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Maliki Suffers Setbacks as Samarrai Is Confirmed as New Speaker and More Governors Are Elected South of Baghdad

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
19 April 2009

Iraq’s parliament finally has a new speaker, whereas the basic structures of local government in all governorates south of Baghdad except Muthanna emerged during the past week. Both the election of Ayad al-Samarrai by the Iraqi parliament today as well as developments in at least two governorates (Maysan and Wasit) appear to be at variance with the overall strategy pursued by Maliki over the past months.

The highly significant setback for Maliki in the contest over who should be speaker of the parliament is likely to drown in Western newswire reports which rather misleadingly portray the whole affair as a case of “Sunni Arabs bickering about who should represent their community” and even allege that somehow the Iraqi constitution imposes sectarian criteria for membership of the post, i.e. one has to be Sunni in order to hold this job. But the assertion that this was an “internal Sunni affair”, whether legally or politically, is highly inaccurate. In fact, Maliki was deeply involved from the beginning. The speakership became vacant back in December 2008 in an atmosphere where the incumbent, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, was forced out in rather murky circumstances but clearly to the applause of forces that were critical of Maliki and his increasingly assertive centralism – including most prominently the “ethno-federalist” alliance of the Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP), one of the Shiite Islamist parties (the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or ISCI), and one of the Sunni Islamist parties (the Iraqi Islamic Party or IIP). Mashhadani’s backers were a cross-sectarian coalition that shared his view on the virtues of a strong state, including the Sadrists, Fadila, the secular Iraqiyya and breakaway elements from the IIP-led Tawafuq front – all collectively known as the 22 July parties in reference to their common, Iraqi nationalist stance on Kirkuk.

As for the legal aspect, the idea that there is any constitutional requirement for the speaker to be a Sunni is pure nonsense. Whereas there are certainly several sectarian elements in the constitution that was adopted back in 2005 (including most prominently the tripartite presidency that was adopted for the first parliamentary cycle, as well as the constant references to the “components” or mukawwanat of the Iraqi people instead of the whole), the speakership of the parliament is not affected by this at all. Quite the contrary, the fact that the speaker can be elected with an absolute majority made this post into an obvious focus for those who wanted to challenge the system of ethno-sectarian quota sharing (which is primarily the result of the requirement that the president for the 2005–2009 cycle be elected on a single list with a two-thirds majority). Neither do the “house rules” of the Iraqi parliament impose any particular sectarian formula for the election of the speaker; the reference to a requirement that the speaker should reflect the “balance” of the parliament could plausibly be interpreted as referring to ideology as much as to sectarian identity. Quite in line with this, then, the first suggestion by the ousted Mashhadani himself on 24 December 2008 was actually that he should be replaced by someone from the (Shiite) Sadrist bloc. On 6 January 2009, a Shiite from Iraqiyya and the 22 July bloc, Mahdi al-Hafiz, presented himself as a candidate and on 13 January received the support of the Iraqiyya leader Jamal al-Butikh.

In this way, the Mashaddani resignation in December highlighted the contradiction between Maliki’s alliance with the ethno-federalist parties in government (whose alleged plan to backstab him was referred to publicly by Maliki’s confidant Sami al-Askari on 27 December) and his ideological stance on key constitutional issues, where his closeness to the 22 July group of parties was becoming ever clearer as the 31 January local elections approached. But the way the Daawa handled the issue brought into the open the deep internal fissures in the question of whether to pursue a sectarian or a non-sectarian agenda. For, despite the tendencies by the Maliki list in the local elections campaign to de-emphasise sectarianism, several Daawa party spokespersons repeatedly expressed sectarian points of view as far as the speakership of the national assembly was concerned. For example, on 12 January, Kamal al-Saadi said that the (Shiite-dominated) United Iraqi Alliance would support any candidate that the Sunnis themselves could agree upon. Conversely, though, when the 22 July parties protested against the attempt to impose a Sunni candidate from the IIP shortly after the local elections, Daawa joined them in boycotting a parliamentary session on 8 February, and reportedly were among those voting blank or supporting the 22 July candidate (Khalil Jadwa) when on 20 February the ethno-federalists tried to force through Ayad al-Samarrai but only obtained 136 votes, two votes short of the absolute-majority requirement of 138.

By mid-February, the process of forming local councils took precedence and the parliament went into recess. In a sign of desperation, the IIP appealed to the Iraqi federal supreme court for their legal opinion on “what constituted an absolute majority” (with the intention of redefining it so that 136 out of 275 votes would qualify to settle the speakership), a somewhat futile bid because this is one of the few areas where the Iraqi constitution is really perfectly clear and not open to imaginative interpretation. Meanwhile, Maliki appeared to embark on a grand strategy that had the potential to bring his alliances at the provincial level in harmony with the signs of cooperation between himself and the 22 July parties on constitutional issues as well as the speakership question. Basically, the plan seemed to be to make alliances with secularists, anti-Tawafuq and/or anti-Kurdish Sunni Islamists as well as Shiite Islamist opponents of ISCI wherever possible, and by late March tentative coalitions on this pattern had indeed been formed in most areas.

But the new political map of Iraq that has emerged as new governors have been chosen over the past weeks deviates quite considerably from what would appear to be Maliki’s preferred scenario. In Anbar and Nineveh, where councils were formed more than a week ago, Maliki is probably satisfied with the fronts formed on an anti-Tawafuq and anti-Kurdish basis respectively, but in both Diyala and Salahaddin people from his list tried to challenge Tawafuq without any success. Then came a number of crucial decisions in governorates south of Baghdad over the past week. The case with the closest fit to the grand strategy may be Babel, where on 18 April a Maliki-friendly independent governor was elected with support also from Sadrists and Iraqiyya, with ISCI abstaining. (In Karbala, the first Shiite-majority governorate to choose a new governor, the pattern was necessarily somewhat different because of the success of local lists and the enmity between the Sadrists and Maliki’s man in Karbala, Aqil al-Khazaali.) Then follow those areas where Maliki either did not manage to work with the secularists or there weren’t any to work with, but where he still managed to put together majorities of Shiite Islamists with an anti-ISCI orientation. This includes Qadisiyya (where by mid-April Iraqiyya appeared to have dropped out, but where an agreement on power-sharing that excludes ISCI was reported today) as well as Dhi Qar (where a pro-Maliki governor and a Sadrist council president were elected on 16 April). (UPDATE: Iraqiyya on 19 April returned to the coalition with Maliki in Qadisiyya, making it the second governorate south of Baghdad where some kind of alliance on the 22 July pattern has succeeded in naming a governor, Salim Husayn from the Maliki list.)

But with the exception of Basra (where things could hardly go wrong given the clear majority for Maliki and where two loyalists, Shiltagh Abbud and Jabbar Amin, were elected as governor and council speaker respectively on 15 April), most other areas south of Baghdad have seen problems, even when the arithmetic of seats looked good initially. Muthanna, of course, was always going to be problematic, with ISCI and Maliki each leading coalitions of 13 representatives, with one of the local list even internally divided between these two coalitions. But in Najaf, Maliki could in theory have allied with Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the Sadrists to marginalise ISCI but he opted instead for an even bigger coalition also including local lists – which in turn began to quarrel internally. Whilst a president of the local council from Maliki’s list has now been elected, there is still no governor and there has even been talk about the incumbent ISCI governor making a comeback. Similarly, in Maysan, Maliki had the numbers for an alliance with Jaafari and the Sadrists on the standard pattern, but opted instead to drop his cooperation with the Sadrists and instead work with ISCI (whose ally, “Hizbollah in Iraq” had its candidate as speaker of the local council confirmed on 14 April, with a pro-Maliki governor, Muhammad al-Sudani). And in Wasit, too, everything seemed ready for a coalition inspired by the 22 July formula, with Maliki initially joining a sub-coalition of Iraqiyya, the Constitutional Party and the Sadrists. But on 15 April, the new council elected a speaker from ISCI and decided to keep the incumbent governor – from the bloc of independent Shiites associated with Khalid al-Atiyya – in office. The Constitutional Party, Iraqiyya and some members of Maliki’s local branch of Daawa (but not Tanzim al-Iraq or the independents) refrained from supporting the new arrangements!

What is going on here? The resultant political map looks rather schizophrenic, with Maliki taking part in coalitions with a clear and aggressive anti-ISCI edge in places like Karbala, Babel, Qadisiyya and Dhi Qar, but apparently making unnecessary concessions to the same ISCI in Maysan, Wasit and possibly even Najaf. In some cases, of course, at least some of the lack of policy coherence may have to do with local politics – as in Wasit, where the decision to ally with ISCI and keep the current governor in office reportedly had been approved by Maliki himself but was resisted by members of the local branch of the Daawa. Also, at least in two cases, the problems came from within Maliki’s own list, with the Tanzim al-Iraq branch apparently the main culprit.

But perhaps it is necessary to see this also in relation to the parliamentary struggle about the speaker, which came to the fore again last week and was settled today – and where the contradiction in Daawa policy once more has become evident. On 15 April, a Daawa spokesman declared his opposition to any election of Samarrai, and instead discussed compromise candidates from Iraqiyya, Hiwar and independents, apparently in the spirit of the opposition to Samarrai shared by the 22 July opposition. As late as yesterday, Daawa leaders said Samarrai should not be allowed to run for a second time (but at the same time showed their differences with the 22 July parties by stressing their view that the post should go to a Sunni and a Sunni only). In the end, today one of their suggested “compromise candidates”, Mustafa al-Hiti, did indeed run against Samarrai, but received only 34 votes against 154 for Samarrai, with 45 blank votes reported. Altogether, then, only 79 parliamentarians backed the anti-Samarrai stance articulated by Daawa members just days ago.

When using these indicators to discuss Maliki’s strength and his room for manoeuvre, certain caveats need to be kept in mind. The current parliament is an anachronism from 2005 and, in theory at least, in its dying days. Hence, a parliamentary defeat for Maliki on the speakership issue does not necessarily mean that he will give up fighting the next parliamentary elections in December on the same message of a strong (and even non-sectarian?) state that he seemed inspired by back in January. Also, with regard to the speaker, some parliamentarians may have been swayed simply by the acuteness of the issue and the need to get the system up and running again before the whole issue turned farcical; this too suggests that Maliki and his Daawa party will simply put on a brave face and get on with it. Still, the fact that around 20 parliamentarians changed their views on the same candidate within a month is somewhat remarkable, and could suggest that a certain degree of deal-making has taken place. (ADDENDUM: Also, it should be kept in mind that the issue of the speakership was stripped of some of its more fundamental political and ideological content on 16 March, because the specific procedure which was then adopted for the election of the speaker confirmed the interpretation of the constitution that there is no requirement for the speaker to belong to any particular sect or party – anyone can run. This means the contest was now more about personalities than about the principle of sectarian quota-sharing, and must have made it easier for 22 July parties like the Iraqiyya to support Samarrai, and even reportedly some from the Fadila and the Sadrists, although the latter had been siding with Daawa and the anti-IIP Tawafuq breakaway elements as late as last week. Symptomatic of this situation is the fact that on the very day that Iraqiyya voted for Samarrai in the parliament – and hence, in some sense, against Maliki – they, alongside other 22 July parties, continued to support him in his showdown with the ethno-federalist alliance in Diyala.)

As for the coalition-forming processes in the provinces and the apparent failure of Maliki to make the most of the elections results, two interpretations are possible. One may ponder why ISCI is doing better than expected in two governorates that border on Iran, and also ask why they appeared to benefit from the antics of the Tanzim al-Iraq branch (which is thought to be closer to Iran than Maliki’s main branch) in at least two governorates. That kind of search for a hidden hand trying to balance the Shiite Islamist factions against each other is, admittedly, something of a conspiracy-oriented approach. But is it really more plausible to choose the the alternative interpretation, i.e this is all down to the complexities of local Iraqi politics and Iran is sitting idly by, in splendid isolation, frustrated by its lack of influence, and having no other options left but to plot the next IED campaign through its sole remaining instrument, the “special groups”?


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