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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 »

As Paul Bremer Wanted Them To Be

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 13 April 2012 14:17

The Iraqi parliament marked the 9-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad this week by approving a human rights commission, made up by 11 members. The legislation relevant to the commission was passed back in 2008, so it has taken a long time to agree on those 11. And,  in an indication of continued dissension as to the legacy of the war that unseated Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are already divided regarding the significance of the new commission and the legitimacy of the process by which it emerged.

The concept of a human rights commission is in itself an important innovation, both in Iraq and in the Gulf region more broadly. The idea is that citizens can contact the commission directly whenever they wish to have cases of human rights violations heard. The commission, in turn, can decide to hand over cases to the judiciary. It is however important to note that the commission does not possess any judicial power of its own. Accordingly, it cannot be described as a fully-fledged oversight body vis-à-vis the police and the security forces.

At any rate,  while the idea behind the commission may be beautiful, the way the commission emerged has already prompted some criticism among Iraqis. Hardly had the names of the 11 new commissioners been agreed by parliament before angry voices began shouting a well-known term of abuse: muhasasa!

Muhasasa means quota-sharing in Arabic. In the Iraqi context, it has become associated with the particular formula of ethno-sectarian power-sharing government that was established by the US occupation administrator Paul Bremer when he instituted the new Iraqi governing council in 2003.  One of Bremer’s key concepts was that national decision-making institutions should reflect Iraq’s ethno-sectarian demographic balance proportionally. Bremer took this imperative quite literally: His memoir recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis for being unrepresentative due to the presence of only a single Sunni Arab, and how he in another context nixed the participation of a Christian representative on the governing council based on the reasoning that the Christian representation on the council would become disproportionally high if there were two Christian members rather than one. Another consequence of Bremer’s thinking is that in most institutions of post-2003 Iraq, there would be a preset Shiite majority, mostly in line with their 60-65% share of the total Iraqi population.

Are the accusations of quota-sharing correct when it comes to the new human rights commission? Yes and no. To take the positives first, most of the new commissioners do have legal expertise and have worked within the field of human rights for many years –  in NGOs, government or academia. Many are lawyers by training whereas a few are medical doctors who have made careers within the field of human rights.

But are these therefore the 11 most suitable human rights commissioners in Iraq? Are they the ones that would have prevailed in a competition that was blind to ethnicity and sect? After all, human rights are supposed to be a supremely universal field of practice where such considerations should count for nothing.

This is where the quotas come into the picture. Hardly had the vote in parliament been finished before hardworking AFP reporters had established that the ethno-religious balance of the new committee was 6 Shiites, 4 Sunnis and 1 Yazidi. That would be broadly in tune with the Bremer approach (though he might have insisted on one Christian as well). Ethnically there were 8 Arabs, 2 Kurds and 1 Turkmen, again roughly reflecting Iraqi demographics proportionally. These very predictable findings do suggest that quota factors may have played a stronger role in selecting the 11 than their ability alone. The contrast is another team of eleven –  the Iraqi soccer team, which uniquely remains something of a quota-free oasis in the new Iraq.

If we look more closely, it is equally clear that political-party affiliations also played a role. Hayman al-Bajlani has ties to the Kurdish KDP, Bushra al-Ubaydi was once a candidate for the Unity of Iraq list (now part of the secular Iraqiyya), Falah al-Yasiri is connected with the Sadrist movement and Salama Khafaji has links to the Shiite alliance. Among the prominent bureaucrats in the Shiite-majority governorates – examples include Fadil al-Gharawi in Najaf and Maytham al-Ghazzi in Dhi Qar – there are likely some allies of the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But there are also a few representatives who do not lend themselves easily to this kind of neat classification, whether on ethno-religious or political basis. Some quick searching on Fathi al-Hayani and Ahmad Muhammad Baqir al-Attar failed to provide decisive clues about their pasts. In other words, not all of the new commissioners come from politicized or ethno-sectarian activist backgrounds, and this in itself could be a sign of good news.

Importantly, the composition of the human rights committee does not reflect a legal or constitutional imposition – the explicit muhasasa requirement in the Iraqi constitution mainly applies to the military, the security forces and the constitutional review committee. As for the law on the commission from 2008, it is noteworthy that the stipulated female quota – one third of the members – has not been fulfilled (2 women instead of 3). The Yazidi commissioner satisfies the legal requirement of 1 minority representative.

In other words, the proportional representation in this committee is to some extent a Paul Bremer legacy. It is just something Iraqi politicians of the post-2003 generation continue to do, again and again. And it is spreading rather than going away: Lately, the once secular Iraqiyya party has been an ardent supporter of a Kurdish idea of counting Sunnis and Shiites in government ministries in the name of national “balance” (tawazun). What Iraqis should ask themselves is the virtue of continuing to make appointments along these proportional lines. One of the most perfectly proportional institutions in this respect is in fact the Iraqi federal supreme court. Has it not easily succumbed to the dominance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki despite having been appointed with such Bremerian precision?

Sadly, some of the critics of the appointment procedure are themselves visibly infected by the muhasasa virus. For example, the Kurdish “opposition” parties that are independent of the Kurdistan Alliance in the Iraqi parliament criticized the appointment procedure for being subjected to political pressures. Their main grievance, though, was that their own parties had not been represented!

The United States fought many fights in Iraq – some good and some bad, and with some losses and some victories. The definitional battle of Iraqi politics is perhaps Paul Bremer’s least recognized victory, but a very resounding one. It deserves mention that the US embassy in Baghdad promptly declared the appointment of the human rights commission “historical”.

Only when Iraqis have the courage to come up with a commission that is surprisingly unrepresentative of the Iraqi population simply because of the high quality of its members will they truly liberate themselves from both Saddam Hussein and Paul Bremer.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 19 Comments »

Small Victories for Maliki in Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 5 January 2012 14:22

The Iraqi national assembly was it usual self today, with the predictable assortment of idiosyncrasies that are typical of Iraqi politics. However, for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, there was some good news.

This includes the simple fact that the parliamentary sessions continue to take place despite the boycott by the secular Iraqiyya party. Today, once more, signs of tensions between Maliki’s own Shiite Islamist State of Law bloc and the Kurds at one point threatened the quorum of the session, but an amicable resolution was found and the session could resume, technically as an “extraordinary session” since it had been officially terminated during the preceding tension.

With relative peace vis-à-vis the Kurds, Maliki is probably satisfied with the fact that some Iraqiyya members opted to take part in the session, which altogether counted 192 members, thus comfortably above the quorum threshold at 163 and not that much different from the normal attendance level in 2011. Reportedly, those Iraqiyya members present numbered between six and eight. Over and above that, they included at least three deputies who say they are forming a new bloc within Iraqiyya, opposed to calls for Sunni-area federalism and sympathetic to Shiites that have defected from Iraqiyya in the south. These three deputies all nominally belonged to the Iraqiyyun bloc of parliament speaker  Usama al-Nujayfi in the past, and one of them was formerly a prominent advocate of a majority government between Iraqiyya and State of Law.

Conceptually, then, this new tendency seems similar to the White Iraqiyya breakaway faction of Iraqiyya which is reckoned as openly pro-Maliki. (Equally important is the fact that they remain separate and have not joined White Iraqiyya.) Additional Iraqiyya attendants in parliament today reportedly included members of the Hall (Karbuli) faction. It is noteworthy that the assembly today managed to agree on additional judges to the de-Baathification appellate court, which had proved troublesome in the past.

In the past, White Iraqiyya has sometimes been dismissed as “Shiite Iraqiyya”, which is not entirely plausible since it also includes vocal Sunni members from Nineveh. Today’s developments stress that there are more Sunnis in the north that are prepared to speak the language of anti-federalism and could be potential allies to Maliki in the north. They come at a time when there are conflicting reports about the exact status of Iraqiyya ministers boycotting cabinet meetings, with some reports suggesting that certain individual ministers are prepared to return. Again, the Hall faction is mentioned as a possible dissenter to the general Iraqiyya line.

To Maliki, this is the ideal scenario: Parliament continues to function, not terribly effective, but enough to get some things done and preventing a formal disintegration of democratic politics. Maliki may well be hoping that similar things could happen at the level of the cabinet , since a situation with too many acting ministers unapproved by parliament in the long run would threaten one of the most basic principles in a parliamentary democracy – that of ministerial answerability to the national assembly.  

It is noteworthy that all these developments point in a different direction than the doom and gloom associated with the Iraqiyya boycott and renewed violence today. Importantly, and often overlooked by Western policy-makers, this is a potential avenue of rapprochement that has nothing to do at all with the Arbil agreement.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 45 Comments »

Iraqiyya Decides to Boycott Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 17 December 2011 12:05

In normal democracies, if political parties are unhappy with the general situation, they may try to sack the government – or in case they themselves are part of that government, resign from it.

Iraq is not a normal democracy. If you still need proof of that, take the latest decision by the secular Iraqiyya party to boycott parliament in protest against highhandedness on the part of the Shiite Islamist prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Supposedly, the move is intended as a warning to Maliki that ministers may be withdrawn, too. The goal is also to win over other critics of Maliki that are currently part of his government, such as the Kurds and ISCI, which are both unhappy with aspects of Maliki’s policies.

The nature of the move also serves as an indicator of some of the problems in Iraqiyya’s strategy. They are reluctant to give up control of ministries proper and are using a parliamentary withdrawal as a substitute. Iraq remains a patronage-based society and with ministries come power, as simple as that.

Second, today saw the first session of parliament without Iraqiyya participation. 184 deputies were present (some sources say 182), meaning that the quorum (163) was easily reached – although half an hour extra was apparently needed in order to rouse some deputies from their sleep and bring them to the assembly. During the past year, parliamentary sessions have typically gathered around 220 deputies, to some extent reflecting the fact that Iraqiyya already stood out as one of the blocs with a particularly poor attendance record. What these numbers show is that Maliki may well be able to continue to get things done in parliament regardless of whether Iraqiyya participates or not. (Indeed, he may well continue to get things done without reference to parliament at all.)

As regards the internal balance in Iraqiyya, it should be noted that the decision to boycott was taken by a meeting yesterday night chaired by its leader Ayad Allawi, in the house of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi. It is being suggested that most sub-components of the alliance were present. Usama al-Nujayfi,  the parliamentary speaker and leader of a significant faction within Iraqiyya, will go on chairing parliament even as Iraqiyya deputies are absent.

The problem for Iraqiyya is that the Kurds may well see this whole situation as an opportunity to gain further concessions from Maliki instead of joining ranks with Iraqiyya in a move to sack the government. If Iraqiyya jump and no one else follows, they could be left out in the cold.

From the point of view of Maliki, a tactical alliance with the Kurds combined with an increasingly authoritarian approach to the Sunni-majority areas (tribal support councils etc.) may well be considered an option. More realistically speaking, though, as long as he does not want to be seen as the man who sold Kirkuk to the Kurds, Maliki will figure out he does need some substantial partners from Iraqiyya. Whether he sees the current situation as a potential juncture for achieving that remains to be seen. Over the past few years, parliament speaker Nujayfi has been particularly chameleon-like in his dealings with Maliki, sometimes signalling a greater inclination towards compromise but more lately also indicating sympathy with the rising pro-federal trend among Sunnis that Maliki so vociferously rejects. It is noteworthy, though, that so far there is no major pro-federal movement in Nujayfi’s home constituency of Nineveh.  

Chances are that Maliki may well try to soldier on as a strongman for all of Iraq despite his limited parliamentary backing. With the United States gone, it could increasingly be Iran, Syria and Turkey that will define the external environment of Iraq’s factional politics.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi nationalism | 13 Comments »

Maliki Pulls It Off Again: The State of Law Minority-Government Strategy Is Working

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 4 October 2011 22:08

What is nominally the second partnership-government of Nuri al-Maliki can increasingly be described as a minority government of his own Shiite Islamist State of Law bloc relying on ad hoc support from other players including the Kurds, Sadrists and White Iraqiyya. The outcome of tonight’s high-level meeting of political leaders in Baghdad suggests that Maliki’s apparent strategy of proceeding with the slimmest possible parliamentary support base could in fact be working.

The main issue at today’s meeting appears to have been conflict over the agenda. It had originally been envisaged that the meeting would address such issues as the security ministries, the proposed national council for high policies, and more broadly the future of the “Arbil framework” that led to the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010. However, Maliki apparently managed to turn the meeting into a more limited discussion about the parameters of the US “instructor” presence after 31 December 2011. On this issue, the meeting concluded with a formula that apparently gives Maliki what he wants: There will be instructors but they will enjoy no special legal immunities. Maliki will be able to sell this arrangement to his constituency in the same way that he sold the SOFA agreement in 2008, arguing that by appealing to the values of nationalism it is possible to squeeze the Americans: In 2008, the Bush administration pushed for a long-term arrangement and ended up with a 3-year withdrawal plan; in 2011 the focus is on mere “instructors” and Maliki will apparently not give the Obama administration what it wants in terms of legal immunities for those instructors. No agreement on numbers was reached at today’s meeting.

In terms of politics, the significant development today was the withdrawal from the meeting of two Iraqiyya leaders, Ayyad Allawi and Tareq al-Hashemi, apparently in protest against the more limited agenda. The lone protest by Allawi and Hashemi in turn symbolises the problems of the opposition to Maliki. At least four Iraqiyya leaders (Usama al-Nujayfi, Salman al-Jumayli and Salih al-Mutlak plus Arshad al-Salihi of the Turkmen Front) must have remained in the room after Allawi and Hashemi left. Maybe the recent visit to Iran by Usama al-Nujayfi and the rumours about friction between him and Allawi has played a certain role? Similarly, the participation at the meeting by Qusay al-Suhayl (Sadrist) and Muhammad al-Hashemi (representing ISCI) signifies the reluctance of those forces to challenge Maliki, despite the widespread assumption in some Iraqiyya circles close to Allawi about their willingness to do so. Significantly, too, there was no word about any Kurdish withdrawal. As expected, White Iraqiyya participated.

What this all means is that the repeated calls from Iraqiyya for fresh elections are unlikely to go anywhere. If Maliki should get into trouble with the Kurds, as some recent parliamentary defeats might suggest, he can probably rely on elements from Iraqiyya that are critical of Allawi as far as oil and gas legislation and Kirkuk are concerned anyway. More probably, though, Maliki may seek to continue to defer decision on these contentious  issues as much as possible until such time that he believes his own State of Law coalition can win a parliamentary election and form a smaller majority government proper.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi nationalism, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 23 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 »

A Daawa Militia? The Appearance of Fursan Dawlat al-Qanun

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 28 August 2011 14:25

Throughout the post-2003 period in Iraqi history, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Daawa political party of Nuri al-Maliki has been its lack of any militia component. This set the Daawa apart from other Shiite Islamist movements like ISCI, the Sadrists and even Fadila (which had paramilitary affiliates at least in Basra). Indeed, during the summer of 2009 when other Shiite parties tried to convince Maliki to join them in a wider sectarian alliance, one of the arguments marshalled by Maliki in defence of going it alone was precisely that his party believed “in the state, not in militias”.

Last week, there were some cracks in this image as a previously unknown entity named “The State of Law Knights” (fursan dawlat al-qanun) appeared on the political scene with threatening comments against Kuwait. Unless Kuwait would stop its controversial Mubarak port project, it was said, military and popular action from the Iraqi side of the border would ensue. Despite seemingly frantic attempts by State of Law leaders to dispel the notion of any link between themselves and the new organisation that carries almost the same name, enemies of Maliki seized on the story as evidence that Maliki had finally began formalising a relationship between his own State of Law bloc and a paramilitary organisation.  Some even quoted anonymous Sadrist sources to the effect that the controversial tribal “support councils” that were established by Maliki in rural areas from 2008 onwards are in fact now being converted to a new role as paramilitary fursan.

So who got it right this time, the conspiracy theorists or Maliki’s people? There does in fact seem to be a degree of substance to the story. The secretary-general of the State of Law Knights is one Abd al-Sattar Jabbar al-Abbudi, who claims to have had “an electoral alliance with State of Law in the 2010 parliamentary elections”. This appears to be correct as far as there does indeed appear a candidate called Abd al-Sattar Jabbar Gati Khalifa on the State of Law list for Baghdad in 2010 who is almost certainly the same person (in 2005 he ran as an independent and was then called Abd al-Sattar Jabbar Gati al-Abbudi), although he seems to have run as an individual on the State of Law list in 2010 and not as the head of a separate entity within the State of Law coalition. As candidate number 114 he was hardly the top pick of the leadership, and he must have got less than the 1,300 personal votes that formed the threshold for winning promotion on the basis of personal votes on the State of Law list in Baghdad.

Accordingly, this latest phenomenon appears to be yet another incarnation of something we have seen previously: Political outfits that are clearly pro-Maliki, but that do not enjoy his formal endorsement. This has been seen previously with websites such as (which often but not always toes the Daawa party line). One interesting question is of course why Maliki –  who is being described by his detractors as increasingly autocratic – are unable to control these supposedly fringe elements within his very own coalition circles. Could the whole move be deliberate? The term “knights” has been used by Maliki to amplify his rhetoric in the past  such as during the “Charge of the Knights” operation in Basra in 2008.

As for the Mubarak port issue itself, a good deal of it looks like storm in a teacup designed to redirect attention from the general incompetence of the Iraqi government in making progress on its own harbour projects around Basra. Shiite politicians may find it potentially useful since it distracts from criticism concerning Iranian trespassing on the Iraqi border in the Kurdish areas, but if it is allowed to take precedence at the expense of more pressing domestic issues, Iraq rather than Kuwait is likely to be the main casualty of this whole affair.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 26 Comments »

Bulani-Mania in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 13 August 2011 16:42

After he formed his own electoral coalition known as Unity of Iraq in summer 2009, former interior minister Jawad al-Bulani has largely disappeared from the limelight in Iraq. His new coalition, which in many ways resembled an Iraqiyya in miniature with a secular ideology, a Shiite leader and a largely Sunni support base, performed poorly in the parliamentary elections of March 2010 and played no significant role in the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010. But for the past month or so, Bulani has once more attracted the interest of Iraqi media.

The first occasion on which Bulani came to the fore again was in July after the merger of his Unity of Iraq bloc with Iraqiyya. Unity of Iraq had originally emerged with only 4 deputies after the parliamentary elections and had first moved to form a post-election alliance known as Wasat with the equally unsuccessful Tawafuq coalition (6 deputies) with which it had few ideological commonalities. After the merger of Iraqiyya and Unity of Iraq, the rump of Wasat – basically the old Tawafuq – for a short while remained independent in parliament. However, recently Tawafuq moved to join Iraqiyya as well. Inevitably, in isolation these moves left a sense of greater sectarian polarisation in Iraqi politics, not least since the only branch of Iraqiyya that defected after the elections – White Iraqiyya – is Shiite-dominated and has recently been strengthened by yet another ex-Iraqiyya deputy from Karbala. For its part, despite Bulani being a Shiite and Unity of Iraq having a certain cross-sectarian appeal, Iraqiyya is certainly looking somewhat more Sunni-leaning after the latest co-option of Tawafuq, which in many ways was the quintessential “Sunni party” in the previous parliament.

Soon after the merger with Iraqiyya, some of Bulani’s troubles came to the fore. In an embarrassing development, the leader of Unity of Iraq had failed to win a seat for himself in the March 2010 election. Nonetheless, he was given a replacement seat earlier this year after a member of his coalition, Ali al-Sajri, was promoted  as minister of state in the new Maliki government. However, the problem was that Sajri had been a candidate in Salahaddin whereas Bulani had been a candidate in Baghdad, making his replacement distinctly at variance with the law on the replacement of candidates as well as the constitutionally stipulated balance of deputies between the governorates. Finally, in a much-overlooked development, on 10 August the Iraqi federal supreme court  announced that it had overruled the Iraqi parliament’s decision on replacement seats and deprived Bulani of the seat that he had been awarded earlier. There are several problems related to the ruling, including the question of why the same principles were not used against several other deputies (including individuals from the Sadrists, Fadila and Tawafuq) whose replacement of other deputies had featured exactly the same problems as those highlighted in the case of Bulani. So far, however, the only lingering protests considering the replacement seats seem to concern the seat given to a member of Iraqiyya after a White Iraqiyya member was given a ministry of state in February, as well as rather implausible protests by ministers affected by the recent downsizing of the government to the effect that they should get their parliamentary seats back (instead, those ministers should have protested the modalities of the downsizing procedure). 

Just to make matters worse, Bulani recently offered a press statement which left considerable doubt about his ability to read the Iraqi constitution properly: On 26 July, he told media that the Iraqi parliament should be reduced to 163 members, supposedly to reflect the correct proportion of deputies per voter!  In fact, what Bulani cited was the old elections law of 2005 and not the constitution. One of the reasons the election law was amended in 2009 was precisely that it was in conflict with the constitution in this regard.

At any rate (and possibly not entirely unrelated to the loss of his parliamentary seat and/or the recent merger with Iraqiyya), Bulani is now on the offensive again: He has suddenly become Iraqiyya’s candidate to head the defence ministry. This is an interesting move for numerous reasons. Firstly, back in 2006, Bulani had of course been the “Shiite compromise candidate” for interior (when the formation of the government was also held up for many months precisely due to bickering about who should hold the sensitive security ministries). Secondly, as a secular Shiite promoted by a coalition seen by some of its detractors as “too Sunni”, Bulani creates trouble for anyone who wants to adopt a neat sectarian perspective on Iraqi politics. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself has lately tried to label the defence post as a “Sunni prerogative” (rather than the rightful share of Iraqyya) in a sectarian and not too subtle move to circumvent the preferences of the Iraqiyya leaders for this post.

Bulani’s re-emergence as a candidate for defence in Iraq is potentially fruitful in the way it makes a mess of sectarian expectations that the defence post should go to a Sunni and interior to a Shiite. But by continuing to push for the strategic policy council, Bulani’s Iraqiyya is clinging to an oversized power-sharing formula for the Iraqi government which remains antithetical to recent public demands for a smaller, more effective cabinet. If Maliki is smart, he will accept Bulani and then see how this move influences internal politics in Iraqiyya, which in terms of numbers of important ministries will then be reasonably and comparatively speaking well integrated into his government after the recent downsizing. Unless Maliki is able to obtain allies outside his own core coalition that are prepared to challenge the strategic policy council favoured by Iraqiyya, an acrimonious debate about the council may well continue to dominate Iraqi politics for weeks and months at a time when focus on a new bilateral arrangement between Iraq and the United States is needed. Conversely, if Maliki is unwise and unrealistic, he will continue the futile search for “Sunnis outside Iraqiyya” to fill the defence ministry post.

Bulani, incidentally, is reasonably well liked in the United States for the work he did during his tenure at interior.

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

Can US Aims in Iraq Be Squared with a Discourse of Iraqi Sovereignty?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 18 July 2011 16:53

“American instructors!”

It has been long in the making but finally there are more specific signs that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is beginning to publicly articulate a vision of a post-2011 US presence in Iraq that can fit with his own avowed aim to be an Iraqi nationalist.

Importantly, after his recent meeting with the new US defence secretary Leon Panetta, Maliki was talking about “instructors” or “trainers” (mudaribun) and not advisers (mustasharun), or, for that matter, regular troops.  Historically speaking, “advisers” would be a major problem given the chequered legacy of the British in Iraq during the mandate and in subsequent decades, where it was precisely the popular hatred of the advisers (and the connotations of their immense political influence) that played a key role in unseating the monarchy in 1958. Similarly, regular forces or the presence of military bases would also be at obvious variance with a discourse of Iraqi nationalism.

The areas in which Maliki envisioned US training assistance included border surveillance, logistics and intelligence capabilities. This is actually a discourse that can fit in with a notion of Iraqi sovereignty: The US is considered an undisputed world leader in many of these areas; hence, to ask for assistance from a global superpower in these specific areas would not harm the idea of Iraqi independence in the same way that the “advisers” of the British mandate did.

Contrast this with the prevailing themes in the Western debate about Iraq. “Absence of external defence capabilities” is a recurrent term. And while this is probably true, as long as it is presented as a general issue rather than broken up into digestible and specific areas  that can be singled out for cooperation with the US (preferably technology-related), kneejerk nationalist reactions are likely to prevail in the Iraqi parliament.  Similarly, many Western commentators like to highlight a US peacekeeping role in and around Kirkuk. This is also something that is susceptible to Iraqi nationalist criticism, because it is a kind of narrative that fits so well with the standard conspiracy theory to the effect that foreigners are plotting to keep the Iraqis divided in order to justify their own continued military presence. If Arab-Kurdish tensions around Kirkuk are used as a key argument for extending a US presence in Iraq, each bomb that goes off elsewhere in the country may soon be blamed on a US scheme to pit Sunnis against Shiites so that they can extend the American presence in the oil-rich areas in the south.

The challenge for Washington is now to find out whether the parameters defined by Maliki – with an emphasis on “instructors” – can meet its own aims in a context where a straightforward SOFA renewal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Maliki seems to be aiming for a military presence that is so low-key that the anticipated parliamentary debate about the SOFA can simply be circumvented. For their part, the Iraqis still need to agree on a new minister of defence.

PS: Today’s vote in parliament to “support a reduction of the number of ministers in principle” is a non-issue. The real challenge is to actually do it and not least negotiate the constitutional modalities relating to such a move (i.e. the rules for dismissing a minister).

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 7 Comments »

Nujayfi’s Separatist Threat and the Reactions

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 28 June 2011 18:50

One sentence in an interview with Al-Hurra by parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi – a leading member of the Iraqiyya coalition – has created a wave of reactions in Iraq. In the interview given at the conclusion of his visit to the United States, Nujayfi alluded to the possibility of a “Sunni separation” from Iraq  unless there was improvement in the political situation.

Although there have been growing calls in the Sunni-majority areas for territorially based concessions  over the past year or so – many demand more rights for the governorates and some call for the establishment of federal regions – Nujayfi’s hint about a possible fully-fledged separation “of the Sunnis” is unprecedented. Firstly because separation in itself is rarely alluded to by others than the Kurds, and even they like to be a little circumspect when it comes to using that term. Secondly, the idea of combining the Sunni-majority governorates to a single “Sunni region” is not consonant with the limited pro-federal activity that has taken place over the past year, which has been mostly governorate-focused (as in the cases of Anbar and Salahhaddin). Indeed, any would-be Sunni separatists would face exactly the same problem as ISCI did in 2005 (and as Amin al-Charchafchi in 1927) when they tried to conjure up images of some kind of Shiite region: What should they call the new entity? Because exactly like ISCI’s “Region of the Centre and the South”, the Sunni region enjoys no historical precedent. Probably the only historical competitor to the concept of Iraq in this area would be the “Jazira region” – in which case Mosul (but not necessarily all parts of Anbar) might try to absorb parts of northeastern Syria like Dayr al-Zur and even Raqqa to carve out a new state. Good luck.

Perhaps more significant than Nujayfi’s separatist threat itself are the reactions that materialised today. Nujayfi allies in Mosul like Abdallah al-Yawer criticise the statement and say it is “against the constitution”. Shakir al-Kuttab says that Nujayfi’s statement should not be used to construe a desire on the part of Iraqiyya to work for any kind of “Sunni region”. Muhammad al-Khalidi denies that Nujayfi called for the creation of a Sunni region and “the partition of Iraq”, adding that the parliamentary speaker said what he said simply to illustrate the seriousness of the current situation. Safiya al-Suhayl, formerly with Iraqiyya, then State of Law and now an independent, detects a “regional dimension” in Nujayfi’s threat. Obviously, members of Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance are beyond themselves in happiness over this latest propaganda coup: They spin it as if Nujayfi has finally been exposed as a separatist, as do members of the Iraqi Islamic Party (a Sunni Islamist party frequently accused of being the party that has spearheaded the drive for decentralisation among some local Sunni politicians.)

It is obvious that many in Iraqiyya are unhappy about the way things are unfolding in Iraq right now, but there must be better ways of addressing this than dreaming up unlikely alliances with ISCI and the Sadrists, demanding a strategic policy council that the Iraqi parliament is unlikely to ever grant them, or threatening with the creation of new states that would barely know what to call themselves.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism | 26 Comments »