My piece for Foreign Affairs on Maliki’s response to the ISIS offensive in northern Iraq, with some comments about how it relates to the enduring tension between sectarianism and Iraqi nationalism in Maliki’s political thought:
Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 13 June 2014 19:55
The Intra-List Struggle in the State of Law Coalition: The Baghdad Parliamentary Contingent, the Shahristani Faction, and the Independent Deputies
Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 1 June 2014 22:46
In the middle of the long wait for the certification of the Iraqi election result, speculation about the viability of PM Nuri al-Maliki’s bid for a third term has intensified. One of the recurrent questions concerns possible challenges to Maliki from within his State of Law coalition, especially from deputy PM Hussein al-Shahristani, who according to some sources has increased his influence because of the election result.
A frequent contention is the idea that the Shahristani bloc should have received no less than 33 seats in the latest election, making it the biggest bloc in State of Law – ahead of Badr and with double the seats as Maliki’s own Daawa party faction.
Whereas observers are right in pointing out the potential significance of a big Shahristani win, there are some problems with these rumours. Firstly, they are exactly just rumours: Nowhere has a list of these alleged new Shahristani deputies published. On the Facebook page of the Shahristani bloc it is virtually impossible to find any article that does not focus on extolling the virtues of the personality of Shahristani himself. For its part, the party’s homepage shows a list of deputies from the previous parliamentary session.
In fact, most reports about Shahristani’s ascendancy seem to go back to a claim made by Hassan al-Sunayd, a former Maliki ally who lost his seat in the election and in one interview shortly after mid-May said Shahristani had won 33 seats. Sunayd is reportedly estranged from Maliki and in the process of establishing a new political party.
While the possibility of a large Shahristani bloc in the next Iraqi parliament should not be rejected out of hand, a search of some of the constituencies for which coalition sub-entities are specified makes you wonder who exactly these 33 Shahristani deputies are. They do not appear to be in Basra, where a good State of Law source indicating bloc affiliation exists, and where most of the Shahristani candidates appear to have lost. (Additionally, frequent acting minister for Maliki Safa al-Din al-Safi left the party and ran independently: He received no more than 1,500 votes). Recently, other lists from Wasit and Baghdad have also been released, showing only 3 Shahristani deputies in Baghdad. The Baghdad list is particularly important since it concerns no less than 30 deputies, most of whom appear to be independents. It can be controlled independently against an analysis of the Badr winners in Baghdad, with which it squares 100%.
So where exactly is this monster Shahristani delegation of 33 deputies? Not in Basra, not in Baghdad (4 deputies at most) and not in Wasit as we have seen.
Other known Shahristani deputies include one in each of Maysan, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Karbala. That’s eight. Where are the rest? They surely aren’t in the Shiite-minority provinces, where all the factional identities of the State of Law winners are known. Are there really 25 Shahristani partisans hidden in the new parliament contingents from the mid-Euphrates areas? That’s hard to believe. Remember that many members of his bloc in those parts lost their existing seats, including some embarrassingly prominent cases (like Khalid al-Attiya, once a deputy parliament speaker).
What can explain these major discrepancies? Semantic problems should not be ruled out, as they have appeared in the past as well. Shahristani’s bloc is named Independents (Al-Mustaqillun). That is the same term that is used for an unaffiliated MP, although the latter terms is always used in the singular and mostly without the definite article (al-). Thus, in parliament lists of members of the National Alliance in the past, some formally independent and unaffiliated State of Law members were listed as (mustaqill or mustaqilla as an adjective that is conjugated in accordance with the gender of the MP), whereas members of Shahristani bloc are listed with the bloc name (Al-Mustaqillun). It is thus very easy to mix up the two categories and erroneously add truly independent MPs to the Shahristani bloc.
Pending the publication of the names of the new Shahristani bloc, this kind of explanation should not be ruled out. Once things get published by Arab newswires – often with sources far removed from Iraqi realities and with anti-Maliki voices prominent – they tend to get repeated endlessly. By way of example, in 2012 some of these sources persistently insisted that 164 (rather than 163) MPs constituted an absolute majority in the then 325-member parliament.
These are of course two radically different interpretations. Whereas “Independent Bloc members” loyal to Shahristani may conceivably constitute a threat to Maliki, true “independents” are actually more likely to be loyal to Maliki rather than to anyone else since their inclusion on the State of Law list came outside of the competing factions and most likely through the general effort of the prime minister’s office to cultivate ties to a broad range of Iraqi professionals from all spheres. This is important since many analysts tend to focus much on the fact that relatively few of the new State of Law parliament bloc appear to be full members of the Daawa party,
Of course these questions are also bound to have an impact on larger issues. As an alternative to the various majoritarian constellations that are being discussed, a return to the old model whereby an enlarged Shiite alliance essentially decides the PM and then invites Sunnis and Kurds in to form an oversized partnership government – arguably the antithesis to Maliki’s political majority concept – is also receiving much attention. Clearly the question of finding a replacement for Maliki inside State of Law (a parallel to the sidelining of Ibrahim al-Jaafari in 2006) is correlated to the question of the relative size of the coalition subunits: In the internal Shiite alliance contest, political elite relationships count more than the popular vote. For example, in a fascinating image of an Iraq between majoritarian and consociational democratic models, Maliki with 720,000 personal votes is being challenged as PM candidate by people like Ahmed Chalabi with 10,000 votes.
Shahristani is also in that segment of around 10, 000 personal votes. However, unless the rumours of his new-won mega contingent of parliamentary deputies are accurate, it seems highly unlikely that Shahristani should be able to upend people like the well-connected Chalabi or, for that matter, the highly popular Maliki.
Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 28 May 2014 14:16
A world without Usama al-Nujayfi, Ayyad Allawi, Ammar al-Hakim and Mutqada al-Sadr. Surely that must be one of the most pleasant dreams that could happen in the head of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki these days?
In fact, given political developments during the weeks since the announcement of the uncertified election result, Maliki has quite good chances for such a dream to become reality. Crucially, though, that dream would have to include a personality Maliki probably would have preferred to shut out along with the others: Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish federal region.
What has happened is as follows. In the uncertified election result there were 92 straightforward State of Law winners and another 3 State of Law affiliated people running on various pan-Shia lists in the Shiite-minority provinces in the north. Subsequently, Maliki has been formally joined by smaller Shiite parties such as Solidarity in Iraq (1 seat in Dhi Qar), the Just State (1 seat), Professionals and Masses (2 seats), Loyalty to Iraq (2 seats in Najaf). Additionally, support for Maliki from the Sadiqun movement affiliated with Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq (1 seat) is a foregone conclusion since probably no one else wants to have anything to do with that controversial movement.
That’s 102 seats. For their part, the combined parliamentary strength of the Kurds is mostly assessed to be above 60 seats, certainly if pro-Kurdish minority representatives from the north are included. Accordingly, Maliki and the Kurds are now so close to securing the absolute majority needed to seat a new government (165 seats) that it would be very easy for them to secure a few extra MPs without having to involve any other big bloc. Also, by virtue of their relatively disciplined parliamentary contingent, the Kurds are probably in a better position to deliver actual votes to Maliki in parliament than any combination of smaller Arab-dominated parties would be able to. All of this is different from 2010, when State of Law plus the Kurds would have fallen short of 163 votes, the absolute-majority mark in the 325-member parliament back then.
This scenario offers a potential negotiation dynamic that is very different from the outcomes that have dominated the discussion thus far – i.e. a political majority government of pro-Maliki centralists against decentralizers among the Kurds, ISCI and Nujayfi; or a quasi political-majority government of Maliki and at least one of the big parties (Nujayfi, Allawi, Hakim, Sadr) that would be prepared to join him bilaterally in opposition to the others; or an anti-Maliki coalition along the lines that challenged him in the first part of 2012; or a decision on the next PM inside a reconstituted grand Shiite alliance, perhaps followed by another oversized partnership government.
Nonetheless, despite all the talk about these scenarios (and perhaps a revived Shiite alliance in particular), the only thing that has actually happened on the ground since the election result was announced is that State of Law has continued to grow steadily, attracting also some parties with more secular leanings that wouldn’t fit particularly well in the Shiite Islamist National Alliance at all. Indeed, it is likely that such smaller parties on the Sunni side could also be subsumed by the State of Law alliance. It is noteworthy that despite the strong regional tensions, parties favouring dialogue with Maliki instead of maximizing the sectarian conflict won multiple seats in key Sunni governorates such as Anbar. Indeed, it could be argued that the vote for the smaller pro-sahwa lists and the secular Iraq coalition in Anbar – altogether 130,000 votes and 6 seats – was a vote in favour of rapprochement with Maliki. If movements like these get included in the next Iraqi government, the contention frequently seen in Western media to the effect that “Iraqi Sunnis lost the elections” would lose even more of its limited relevance. True, the option of Maliki’s enemies forming some kind of grand coalition against him still exists, but with Maliki’s recent growth they are running out of time: Once Maliki reaches around 125 deputies, it will be near mathematically impossible for his adversaries to form a bigger parliamentary bloc without the Kurds. With trends like these, the chances of Maliki acting bi-laterally instead of multi-laterally in the government formation process certainly go up.
Of course, the Kurds will not sign up to a a third Maliki premiership just for the sake of forming a slimmer government. Like in 2010, they will have specific demands, including the general relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan federal region, oil policy issues, payment for Kurdish armed forces as well as disputed areas.
There are key differences from 2010, though. Firstly, the Kurdish demands have grown more radical. No longer are questions about the validity of contracts of foreign oil companies most prominent on the agenda. The Kurds have recently opened up separate pipelines to Turkey and want Baghdad to approve this move without any interference. Second, the Kurds have already seen what happened with lofty promises in the Erbil agreement of 2010, which largely remains unimplemented. Surely they will fashion their demands to Maliki in ways that can prevent a repeat of that disappointment this time.
In practice, it will not be too difficult for Maliki to reverse much of his anti-Kurdish political majority rhetoric if he instead can form the new government on the basis of some kind of landmark agreement with the Kurds that can lead to satisfaction on both sides. The problem though, given the increasingly radical nature of the Kurdish demands, is to find concessions that are in the spirit of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 as a union between Iraqis, rather than practical guidelines for the implementation of a divorce.
Some such potential concessions within the framework of a federal state still exist. Firstly, there are things Maliki could offer on disputed internal boundaries that would involve one-off concessions to the Kurds in some of the less disputed of the disputed territories in the north, though without Kirkuk and a comprehensive article 140 settlement (which is likely to take many years to be implemented even under the rosiest of circumstances). Second, there is the recurrent issue of payment for the Kurdish security forces. Since these forces also serve in domestic and internal roles, their payment over the federal budget is not particularly logical. Still, if such an arrangement can serve as glue in the Iraqi federation, it is far better than deals that would remove the oil sector entirely from Baghdad’s sphere, effectively making Kurdistan an independent country but without a suitable legal and constitutional framework. Thirdly, there are the oil contracts with foreign companies operating in Kurdistan, which Baghdad have yet to formally approve. It could be argued that one-off approval of these contracts could be a suitable concession if an appropriate framework for cooperation for future foreign contracts could be established as part of the compromise.
All of the above are compromises that would retain the essence of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 and would be sellable also to Maliki’s domestic audience (which should not be forgotten after they gave him more than 700,000 personal votes). Above all, though, if Maliki and the Kurds want to cut a separate deal, it is important that both sides exercise realism in order that another Erbil paper tiger, and the concomitant dysfunctional government it produced, can be avoided.
Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 27 May 2014 1:37
After it was introduced in 2008, the personal vote option has become a success in the Iraqi democracy, contributing significantly to shaping election results in unpredictable ways, often against the wishes of the party leaderships.
Firstly, it can be concluded that using the personal vote has become the norm in Iraqi elections. The numbers in the results clearly suggest a majority of Iraqi voters indicate a candidate preference in addition to party preference when they cast their votes. Just to take one example from the 30 April 2014 general election: Out of 27,800 Sadrist voters in rural Muthanna, more than 25,900 used the personal vote option, in line with high figures reported in previous elections. Iraqi voters use the personal vote despite the fact that technical modalities of voting still militate against its use: Voters must take the trouble of remembering the name of their preferred candidate since this is not indicated on the ballot papers.
In analyzing data about the personal vote, it is also important to be alert to its many possible uses. These include pure stunts by a small number of senior politicians who feel so secure about their popularity that they deliberately place themselves far down the lists in order to demonstrate their ability to be promoted to the top by the popular vote. The most spectacular example in the recent general election is Hummam Hammudi of ISCI in Baghdad, who deliberately put himself at the rock bottom position of the list as candidate 138, only to be gracefully lifted to a seat-winning third position through the personal votes of some 10,000 devoted supporters.
Mostly, though, the personal vote use affects the overall outcomes in ways that reflect real struggles between party leaderships and electorates as to which individuals are the best representatives to send to the Iraqi national assembly in Baghdad. A good way of getting an impression of the degree of internal fighting going on, already tested out with respect to the local elections last year, is to tabulate the data of some main lists according to their numbers of successful candidates initially placed on winning positions, followed by numbers of those promoted to winning seats from non-winning positions based on the wishes of the electorate (i.e. personal votes outnumbering those who initially held these lists positions), as well as the numbers of women promoted to winning positions because of the female quota (technically speaking “against” the preferences of the electorate, though it should be noted that more than 20 female Iraqi deputies this time won their seats without help from the quota thanks to strong personal votes).
Here are some examples from the State of Law results:
So that’s 27 new MPs from State of Law alone that hadn’t been planned by the party leadership which had placed them far down on the lists!
The tendency of active use of the personal vote in ways that challenge political elites is less pronounced for the Muwatin bloc of Ammar al-Hakim, though not non-existent:
After having played a role in the perhaps most spectacular use of the personal vote in 2010 (when they used it to promote candidates from their own party to top positions on the Iraq National Alliance slate), the Sadrists this time showed less interest in using the personal vote in radical ways to affect the ranking of candidates set by the party leaderships. On the other hand, the personal vote has been used with considerable impact among other lists, including the main Sunni and Kurdish ones.
Here is the example of the Mutahhidun bloc of Usama al-Nujayfi, the speaker of the previous parliament:
That’s just 3 blocs and yet we have no less than 44 deputies in the Iraqi parliament that probably wouldn’t have been there if the party elites had had it their way.
The tabulations above don’t tell the whole story, though. This is the case especially with respect to the distance travelled by some of the candidates far down on the list who went all the way to the top. This time, the phenomenon of big climbers was most pronounced in the big cities of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, and with some particularly spectacular examples within Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance. They include 3 candidates in Basra who went from positions 29, 30 and 31 to become seat winners, and similar impressive climbs from positions 41, 45, 62, 69, 73 and 77 in Baghdad. Also Muwatin had a candidate who went from 50 to 4 in Basra, whereas Nineveh winners for the Mutahhidun list of Usama al-Nujayfi included candidates 24, 29 and 53.
All in all, it is the active use of the personal vote among State of Law voters that this time stands out in comparative perspective vis-à-vis previous elections. Incidentally, data about the personal votes may also be useful in evaluating the independence of IHEC. There has been some suggestions that the current commission, considered more friendly to Maliki than the previous one, may have been under pressure to manipulate the vote. But some of the painful exclusions of Maliki favourites following their personal inability to garner enough personal votes tell a different story. If IHEC was so corrupt as its critics claim, it would have been a comparatively easy job to shift internal votes to the advantage of party leadership favourites. Instead, we have seen several State of Law deputies lose their jobs due to poor electoral performance, including people like Ali Shallah, Hassan al-Sunayd, Khalid al-Attiya, Yasin Majid and Walid al-Hilli. Indeed, it can be argued that the personal vote establishes a second tier of accountability in the Iraqi elections since both candidates and voters will have more specific interests to guard and will be doubly aware to attempts to manipulate. This is important when the elections results are as disputed as they are in Iraq.
Hopefully, after the expiry of the deadline for legal complaints against the results later this week the Iraqi elections commission can soon move forward to certification, thereby sealing some of these important expressions of nascent democracy even under adverse circumstances of regional tension.
Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014 | Comments Off on The Use of the Personal Vote Option in Iraq’s 30 April 2014 General Election
Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 23 May 2014 20:57
In its process of reviewing complaints following the publication of the uncertified elections result, the Iraqi elections commission IHEC has taken the unusual step of publishing data for the special vote for the Iraqi security forces that took place days before the 30 April general elections. In releasing this data, IHEC is presumably responding to a flurry of rumours regarding potential corruption and vote buying for the security forces vote (which amounts to almost 1 million votes and is thus bigger than the expat vote and many governorate votes).
The released data has the form of percentages of the special vote for the main winning lists per governorate. This can be tabulated with the percentages for the total vote as indicated in the second row for each governorate below.
It emerges from this tabulation that the special vote differs significantly from the general vote only in a few provinces.
Firstly, there is slightly elevated support for PM Maliki in a number of Shiite-majority provinces, including Dhi Qar, Qadisiya and Babel. This is mostly in the 10-15% range and as such may not be anything than an expression that this is a special segment of the electorate where affection to the commander in chief may be expected to be elevated compared to the general population. A similar situation with a potential explanation relating to the Kurdish peshmerga security forces relates to Dahuk.
Second, there are provinces where the special vote differs significantly from the general vote. This includes Diyala (Maliki has almost doubled his percentages whereas the pro-Nujayfi list has its share reduced to the half); Nineveh (where Nujayfi again has only half the percentage of vote in the special votes whereas the Kurdish vote is doubled): Sulaymaniya (where PUK has enormous gains compared to Goran in the general vote); and finally Arbil (where the same phenomenon albeit on a smaller scale relates to the KDP-Goran balance).
It has already been suggested that the Kurdish parties applied pressure to their security forces to vote for them, which could explain the dismal Goran performance in the special vote. The surge for Maliki in the Diyala special vote needs explaining, and it will be interesting to see what IHEC may come up with in this respect. In seeking to address concerns about possible ballot-stuffing in the “Baghdad belt” IHEC has also released individual tallies from the counting centres in that area. The truly hard question, though, is to what extent these numbers will be used to affect and change the final result when it gets sent to the supreme court for certification, hopefully within a few weeks.
Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 22 May 2014 21:14
There have been several rumours flying around regarding the electoral success of the various subunits that form part of the State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Some of these stories suggest parties outside the Daawa movement may potentially pose a significant challenge to Maliki’s authority, something that would form a contrast to the situation in 2010 when Maliki did not face any major competing centres of power internally in his coalition.
The rumour that is easiest to verify – and confirm – relates to the relative success of the Badr organization. Badr, which came into existence in the 1980s as a paramilitary organization sponsored and trained by Iran to fight the Saddam Hussein regime, has won at least 19 seats within the group of parliamentary seats that can be counted as State of Law in the new Iraqi parliament, meaning they make up more than 20% of the State of Law coalition.
Here are Badr deputies in the next Iraqi parliament that can be identified easily, by governorate:
|Governorate||No of Badr deputies||Names|
|Basra||2||Ahmad al-Khafaji, Hassan al-Rashid|
|Dhi Qar||2||Razzaq Ujaymi, Amal Attiya al-Nasiri|
|Muthanna||1||Ali Lafta al-Murshidi|
|Qadisiyya||2||Muhammad al-Shaybawi, Suham al-Musawi|
|Babel||2||Razzaq al-Haydari, Manal al-Muslimawi|
|Najaf||1||Muhammad Abbas al-Musawi|
|Baghdad||5||Abd al-Karim Yunis, Muhammad Naji, Abd al-Hussein al-Azayrjawi, Hassan al-Saadi, Muhammad al-Ghaban|
|Diyala||2||Hadi al-Ameri, Mina Saleh al-Umayri|
Some of the individual results call for special comment. There are a few prominent vote getters in terms of personal votes, including Hadi al-Ameri with 20,000 in Diyala, though this is really nothing in comparative national perspective . There are some significant climbers such as Hassan al-Saadi in Baghdad who went from an initial 35th place to a seat-winning 21st position, although on the whole Badr winners were mostly placed high on the list by the State of Law leadership in the first place. And the newly declared Badr affiliation of the representative of the Shabak minority Hunayn al-Qaddo can now be confirmed! Qaddo, who is emphatically not a militiaman, has previously wavered between the Hakim and Maliki factions.
Similar stories about the alleged surges of other competitors to Maliki inside the State of Law list have not been possible to confirm as easily. Materials on candidates for the Independents bloc of deputy premier Hussein al-Shahristani and the Tanzim al-Iraq faction of the Daawa is less easily available. An initial superficial count indicated less than a dozen MPs for each of these factions, including some setbacks for prominent figures (like Khalid al-Attiya), though this may be an underestimate.
Of course, historically Badr has been the Iraqi Shiite faction closest to Iran, constituting the premier example of an organization formed for the single purpose of exercising Iranian leadership over Iraqi Shiites. Their strong ties to Iran could prove particularly important if the question of resurrecting the pan-Shiite National Alliance for purposes of government formation once more moves to the foreground of Iraqi politics.
Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 19 May 2014 21:23
The uncertified result of Iraq’s parliamentary elections, released by the election commission today, cannot be described as anything other than a victory for the incumbent prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
Compared with 2010, Maliki increased his share of seats in the Iraqi parliament from 89 to 94. This quite despite the fact that Maliki experienced numerous defections from his list before the elections and therefore fielded a much slimmer electoral coalition than in 2010. His success can hardly be translated as anything other than an indication of his continued popularity among voters despite growing unease about his rule among political opponents.
*Asterisk indicating affiliated list
Not only did Maliki manage to increase the size of his parliamentary contingent. His political enemies also look far more fragmented than before. In the Shiite camp, the Sadrist saw their bloc reduced by about a quarter of its previous size, whereas ISCI, despite making something of a comeback, was unable to garner more than 30 seats. Among the Sunnis, parliament speaker Nujayfi failed to emerge as the community leader he had been dreaming of, with Shiite secularist Ayyad Allawi continuing to appeal to secularists of Sunni and Shiite backgrounds alike. Even the Kurds have seen a greater degree of formal fragmentation than before (though a theoretical combined bloc strength of more than 60 seats is possible if they stay united and win over minority representatives as in the past). All in all, the group of parties that were on the verge of succeeding with a vote of no confidence against Maliki in 2012 now look weaker.
The question now, however, is what Maliki can do with this impressive victory.
Prior to the elections, a main debate was whether the next Iraqi government should be a power-sharing or a majority one. Maliki has been vocal in his expression for a smaller, majority government. Theoretically, he can also achieve it with these results, albeit not very easily. If Maliki stayed true to the “political majority” concept, it would involve gathering blocs that agreed with his vision of relatively centralized rule in Iraq, including a degree of central control of the oil sector throughout the country including Kurdistan. In theory, this could involve his own bloc, the Sadrists, smaller Shiite parties (Jaafari, Fadila, Sadiqun etc.), the Sunni party of Saleh al-Mutlak, parts of the Allawi list, as well as the many smaller minority and other lists (an unprecedented mass of some 40 deputies) that could help him reach the 165 absolute majority mark needed to form a government. In practice, though, the personal dislike of Maliki among many Sadrists and members of the Allawi list could make this prospect very difficult. Without them, his majority would be extremely slim, fragmented and vulnerable.
The point is, though, that with numbers like this, Maliki is likely to try hard to form some kind of majority government before considering other alternatives. One possibility he is likely to try is to redefine “political majority” in a looser, more opportunistic way, involving basically a Yes to a third Maliki term. With the right kind of deal he might be able to get the Kurds on board for this, thereby succeeding in keeping Shiite enemies – and Ammar al-Hakim in particular – on the sidelines. The problem, of course, is that much of Maliki’s political majority rhetoric centred precisely on defending the prerogatives of Baghdad with respect to controversial issues relating to foreign oil companies operating in Kurdistan.
Given these potential complications, it cannot escape notice that, in an unprecedented situation, the combined Iraqi Shiite Islamist parties now enjoy a theoretical option of forming a majority government. Together they have more than the 165 votes required for an absolute majority, meaning the question of reconstituting the pan-Shiite National Alliance will inevitably hit the agenda if Maliki fails in his other efforts. Indeed, such movements are already underway, and they could certainly gather steam if Maliki’s majoritarian dreams go nowhere. It has to be stressed though, that with Maliki’s strong showing in these elections compared with everyone else, the option of simply substituting him with someone more palatable to the Hakim and Sadrist camps is less relevant than it was prior to the elections. If everything else fails, Iran may well want to strongarm the Sadrists into accepting a third term for Maliki, which would have a reasonable parliamentary prospect with or without Hakim. It could also invite larger numbers of Kurds and Sunnis in, in which case it might well end up looking somewhat similar to the previous, oversized power-sharing governments formed in 2006 and 2010.
Meanwhile, the election result will be submitted for legal certification. In 2010, that process lasted more than 2 months, significantly delaying the process of government formation. Symptomatically, ISCI has already signaled that it may challenge the counting of the votes – something which will certainly not do anything to bring them closer to Maliki in the short term.
Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 29 April 2014 18:39
[This is the English original of an article commissioned by BBC Persian ahead of the 30 April Iraqi elections. It was published by the BBC in Farsi]
For the first time since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003, Iraq is holding a parliamentary election without any U.S. soldiers present in the country. This inevitably opens up for greater roles for regional powers like Turkey and Iran.
Historically, since 2003 the main role of Iran in Iraqi politics has been related to the electoral line-up of the Shiite Islamist parties, many of which it hosted during the Saddam Hussein era.
In 2005, this involved putting together a single, pan-Shiite coalition ticket that emerged as the biggest bloc in parliament (the United Iraq Alliance). Iran also played a certain role in deciding the premier candidate of the bloc (Nuri al-Maliki), although it was thought to have initially favoured Ibrahim al-Jaafari who eventually lost out especially because of Kurdish opposition.
Ahead of Iraq’s 2010 elections, this picture changed somewhat, not least because Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had decided to run separately from the other Shiites in the 2009 local elections with his State of Law coalition and was signaling a degree of independence from Iranian control. As a counter-measure, in May 2009, Iran sponsored negotiations between two of the main anti-Maliki Shiite Iraqi leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr and the cancer-struck and dying Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. With Ahmed Chalabi as intermediary, an agreement was reached in principle to recreate a major pan-Shiite alliance ahead of the elections (the Iraqi National Alliance). The goal was to get Maliki to join eventually, though there was also a clear desire to subjugate him following what was seen as a too overtly independent stance following the US troop “surge” in 2007-2008 and the subsequent local elections in 2009. However, Maliki strenuously rejected all schemes for grander alliances, leading to an electoral line-up consisting of two main Shiite alliances, with Iran backing that of Maliki’s competitors Sadr and Hakim, and their favoured PM candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari running on that list.
Whereas the situation of two competing Shiite lists was different from what Iran had been pushing for in 2010, Tehran was successful in using its allies in the Sadr-Hakim alliance to push the issue of de-Baathification – the cleansing of people with ties to the Saddam Hussein regime from Iraqi public life – to the forefront as an election issue. As the candidacies of several politicians with past connections to the Baath became a subject of debate during the final weeks before the election, Maliki ended up taking the hardline positions of his Shiite competitors, thereby alienating any Sunni support he had been able to tenuously build up during his years of relative independence from Iran. On election day, Maliki won fewer seats in parliament than he had envisaged and came only second in terms of the size of his parliamentary bloc – behind the Sunni-secularist ticket of Iraqiyya, which this time exhibited greater electoral coherence than the Shiites. This situation forced Maliki to drink from what he one year earlier had considered the poisoned chalice of a recreated sectarian Shiite alliance in order to keep the premiership. In August 2010, five months after the elections and with cabinet negotiations still ongoing, Iran basically ordered the Sadrists to accept Maliki as the premier candidate. In doing so, Tehran achieved the goal of a reconstituted, sectarian Shiite alliance in parliament (now called the National Alliance). This coalition was able to form a government with Kurdish support as well as with the more reluctant acquiescence of the Sunni-secular Iraqiyya who by now had been eclipsed by the Shiite post-election coalition building effort.
As Iraq goes to the polls again this year, there has for the first time not been any strong Iran push for a single Shiite coalition. Instead, there are at least three major Shiite lists – associated with Maliki, Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrists respectively – as well as a sprinkling of smaller entities.
There could be many possible explanations for this fragmented situation, and for Iran’s apparent acquiescence in the face of it. On the one hand, ties between Maliki and Iran got closer during his second term, thanks not least to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 and the intensification of the Syrian crisis and its increasingly sectarian character during the course of 2012. Summer 2012 saw an attempt by Maliki’s primary Shiite adversaries to unseat him through a no confidence vote; those manouevres were ultimately thwarted by Iran who reportedly told the Sadrists to back off. Then, ahead of the 2013 local elections – and in an indication of Iran once more strengthening its influence – Maliki was for the first time joined in coalition by the Badr organization, formerly an Iranian-sponsored militia who had split from the Hakim faction. Also, in a testament to his losing interest in winning over Sunnis, Maliki participated in pan-Shiite alliances in several Shiite-minority provinces, including Diyala and Salahaddin.
At the same time, Iran must be acutely aware of the opposition to a third Maliki term in some key Shiite circles in Iraq. This includes not only the Hakim and Sadr camps, but also the conservative clergy in Najaf, with whom Iran has an uneasy relationship because of doctrinal issues including the wilayat al-faqih dispute.
Whereas it is being suggested that Muqtqda al-Sadr’s recent decision to step back from politics may be the result of instructions from Iran to offer better opportunities for Maliki, it seems likely that Iran is hedging its bets until after the elections. Some of the key players that run separately from Maliki also have solid ties to Iran, including not least Ahmed Chalabi who is this time a prominent candidate on the Hakim ticket, as well as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a past favourite PM candidate in Iranian eyes.
Beyond the intricacies of Shiite politics, special challenges for Iran in Iraq’s 2014 elections relate to the Kurdish political scene. Hitherto, Iran has above all relied on the PUK party of President Jalal Talabani, which has its voter base in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan that border directly upon Iran, for influence among Iraqi Kurds. But with Talabani incapacitated and in long-time hospital treatment in Germany, the PUK has lost considerable influence inside the Kurdish community, to the point where the biggest Kurdish party, KDP, for the first time has decided to ditch the process of a grand Kurdish alliance and instead run on its own in the elections. The KDP, in turn, is the number one Turkish client in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, meaning the new situation poses something of a threat to Iranian hegemony in grand regional terms. To Iran, the ascendant Gorran movement which has yet to align itself regionally may be of potential interest, at least as an Iraqi Kurdish counter-weight to the seemingly firm Turkish ties of the KDP.
Iran has always had problems gaining a foothold among Sunni and secular forces in Iraq. Previously, there were attempted contacts with the Sunni Islamist Tawafuq coalition, which participated in Shiite-led government at times when many Sunnis continued to boycott the entire post-2003 political process. This year, though, Tawafuq is not even running. Iran’s relations with existing Sunni-leaning lists are minimal. The list of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi is firmly in the Turkish camp whereas that of deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak is perhaps the most outspoken one in terms of its criticism of Iran. That leaves only Ayyad Allawi, whose party has historically been critical of Iranian influence in Iraq, though perhaps somewhat less vociferously than Mutlak and his allies. The government negotiations of 2010 actually saw unprecedented attempts by Allawi to reach out to Iran-friendly Shiite leaders critical of Maliki like Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, but it remains difficult to envisage Allawi’s electorate embracing any sort of close rapprochement with Iran.
It is noteworthy that this year, despite growing regional tension, Iran has refrained from pushing the de-Baathification issue to the forefront of Iraqi politics. It is possible that Iran understands that a complete alienation of Iraqi Sunnis may push them wholesale into the hands of Al-Qaeda-inspired hardliners in Syria such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the balance of power in Syria and the region alike. It is noteworthy that during the continuing crisis in the Anbar province of Iraq that borders on Syria, there has been a constant stream of local Sunni politicians who have announced their interest in cooperating with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad instead of becoming immersed in some medieval-inspired transnational statelet formation in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands. Whether Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran are able to use that potential in a positive way will only be known when the votes of the 30 April elections have been counted and the Iraqi cabinet formation negotiations begin.
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Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 24 April 2014 23:55
It is great to finally see something of a revival of the genre of Americans commenting on Iraqi affairs. The first years since the withdrawal in 2011 were characterised by an apparent urge to forget as much as possible, but the upcoming 30 April parliament elections in Iraq – the first democratic contest in the post-2003 era to be carried out without any form of direct American supervision – has also inspired a good deal of fresh commentary on Iraq by American writers.
Among the more prominent pieces in this wave of Iraq writings is an article titled “What We Left Behind” by Dexter Filkins that has just been published in The New Yorker.
Filkins might as well have named his piece “Who We Left Behind”, because this is mostly about the personality of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. As such, it is an important contribution in many ways. Filkins patches together many useful and sometimes previously unpublished anecdotes that contribute to a fuller picture of Maliki than seen in English previously. Among them are the story of an alleged conversation between Maliki and US diplomat Zad Khalilzad that supposedly was decisive in the emergence of Maliki as the premier candidate of the Shiite bloc in 2006; Maliki’s admiration for General Qasem (the coup leader of 1958) as conveyed in private conversation with former US ambassador Ryan Crocker; vivid portrayals of exchanges between Maliki and Crocker at the time of Maliki’s Charge of the Knights operation in Basra in 2008; comments by Maliki on his relations with some of the key Iranian operators in Iraq, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; as well as Maliki’s take on accusations directed at his own son Ahmed, who is often accused of building a powerbase for himself. There is also some fascinating detail on the new social geography of the Green Zone, where notorious anti-American figures like Qays al-Khazali of the pro-Iranian Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq now live in sumptuous surroundings.
Here are important insights in US policy-making and thinking, too. There is a priceless snapshot of a conversation between Brett McGurk (at the time at the NSA) and President George W. Bush concerning a map of the Basra battlespace at the time of Maliki’s operations against the Sadrists in 2008. There are details about frustration in the US embassy in Baghdad following the settlement of the second Maliki term basically at the behest of Iran in autumn 2010, with at least one high-ranking official reportedly resigning because of the perceived stand-down in the face of Iranian hegemony. And there are glimpses of the frustration felt by US diplomats during the course of 2011, when possibilities for negotiations about a prolonged, reduced US troop presence in Iraq evidently existed but when the White House simply just couldn’t make up its mind. Perhaps most fascinating, though, are comments by Lieutenant Michael Barbero which reveal that at least until January 2011, the US allegedly threatened Maliki with military resistance if he moved towards the disputed areas with the Kurds. Barbero apparently wished that US troops should continue to serve in this kind of peacekeeping role in infinity.
However, despite the impressive list of people interviewed for the Filkins article, there are also aspects of it that inspire distrust. For starters, in his introduction, Filkins finds it noteworthy that a “long-time associate” of Maliki maintains that the Iraqi PM “never smiles”. This assertion can be easily falsified by a simple Google Image search, and one assumes the longstanding Maliki associate is talking to Filkins because he is not any longer such a close associate and that maybe that, in turn, may explain the perceived absence of smiles.
And there are inaccuracies relating to far more important matters than body language here. In his description of the 2010 government formation process, Filkins asserts that the Iraqi federal supreme court ruling that formally enabled post-election coalition forming “directly contradicted the Iraqi constitution”. This is just untrue. The problem is that the Iraqi constitution is mute when it comes to the relationship between electoral lists and parliamentary blocs. It just says the biggest parliamentary bloc will nominate the premier, and the supreme court simply repeated that sentence, with the addition that pre-election and post-election formation should be considered on an equal footing. Filkins refers to minutes from the constitutional negotiations, but the only thing that has been published by Maliki’s critics from those negotiations is in fact inconclusive as regards the intent of the framers on government formation.
Also other comments on legal affairs sow doubts about the overall reliability of the article. Filkins claimed that Maliki has “secured a decision from the Iraqi High Court that gave him the exclusive right to draft legislation”. Again, this is incorrect. What the supreme court has done, since before 2010, is to assert an orthodox interpretation of the Iraqi constitution which stipulates that legislation can be introduced by cabinet or the president. In other words, the Iraqi constitution does not seem to give the Iraqi parliament the right to initiate legislation on its own without going through cabinet. This is unusual in comparative perspective but nor unheard of, and in any case the ruling certainly did not bestow any particular privileges upon Maliki personally with respect to legislative powers.
Beyond the general leitmotif of Maliki as a horrible autocrat, Filkins also portrays him as the diehard enemy of Sunni Arabs, as a community. Following the standoff at the Ramadi protest camp in 2013, Filkins claims that “the rest of Sunni Iraq erupted”. Whatever security can be found in Baghdad is attributed to the physical separation between the two sects after sectarian displacement in 2005-2007. Filkins repeatedly cites American favourite Adel Abd al-Mahdi for his criticism of Maliki’s alleged wholesale marginalization of Sunnis and Kurds. At one point Filkins claims that Maliki “set out to banish every trace of Sunni influence from the bureaucracy”.
What is lacking in this account is some mention of key Sunnis that Maliki continues to rely on. Just to take one example, some quite substantial “trace of Sunni influence” remains at the federal supreme court, where several Sunni judges continue to shape the rulings of the court. And what about key provincial officials in Anbar and Salahaddin with whom Maliki continues to cooperate? These are people that appear to be more eager to work with Shiite-dominated Baghdad than submerge themselves in the radical Islamism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Inevitably, when Filkins cannot get basic legal details right, questions emerge as to whether we can fully believe him with respect to all the other, less easily verifiable information about Maliki that he presents as facts. He paints and paints, and he asks other, mostly American, painters about their opinions. In the end, Filkins’ piece of art comes across as a self-portrait of Americans in Iraq, rather than a naturalistic image of Iraq itself.
Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 21 April 2014 12:30
I’m writing this because the mistreatment that I suffer at the hands of Norwegian police operating abroad has worsened significantly in recent weeks, to the point where I fear my health is at a breaking point. For more than a year now I have suffered in silence, concentrating on my own projects instead of complaining about the police’s mistreatment, but after the recent severe intensification of the mistreatment I have no other choice than to do this. I consider my life to be in immediate danger and I want there to be at least a record of what has happened.
As outlined previously, the operation against me consists of two very different elements. Firstly, there is the public aspect, which consists of various forms of theatrical stalking in public areas in which the general public is invited to take part. This is just a gimmick that has no real impact…
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