceeded with the agenda of electing the president, at one point shouting something to the effect that he was not only an Iraqiyya deputy but the president of the assembly (to applause from the rest of the deputies, if I remember correctly). In theory he was not under any pressure to proceed with the vote and one could argue that he could have filibustered it if he wanted.

  25. Kermanshahi said

    The only big winner is clearly al-Maliki, the Americans, the Saudis, the Iranians (yes, you can bet they are unhappy, for the Ba’athist created myth of al-Maliki being an Iranian puppet is far from reality), the Sadrists and Jaafari, ISCI and Badr, the Kurds, the Centrist-alliance, al-Iraqiyya, they are all losers, which one of them are the biggest losers is still to be seen. It is ofcourse true that those who are backstabbed this time, definetly won’t give al-Maliki a third chance, the question however is, will he even need them again?

    Mahmoud Abbasi, I think most Kurds including the Kurdish politicians would have prefered a government ISCI-Iraqiyya-Kurdish government with Abd al-Mahdi as PM, Allawi as President and Fuad Masum as Speaker but the reason this didn’t happen is clear: al-Iraqiyya was unwilling to agree to a Kerkuk referendum and al-Maliki was. Now can they trust al-Maliki? No. But with him there’s always still a possibility that he does stay true to his word and in he doesn’t there will probably be war. In a deal with Iraqiyya they would have to accept that there will never be a peacefull solution to the Kerkuk crisis at all and accept a government which openly opposes the only thing which really matters to Iraqi Kurds.

    Reidar, I saw you talking about al-Mutlaq becoming Foreign Minister, this really doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. Either he’ll fall out with al-Maliki soon (if both don’t change), or he’ll ruin his own credibility among his own support base (if he get’s all friendly with the Iranians), or in case al-Maliki does start falling back in his old ways a bit, firsty you’ll have 5-6 milion angry Kurds mad at the way they’ve been double crossed over Kerkuk and secondly you’ll have Saleh al-Mutlaq using his position as foreign minister to go to Turkey trying to completely destroy the relations between the KRG and the Central Government + he’ll completely destroy the Iran-Iraq relations (which will become very hostile if al-Mutlaq has his way) so if you can put two and two together you can see what that will lead to…

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