Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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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 »

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 »

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 »

Parliament Finishes the First Reading of the Strategic Policy Council Bill

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 11 August 2011 20:58

It may be that Ramadan exhaustion in combination with another hot Iraqi summer has made its impact: In a Byzantine development, the Iraqi parliament today voted “in principle” to continue working on the strategic policy council bill.

The procedure adopted today is in itself extraordinary. Normally a bill advances through parliament by way of two separate readings, each of which is followed by discussions and amendments before a final version of the bill is voted on. Nonetheless, at the end of the reading, parliament found it necessary to vote “in principle” on continuing to read the bill! The move was even misreported in some media to the effect that the bill had already been passed.

The bill itself is as convoluted and ambiguous as the early versions that circulated. A wide scope of operations is outlined for the projected strategic council, with areas ranging from the energy sector to foreign policy. In practice it amounts to a parallel government in everything but the name, except that unlike the government proper it will not be based on the input from specialised ministries. Just to make matters even more confusing, separate items specified as falling within the jurisdiction of the council include vague national-reconciliation tasks as well as making suggestions for the projected federal supreme court. An interesting new focus is the idea of limiting the council effectively to one parliamentary term, which would give it a certain transitional character.

There are however some serious caveats that will limit the power of the council in practice and makes you wonder whether it is worth going through all the trouble of trying to adopt it anyway. Firstly, in order for the decisions of the council to be binding, an 80% majority will be required as per the draft law requirements reported in the press. As is all too well known, 80% agreement on anything is a rarity in Iraqi politics.  Secondly, look at the projected composition of the council. It will include the president with his deputies, the parliament speaker with his deputies, and the prime minister and his deputies. Additionally there will be the president of Kurdistan, the head of the federal supreme court as well as two representatives from each of the four major blocs in parliament (incidentally the latter criterion seems to recognise that the so-called National Alliance of Shiite parties is in fact two separate alliances). The point is that these will all be familiar faces that will reproduce the stalemates of parliament rather than bring in new dynamics that can help solve them. And finally, look carefully at the draft law. Early versions seemed to indicate a power to introduce legislation to parliament, making it analogous to the presidency and the cabinet in this respect. However, in keeping with the ruling of the federal supreme court that insists on differentiating between just proposing a law (muqtarah) and preparing it as a fully-fledged project (mashru), the latest draft puts the strategic council on par with the parliament and reserves the right to initiate detailed legislation for the two existing branches of the executive.

In sum, if the council is adopted, it is unlikely to be effective in other ways than buttressing the stature of its projected leader, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqiyya coalition. The rest is likely to remain theory, but in this respect it would certainly make Iraq into a crazy-quilt political regime without any clear parallels anywhere in the world. Cohabitation on the French pattern? No, not quite so, since French dualism in the executive consists of a president with a clear popular mandate and a prime minister answerable to the legislative assembly.  Also, French presidents and prime ministers have tended to divide the tasks of governing between themselves during periods of cohabitation, whereas the Iraqi proposal looks more like an attempt at creating a second government that will spend most of its energy in Sisyphean attempts at agreeing internally. In fact, if adopted, it would create a tripartite executive in Iraq, alongside the cabinet and the mostly symbolic presidency.

If implemented, the council would clearly be antithetical to the spirit of the limited Iraqi spring (with its call for an end to superfluous top government positions) as well as to the recent downsizing of the government (which to some extent represented a response by the government to those new trends in Iraqi public opinion. Resistance to the bill, which is perfectly logical from the constitutional point of view, has however so far been mostly limited to the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Today in parliament, even Ibrahim al-Jaafari reportedly said the bill was broadly compatible with the constitutional framework. Since Jaafari is often seen as closer to Iran and one of the key players in maintaining the sectarian Shiite alliance, it makes you wonder whether Iran, too, is in favour of the formula of more fragmented government in Iraq of the kind that the Kurds have been promoting quite actively over the past years (as seen for example in the way the projected oil and gas council of politicians that is supposed to supplant the regular oil ministry and its technocrats in many important decisions). It seems all the opponents of Maliki are happy to press along with the council despite its glaring weaknesses, with only the Kurdish oppositional Gorran party presenting some good criticism so far, saying Iraqiyya should focus instead on passing legislation for the projected senate (which at least is stipulated in the constitution).

A far more workable objective for Iraq would be to drop the council entirely and instead seek agreement on the security ministries that remain undistributed. Lately there have been some positive ideas about possible candidates from within the Iraqi security forces (instead of politicians) that would be nominated from Iraqiyya and State of Law for defence and interior respectively. However, today much of this was characterised by the official Iraqiyya spokesperson as unsubstantiated, and if the debate over the useless strategic policy council continues to consume the energies of Iraqi politicians over coming weeks and months, agreement on the remaining portfolios in the second Maliki government may prove even more difficult to reach.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 28 Comments »

Ramadan Agreement Provides Some Answers but Many Uncertainties Linger

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 3 August 2011 20:37

As has become usual in Iraqi politics, a nightly gathering of politicians during Ramadan has helped towards resolving certain political issues, although yesterday’s meeting at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani also left many questions unanswered.

The one thing that is clear is that Iraq will now ask some US forces to stay beyond 2011 as “instructors”. The dissenting voices on this were the Sadrists and ISCI, meaning that the decision probably involved something that Iran did not want to happen.  At the same time, the latest move poses a challenge to those in Washington that may have been hoping for a straightforward SOFA extension: Any activity by the US forces in Iraq after 2011 that cannot be plausibly described as “instruction” will now be susceptible to challenges – politically as well as military – precisely from forces such as the Sadrists.

The other points of “agreement” from yesterday’s meeting come with greater ambiguity. Firstly, there is the festering issue of the strategic policy council – demanded by the secular Iraqiyya as a key element in “power-sharing” and resisted by the Shiite Islamist coalition headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who finds it “unconstitutional” (and not without reason, since the council simply isn’t in the constitution). There is now agreement that the draft law will be presented to parliament through the presidency, and apparently there is agreement on the text of the draft that will be introduced. Let’s not forget though that there will be two readings of the law in parliament before it gets voted on, and members of Maliki’s alliance are already signalling that they may bring up again some of their points of opposition to the bill. What has largely escaped notice is that in its current form, the council has such a high threshold for making executive decisions (80% majority) that it is unable to constitute much in the way of an effective check on prime ministerial power anyway. In that context, the demand by Iraqiyya that the head of the council – expected to be Ayad Allawi – be voted on by parliament rather than by the council members seems more like a way of symbolically restoring some of Allawi’s dignity after he won the elections and then lost the premiership last year.

That kind of ambiguity applies also to the remaining points from the meeting. One issue that was agreed to in principle at Arbil in 2010 but so far has yet to be implemented concerns the bylaws for the cabinet. A committee will now be appointed to look into that issue, meaning that the parties are probably as far apart as ever. Much the same seems to be the case with respect to the somewhat elusive concept of “balance” in the state institutions at the levels of director generals and above, for which another investigative committee will be appointed. In the official summary of the latest proceedings, the term “constitutional balance” is used, which is interesting since that word – balance (tawazun) – occurs only once in the constitution, and in that case refers to the proportional balance of the “components” of the Iraqi people in the army and the security forces. Already Turkmen leaders are indicating that they intend to use the latest agreement as a basis for seeking the appointment of security ministers with an ethnic Turkmen background.

Finally, it was reaffirmed at the meeting that Iraqiyya will provide candidates for the defence ministry and the all-Shiite National Alliance will nominate the interior ministry. The reported agreement in the media that Maliki will automatically approve any candidate presented by Iraqiyya for a temporary role as acting defence minister is not reflected in the  official statement from the meeting.

It is important to note that this latest agreement does not reflect any sudden kind of dramatic rapprochement between the main Iraqi parties.  What has happened is that at a time of continuing disagreement, Maliki has agreed at least tacitly with the Kurds and Iraqiyya to keep a limited number of American troops as “instructors” –  and to kick other political problems a little further down the road. It all comes at a time when sectarian fronts could actually be perceived to be hardening somewhat, as seen especially in the latest co-option of the rump of the Wasat alliance, the Sunni Islamist Tawafuq, into the Iraqiyya coalition. This came after the other half of Wasat, the more secular Unity of Iraq, recently joined Iraqiyya, meaning that there are now no Sunni parties that are not nominally part of Iraqiyya. Simultaneously, Maliki has reiterated his belief that the defence ministry must go to a particular sect (Sunni), rather than to a political party (Iraqiyya), which again highlights the way in which politics in Iraq is being reshaped in a more sectarian fashion after the 2010 elections. Indeed, the formally tripartite nature of the latest meeting , with representatives of the Kurds, Iraqiyya and the National Alliance, would seem to suggest a return to more sectarian framework than, say, two years ago.

The two factors that continue to cut across sectarian alliances and prevent a repeat of the Shiite-Kurdish monopoly on Iraqi politics seen in 2005 are the continued desire of Maliki to pursue different policies than ISCI and the Sadrists (which in itself largely invalidates the National Alliance as a real, cohesive political force), as well as the growing Kurdish criticism of Iran, which is sometimes leading them to find common positions with Iraqiyya. It is this kind of tactical shift, rather than the emergence of any kind of coherent, pro-American “moderate coalition” that will now enable the US to keep some of its forces in Iraq as “instructors” beyond 2011.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 28 Comments »

A Bloody Nose for the State of Law Alliance in Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 28 July 2011 12:51

Just as Nuri al-Maliki was talking tough again in a way reminiscent of the strongman prime minister that emerged in 2008, the Iraqi parliament has dealt a severe blow to him and his State of Law alliance.

Today, parliament voted against sacking the independent electoral  commission (IHEC). Only some 94 deputies out of 245 present voted in favour of the proposal by State of Law to dismiss the commission.

In other words, Maliki only managed to obtain the support of a handful of deputies outside his own State of Law alliance (which now holds around 88 seats). Subsequent to the vote, Maliki allies criticised other Shiite Islamists like ISCI, Fadila and the Sadrists for “colluding in corruption” by refusing to sack IHEC, once more underlining the essentially fictional character of the all-Shiite National Alliance that delivered Maliki his second premiership in late 2010. The vote of the small Shiite parties is not terribly surprising since the Shiite IHEC members are considered to be closer to these parties than to Maliki; the vote of the secular Iraqiyya, for its part, seems to reflect a primary aim of being at variance with Maliki (Iraqiyya’s own influence within IHEC is minimal and the commission let Iraqiyya down several times before the 2010 elections on issues like Kirkuk and de-Baathification).

The vote also illustrates the fictional character of the “political majority” alternative that Maliki has kept talking about. He simply does not have the votes to embark on that right now. Unfortunately for the dynamics of Iraqi politics going forward, today’s developments will probably add fuel to the flames of Iraqiyya’s demand for early elections. The key question in that respect is whether the demand is realistic: Shiite parties who have loyalists inside IHEC may well turn against Maliki on that issue, but are they likely to sack his government as long as they have ministries? And most crucially, what about the Kurds – the only party that has at least obtained something from Maliki in the shape of northern oil exports? Are they likely to ask for a reshuffling of the cards at this point? It should be remembered that the Kurds want to change the formula for allocating deputies before the next  parliamentary elections, which would be difficult if elections were called anytime soon. And finally, is the demand for early elections likely to meet with any international support? Does the Obama administration have any appetite for elections and the insecurity that will come with them at a time when all they seem to want is clarification regarding a post-2011 US military presence?

Perhaps what today’s vote show first and foremost is the entrenched and unrealistic character of Maliki’s current political strategy.  It is not unlikely that events will be superseded by a second unrealistic alternative in the shape of more calls for early elections, leading to an ever more polarised political climate.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, UIA dynamics | 18 Comments »

Maliki the Strongman Preparing for Ramadan

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 27 July 2011 12:58

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in his capacity as acting minister for interior, has issued detailed instructions for how Iraqi restaurants should adapt to the coming holy month of Ramadan which starts in early August. Most importantly, all eateries – with a few exceptions such  as those clearly relating to the tourism industry – are to be closed from dawn to dusk.

Maliki’s order raise interesting questions about centre-periphery relations in today’s Iraq. On previous occasions, the governorates have often taken the lead in defining holidays locally, as seen in the many local holidays that have been declared in various Shiite-majority governorates relating to Shiite festivities. Also, rules governing the sale of alcohol have largely been determined at the governorate level, as seen in places like Basra, Najaf, Wasit. Previously, the governorate of Baghdad have also passed special measures relating to Ramadan.

It will be interesting to see how Maliki’s order goes down across the country. Will it be observed nationwide? What about the Kurdistan federal region (KRG), which is sometimes seen as a more liberal enclave? Of course, Iraq’s constitution does not specify any particular role for the central government in regulating commerce locally, meaning that residual powers in this respect rests with federal regions and governorates alike. But in practice – and to some extent with reference to the more restrictive provincial powers law of 2008 – a more centralistic spirit has prevailed in relations between Baghdad and the governorates than between Baghdad and the KRG during the past few years.

Maliki’s order comes at the time when decisions on two other issues deemed important by him seem imminent. The first is the sacking of the independent elections commission (IHEC), supposedly to be voted on by parliament tomorrow. Maliki supporters now says he enjoys the support of all the Shiite parties enrolled in the National Alliance, but ISCI, in particular, has been critical of the move, which is natural given its own strong influence in IHEC. Then, on Saturday, Maliki is supposed to address parliament on the issue of reducing the size of his government. Once more, the solution he is proposing do not seem to have a clear constitutional basis (according the Iraqi constitution, each ministers will have to be voted out through an individual vote of confidence).

The parliamentary response in both of these questions will serve as an indicator of Maliki’s parliamentary strength as the pressing issue of the security ministers continues to linger.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics | 19 Comments »

Maliki Dissolves the National Alliance and Says No to U.S. Forces after 2011

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 17:19

It is fair to say that the life cycle of the all-Shiite National Alliance (NA) – the all-Shiite bloc that delivered a second premiership to Nuri al-Maliki in November 2010 – has been an unusual one. In the first place, one could of course argue that when it first came into existence in 2010, the NA was really a reincarnation of the previous Shiite coalition that had existed as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) from 2004 to 2008 and that was partially re-launched with Iranian support as the Iraqi National Alliance by Ahmad Chalabi, ISCI and the Sadrists in the spring of 2009. But that’s another story. Suffice to say in this context that the National Alliance was actually born twice after the 7 March 2010 parliamentary elections – first in May, when INA nominally merged with the State of Law bloc of Nuri al-Maliki but nothing much happened and no name was given to the new bloc, and later in June, when the leaders of INA and State of Law tentatively began a  process of selecting a prime minister candidate and claimed the position as the biggest bloc in parliament in order to challenge Iraqiyya and Ayyad Allawi (who had emerged as the biggest bloc based on the elections results). Not until October 2010, thanks to steady support from both Iran and US ambassador Chris Hill, did Maliki emerge as prime minister candidate of the Shiite super-bloc.

Now the NA is dead again, or so it seems. The thing is, there is no death certificate as such , only the much-overlooked selection yesterday of Khalid Atiyya, from the bloc of independents affiliated with Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, as parliamentary head of the State of Law bloc. That in itself may not sound terribly exciting but it is: One of the few defining criteria for a bloc (kutla) in Iraqi parliamentary practice post-2003 is that it must have a head or rais. Now, importantly, after much dithering, the National Alliance did eventually agree on such a bloc leader in December 2010, when Ibrahim al-Jaafari was selected. Accordingly, Atiyya’s emergence as head of the State of Law faction yesterday amounts to nothing less than a de facto secession from the NA, since the recognition of State of Law as a kutla by implication negates the continued existence of the National Alliance. It should be added in a footnote that Iraqiyya has actually moved in the opposite direction, despite lots of centrifugal forces being at work. Also in December 2010, the Iraqiyyun faction led by Usama al-Nujayfi announced the election of its own bloc leader in what seemed to be tantamount to a secession from the broader Iraqiyya coalition. But since at least February 2011, Salman al-Jumayli has quite consistently been described as the bloc leader of Iraqiyya.

These developments are not necessarily going to change anything in the short term. In the first place, bloc size comes into play only when the question of selecting the premier is on the agenda. Second, if Maliki really wants to reshuffle the cards and dissolve parliament, he is still in a position to claim the “biggest bloc” since Iraqiyya has shrunk by some 10 deputies over the past month through the defection of White Iraqiyya whereas State of Law has only lost Safiya Suhayl (who became an independent) and therefore is biggest with 88 deputies. But these latest moves do seem significant as possible elements in a long-term plan by Maliki to create some kind of “political majority” government to replace the current “national partnership”one, possibly based on an alliance between State of Law, the Kurds, Wasat and White Iraqiyya. Still, if that is really Maliki’s plan, he will need to convince Iraq’s president, the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, to support him as premier once more, which in turn could mean a demand for further concessions by the Kurds. Another question is how Ibrahim al-Jaafari, until recently the head of the NA, will react. Could the recent selection of his party ally Falih al-Fayyad as deputy minister for national security mean that a deal has been done between Jaafari and Maliki? So far the Jaafari website is silent on the issue.

At any rate, any such new coalition will enjoy only a small majority in parliament. In a move apparently intended to pre-empt Sadrist criticism, State of Law today officially declared it is against any prolongation of the US presence in Iraq after 2011.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 26 Comments »