Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Talabani Makes Another Constitutional Invention

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 6 January 2011 14:30

The media is full of speculation about the return of Muqtada al-Sadr and what it means for Iraqi politics. The truth of the matter is we probably won’t know for some time yet. What is worse, though, is that whereas all the discussion of problems in Iraqi politics right now seems focused on Sadr and what it means for Iranian power in Iraq, the more gradual and less spectacular destruction of the Iraqi state in the name of a system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing favoured by Iran continues on a daily basis.

In other words, Iraqi politicians don’t need Sadr’s help in order to disassemble their own nation. They’re doing quite fine in that respect already. Take the lingering issue of the deputies of the president. Apparently some in the Iraqi media must have finally woken up and challenged the establishment, because on Monday there was a report that one Ismail Alwan, described as a “legal expert”, claimed the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, had issued a special “order” whereby his two previous deputies in the presidency council, Adel Abd al-Mahdi and Tareq al-Hashemi, had somehow been made “temporary deputies” for him. Sources in the offices of the two men confirmed the existence of this kind of “order”.

Multiple questions arise out of this. Firstly, where exactly is the order? If it is somewhere on the presidency website then it must be carefully hidden, for the news section there is just full of the usual idle reports on Talabani’s endless travel and ceremonial exchanges of telegrams with foreign dignitaries. Second, if the order exists, how has Talabani acquired the right to create any deputies in the absence of a law for their election? Clearly, that is for the federal supreme court and not the president to decide. If the president has indeed issued this kind of order (and he has been innovative in this respect in the past) he should be challenged to present it to the public with a reference to the legal rationale for this course of action, because it is far from obvious that he has the right to make this kind of appointment.

What this all goes back to is the continued failure of much of the Iraqi media to appreciate the radical difference between the relatively weak presidency now in force and the relatively strong presidency council that was a transitional arrangement for the first parliamentary cycle from 2005 to 2010 only. The latter does not exist anymore and cannot be revived except after a referendum; it goes without saying that Talabani’s deputies in the presidency council cannot follow him into the presidency: The two offices have completely different sets of prerogatives and have no relationship to each other. The soon-to-be-adopted draft law on the “deputies of the president” also confirms this state of affairs.

The case of the deputies of the president and the way it gets overshadowed by Muqtada al-Sadr just underlines how Iran’s sophisticated strategy of achieving influence in Iraq is succeeding thanks to American misreadings of what that strategy is. Alarm clocks appear to go off in Washington whenever there is mention of Muqtada; however Iran’s more basic strategy of keeping the Iraqis preoccupied with the game of ethno-sectarian quotas is promoted and even celebrated by the Americans. It should be a hint to Washington that Muqtada is not the sole VIP traveller between Iraq and Iran right now: This week also sees visits to Iraq by the Iranian foreign ministers and Kurdish leaders plus Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Shiite alliance going to Iran.

The key question going forward is more than what Sadr will do. Rather it is about whether the new government can stop thinking about silly quotas, dozens of useless deputy president positions and made-up interpretations of the constitution aimed at perpetuating the system of sinecures, and instead build a strong and coherent government capable of confronting whatever cards Muqtada may have up his sleeve.

8 Responses to “Talabani Makes Another Constitutional Invention”

  1. Reidar,
    To paraphrase your previous post: Who is paying for the temporary VP’s? It seems Iraq is like a giant tribe and Talbani thinks he is its Sheikh.
    As for Muqtada’s return, there is a wide spectrum of assessments from the deeply cynical to the starry eyed optimistic. Personally, I am more optimistic. I think that many of the criminal behaviors of his followers are against his instructions and his anti Americanism is fueled by American misjudgments.

  2. Rasool Nafisi said

    Hi Reidar,

    It seems to me that you blame Iran for the ethnic based political system of Iraq. Regardless of outcome, the original idea of a certain consociation after the fall of Saddam was an American design, which could be observed clearly in the drafts of the new Constitution. The quota policy is not altogether that bad either. For instance, the set asides for women in the parliament which were vehemently opposed by the religious extremists, were advocated and upheld by the Americans.

    The IRI has certainly a dog in this fight, but the assessment of Iraq as a patchwork of ethnic groups and not as a nation is clearly based on the US notion of that country. Moreover, I am not sure to see Iraq in that light is all that erroneous or disintegrating. The model worked successfully in Lebanon before influx of the Palestinian refugees there.

    lastly, one may argue that Talibani with his symbolic position may actually play the pivotal role of keeping the Kurds less disgruntled, and somewhat integrated into the Iraqi nation.


    Rasool Nafisi

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Rasool, thanks, I’m not suggesting Tehran invented muhasasa, I’m just saying they are exploiting it in their best interest. Of course, the US role in enshrining this system in Iraqi politics is well known, above all in the 2002 opposition conferences, the governing council of 2003 and to some extent in the TAL (we seem to have forgotten that some of Sistani’s opposition to the TAL was framed precisely as a rejection of a tripartite presidency that would “enshrine sectarianism” and could “possibly lead to partition”).

    But the US did have a chance to change their mind in 2008-2009, when Maliki clearly started an attack on the whole idea of muhasasa and tawafuqiyya and to some extent challenged Iran. Washington, however, responded by clinging to the power-sharing formula, as seen not least in the call for a “united Sunni front” in the 2010 parliamentary elections. I’m not suggesting that a change in the USG position was likely, given the Biden baggage and the inability of most Washington commentators to even talk about Iraq without using sectarian categories of analysis. But the possibility was there – still is in fact – if the Obama administration had opted for a less primitive approach in its analyses of Iraq.

  4. bb said

    It is a relief to learn that the possible re-emergence of the mahdi army is of no account compared with the issue of who should be powerless deputy presidents. Reassuring, thank you.

  5. Jason said

    Is this more about sectarianism, or actually working together to bleed the Iraqi treasury to enrich themselves?

  6. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, it is about both, that’s the whole point. Iraqi politicians are claiming lucrative positions for themselves by referring to the need for ethno-sectarian balance, and the international community takes their claims at face value because they are analytically incapable of proceeding beyond the ethno-sectarian paradigm. Think-tanks around the world, journalists and “UN experts” provide Iraqi sectarian leaders with leverage because their simplistic analyses reify sectarian categories and predict Doomsday if sectarian leaders go unrewarded; conversely, the Iraqi population, which is less interested in these categories than the elites and the international pundits, are punished with a poor government that cares only for its own narrow interests. Just look at the comment by bb above and you’ll see the problem.

  7. bb said

    “the Iraqi population, which is less interested in these categories than the elites and the international pundits, are punished with a poor government that cares only for its own narrow interests.”

    Would it help if the Iraqi population stopped voting on ethno-sectarian lines? Or should Iraq go back to having elections where only one political party is allowed to stand candidates?

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, voting patterns in the last elections were less sectarian than you say, with Iraqiyya performing reasonably well in Shiite areas south of Baghdad. True, de-Baathification made its mark and led to a more sectarian climate than had been expected, but the most explicitly sectarian parties like ISCI and Tawafuq saw a big drop in their shares of the vote compared with 2005.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: