Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for May, 2012

Is Maliki About to Fall?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 31 May 2012 16:59

Two articles discuss the political showdown in Iraq as critics of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claim they have the 163 votes needed to bring him down. One focuses on the question of Iran’s interest in Iraq and the possibility that Iran may have fabricated some aspects of the current political crisis to demonstrate its leverage in Iraq for world powers; another highlights the contrast between a government in Baghdad that for all practical purposes remain operative and the multiplication of gatherings of Maliki enemies in the autonomous region in Kurdistan, where many are more focused on the prospect of eventual Kurdish independence than the fate of the rest of Iraq.

Discussion section open as usual below.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, UIA dynamics | 89 Comments »

After P5 Plus 1: Time to Move on with Iraqi Politics

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 25 May 2012 13:05

As expected, negotiations in Baghdad between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear file have ended without any major breakthrough.

For Iraq, this means the country can get back to its normal politics, perhaps without the added distractions that inevitably come with a major regional event involving Iran. There has been plenty of speculation as to the causes for the conspicuous synchronicity between the nuclear meeting and the apparent peak of the crisis of the current cabinet headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Has Iran somehow exploited the opportunity to send a not so gentle reminder to international players about its leverage  in Iraqi politics?

Whatever the external pressures, the Iran nuclear file has for now been consigned to Moscow as its next destination in the second half of June. Maliki no longer has any major external event that can remove attention from internal problems and threats about unseating him. And those threats are gaining momentum. On 28 April, an unprecedented gathering of leaders of the Kurds, the Sunni-secular Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamist Sadrists issued a letter at Arbil calling for Maliki’s own Shiite alliance to make Maliki change his ways within 15 days or else take steps to withdraw confidence in him. The ultimatum wasn’t presented to the parliamentary head of the Shiite faction, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, until 3 May, meaning that it expired on 18 May. One day later,on 19 May, a second summit was held in Najaf. Barzani and Allawi did not elect to descend from their Arbilian heights but the political representation at the meeting was broadly identical to the 28 April summit. After that meeting another letter was sent to Jaafari. It contained a message to the Shia alliance that their previous (very jejune and non-committal) answer to the first ultimatum didn’t really address their concerns. Accordingly, the Arbil signatories now asked Jaafari to identify a new prime minister candidate. It is widely understood that another deadline of 1 week was imposed, although this is missing in the draft of the letter that has been published.

This takes us  on to Saturday 26 May as the new deadline for Maliki. Or, maybe we should say, “for the Arbil signatories”. Their bluff has already been called once and unless there is action this time (the second letter is more of an order than an ultimatum) doubts as to the parliamentary punch of their alliance will set in. Come Saturday and it will be crunch time. Already, there are rumours about a planned third summit of Maliki critics, this time in Mosul.

The problems are however about more than the sheer timing of the no confidence initiative. A second set of issues relates to the modalities for getting rid of Maliki envisaged in the proposal. In the leaked letter the Shia alliance is given the job of finding a suitable replacement, because “it is considered the framework for choosing the prime minister”. Not so fast, please! The constitutional problems here are perhaps best understood through a little bit of prospective history writing. If indeed the Shia alliance votes to change Maliki, it will likely break apart. Now, if all or nearly ally of Maliki’s alliance defects in solidarity with him, the rump National Alliance is no longer the biggest bloc in parliament, and hence has no right to appoint the next PM. Nor has Iraqiyya, which has already dwindled in size to 85 deputies with indications it would be further reduced to at least 75 if an attempt were made to force out Maliki. To avoid Maliki’s bloc getting hold of the nomination of the next PM, Iraqiyya would need to first form a bloc with the Kurds or the Shiite Islamists, agree on a bloc leader and so on. Incidentally, this would imply a negation of their own interpretation of article 76 of the Iraqi constitution on the prime ministerial nomination procedure (which Iraqiyya in 2010 saw as belonging to the biggest electoral list).

Also, there seems to be a prevailing theory that the current Shiite alliance can simply swap Maliki and someone more likable as premier with the rest of the cabinet remaining in place. Again, this is erroneous. Constitutionally, the whole cabinet is considered resigned if a vote of no confidence in the prime minister succeeds. Accordingly, every single member of the cabinet will have to leave their posts and it is for the Iraqi president to identify the next prime minister on the basis of the “biggest bloc”. This is what makes it so hard to understand another bargaining chip used by the opponents of Maliki these days – that of the possible resignation of the current president, Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish alliance. Such a scenario would leave the current deputy president that remains within Iraq, Khudayr al-Khuzaie, in charge for the next 30 days until parliament has elected a new president. Khuaie is a Maliki ally. Also, attention would inevitably be deflected from the prime ministerial question.

The most recent developments have seen Ahmed Chalabi assume a leading role among Shiite critics of Maliki, with frequent meetings of the original half of the Shia alliance known as the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) that was formed in August 2009 with Iranian backing. Some even consider Chalabi a forerunner for replacing Maliki! We should soon find out who they have in mind, because it will be very hard for the Maliki critics to backtrack for their latest string of ultimatums without stultifying themselves in a serious way.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 84 Comments »

Iraqiyya, the Kurds & Disputed Territories in Iraq: The Grassroots Reaction

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 21 May 2012 16:47

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen: Grassroots elements in the secular and traditionally Iraqi nationalist Iraqiyya would feel unhappy about the ever more intimate ties between their own leadership and the Kurds.

In an unprecedented expression of dissatisfaction with the course of Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi, no less than 19 parliamentary deputies that are either part of Iraqiyya or have recently defected from it expressed their support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki yesterday by signing a declaration of solidarity with his policies towards the Kurds. The declaration criticizes the current political crisis for being fabricated and alleges that accusations about “dictatorship” should more properly be addressed to Kurdish leader Masud Barzani, who has ruled for several decades. The highhandedness of Kurdish security forces (peshmerga) and secret police (asayish) in disputed territories in northern Iraq is highlighted as an area of particular concern.

It is worthwhile taking a look at the identity of the signatories. Almost all of them are Sunnis from various parts of northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, Nineveh and Anbar. In terms of bloc affiliations, most are either from the recent blocs of Iraqiyya defectors (Free Iraqiyya &  Wataniyun) or belonging to small lists. But it is noteworthy that there are also a couple of deputies from the Hiwar bloc of deputy PM Salih al-Mutlak and the Hall bloc of Jamal al-Karbuli. Historically, the Kirkuk issue is something that tends to bring Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Turkmens together in opposition against Kurdish plans for annexing the city, as was evidenced by the 22 July trend back in 2008. However, thanks in part to US opposition, Maliki failed to mobilise on Kirkuk during the debate of the election law in autumn 2009 and has remained relatively aloof from the situation there until quite recently.

Importantly, no less than 12 of these 19 Maliki supporters are still technically reckoned as belonging to Iraqiyya. That, in turn, has implications for the arithmetical exercises being carried out these days about a possible no confidence vote in Maliki. What this means in practice is that Iraqiyya can probably muster no more than a maximum 75 votes in parliament from its own ranks  for an anti-Maliki vote – and that is the absolute maximum given the poor track record of many Iraqiyya MPs in terms of parliamentary attendance. In other words, even if the 40 or so Sadrists deputies should after all go all the way and join the Maliki critics in a move to sack him (a big if), there would be trouble garnering the required 163 deputies needed for an absolute majority (the Kurds command somewhere between 43 and 57 votes, depending on the position of independents and minorities).

Meanwhile, from Beirut, following rumours  about a possible rapprochement with Maliki, Mutlak himself cannot quite seem to make up his mind whether he truly does regard the Iraqi prime minister as a “dictator” or not. Maybe he and other Iraqiyya leaders should spend less time making statements from locations far away from Baghdad and instead spend some more time with their constituencies in northern Iraq. If not, they themselves – rather than Maliki – may end up as the main casualty of their current campaign to unseat him.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 44 Comments »

The Hashemi Trial Begins amid Signs the Iraqi Constitution Is Dying

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 15 May 2012 18:30

It was perhaps inevitable. An Iraqi politician would eventually declare the Interpol red flag notice for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi “unconstitutional”.

There are many good reasons for being critical about the reasons that led to the original prosecution of Hashemi. In particular, the timing of the original Iraqi arrest warrant – just hours after the departure of the last US forces from Iraq in December 2011 – smacked of political opportunism. Subsequent allegations about mistreatment of the imprisoned guards of the Iraqi vice president have been met with unsatisfactory replies from the Iraqi judiciary that have prompted suspicion of  whitewash on more than one occasion.

However, the Interpol red flag notice is in itself not “unconstitutional”. Iraq is an Interpol member and the government has the option of turning to Interpol to request international assistance for bringing suspects to court. The built-in checks and balances in the system in this case have nothing to do with the Iraqi constitution as such but with the ability of other Interpol member countries – including Turkey, where Hashemi is currently staying – to ignore the warrant or deny extradition if they judge its basis to be unsound or the prospects of a fair trial unlikely. This is precisely what Turkey is doing.

Alas, as the trial of Hashemi finally went ahead in absentia in Baghdad today, the meaningless declaration of the Interpol red flag notice as  “unconstitutional” serves as a reminder about much deeper problems in the “new” Iraq. It doesn’t really matter who said it, Sunni, Shiite or Kurd: Today, the Iraqi constitution is merrily being violated by all sides. The term  “unconstitutional” (ghayr al-dusturi) has no real meaning anymore in Iraqi Arabic. It is simply shorthand for  “I wholeheartedly disagree with you (and, besides, I despise you)”.

There are of course numerous indications that the Iraqi judiciary is under severe political pressure from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Over the past year or so it has produced a string of quixotic rulings and constitutional interpretations that leave doubts about its impartiality. Perhaps most noteworthy are the ruling on the independent commissions from January 2011 and the recent ruling on the right of parliament to question ministers (which, symptomatically perhaps, has yet to receive the mainstream media scrutiny it so badly deserves). Maliki’s own refusal to deal in a legal fashion with the various request for federalism referendums over the past year or so is in itself a flagrant constitutional violation – as is his consistent failure to present senior security officials for parliamentary approval.

But the critics of Maliki are not an inch better in terms of adhering to supposed constitutional ideals. With a series of extra-constitutional inventions in the Arbil agreement of 2010 – the centrepiece of their current campaign to unseat Maliki – they, too, are showing scant respect for the Iraqi constitution. In fact, their frequent assertion that they demand adherence to the Arbil agreement and the Iraqi constitution is a contradiction in terms since so much of Arbil involves upsetting the basic balance of power outlined in the constitution and as such should require a popular referendum before being implemented.

It should be added that the international contribution to this anti-constitutional trend in Iraq is generally shameful. The frantic attempts by the United States to get a government seated in 2010 brought about the unhelpful marriage between Iraqiyya and the extra-constitutional strategic policy council scheme, a key ingredient of the Arbil agreement. Similarly, the United Nations agency in Iraq recently issued an unhelpful and naive message of optimism in Iraq, narrowly focusing on security indicators while conveniently brushing obvious political problems under the carpet. Of course, the leverage of both the US and the UN is declining in Iraq as regional players are strongarming their way to fill the vacuum, but the very least they should do after having played such a dominant role since 2003 is to try to emphasize constitutional consistency as a guiding principle for handling political conflict in the country.

Finally, with respect to the green light for the Hashemi trial to go ahead today (it will continue on 20 May), a few comments are in order. Hashemi lawyers had argued that article 93-6 of the constitution gives jurisdiction to the supreme court, rather than to the criminal court, in all cases involving the presidential deputies. On this isolated issue it is possible to agree with the prosecution since said article in fact only mentions the president of the republic (rais) rather than the presidency (riyasa). Another potentially mitigating factor is that Hashemi can appeal the case until it reaches the cassation court, which was recently appointed with at least some new members who were disliked by the Maliki bloc in parliament.

Perhaps the best thing Hashemi’s allies can do going forward is to make sure their own discourse is as loyal to the Iraqi constitution as possible. This, in turn, should make it easier to win international solidarity whenever constitutional infractions become part of the political struggle in Iraq.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 77 Comments »

Iraq Gets A New De-Baathification Board but the Supreme Court Becomes a Parody

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 May 2012 16:16

It’s an indication of why Iraq is not unraveling completely: In the midst of political crisis, the Iraqi parliament today actually managed to approve a new de-Baathification board. The decision on the issue had been stalled since 2009. After the death of former director Ali al-Lami in May 2011 an acting official close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had taken care of the de-Baathification file.

Of the seven new members who were nominated by the cabinet, two were Kurds. Those were incidentally the same Kurdish candidates that were nominated back in 2009. Today’s official parliament report mentions only one of these two and some press reports say one candidacy was withdrawn by the cabinet. Accordingly, it is quite possible only 6 members were agreed after all, which in itself is legally dubious. At any rate, two other members of the new board are close to the secular Iraqiyya party: Muzahim Darwish al-Jibburi, a former minister of state who lost his job after the cabinet was downsized last summer, and Faris Abd al-Sattar, a lawyer from Mosul who has previously worked for the Nujayfi brothers there. The remaining three commission members are connected with Shiite Islamist circles. Falah Hassan Shanshal is a Sadrist. He is considered a hardliner in de-Baathification issues and is seen as a frontrunner for the presidency of the commission. Like several other members he is a victim of the former regime in the sense that he has been previously imprisoned. Jabbar al-Muhmamadawi is also thought to have ties to the Sadrist milieu whereas Basim Muhammad al-Badri is probably linked to the Daawa.

The commission of 7 members makes its decisions with a simple majority of 4. In other words, the 3 Shiite Islamists will need at least one Kurd on their side to push through their agenda. Reflecting their electoral success in 2010, Iraqiyya is better represented than in the original commission proposed by the Maliki government in 2009. At that time, Maliki had hoped to install Walid al-Hilli, a party ally, as chief of the new commission; conversely the Daawa is less prominent in the current commission line-up. Still, the fact that the board was approved by the Iraqi cabinet suggests Maliki probably considers he can live with it.

It is reported that the vote went ahead in parliament without any major protests. (By way of contrast, Iraqiyya once more successfully obstructed the vote to sack the mayor of Baghdad of ISCI against the wishes of some Maliki allies and possibly the Sadrists as well.) The overall parliamentary attendance figure was given at 195. No split vote was reported nor were any massive walkouts mentioned.  In other words, the de-Baathification board decision does seem to be one of those rare cases in Iraqi politics where every side is satisfied. One possible interpretation of how it succeeded is that Maliki’s Daawa is apparently taking a back seat and is leaving the role of being Baathist hardliner to the Sadrists.

Today’s vote on the de-Baathification commission is interesting also as a possible harbinger of dynamics at an upcoming important vote in the Iraqi parliament: The approval of a new election commission (IHEC). Both these votes can be done legally with a simple majority. However, with respect to IHEC, Maliki is more determined to have the current board replaced since its make-up dating back to 2007 antedates his own rise to power.

Alas, there was also another possible harbinger of future trends in Iraq today. After weeks with pressure on the minister of higher education to appear before parliament for  questioning (and with an apparent ultimatum for him to do so this week) the Iraqi supreme court today produced a very timely ruling, as least as far as the minister’s point of view is concerned. In fact, the request for a constitutional clarification was dated as recently as 30 April, meaning that the court has been unusually effective. It should be added that the minister in question, Ali al-Adib, is from Maliki’s party.

Perhaps it is its effectiveness that has led to what must be described as one of its most scandalous rulings ever, perhaps second only to the Byzantine piece of jurisprudence pertaining to the independent commissions that it produced last year. Basically, the query is about the interpretation of article 61-7-c of the constitution. That article is very simple. It enables 25 deputies to request the questioning of ministers in order to “hold them accountable for matters within their specializations”, with at least seven days between the request to the actual hearing. And that is it.

But the ruling of the supreme court is far more complicated! It appears to say such requests must be accompanied by a specification of alleged constitutional and legal infractions and must define breaches and material damages in terms of criminal procedure. The court goes on to say questioning is the highest form of supervision parliament can exercise and considers it tantamount to withdrawing confidence in the minister.

The problem is, absolutely none of this can be found in the constitution. Actually, the court also refers to article 58 of the parliament bylaws, but the basis for the new interpretation just isn’t there either and the legality of those bylaws – currently under review – is disputed anyway. Certainly, most cases of Iraqi ministers being questioned in the past seven years have been void of specific accusations of criminality.

What we have here is a very clear case of the Iraqi supreme court producing a ruling that seems politically biased to the point where it apparently overrules the Iraqi constitution and the right of parliament to hold ministers accountable. Hopefully Iraqi politicians will use the specific problems at hand here – rather than the fantasies of the Arbil agreement, which in itself is full of unconstitutional and extra-constitutional ideas – to frame a reasonable debate about the independence of the Iraqi judiciary. They have got plenty of time to do so, because parliament is now on holiday until 14 June.

Posted in De-Baathification, Iraqi constitutional issues | 19 Comments »

The 9-Point Letter from Arbil

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 5 May 2012 23:11

Over the past week, much fanfare has attached to a 9-point ultimatum letter that was written by the Maliki critics convening in Arbil on 28 April (Kurdish president Masud Barzani, Ayad Allawi and Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya, Muqtada al-Sadr) and then sent to the bloc leader of the Shiite alliance, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. It has been clear for some time that the letter demanded Maliki’s adherence to the contents of the letter within 15 days or a move to sack him would be initiated in parliament. However, the 9 points themselves have not been published before they appeared in the hardcopy version of the Sabah newspaper this morning.

Unfortunately, the letter exudes the usual Iraqi grandiosity and abstraction that have also been the main weaknesses of previous “agreements”. The first two points include generalities like providing services to the Iraqi population, adherence to the constitution, striving for consensus and maintaining democracy! Which Iraqi wouldn’t subscribe to that in theory?

The third point is somewhat more specific, in that it calls for the adoption of the Arbil agreement, the 18 recent points of Muqtada al-Sadr (all of which are useless generalities except for a praiseworthy call for Iraqi support for the oppressed peoples of Bahrain and Syria alike), and, apparently added for good measure, the “memorandum of understanding which the Kurdistan Alliance presented and to which the chief of the government agreed”. The latter sounds perhaps like the Kurdish 19 points of autumn 2010 which were augmented to 25 points in bilateral dialogue with the Shiite alliance in late October that year? Maliki is supposed to have said yes to that and possibly signed as well, but this is difficult stuff that is even harder to implement than Arbil.

The fourth point of the leaked letter is a little bit more specific in that it addresses the problems of ministries governed by deputies and acting ministers. It also underlines the independent commissions and the importance of them staying independent. The electoral commission, in particular, is highlighted as an area of concern.

Alas, with the fifth point it is back to hopeless generalities. Revive the role of parliament. Yeah right. Bring it to life! Maybe that is not for the executive to take care of after all. Sixth point, unsurprisingly, bring an end to dictatorial tendencies in government, please. Seventh, avoid a politicized army and security forces.

The eighth point contains the ultimatum: Unless there is adherence (iltizam) to these principles the matter will be left in the hands of the Shia alliance to initiate a move to withdraw confidence in the government and form a new one – a “real partnership government”. Oh, and just one more: Ninth, the premiership will be limited to two terms to secure peaceful transfer of power and democracy and avoid dictatorship. Just an afterthought, apparently.

In a way, the hapless language of the letter rescues Maliki and the Arbil conventioneers alike. What is demanded, after all, is “adherence” not “implementation”. Probably the safest thing for Maliki is to make that declaration before 13 May. “I adhere”. He will probably add, as long as everything is within the constitution. Most of it isn’t, of course, and actually requires several years of special majority votes in parliament, popular referendums and possibly supreme court reviews. But that is a different story. It is one that was conveniently forgotten at Arbil in 2010 and it can be forgotten again.

Both sides will declare victory; Maliki will remain premier as long as the Sadrists don’t get even more exasperated than they already are. Perhaps the one remaining hope now relates to the electoral commission: Maliki is unhappy with the current one and needs a new one. That can only happen via a majority vote in parliament. Maybe that – more than letters from Arbil – can serve as an effective reminder that he also sometimes needs to broaden his alliance beyond its current state.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues | 8 Comments »

The Cassation Court Vote: A Rare Case of Iraqi Consensus?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 3 May 2012 19:18

At first there appeared to be some good news from the Iraqi parliament today. After several attempts and much discussion, altogether 23 judges for the Iraqi court of cassation received parliamentary approval.

The cassation court vote had previously exhibited the usual problems of Iraqi politics. Sadrists had complained that some of the candidates had Baathist pasts. Iraqiyya had called for individual votes, attacking Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for attempting to impose “political” candidates through his demand for a single vote on the whole batch of candidates. Shiite alliance members had attacked the Kurds for insisting on a Kurdish quota of judges.

So when news broke today that 23 judges had been approved, it seemed to represent a positive development. Reports that a 24th judge had not been approved would seem to suggest that Iraqiyya’s call for individual votes had been respected. Early reports said as “many” as 212 MPs had been present (out of 325 deputies altogether – this pathetic figure is unfortunately above average). If true, it would have meant cross-party support for one of the main pillars of the Iraqi judiciary.

But, alas, there are some problems in the official parliament report. Attendance figures here often differ from initial reports, and today’s number is given as no more than 165. Additionally, news report suggest that the votes on the judges often split along party lines, with some votes splitting the chamber almost in half. For example, one particularly disputed judge supported by Iraqiyya and opposed by Maliki first received 71 votes (less than a majority) but then there was a second vote due to alleged technical issues where he got 99 votes.

What these numbers show above all is the continued failure of Maliki critics to get close the magical 163 mark needed to unseat him. At the same time, of course, it shows Maliki himself is far away from reaching the “political majority” alternative his allies sometimes talk about.

Perhaps the first thing all sides should address is the scandalously high number of absent deputies. Simply filling up the parliament chamber could in itself have some valuable impact on this stalemated situation.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election | 9 Comments »