Political Update: Competing Initiatives Shed Light on Iraq’s Uncertain Political Alliances

by Stephen Wicken & Marisa Sullivan

The apparent beginnings of a concerted campaign to remove Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the threat of a similar campaign against his most significant domestic opponent, Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, suggest that Iraqi politics is entering a period of intense political jockeying and bargaining. While neither of these efforts is likely to succeed, they do provide insight into the ultimate aims, alliances and limits of Iraq’s political blocs and their willingness to act in order to address an impasse in the allocation of power and resources and the rising tide of sectarianism in Iraq.

On January 8, Speaker Nujaifi announced that he had received a request from “a number of MPs” to question Prime Minister Maliki in parliament. Nujaifi stated that the request had met the relevant constitutional requirements, which demand support from 25 MPs. The move is the first step in a procedure that could culminate in a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Yet the route to withdrawing confidence in Maliki is unlikely to succeed. The Iraqi Supreme Court issued a ruling in May 2012 that tightened considerably the parameters for questioning a minister. The ruling requires that a request for questioning must specify alleged violations of the constitution or law, and that such breaches must be “materially or morally grave”. Nujaifi has not yet publicized or presented evidence for any such claims. This extra-constitutional ruling raises the likelihood that the judiciary would intervene on Maliki’s behalf should a campaign to remove the prime minister gather momentum.

Conversely, a separate parliamentary effort is underway to remove Nujaifi. On January 7, Aziz al-Mayahi, a leader of group of Iraqiyya defectors now known as the White Bloc, claimed 110 MPs had submitted demands to withdraw confidence in Nujaifi as speaker of parliament. Although likely a warning to Nujaifi not to proceed with his anti-Maliki campaign, this development raises the possibility that Maliki may seek to have Nujaifi removed from his post before a vote on his own position as prime minister can take place. The procedure for removing the parliamentary speaker is not specified in the constitution, but it is unlikely that State of Law would be able to gain a majority in parliament for such a move.

While the parliamentary arithmetic behind the pro- and anti-Maliki factions is difficult to determine, a meeting of members of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday, January 6 provides a snapshot of the current state of the anti-Maliki coalition. According to the official report, 161 deputies attended the session, two fewer than are necessary to reach quorum and grant the power to debate legislation officially; unofficial reports, however, suggested that the number was lower. The meeting was originally called as an extraordinary session by Speaker Nujaifi to discuss the demands issued from protests in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni provinces that erupted following the arrest of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi’s bodyguards on December 20. When the meeting failed to reach quorum, Nujaifi continued with the session as a ‘consultative meeting’.

While no official register of the MPs that attend parliamentary sessions is published consistently, the parliamentary report demonstrates that the meeting was attended by members of the secular-Sunni Iraqiyya bloc, Kurdish deputies and the Sadrist Ahrar bloc, as well as a number of minority representatives. The Sadrists and former Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, who leads the Iraqi National Congress, were the only members of the National Alliance of Shi’a parties to attend the session. Maliki’s State of Law Coalition had publicly denounced the session, insisting that it would lead only to inflammatory statements, ensuring that its 86 MPs would not attend. The White Bloc, a group of secular Shi’a figures that defected from the Iraqiyya bloc in 2011 in protest at the alliance’s Sunni alleged bias, also announced that they would boycott the session.

Despite the arrest of Finance Minister and Iraqiyya leader Rafia al-Issawi’s bodyguards and the ensuing protests that have galvanized a significant proportion of its Sunni political base, Iraqiyya remains incapable of acting as a unified bloc in parliament. Talal al-Zobaie, of Speaker Nujaifi’s Iraqiyoun faction, stated that 15 Iraqiyya MPs did not attend Sunday’s session. The presence of representatives of the Issawi’s National Future Gathering (Mustaqbal) and the Wasat Alliance led by the Iraqi Islamic Party, which remains influential in Anbar, is not surprising. The attendance of Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi, however, who seldom attends parliament, suggests a concerted but unsuccessful push to ensure that the meeting reached quorum. Indeed, Allawi’s personal involvement in the anti-Maliki campaign might prove self-defeating. Once seen as one of Iraq’s most popular politicians, Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord (Wifaq) has suffered significant defections since the 2010 elections, many of them in protest at Allawi’s leadership of the coalition. Remaining Wifaq members are likely already committed to opposing Maliki; Wifaq defectors, on the other hand, may be galvanized in their support for the prime minister by Allawi’s involvement.

It is extremely unclear, moreover, that the anti-Maliki coalition can draw significant support across sectarian lines. The actions of the Citizens’ Bloc, the parliamentary wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), send mixed signals about their willingness to side with the anti-Maliki coalition. Representatives of the party attended a meeting of political blocs on the morning of January 6, ahead of the parliamentary session, presided over by Nujaifi and his deputies, Sadrist Qusai al-Suhail and Arif Tayfur of the Kurdistan Alliance. The preliminary meeting was held to discuss the demands made by protesters across the predominantly Sunni provinces of Iraq, which according to the parliamentary report concerned approval of a legal amnesty; the makeup of the Federal Court; the issue of counter-terrorism arrests; sectarian balance in state institutions; the removal of the commanders of provincial operations commands; the withdrawal of the Iraqi Army from cities; and the lifting of concrete barriers from city streets. Nujaifi told the attendees that he had called the meeting to “clarify the opinion of parliamentary blocs” on these issues.

ISCI’s Citizens’ Bloc representatives appear to have been active at the preliminary meeting, where they, the Sadrists and the Kurdistan Alliance stated their opposition to the cancellation of Article Four of the Anti-Terrorism Law, which has been used by the Maliki government as a pretext for mass arrests in predominantly Sunni areas. Instead, the three blocs agreed to submit the law to the parliamentary Legal Committee for amendment. The Citizens’ Bloc also stated that they opposed inclusion in a General Amnesty Law of anyone involved in “shedding the blood of the Iraqi people,” but supported the amendment of the Accountability and Justice Law, which covers de-Ba’athification. The Sadrists and the Kurdistan Alliance seconded this proposal, implying that disputes in the meeting generally saw Iraqiyya representatives confronting a Shi’a-Kurdish partnership.

While ISCI is willing to engage with members of the anti-Maliki coalition, however, it remains distinct from that bloc. ISCI’s representatives did not attend the parliamentary session held later on Sunday, despite their attendance at the preliminary meeting. They may simply have been serving as the National Alliance’s delegates to the preliminary meeting in order to gauge the terms of the debate. More likely, ISCI may be seeking to profit from engaging with the demands of anti-Maliki protesters without isolating itself further from the rest of the Shi’a Islamist parties.

Both the Sadrists and ISCI have joined Maliki’s pan-Shi’a alliance for the upcoming provincial elections in the predominantly Sunni provinces of Salah al-Din and Diyala but registered their own coalitions in order to compete with Maliki in areas where they can lay claim to their own political constituencies. The Sadrists are more willing to engage with avowedly anti-Maliki factions: while senior Sadrist parliamentarian Bahaa al-Araji was in parliament calling for political blocs to rise above sectarian divisions, ISCI head Ammar al-Hakim was meeting with Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, which has made clear its support for Maliki in the past. However, the refusal of both ISCI and the Sadrists to countenance the cancellation of Article Four of the Anti-Terrorism Law, one of the key demands of the protesters, and their intent to limit the extent of revision of the de-Ba’athification law, imply that neither is willing to make side fully with Iraqiyya against Maliki or significant concessions on the government’s ability to pursue Sunni militants and accused former Ba’athists.

Ultimately, the strength of the anti-Maliki cabal remains in doubt. Even with the participation of the Sadrists, the Kurdistan Alliance and the Kurdish opposition Gorran (Change) Movement, Nujaifi’s session failed to reach the figure of 163 votes that constitutes both parliamentary quorum and the number of votes that would be needed for a vote of no confidence in Maliki. Despite this failure, Nujaifi’s decision to continue with the meeting on a consultative basis rather than send deputies home was enough ammunition for his opponents to threaten a vote to remove him from his post. State of Law MPs took the opportunity to criticize Nujaifi’s management of parliament: Ali al-Shalah called Nujaifi’s “improvisational” leadership of the parliament “unsound and disrespectful,” while Hanan al-Fatlawi accused Nujaifi of breaching both law and constitution in holding the consultative meeting. Statements from White Bloc leader Aziz al-Mayahi and Free Iraqiyya bloc leader Qutaiba al-Jubouri, however, make clear that the opposition to Nujaifi as speaker stems from his position as a senior Iraqiyya leader, insisting that Nujaifi sides with Iraqiyya members in parliament and acts on a sectarian basis. Mayahi’s claim that 110 MPs had submitted demands to withdraw confidence in Nujaifi is not the first time such a suggestion has been raised: in June 2012, State of Law MP Nada Sudani announced that the coalition intended to call for a vote of no confidence in Nujaifi, although no such vote ever took place. The renewed claims, therefore, are likely another attempt by Maliki and his allies to discourage Nujaifi from mounting a concerted campaign against Maliki in parliament. Should the anti-Maliki campaign develop, however, it is possible that Maliki will seek actively to have Nujaifi removed.

The coming weeks are likely to witness intensified jockeying between political blocs as each side seeks to gauge its strength. In this regard, Maliki, whose allies control most of Iraq’s ministries and provincial governments, has a great deal more leverage than his opponents in terms of cajoling or coercing potential supporters. Should the anti-Maliki campaign fail or be stymied by judicial activism on Maliki’s behalf, there remains the distinct possibility that the representatives of Iraq’s Sunni population could withdraw from the political process. On January 7, Finance Minister Issawi implied that Iraqiyya ministers and MPs had filed resignation letters with their leaders, to be submitted should the situation become “unbearable.” The consequences of such a withdrawal carry grave implications for the security and stability of Iraq.