Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for September, 2011

Washington Heads Buried in Middle Eastern Sand

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 28 September 2011 19:57

Here is what Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, had to say about Iranian influence in Iraq during the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:

“I think Prime Minister Maliki – I think he understands that he – his country cannot allow Iran to be able to conduct that kind of influence within his country, provide those kinds of weapons and basically undermine his government.

That’s what’s happening and I think he gets that message. But we’re going to have to continue to make sure that – that they take the right steps and I think Iran needs to understand that we’re going to be around awhile here, making very clear to them that we’re not – we’re not simply going to ignore what Iran is doing in – in Iraq.”

Once more, it seems, the United States government is pre-occupied with so-called “special groups” as the prime instrument of malign Iranian influence in Iraq. Kataib Hizbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and the Promised Day Brigades are reckoned as the most dangerous pro-Iranian challenges to political stability in Iraq and have even been elevated to the status of an acronym (SG) in American military terminology – probably the safest possible indication that you are taken seriously in DC. Of course, some US analysts also include the mainline Sadrist movement on their lists of potential Iraqi troublemakers.

The problem with this approach to the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq is its myopic, one-sided character. It ignores at least two other key aspects of Iranian strategy: Maintaining a sectarian definition of politics and keeping de-Baathification as a key issue on the political agenda in Iraq. We can probably add a third aspect: A touch of “divide and rule” once a sectarian Shiite governing coalition had been safely put in place again in December 2010. This could include encouraging general state fragmentation, be it through federalism or consociational “power-sharing” with merely symbolic value.

The problem in Iraq is not so much that these aspects of Iranian grand strategy go undetected by Washington. The problem in Iraq is that Washington actively abets Iranian strategy in these areas. In 2010, during the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Ambassador Christopher Hill basically extended support to the process of ad hoc, illegal pre-election de-Baathification. Once the elections had been done with, Hill went on to endorse the sectarian idea that the next Iraqi premier “had to be a Shiite”.  With this kind US support for most of its strategy in Iraq, Iran can afford to use the “special groups” as an auxiliary to its general approach, adjusting its force in a secondary cat and mouse game with what remains of US military forces there.

Alas, in the Middle Eastern region more broadly, there are worrying signs that the Americans are unable to comprehend what went so seriously wrong in Iraq. In a recent (20 September) New York Times article on Syria, an unnamed US official declared that “nobody wants another Iraq”. But the whole article suggested that precisely those same epistemological mistakes that derailed US policy in Iraq are still thriving in Washington. Here were quotes from Vali Nasr, talking as before about “Sunnis” and “Shiites” as if these constituted coherent monolithic  communities. And the article author, Helene Cooper, remarked, “the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among the Allawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects in Syria” before adding that the US ambassador remains in the country “so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of Syria’s myriad sects and religious groups.”

In Iraq it was “mosaic”; maybe in Syria it will be “myriad”. It is a good thing that the US cannot seem to have the courage to intervene in Syria. Maybe it would be even better if Washington and the US mainstream media at large would simply shut up before they talk Syria to pieces exactly like they did with Iraq?

This is a companion article to a more analytical piece published in the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, titled “Religious Allegiances among Pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq”. The comments section is open for both articles below.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 23 Comments »

Another Parliamentary Defeat for Maliki

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 24 September 2011 20:19

Today’s vote in parliament on a law for Iraq’s anti-corruption commission was in some ways another defeat for Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. On a key article of the law, namely the mechanism for appointing the leader of the integrity commission, Maliki and his political allies had sought a different formula than that eventully agreed to by parliament: Whereas Maliki had asked for prime ministerial appointment powers, parliament reserved that prerogative for itself in article 4 of the new law. As usual in Iraq, no details on the votes of individual deputies were published but it has been made clear in press reports that the supporters of the anti-Maliki measure were generally Iraqiyya, the Kurds and possibly some individual members of ISCI.

Still, despite these developments in parliament today, two important caveats pertain to the image of Maliki coming under pressure. Firstly, today’s decision was in the realm of simple-majority decisions rather than anywhere near the absolute-majority territory in which the most crucial decisions – such as sacking the government itself – are made. With 248 deputies present, no more than 125 votes were required to win the vote, meaning we are still far away from the magical 163 needed to withdraw confidence in Maliki.

Second, today’s vote against Maliki was enabled precisely because it focused on a single anti-Maliki clause that attacked him personally. Conversely, when the issues are broader, this sort of cross-party political consensus that could form the basis for a challenge to the government simply does not exist. This can be seen for example in the debate on the oil and gas law. Seemingly there is a parallel challenge to prime ministerial power in the parliamentary oil and gas committee version of the oil and gas bill, which differs from the government version above all when it comes to the role of the PM in the projected, all-powerful federal oil and gas council. But in other areas of the oil and gas legislation – and especially in areas concerning centre-periphery relations – fissures in the anti-Maliki coalition are evident. Firstly, it seems unclear whether the Kurds are wholeheartedly supporting the committee version of the bill at all, since their latest tirade against the “Maliki draft” included criticism of items concerning central government powers that can in fact be found in the committee version of the bill as well. In other words, maybe the Kurds are not terribly serious about the committee bill at the end of the day and instead are just trying to heap pressure on Maliki in order to get a better deal from him bilaterally in KRG-Baghdad negotiations.

Second, even parties often seen as pro-Kurdish are at variance with Arbil when the specifics of oil and gas and other “big issues” (like disputed territories) come up for debate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which despite its reputation as a pro-Kurdish party has recently found it necessary to issue criticism of alleged oil smuggling from the Kurdish areas as well as what is seen as Kurdish attempts at grandstanding through reducing the oil output from the KRG area. Issues like these have over the past few weeks been highlighted by pro-ISCI deputies such as Qasim al-Aaraji and Falih al-Sari. Indeed, when it comes to the disputed territories, even Iraqiyya – which has recently gone quite far in accommodating Kurdish sentiment with respect to oil, at least at the level of the party leadership – have strongly protested developments in Diyala province, where the recent visit by the Kurdish president Masud Barzani prompted strong protests locally.

The lack of cohesion among Maliki’s opponents in turn explains how he is able to remain in power despite a decidedly flimsy parliamentary support base. The Kurds took at face value his promises on oil and gas and other issues in late 2010, overlooking the fact that these issues belong to the realm of parliamentary decisions and even referendums rather than to that of the premier. Maliki clearly is not strong enough to produce parliamentary decisions on these matters; however, he is quite capable of  hanging on to power thanks to the inability of the opposition to unite to sack him. In the end this may suit Maliki well, since it means he can escape or postpone painful decisions on issues like oil and Kirkuk that would potentially bring him into conflict with the limited power base that he still retains in parliament.

Posted in Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Oil in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 31 Comments »

A Second Chamber for the Iraqi Parliament?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 20 September 2011 19:47

Over the past few days there have been persistent reports that some leading members of Iraqiyya who have lost faith in the national council for high policies are contemplating reviving the debate about a senate in the Iraqi parliament as a potential substitute.

To some extent, there are positive aspects to this suggestion. Firstly, unlike the strategic council, the senate is already in the Iraqi constitution, even though its composition and prerogatives are ill-defined (article 65, which apparently was added to the constitutional draft in 2005 as a last-minute measure). Iraq has had a bicameral parliamentary structure in the past as well: The senate during the days of the monarchy was an appointed upper chamber to the “elected” first chamber. Potentially, then, a senate could serve as a deliberative forum that could supplement the existing parliament, not least since the appointment formula sketched out in the constitution –  two representatives per governorate and region – would produce a different political dynamic than that prevailing in the proportionally elected house of representatives. Indeed, when compared with the strategic policy council (which would largely comprise members of the existing government), the senate comes across as an institution that holds far greater promise for avoiding a mere duplication of the stalemates that currently dominate both the executive and the legislature in Iraq.

But there are also multiple problems connected with the senate. In the first place, the senate enjoys no specific prerogatives defined in the constitution. The explanation is probably very simple: The drafters of the constitution must have had a last-minute realisation that since they had rather unceremoniously transformed Iraq into a loose federation, they would need to add a second chamber since most good federations have one. An attempt to define the powers of the chamber was done during the unsuccessful attempt at revising the constitution in 2007–2009, but those powers indicated in the revision are not particularly strong and resemble that of many European second chambers, i.e. the senate has the power to delay but not to ultimately block the actions of the first chamber.  This is very far from what some Iraqiyya members (such as Nabil Harbo) have in mind when they declare that the second chamber will potentially have greater powers than the strategic policy council.

Even more importantly, there are special legal requirements and thresholds pertaining to the law for creating the senate: A two-thirds absolute majority or 216 deputies in the current parliament. This means that unless the senate is created as part of the special constitutional revision under article 142 (which can be done with an absolute-majority vote followed by a popular referendum), the senate, just like the projected federal supreme court, belongs to the realm of legislation requiring special-majority votes that seem unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon. 

The hard reality is that neither the senate nor the strategic policy council is likely to come into existence or give Iraqiyya what they are seeking. If they are objective, they would instead notice that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki currently has problems both with the Kurds and his fellow Shiite Islamists (including most recently Sabah al-Saadi, an independent, and Kazim al-Sayadi, a Sadrist). Negotiating with him directly seems to remain a far more realistic way of winning real power.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues | 14 Comments »

The Territorial Dimension of the Nukhayb Tragedy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 17 September 2011 15:52

The recent terror attack at Nukhayb in Anbar province killing several Shiite pilgrims en route to Syria has deeper political dimensions.

First there is the jurisdictional issue. Shortly after the incident, a security force from the neighbouring governorate of Karbala crossed the provincial border and detained a number of alleged suspects who were then taken back to Karbala for questioning. This prompted loud protests from politicians in Anbar who complained there had been a breach of jurisdiction since Nukhayb lies within the border of Anbar governorate.

Second, there are some more fundamental territorial questions related to the recent altercations between these two Iraqi governorates. Since at least 2005, various Shiite politicians – in particular the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Ahmed Chalabi but also local politicians in Karbala close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – have claimed that the territory of Nukhayb should be “returned to the governorate of Karbala”. Subsequent to the recent attacks, those claims have been reawakened. By way of example, Abd al-Hadi al-Hakim recently called for the “return of Nukhayb to Karbala as it was before the former regime transferred it to Anbar”.

The Karbala claims to Nukhayb rest on shaky historical foundations. It is true that for a short period in the 1970s, Nukhayb was transferred to Karbala by the former regime (it can be documented that it was part of Ramadi in the 1960s) and then transferred back again in 1979. But for the overwhelming part of the twentieth century, Nukhayb has been administratively affiliated with Ramadi (or, before that, with the special desert police force) rather than with Karbala.

Map of Iraq in 1966 showing Nukhayb as part of Ramadi province

More fundamentally, the Nukhayb claim relates to the much bigger issue of “disputed territories” that threatens to polarise Iraqi politics along ethno-sectarian lines in years to come. This vexed idea of collective ethno-sectarian entitlement to land (as distinct from the right of individuals to seek redress for misdeeds and confiscations of land by the former regime) was unfortunately included in the US-sponsored Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, from where it made its way into the current Iraqi constitution. Exactly like the Karbala claim to Nukhayb, many of the claims under the “disputed territory ” heading have scant historical basis, but if granted, they could set the stage for a perpetual debate about real and imagined “disputed territories” across Iraq in the next years.

So far there are some positive signs that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to rise above the claims of his partisans in Karbala in the Nukhayb case and will work for the transfer of those arrested to Baghdad and indeed for the release of some of them. The more important question is however this: Will he have the guts to come out loud and clear against the murky attempts by other Shiite Islamists to play the opportunistic territorial card in Nukhayb?

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 33 Comments »

The Oil-Law Showdown

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 19:18

If the restart of oil exports from the Kurdish Regional Government area in February served as an indication of an evolving axis of political friendship between the Kurds and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, developments in Iraq during the past month have pointed in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the first sign that something was wrong came in August when Kurdish peshmerga troops entered areas in Diyala that they had previously agreed with the central government to stay out of. Whereas similar actions in Kirkuk earlier in late February and March had prompted a surprisingly muted reaction from Maliki (and hence seemed to suggest that the alliance between Maliki and the Kurds could be deepening at a time when Maliki was worried about increasing public anger on Iraq’s streets), this time the Kurdish moves have been followed by a heated verbal exchange between Maliki and Kurdistan’s president, Masud Barzani.

Of course, altercations between the Kurds and Maliki are nothing new. They were prominent in the 2006–2009 period as well, when they often focused on the so-called “disputed territories” claimed by the Kurds and the implementation of article 140 of the constitution related to these areas. This time around, however, it is the oil and gas law that has moved to the forefront of the debate.

In a recent statement, the Kurds promised to “boycott parliament and government” if the oil and gas law presented to parliament by the government is indeed passed by parliament. The Kurds say they object to new changes to the draft, which include giving the prime minister a somewhat stronger role in the projected oil and gas council, but also involves a slightly different decision-making mechanism on contracts: In the latest version of the bill, contracts signed by regional authorities are invalid unless they are specifically approved by the oil and gas council with a two-thirds majority; conversely, in the old draft, such contracts would automatically be valid unless they were actively struck down by the council, again with a two-thirds majority. In other words, the ability of regional authorities to push through their own contracts is more restricted in the newest draft. Last, but certainly not least, the latest draft indicates a stronger role for the ministry of oil in arranging licensing rounds also in the regional-government areas, which was seen as an exclusive competency of the regional authorities in the previous draft.

Constitutionally speaking, then, the latest “Maliki draft” (as it is already referred to by its opponents) is not that much different from the previous version. The creation of the federal oil and gas council recurs in all versions of the draft, albeit with a slightly stronger prime ministerial role in the latest one. True, there are real differences in article 18 second regarding the procedure of approving contracts, but again this is a gradual change from the last version. Perhaps the most dramatic intrusion on what some see as regional rights is the designation of a role for the oil ministry in arranging licensing rounds for the regional entities (article 14), which pro-federal politicians no doubt will see as infringement on the implicit residual right for the regions (and governorates) to sign deals for “future” fields in the constitution (only “existing” fields are specifically mentioned as falling within the exclusive jurisdiction of the central government). Of course, article 112 second of the constitution can be construed as giving the right to the ministry to get involved in all fields one way or another as far as “strategic policy” is concerned, but critics will probably argue that the involvement of the central government both at the contracting stage as well as at the decisive review stage in the oil and gas council means excessive interference.

It is unsurprising that the Kurds should react angrily to these changes. Somewhat more unexpected is the latest rush of visitors to Arbil in an apparent demonstration of loyalty to the Kurds in the oil and gas dispute, including Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi and the Jordanian prime minister. Iraqiyya, in particular, go quite far in some of their latest comments on the oil and gas law. Yesterday Maysun al-Damluji thundered that the latest draft was not only “unconstitutional” but also gave the oil ministry too much power! Apparently, Iraqiyya have already forgotten the outcry from Iraqi technocrats when the first oil and gas law was presented in 2007 and especially the criticism of the powerful oil and gas council headed by politicians at the expense of the ministry and the technocrats.  Had Iraqiyya been loyal to its own electorate of past bureaucrats, it would have been more logical to attack the oil and gas council as such (and restore the ministry as the chief power broker) instead of spending so much energy promoting the rights of regional entities. But by exploiting personal animosities between Allawi and Maliki, the Kurds have effectively managed to transform Iraqiyya to a pro-federal party.

For their part, Iraqiyya seems to be justifying what they are doing with reference to imaginary mathematics. Supposedly, the goal of it all is to create some kind of opposition alliance aimed at toppling Maliki. Except that the numbers just don’t add up. Even Iraqiyya, the Kurds and minority friends of the Kurds are unable to muster more than around 145 votes, which falls short of the required 163. The Kurds know this and are probably merely exploiting the show of support by Iraqiyya and Jordan to heap pressure on Maliki in order to get a better deal with him bilaterally. Perhaps the best indication of the tactics of the Kurds in this case is their sponsorship of an alternative oil and gas bill which, despite what many press reports say, in fact is not that much different from the government version. Exactly like the Maliki draft, the parliamentary version also provides for a federal commission with veto rights on regional oil contracts, albeit on slightly different terms. But the Kurds know that the parliamentary version is unlikely to go anywhere due to procedural objections by the federal supreme court, and may be co-sponsoring the bill just in order to get Iraqiyya on their side to put pressure on Maliki. 

It can be argued that if Iraqiyya cannot work with Maliki, they should seriously consider reverting to a more honest, purely opposition role from which they could speak their mind instead of producing convoluted statements of the kind presented by Damluji yesterday. If not, Iraqiyya and indeed the Kurds should be aware of an alternative scenario that is probably on Maliki’s mind every now and then: Building a majority with all of the Shiite Islamists (currently around 158) plus White Iraqiyya (10) and defector elements from Iraqiyya and then pretend to act as Iraqi nationalists and centralists. A sort of Shiite-led version of the old regime perhaps.

The more Iraqiyya continues to stultify itself with statements like the recent ones on the oil and gas bill, the greater the probability for  defections from within their own ranks. In turn, Maliki’s alternative plan, without the Kurds and Iraqiyya, could gradually become less and less utopian. Maliki may well be hoping that as time passes by, such an alternative will emerge and will eventually allow him to take a more centralist position vis-à-vis the Kurds on disputed territories and not least on the symbolically important city of Kirkuk. The Kirkuk issue is more immediately understood by the Iraqi public than complex legal oil issues and is a question where neither Maliki nor Allawi may be able to give the Kurds all they want.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Oil in Iraq | 25 Comments »

More Stalemate in the Iraqi Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 10 September 2011 19:41

The Iraqi parliament was a sorry sight this morning. That the second reading of the bill for the national council for strategic policies was postponed, supposedly until Monday, was never a big surprise. Nor was anyone particularly shocked to learn about a delay in the decision on the question of the parliamentary membership of three deputies whose eligibility has been questioned.  But the way the planned vote on the revised bylaws of parliament was suspended today was nothing short of pathetic.

Barely had the legal committee started reading out the first amendments to the bylaws which simply included some definitions of key concepts when members of the Shiite alliance began protesting the definition of a “simple majority”!  The proposed definition was straightforward enough (half of the present members plus one when a quorum has been reached), but some deputies including Bahaa al-Aaraji of the Sadrists objected on “procedural” grounds, calling this an unspecified violation of article 2 of the Iraqi constitution (laws must be in accordance principles of democracy). As a result of the objections, the vote was called off, supposedly with a postponement until Monday.

Maybe it was all theatre agreed to beforehand by the political leaderships. The problem is this: When a bill reaches the stage of voting in the Iraqi parliament, it means there have been two previous readings at which members of parliament at large have had the opportunity to present objections and improvements – which in turn are handled by the relevant specialised committee as well as the legal committee.  All too often, however, committees prepare laws for the voting stage only to see them languish forever because the political leaderships discover irreconcilable disagreements that can only be addressed by that Iraqi magic wand of late-night meetings behind closed doors. As a result, the parliamentary impact on a legislative process already dominated by the executive (which presents the laws) is further minimised.

As for the substance matter at hand, it is unsurprising that matters are moving so slowly. One interesting aspect of the current bylaws is that they create a collective speakership that involves more consensus-searching (which often means more stalemate) than the constitution actually demands. In other words, had trust existed between Iraqiyya and State of Law, they could have easily reduced the deputy parliamentary speakerships (held by Kurds and the Sadrists) to ceremonial positions and made the current speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi, to a more dominant figure. However, despite rising tensions between the Kurds and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki lately, it seems personal friction between leaders of State of Law and Iraqiyya remains more than strong enough to prevent any attempt at this kind of rapprochement.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 48 Comments »

Still No Agreement on Iraq’s Parliamentary Membership

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 9 September 2011 19:13

Almost one and a half years after the general elections of 7 March 2010 and amid persistent street protests, the Iraqi parliament can’t even make up its mind as to who exactly are its 325 members.

According to the official agenda, yesterday’s session of parliament should have been devoted to such momentous issues as the second reading of the strategic policy council bill and a vote on the amended parliamentary bylaws. As expected, none of this was actually addressed by the almost half-empty assembly. However, the presidency of the parliament announced an interesting forthcoming vote – supposedly on Saturday – on the “correctness of the parliamentary membership” of three deputies, namely Jawad al-Shuhayli, Jamal al-Gaylani and Ammar Hasan Abd Ali.

The reason there are controversies relating to these and other members of parliament is the replacement process that began in December 2010 for deputies that became promoted to ministers in the second Maliki government. That process continued well into 2011, and in March came to involve a vote on 7 deputies whose membership qualifications were in doubt. Lately, the matter has been further complicated by the fact that more than a dozen ministers lost their cabinet jobs as a result of the government downsizing and have demanded they get their old jobs as deputies back!

Of the three cases in the latest batch of controversies, that of Shuhayli should be the most straightforward one. Shuhayli replaced Nassar al-Rubayie, a Sadrist. While Shuhayli is from the same list, he ran as a candidate in Dahuk,  where there are almost no Shiites and where he received almost no votes. For his part, Rubayie was a candidate in Baghdad. In other words, in this case, the law on replacement of deputies has clearly been violated since the legal (and constitutionally mandated) balance between governorates has been upset.  Except, of course, that parliament has already once overruled the law and the constitution in this very case since Shuhayli was included in the March vote – and unlike in the case of Jawad al-Bulani, no one appealed the decision. The question is, can parliament challenge it own previous decision in this way, effectively acting as its own appeal court? Article 52 of the contitution just says that the parliament rules, with a two-thirds absolute majority, on the correctness of its own membership within 30 days of a complaint having been presented. That decision, in turn, is subject to a 30-day appeals period before the federal supreme court.

For his part, Gaylani was given a compensatory seat after Abd al-Karim al-Samarraie of Salahaddin and the Iraqiyya became minister of science and technology. Gaylani was also a Salahaddin candidate and he comes from the same Tajdid bloc as Samarraie. There should be no problems whatsoever with this replacement, and if someone is trying to challenge it on the basis of number of personal votes, they are simply misreading the deputy replacement law (which was written at a time when there were no personal votes in the electoral system).

Perhaps the most problematic of the three will be the third case, of Ammar Hasan Abd Ali. He was given the seat of Jamal al-Batikh from Wasit who became minister of state in February and was a member of Iraqiyya for Wasit at the time. That decision has been challenged by members of Batikh’s breakaway faction, White Iraqiyya, which was formed just around the time Batikh obtained his portfolio. The question is whether the new bloc – which did not even exist at the time of the elections – can now claim ownership of the seat based on post-election realities.

In other words, even though this third replacement is correct as far as the governorate balance of deputies is concerned, the question is whether the replacement law is unambiguous as far as sub-entities within the same electoral list are concerned. The answer, alas, is no. The law is unclear because it refers to a bloc (kutla), a list (qa’ima) and entity (kiyan) in the same sentence, without making it perfectly clear which of them shall be used as point of departure for reckoning the replacement entitlements. One way of reasoning that could be made relevant here would be that since the only entity every voter knew about at the time of the elections was the list (qa’ima), it would make sense to use that as point of departure for replacements, instead of using kutlas which come and go, and which voters may be unaware about.

These three cases come on top of the problem of what to do with the ministers of state that unceremoniously lost their jobs in the recent government downsizing. Recently, the consultative state assembly ruled that these ministers should be given their deputy jobs back, despite the absence of any modalities governing that kind of eventuality in the deputy replacement law. Symptomatically, perhaps, this ruling has yet to be published by the Iraqi ministry of justice.

What all of this may serve to remind us is that in a context of immature institutions in the middle of a democratic transition, calling for new elections might well prove counterproductive. Maybe a far better option would be for parliament to try to work for reform from within. And maybe the best place to start would be two pieces of legislation that are actually called for in the constitution: The federal supreme court bill and the special constitutional revision that has yet to be implemented.

Posted in Iraq parliament membership, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 12 Comments »

Shahristani and Maliki in Federalism Crossfire

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 September 2011 17:03

A recent statement by the governorate council of Wasit had an extraordinary tone: The council “rejected” the appointment of Vice Premier Hussein al-Shahristani as acting electricity minister (after Raad al-Ani “resigned” subsequent to being forced out), alleging that Shahristani had created problems for Wasit in the past through his opposition to several electricity schemes and his management of the disputed Ahdab oilfield, where a Chinese company is involved. The conflict between the local council and the oil ministry (previously headed by Shahristani) has been festering since 2009 and includes serious accusations by local politicians for example to the effect that Chinese prisoners are doing underpaid work at the oilfield.

The statement would seem like an unprecedented attempt by a provincial council to interfere in the workings of the central government. But it is very real, and reflects intense intra-Shiite disagreement ranging from the very personal to key political issues like the question of the basic structure of the Iraqi state. At the time the Wasit federalism project first emerged around June 2010, it was reportedly supported by ISCI and resisted by Sadrists and State of Law, with the rest of the council (the Shahristani bloc, the Iraqi constitutional party, Iraqiyya and independents) uncommitted.  Unfortunately, the few existing recent press reports on the subject are somewhat ambiguous in that they identify a key pro-federal leader as “Mahdi Husayn al-Musawi, deputy speaker of the Wasit governorate assembly”. This seems to be a mix-up of names since the governor is Mahdi Hussein al-Zubaydi (State of Law) whereas the deputy speaker is Mahdi Ali Jabbar al-Musawi (same bloc but previously the Tanzim al-Iraq faction and with a track record of conflict with Shahristani over Ahdab in the past). In any case, these developments clearly suggest that disagreement over federalism is creating challenges for Maliki as well as for Shahristani in Wasit. It is noteworthy that also in Wasit, ISCI is apparently playing a lead role in forcing the rest of the Shiites towards a remorseless approach in the de-Baathification question, in April this year even challenging a decision by the de-Baathification commission to reinstate former Baathists in the education sector.

Similar pro-federal noises have been coming intermittently from Maysan, Karbala, Najaf and Babel, but nowhere is the pro-federal tendency more evident and persistent than in Basra. In particular, Jawad al-Buzuni from Maliki’s own State of Law bloc has been going far in calling for the government to go ahead with a referendum on the question of creating a federal region as demanded by members of the provincial council, claiming it is the only way of solving the current political impasse and indeed of saving the current government. The new federalists of Basra and Wasit fraternise on Facebook with like-minded people as far north as in Nineveh; some of these new federalists even see uni-governorate federalism as an antidote to the dominance of the religious parties.

It is noteworthy, however, that despite all these challenges – on top of the fact that the Iraqi government is breaking Iraqi law by not making the legally mandated moves to hold referendums that have been called  for – even the most pointed attacks at Maliki still seem unable to gather the numerical momentum required to make them real. Symptomatically, perhaps, today, the independent deputy Sabah al-Saadi declared that he has been gathering signatures for a law proposal involving restricting the premier’s terms to two parliamentary cycles, along with special rules for a caretaker ministry in the event of withdrawal of confidence in the cabinet. The targeting of Maliki could not have been clearer, and yet the petition only managed to marshal the signatures of 115 deputies, far below the magical 163 threshold required for doing anything significant with regard to the status of the current government.

In Wasit itself, after an initial open rupture between Maliki and Shahristani over the governorship in February and March and the creation of a challenging bloc consisting of ISCI, the Sadrists, Iraqiyya and the Iraqi constitutional party in April, there have been reports since early August of a reconstituted bloc of 19 more centralist Shiites aggressively opposed to the ISCI-led speaker of the council, reportedly consisting of State of Law, the Shahristani bloc of independents and White Iraqiyya, the (often Shiite) breakaway faction of Iraqiyya. There is a certain geopolitical symbolism to the fact that it is an oilfield operated by a Chinese company that seems to serve as glue for this regrouped alliance of Shiite centralists!

For its part, State of Law has indicated a willingness to pursue a project that would obligate the Iraqi presidency to sign execution orders within 15 days, which would constitute an unusually blunt attack on the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, usually a Maliki ally but also a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Which in turn just seems to emphasise the status quo as the most likely scenario going forward, not least since the Kurds have now made clear that the recently-reported agreement in the Iraqi government on an oil and gas law in fact did not enjoy their support, thereby underlining the persistence of a problem in relations between themselves and Maliki that goes back to 2007.

In other news, the Iraqi parliament is back on the job after the long Eid recess and has adopted an ambitious agenda for Thursday: The second reading of the contentious national council for high policies bill, and a vote, no less, on the equally disputed new parliamentary bylaws . We’ll see.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Oil in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 25 Comments »

The Political-Majority Alternative to the Current Iraqi Government: Conceptual Confusion among Iraqi Politicians

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 3 September 2011 20:09

Several Iraqi politicians have used the last days of the Eid to send public messages about their political visions. Unfortunately, these statements contain few grounds for optimism – whether related to completion of the current Maliki government or the formation of a new government.

One of these voices is that of Ammar al-Hakim, the current leader of ISCI and a returned exile, who spent more than two years from 2005 to 2008 in a futile bid to convince the population of the Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad to join together in a new, all-Shiite federal entity. ISCI subsequently lost much of its influence thanks to poor performances in the January 2009 local elections and the March 2010 parliamentary ones.

Most recently, in his Eid address, Hakim once more proved his limited ability to grasp new currents in Iraqi politics. Hakim reportedly said he would “welcome a political-majority government” if it meant “deepening the representation of the social components in Iraq”!

The whole point of the concept of the political-majority government – as it emerged mainly in the rhetoric of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki following his successful performance in the local elections of January 2009 – is to create an antithesis to the concept of power-sharing based on ethno-sectarian quotas. A political-majority government would ignore any considerations related to “the components of the Iraqi people”, and would instead focus on issue-based political agreement. Such a government would probably include Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Turkmens because Iraq is a mixed society, but this would not be the primary consideration governing its composition. Rather, political views, ability and competence would be the main criteria in the selection of ministers. This in turn might produce patterns of ethno-sectarian participation in the government that diverged somewhat from a proportional model, but such a result would result from historical accident rather than from a systematic attempt at excluding anyone on the basis of ethnicity or sect. For example, throughout the monarchy era there was systematic under-representation of Shiites, but at least in some periods this had to do with the legacy of poor Shiite education during the late Ottoman period. Similarly, Shiites are over-represented on the Iraqi national soccer team, thanks not least to the fact that Shiites did very well in sports during the days of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Of course, Maliki himself has travelled a long way from the principles he professed in 2009. Lately, his attempt at defining the defence ministry as a “Sunni” prerogative that could be held by any Sunni (and preferably one with no links to his rivals in the secular Iraqiyya) has taken him quite far in the direction of contradictions reminiscent of those of Hakim. In 2011 Maliki has been trying to build an alternative rainbow coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, except that the numbers simply do not add up. Basically, Maliki’s strategy seems based on an unrealistic take on what sort of “Sunni” support he can drum up from dissenters in Iraqiyya. Much like Saddam Hussein, Maliki is paying lip service to the concept of Iraqi nationalism and “political majorities”, but in practice he is continuing to recruit from a very narrow ideological and sectarian platform. Thus, when a Maliki ally recently stated that the concept of “balance” (tawazun, a concept used mostly by the Kurds but recently also sometimes by Iraqiyya to demand ethno-sectarian quotas) would “consecrate sectarian divisions and harm the political process”, he was right and wrong at the same time: True, it would be better to ignore quotas if an ideological alternative that could achieve a majority really existed, but the State of Law bloc seems singularly incapable of increasing its number of deputies beyond its Shiite Islamist core to the point where this kind of lofty ideal might be turned into reality.

For their part, Iraqiyya have perhaps been the loudest advocates of withdrawing confidence in the existing government or calling new elections. Lately, Talal al-Zubawi envisioned a coalition of 180 deputies from Iraqiyya, “some of the Kurds”, ISCI and the Sadrists that would withdraw confidence from Maliki. That would be a real “political-majority” alternative. If it existed in the real world, that is. The trouble is that few things other than their hatred of Maliki bring these groups together. In the case of the Sadrists, in particular, one can easily get the impression that their participation in the “political-majority” alternative to Maliki is mainly a smokescreen designed to obtain further concessions from Maliki in the current government – which in turn might further emphasise sectarian antagonisms within it. Zubawi’s allusion to a Kurdish split on what to do with Maliki is nonetheless interesting in itself.

Constitutionally, there are two possible ways to forming a new Iraqi government: Withdrawal of confidence in the current government and the formation of a new one based on the presidential prerogative of identifying the “biggest bloc” in parliament, or new elections altogether. Since Iraqiyya appear somewhat distrustful of President Jalal Talabani – still considered a Maliki ally – their most likely preference would be new elections. But in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi hinted at another problem: Those elections would have to be conducted with an impartial judiciary. That in turn illustrates the dilemma of Iraqiyya in deciding whether to participate in the current government in order to bring about reform from within, or opting for a more radical course such as new elections.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 36 Comments »