Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January, 2013

Chuck Hagel, Iraq and Obama’s Easy-Listening Foreign Policy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 31 January 2013 5:38

There has been no lack of critical voices regarding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as US defence secretary. Protests against the nomination range from accusations of homophobia to suggestions he is “soft” on Iran and lacks “commitment” to Israel.

One argument against Hagel that is never going to be used in the hearings on Capitol Hill today but is nonetheless worth mentioning concerns his views on Iraq, particularly as expressed during the debate about the Bush policy of a “surge” of US forces in early 2007. Some will perhaps make use of those remarks to argue that Hagel was against the “successful” surge of US forces. That view to some extent exaggerates the significance of the surge as an independent factor behind the reasonable political climate that briefly prevailed in Iraq between April 2008 and April 2009, and is not really a meaningful argument against Hagel’s candidacy. But there is another, deeper argument relating to Hagel’s epistemology of Iraqi politics that came to the fore in those heated debates in early 2007. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on 12 January 2007, Hagel contended that,  “we are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control, Iraqi on Iraqi. Worse, it is inter-sectarian [sic] violence, Shia killing Shia”.


Hagel probably said, or meant to say,  “intra-sectarian”. In any case, his point was very clear: There is supposedly a natural state of affairs in Iraqi politics, consisting of endless sectarian conflict. Sunnis killing Shiites would have been “natural” to Hagel. When Shiites began killing Shiites, it meant the situation was “worse”, unnatural and out of control.

This little piece of simplistic Iraq epistemology may perhaps come across as innocuous to the majority of American commenters on Middle Eastern affairs. Indeed, there is nothing terribly unique in what Hagel says, even though he is pitching the message in a more clear-cut manner than most others. Many US analysts prefer to see Iraq as an eternal battleground of Shiites and Sunnis, supposedly going back many centuries in time.

And today, of course, some will no doubt claim that the current situation in Iraq and the region proves Hagel was right in 2007. Aren’t Shiites fighting Sunnis more than ever, aren’t Sunnis demanding their own federal region in Iraq, and isn’t there even a clear-cut regional dimension since Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) is sponsoring Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, and Iran (the successor to the Safavids) is doing the same with regard to Iraqi Shiites and Syrian Alawites?

The point is, though, that this situation today does not reflect a unilinear, steady deterioration of affairs in Iraq from the time Hagel made his statement in 2007 until today. Following that period, thanks both to the surge and the growing rejection by many Iraqi politicians of parts of the hastily crafted 2005 constitution, a more moderate political climate dominated in 2008 and during the 2009 local elections. Crucially, after a sectarian climate had prevailed during the civil-war like conditions of 2006 and 2007, the atmosphere of Iraqi politics improved sufficiently during 2008 to encourage Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to run on a separate electoral ticket in the local elections in January 2009, quite despite the expressed desire for Iran to see greater Shiite sectarian unity.

Prior to the parliamentary elections of 2010, Maliki tried the same thing. But when the new Obama administration initiated ouvertures to Iran in spring 2009, Iran reciprocated by asserting itself even more strongly in Iraqi politics, propelling de-Baathification to the top of the agenda and gradually focing Maliki back to sectarian unity. Symptomatically, in the upcoming Iraq local elections on 20 April 2013, unlike in 2009, Maliki will run a big Shiite sectarian coalition in most provinces and all-Shiite coalitions in areas with Shiite minorities, entirely in accordance with Iranian preferences for unified Shiite coalitions.

The Obama administration, with numerous people sharing Hagel’s epistemology, probably even didn’t see that sectarian turn as a true anomaly. This of course is not to suggest that US influence in Iraq before 2009 was singularly virtuous or that the micro-managing of the Bush administration rested upon superior epistemological bases. But it did mean a multipolar environment for the Iraqi Shiites which has virtually disappeared during the Obama administration. Today, Iran seems to be the only game in town – and Obama seems to think that is a natural state of affairs.

Perhaps Obama also sees some sort of potential in an Iran-dominated Iraq? It is very hard to avoid wondering whether the current acquiescence in face of rising sectarianism in Iraq actually constitutes something of a dangling carrot in front of Iran, not unlike the Arab-press conspiracy theory of concessions to Iran in Iraq in exchange for a deal on the Iranian nuclear file. These days, American oil in Iraq, including Chevron where Hagel serves happens to serve on the board of directors, seems to be migrating northwards to the Kurdish areas of Iraq that are under Turkish influence.


Obviously, rapprochement with Iran, with which Hagel is associated as part of a greater effort to disentangle the US from the Middle East, is in itself not a bad thing. But it should still be possible to criticize the precise nature of such movements. To use Iraq as a bargaining chip with Iran is simply just a lot more ahistorical than Obama realizes, and as a consequence, perhaps less sustainable over time. Historically, despite the cooperation between Iran and Iraqi Islamist parties since the 1980s, Iraqi Shiites have tended to resist Iranian domination. The difference is that whereas Hagel and his friends posit sectarianism as an eternally dominant theme of Iraqi politics, Iraqi history shows a far more spasmodic pattern in which the significance of sectarianism has often receded in the absence of foreign intervention or regional instabilities. There was not much in the way of sectarian violence during the several centuries of Ottoman rule, or during the Iraqi monarchy period.

Is it advisable to induce pan-Shiite tendencies in Iraq just for the sake of epistemological simplicity? So far, without moving on the nuclear issue, Iran has only taken the opportunity to strengthen its hold over Iraq and Syria. Approaching the Syrian crisis with Hagelian worldview, in turn, illustrates how the act of colouring whole areas and even countries sectarian inevitably means caving into the most radical sectarian forces in the region. Syria, in the eyes of Hagel, is presumably as “Sunni” as Iraq is “Shiite”. In this simplistic view, all Sunnis of Syria staunchly oppose Assad and only Alawites (and maybe Christians) support him. Of course, exactly like in Iraq, history is more complex. Anyone who is familiar with Syrian history knows that “Sunni” Aleppo may well have different dynamics from “Sunni” Damascus. In fact, if Syrian politics could be reduced to a sectarian battle, Damascus would probably have fallen long time ago.

It is simplistic approaches to Middle Eastern sectarian dynamics like those of Chuck Hagel that help bring about a situation where the West is fighting Al-Qaeda in Mali and is tacitly supporting them in Syria. And Hagel will join an increasing number of people with similar simplistic, easy-listening approaches to the Middle East in the Obama administration. Alongside Chuck “It Is Natural for Sunnis to Kill Shiites” Hagel at defence, we will have John “They Have Been Fighting Each Other for Centuries” Kerry as secretary of state, and Joe “My Guess Is It Will Be Three States” Biden as vice president. With policy-makers like these, there may unfortunately be a whole lot of Benghazis to come.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 11 Comments »

New Law Limits the Terms of Iraq’s Prime Minister

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 27 January 2013 9:26

A couple of points regarding the law on term limits for the “three presidencies” passed by the Iraqi parliament on Saturday.

  • The law limits the three presidencies (president proper, speaker of parliament and prime minister) to two terms, whether successive or not.
  • Whereas a limitation on the presidency to two terms is prescribed in the Iraqi constitution for the presidency proper, no such restriction appears with regard to the premiership. Maliki supporters is calling the law unconstitutional for this reason. It may be more correct to see the law as “extra-constitutional” (since the constitution is mute) but that does not mean the supreme court will not find problems with it.
  • Another noteworthy problem is that the law is a “proposed law” rather than a legislative project. In 2010, the Iraqi supreme court struck down another such “proposed law”, arguing that parliament had no right to initiate legislation other than making a proposal that would then have to pass through parliament. The supreme court may opt to strike down the bill simply for that reason.
  • Note that rejection of the bill is not automatic: It must be specifically challenged before the supreme court. Maliki will probably lose no time in doing so, but it should be added that at least a couple of dozens of “proposals” have indeed been passed into law apparently without such challenges over the past few years, and quite a few others are on their way. The sheer volume of this legislative action suggests the Iraqi supreme court may gradually find it harder and harder to defend what is arguably a somewhat contrived ruling.
  • It is noteworthy, too, that the law shows the Iraqi parliament can be effective when it wants. The bill was introduced, read and passed all in the single month of January.
  • The bill passed with 170 votes. That’s of course more than the magical 163 threshold that was not achieved when the sacking of Maliki was on the agenda last spring. Nonetheless, the bill is so clearly directed against Maliki personally that it should be taken to mean any other vote in parliament other than a non-confidence motion is potentially problematic to him. Maliki may hide behind supreme court activism that effectively confines the ability of parliament to legislate introduce bills or hold ministers accountable for the purpose of sacking them. But he needs to get a budget passed and handle acute tensions with the Kurdish federal government, some of which require legislative agreement. Maliki cannot survive merely on the basis of an amenable judiciary and populist gestures of an increasingly sectarian nature.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues | 6 Comments »

The Iraqi Parliament Moves against Maliki on Several Fronts

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 15 January 2013 12:11

Reports out of the Iraqi parliament are getting more and more extraordinary. The summary of events relating to its session on Monday is no exception.

Among the items on the agenda that were taken up for debate was nothing less than the “questioning of the minister of sports in absentia”. The sports minister, a Turkmen Shia Islamist and an ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has been accused of misconduct relating to the affairs of his ministry, including a major sports city project. The questioning went ahead headed by a Sadrist, whereas Maliki’s minister of parliamentary affairs called for legal procedures before the federal supreme court (relating to recent limitations on the rights of parliament to question ministers) to run their course before any questioning.

In another challenge to Maliki, a second reading for a bill intended to limit the terms of the “three presidencies”(i.e. the president of the republic, the “president of the cabinet” which is Arabic for the prime minister, and “the president of the national assembly”, i.e. the parliament speaker). The move, initiated with a first reading just a week ago, is seen as an obvious attempt to curb Maliki’s ambitions for a third term. It is noteworthy that whereas term limits for the president of the republic exist in the constitution, there is nothing in the Iraqi charter that prevents a prime minister for continuing for unlimited periods as long as he wins parliamentary support to accede to the position each time. Maliki allies have pointed out this, and claim that any attempt to impose limits without fixing the constitution itself (that requires supermajorities) would be unconstitutional. It is also unclear how the federal supreme court would deal with any passage of the law since it is a mere “proposal” rather than a cabinet-sponsored “project”, a legal distinction that limits the possibilities for the Iraqi parliament to initiate legislation.

Finally, Parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi formally communicated a decision by the presidency of the parliament to withhold the voting rights of Maliki ally Hanan al-Fatlawi until she has apologized formally to Nujayfi for insults thrown at him. It is noteworthy that the parliament presidency is dominated by Nujayfi (Iraqiyya) and his two deputies – a Kurd and a Sadrist. In the case of Fatlawi, at least, these forces are standing firm against Maliki, and it will be interesting to see whether Maliki will use the upcoming annual budget law to expand his parliament support base somewhat, or whether he will persevere with his current strategy of a de facto minority government as the local elections of 20 April come closer.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Emergency Session of Iraqi Parliament Indicates Size of Opposition to Maliki

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 January 2013 6:27

Yesterday’s attempted emergency session of the Iraqi parliament was an important expression of how recent weeks of protests in Iraq translate into parliamentary arithmetic.

Numbers and rumours regarding the participation of various blocs have been flying around ever since the beginning of Sunday’s session. Regarding the parties that refrained from attending, the reports have been quite consistent: The State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki along with Shiite Islamists allies Badr, Fadila and, somewhat more surprisingly perhaps since they are not in alliance for the local elections except in the north, the ISCI-Muwatin bloc of Ammar al-Hakim. Also the White bloc, a mostly Shiite breakaway faction from the secular-Sunni dominated Iraqiyya boycotted the session. That means there were MPs present from Iraqiyya (whose constituencies have played the dominant role in the recent protests), the Kurds, and the Sadrists.

The theoretical parliamentary strength of those who boycotted is around 130, whereas the attendants, again in theory, should at least be able to muster 170 deputies, above the 163 mark that signifies the quorum level in the Iraqi parliament. Things got quite ironic during the course of Sunday as press reports made headlines to the effect that the quest to reach quorum was so intense (and the general attendance level of the Iraqiyya deputies so poor) that even Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi came to parliament (he usually doesn’t, although it is of course his a duty as an MP to attend). In the end, it wasn’t enough. According to the official parliamentary report, 161 deputies attended, just 2 MPs short of quorum. This is higher than some of the unofficial figures that circulated earlier on Sunday but of course not enough to hold a valid parliamentary session.


As the Iraqi political scene heats up, it is equally important to be aware of the parameters within which the Iraqi parliament can affect change. Two supreme court rulings have hamstrung the parliament in significant ways over the last few years. The first, from July 2010,  considers the modalities of introducing a bill, in practice restricting the right of parliament to initiate legislation since every law needs to pass through the government before it can get voted on. The second, from May 2012, considers limitations on the right of parliament to question ministers.

It should be added here that even the act of cancelling a bill in practice requires a “legislative project” that needs to pass two readings. This is relevant since there was some talk about projected attempts to strike down anti-terror legislation with which many of the Anbar protestors are unhappy.

What this means in practice is that the most that can be expected by parliament in terms of radical anti-Maliki action in a hastily convened session like that of yesterday is passage of a bill that has already been through two readings, such as the vote on the supreme court bill, or perhaps the general amnesty law. Passage of such items in the absence of Maliki should not be excluded altogether despite yesterday’s failure. For example, on the amnesty law, Sadrists and Iraqiyya have seen eye to eye in the past. The successful vote for an electoral commission that was not to Maliki’s liking shows that there is no hard veto preventing the Shiite parties for going against Maliki as long as the subject matter is not the survival of the Shiite-led government as such.

Maliki allies have rightly pointed out that the idea of a “consultative” session is an innovation. Constitutionally, what happened Sunday was nothing more than a tea party. But the session was very close to achieving quorum, and Maliki should not exclude the possibility that similar attempts to score political points will be launched prior to the 20 April local elections. With a coalition-strategy that looks more sectarian than in 2009, he is also less immune to this kind of parliamentary action than he was earlier.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »