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A Presidency in Disarray: Abd al-Mahdi Resigns Three Weeks after Being Appointed as Deputy

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

31 May 2011

It seems slightly surrealistic that Iraqi politics should still be focused on the institution of the presidency these days: Since the transitional period outlined in the Iraqi constitution came to an end in November 2010, the president (Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish alliance) holds a mostly ceremonial office whose sole remaining prerogative of any significance is the power to introduce bills to parliament (crucially it no longer has any veto right). The deputies to the president – specified in the constitution as “one or more” and in a bill passed in January 2011 limited to “maximum three” – have no constitutionally defined powers whatsoever except what is delegated to them from the president’s own limited remit.

Accordingly, the decision by the Iraqi parliament earlier this month (12 May) to approve three deputies to the Iraqi president did not really mean much in terms of power politics. Farcically, the decision by Talabani to appoint two former members of the transitional presidency council to serve as presidential deputies between November 2010 and May 2011 had been unconstitutional; similarly, his recent decision to promote one of the three newly elected deputies, Adil Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI, as “first deputy” had no explicit constitutional or legal basis (though ample effort was made to justify it in legal terms – the presidential missive on the matter dated 19 May even erroneously refers to paragraph 4 of the law on presidential deputies when paragraph 5 is clearly intended). True, alongside the appointment in early April of a Sadrist minister of planning, the vote on the vice presidents did bring the still-ongoing Iraqi government formation process somewhat closer to completion (it has been running for almost 15 months), maybe as a third stage after phase 2 was completed last February. However, the failure to appoint security ministries and make a decision on whether to move forward with the strategic policy council or abandon it altogether means the Iraqi governmental structure still remains in flux just six months ahead of the current deadline for a full withdrawal of US troops.

Yesterday, Adil Abd al-Mahdi resigned from his job as “first” vice-president after less than three weeks on the job. In explaining the decision, ISCI politicians have focused on two aspects. Firstly, they objected to the procedure by which all the three deputies to the president were elected in a single batch instead of through individual votes. ISCI had hoped that an individual vote would exclude Khudayr al-Khuzaie from the rival Shiite Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) party, who is closer to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Secondly, ISCI referred to “the will of the Shiite religious leadership” and its stated objective of reducing state spending on superfluous government positions. It should be stressed in this respect that in his original public pronouncement on this matter dated 26 February 2011, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani did not make specific reference to the vice-presidencies, although others in the clergy have made criticisms referring more directly to Khudayr al-Khuzaie. The delay in ISCI’s announcement of its decision was explained with reference to Jalal Talabani’s visit abroad for medical reasons.

ISCI’s sudden interest in shrinking the size of government does come across as somewhat opportunistic since its leaders always played key roles in enshrining formulas of ethno-sectarian power-sharing (muhasasa) - in the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, in the constitution itself (especially in the transitional clauses that created the temporary presidency) in 2005, and in the bylaws for the Iraqi parliament adopted in 2006. Still, ISCI’s stance could indicate that even some Iraqi politicians inside the system are now beginning to wake up to the need to respond to an increasingly critical Iraqi public. To Maliki this means that he may be more dependent than ever on agreement with Iraqiyya on the security ministries and the question of a post-2011 US military presence – a task not made easier by what appears to be persistent interest in pushing for stronger local government or even creating federal regions at least among some provincial leaders in the north-western Sunni-majority governorates, as well as the assassination last week of Ali Faysal al-Lami, the de-Baathification director who had been the enemy of Iraqiyya and a constant irritant for Maliki’s attempts at building coalitions outside the all-Shiite umbrella.

If they mean business, Iraqiyya and Maliki’s State of Law might agree on a defence minister and what to do with the strategic policy council; if they want to continue to insult Iraqi voters they will start a quarrel as to whether Khudayr al-Khuzaie or Tariq al-Hashemi (of Iraqiyya) should now be the “first vice-president”. Yesterday’s late-night agreement between the blocs to form a special committee, “as soon as possible”, to look again at the implementation of the “Barzani initiative” that led to the formation of the second Maliki government last November smacks of “more of the same” and continued unwillingness on the part of Iraqiyya to even consider tenders from State of Law for some kind of "political majority" government - quite despite the fact that the net outcome of the latest presidency antics is that one more faction of Iraqiyya (led by Hashemi) now has something of a vested interest in the system, and that ISCI has lost some of its influence. Some Iraqiyya sources, especially those close to Ayyad Allawi, are already hinting that their ministers may boycott further cabinet meetings until a dialogue more attuned to their own terms commences.

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