Friday, February 22, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #8: Maliki and Nujaifi Struggle over De-Ba’athification

February 22, 2013
By Stephen Wicken

Maliki and Nujaifi Struggle over De-Ba’athification
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sadrist Trend have reportedly struck a deal over control of the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC), which oversees de-Ba’athification.  Additionally, a Maliki ally has been installed at the head of the AJC, while Maliki’s key judicial ally has been restored. The deal again raises the question of Sadrist alignment with Maliki and its implications for the consolidation of Shi’a political power in Iraq.Conversely, the premier’s primary opponent among the Sunni Arab population,Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, has been forced to defend the activities of the AJC that has targeted members of his political constituency. Nujaifi now faces renewed threats of removal from his position by Maliki’s allies.
On February 18, the Accountability and Justice Commission’s (AJC) appeals panel overturned the decision to remove Judge Medhat al-Mahmoud from his position atop the Iraqi judiciary because of his position under Saddam Hussein. The panel announced that it had found no evidence of ties to the Ba’ath Party, and subsequently affirmed on February 20 that rather than having been an agent of the Ba’athist regime, Medhat had been one of its victims. Deputy AJC head Bakhtiar Omar al-Qadhi stated on February 19 that Medhat would be allowed to return to the presidency of the Federal Supreme Court.
While Medhat’s case appears to have been concluded, the larger political struggle behind the de-Ba’athification issue is ongoing. On February 17, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s media adviser Ali al-Moussawi announced that AJC head Falah Hassan Shanshal, a Sadrist, had been removed as the commission’s chairman on the grounds that he had been appointed by Maliki and not by parliament. Moussawi claimed that Maliki had been forced to appoint Shanshal because parliament had failed to elect a chairman and vice-chairman of the AJC; however, he had decided to end Shanshal’s assignment and return the issue to parliament for voting. Independent MP Sabah al-Saadi, an outspoken critic both of Maliki and of Judge Medhat, subsequently claimed that Maliki had countermanded all decisions taken by the AJC under Shanshal’s leadership. Instead of allowing parliament to vote on a replacement for Shanshal, however, Maliki immediately tasked Basim al-Badri, a member of the Dawa Party - Iraq Organization, with heading the AJC. Maliki’s immediate imposition of a new AJC head on the grounds that the outgoing chief was not elected by parliament, and the fact that he did not replace the similarly unelected Bakhtiar Omar, make clear that the premier’s opposition to Shanshal stems from the latter’s move against Medhat, Maliki’s long-time judicial ally.
The AJC has now,however, become part of Maliki’s ongoing conflict with Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi. On February 18, Nujaifi issued a directive stating that the AJC is an independent body tied to parliament and countermanding Shanshal’s removal. The gambit came days after Nujaifi gave an interview to Al-Jazeera while visiting Qatar in which he called on Maliki to resign so that early elections could be held. Nujaifi accused Maliki of targeting Iraqi Sunnis and pointed out that de-Ba’athification procedures had been “applied against the Sunni people in an unjust way.” This raises the question of why Nujaifi should seek to retain the head of the commission that oversees de-Ba’athification. Shanshal has historically been relatively hardline: as the head of the parliamentary committee that reviews the AJC’s activities, he supported the banning of 511 candidates from the 2010 elections, including Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak. However, Shanshal’s willingness to target Medhat, Maliki’s key ally in the judiciary, made him an attractive potential ally in Nujaifi’s power struggle with the prime minister. Basim al-Badri’s leadership of the AJC, on the other hand, places the commission under Maliki’s control, implying the prospect of further politicized use of de-Ba’athification to target the premier’s opponents.
Nujaifi’s criticisms drew immediate approbation from Maliki allies. State of Law MPs and Jamal al-Bateikh, leader of the pro-Maliki White Bloc, were quick to draw connections between Nujaifi’s accusations and their context, accusing Qatar of supporting sectarianism on the part of Sunni Arab Iraqis. Sadrist MP Uday Awad claimed on February 17 that a majority of MPs were seeking to withdraw confidence from Nujaifi as parliamentary speaker because of Nujaifi’s ‘sectarianism’. State of Law MP Shakir al-Darraji stated, however, that only 120 signatures had been collected, a number which if accurate falls well short of a parliamentary majority. Nujaifi issued a statement on February 20 insisting that as a politician he had done nothing wrong by visiting a neighboring state and calling on the Maliki government to heed the demands of anti-government protesters. Nujaifi drew support from Iraqiyya MPs such as Ahmed al-Masaari, who argued that it was “shameful” for MPs to criticize the head of parliament as they had Nujaifi.
It was in this context that Nujaifi issued his directive countermanding the order to remove Shanshal from the chairmanship of the AJC. It appears, however, that Nujaifi’s directive may have been undercut by a deal between Maliki and the Sadrists, reported on February 22, in which the Sadrists have agreed to Shanshal’s demotion in exchange for control of other,as yet unnamed, commissions. If this report is accurate, the move would echo the Sadrists’ acceptance of acting dominion over the Finance Ministry, providing further evidence of their willingness to soften their opposition to Maliki in exchange for greater access to power and resources.
Nujaifi has faced threats of votes on his speakership in the past. State of Law MPs threatened to vote for his replacement in 2011, claiming that he ran parliament in a biased and unfair manner. The issue was raised again in June 2012 after Nujaifi and allies failed to remove Maliki from the premiership. More recently, Maliki’s allies claimed they had begun a campaign to oust Nujaifi in January 2013 at the same time that Nujaifi announced that he had received requests from MPs to question Maliki in parliament, a precursor to voting on confidence in Maliki himself. Aziz al-Mayahi, another leading White Bloc member, stated on January 7 that 110 signatures had been collected in support of Nujaifi’s dismissal; if Shakir al-Darraji’s estimate of 120 signatures is accurate, this implies that the campaign to oust the speaker has generated modest momentum. Should Maliki’s allies decide to mobilize against Nujaifi, however, as they did in support of State of Law Youth and Sports Minister Jassim Muhammed Jaafar in early February, they could conceivably remove from power the highest-profile Sunni Arab leader in national politics,with serious implications for the balance of power in Iraq.
Budget vote postponed again
The Iraqi parliament failed twice this week to meet to vote on the 2013 budget due to the absence of quorum. State of Law MP Haithamal-Jubouri claimed on February 19 that the National Alliance and the Kurdistan Alliance had reached an agreement that the Kurdistan region would continue to receive 17 per cent of the federal budget in 2013. However, Najiba Najib, a Kurdish MP on the parliamentary finance committee, was quick to deny Jubouri’s statement, insisting that no deal had been reached. Another finance committee member, Ibrahim al-Mutlak of Iraqiyya, confirmed on February 21 that no final deal had been reached, despite continued insistence from State of Law and National Alliance MPs that a vote was imminent. The impasse continues even as figures from across the political spectrum voice their concern that the delay in passing the budget is harming the Iraqi economy significantly.
Protesters hold ‘Iraq or Maliki’ demonstrations
Protests against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki entered their third month on February 22 as demonstrations took place in the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, Kirkuk, and in smaller numbers in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Doura, Ghazaliyah, and Adhamiyah. The theme for the day’s protests was “Iraq or Maliki,” and a member of the coordinating committee for the Anbar protests insisted that the protesters were“determined to topple the Maliki government that ignores the restitution of the usurped rights of the people.” A preacher at Friday prayers in Samarra accused the Maliki government of“encouraging militias to kill and displace the people of Baghdad,” but counseled the demonstrators to continue their protests by “all peaceful means.”Indeed, the protests remained peaceful across Iraq: photos from the Ramadi protest appear to show security guard personnel checking protesters for weapons,suggesting that the protesters or connected tribes are taking measures to ensure that the protests remain nonviolent and to prevent infiltration by extremist or terrorist elements.

Friday, February 15, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #7: De-Baathification Body Ousts Iraq's Chief Justice as Protests Continue

February 15, 2013

By Stephen Wicken and Marisa Sullivan

De-Ba’athification body targets judicial chief

On February 12, the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC), Iraq’s nominally independent de-Ba’athification body, removed Chief Judge Medhat al-Mahmoud from his position as the head of the Higher Judicial Council, the body that oversees the Iraqi judicial system, on account of his ties to the Baathist regime. Medhat has been the dominant figure atop the Iraqi judiciary since he was appointed to the position in 2005; his influence has been buttressed by the fact that he has also presided over the Federal Supreme Court and had never resigned officially from the presidency of the Federal Appeals Court, to which he was appointed in 2003. A day later, Medhat was also removed from his position on as head of the Federal Supreme Court, Iraq’s highest legal body that has jurisdiction over constitutional matters. On February 14, deputy AJC head Bakhtiar Omar al-Qadhi confirmed that Medhat had been removed from the Higher Judicial Council specifically on de-Ba’athification charges, stating that “strong evidence” had been supplied by parliament but declining to provide details. Federal Appeals Court judge Ibrahim al-Humairi was named as his replacement. Medhat’s replacement on the Higher Judicial Council had been anticipated following the passage of the Higher Judicial Council law in December 2012, but his dismissal from the HJC and FSC on grounds of de-Baathification was an unexpected development. Mahmood has 60 days to appeal the decision, though it is unclear whether he will do so.

As an experienced and high-ranking career judge, it is no secret that Medhat had a lengthy judicial career under Saddam Hussein. He has likely escaped targeting on de-Ba’athification grounds in the past due to his willingness to provide judicial backing to Maliki’s consolidation of power. Medhat’s chief critic in this regard has been independent MP Sabah al-Saadi, who in December 2012 calledMedhat the “engineer of Maliki’s dictatorship.” Deputy AJC head Qadhi confirmed on February 13 that the commission had used documents provided by Saadi in its investigation of Medhat.

While Saadi has been Medhat’s most outspoken critic, it is likely that the move against the judge was instigated by a Sadrist-led coalition of Maliki’s opponents. The AJC was taken over in October 2012 by Sadrist Falah Hassan Shanshal, a hardliner on de-Ba’athification who supported the banning of primarily Sunni candidates ahead of the 2010 elections. It was Shanshal who announced on February 7 that the AJC had begun an audit of a number of judges including Medhat. Bakhtiar al-Qadhi, Shanshal’s Kurdish deputy on the AJC, clarified subsequently that of the seven members of the AJC board, four had voted to remove Medhat, two had voted against, and one had abstained. The Sadrists, Iraqiyya, and the Kurds each have two representatives on the board, while Maliki’s Daawa Party has one, raising the question of which members joined the Sadrists - traditionally proponents of a hardline, expansive approach to de-Ba’athification - in voting for the move, and which members opposed the ruling. Arguably Iraqiyya has been the political bloc most affected by Medhat’s judicial activism on Maliki’s behalf; however, the Sunni-dominated list’s members and constituents have also been the hardest-hit by de-Ba’athification. The move further complicates the question of the Sadrists’ disposition towards Maliki, while also raising the specter of Maliki’s key instrument in the politicization of the law himself falling victim to that process of politicization. 

Maliki’s allies have been quick to criticize the ruling. State of Law MP Ali al-Allaq claimed that “targeting Medhat at this critical stage aims at destabilizing the political situation”. Aziz al-Mayahi of the White Bloc, a Maliki-oriented splinter of Iraqiyya, concurred, also condemning the decision and urging Medhat to appeal. Maliki himself is likely to be displeased by the decision, but his options for opposing it are extremely limited, particularly now that his key ally in the judiciary has been sidelined. Fighting to retain Medhat would put Maliki in the position of having publicly to defend a ‘Ba’athist’; as he has been seeking to discredit anti-government protests by implying that they are in part a Ba’athist plot, mounting a defense of Medhat along these lines would undermine Maliki’s position. It is possible that Maliki will instead attempt to coopt or influence Humairi, Medhat’s replacement, of whom little is known.

The issue of de-Ba’athification has long been a central point of contention in Iraqi politics, and the eruption of anti-government protests primarily among Iraq’s Sunni population has brought the issue to even greater prominence. Sunni protesters have called for a freeze in the execution of the Accountability and Justice Law until it can be repealed entirely by parliament. This demand has had the effect of discouraging support for the protests among Shi’as who may agree with some of the anti-government protesters’ other demands. The Sadrists have stated firm opposition to any loosening of de-Baathification laws, as have representatives of Kurdish parties such as the Gorran (Change) Movement. The Medhat ruling also places Iraqiyya in a difficult position: the list likely supports the removal of the figure that helped sideline them after the 2010 elections, but has been vocal in its opposition to the Accountability and Justice Law. In an increasingly sectarian atmosphere, the prospect remains that the Sadrist-led AJC may seek to pursue their de-Ba’athification agenda with even greater vigor. A key question will be whether they continue to target Maliki allies, particularly figures at the head of Maliki’s security apparatus, or turn again against Iraqiyya and Sunni figures.

Political blocs reach impasse on budget vote

It was announced on February 12 that voting on the 2013 federal budget had been postponed indefinitely as Iraq’s political blocs continued to disagree over key provisions. On February 11, the office of parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi issued a statement admitting that there were still “significant differences” between the parliamentary blocs over the budget despite “tireless efforts” made by the speaker’s office to reach an agreement. The statement called for political blocs, parliamentary committees, and MPs to continue discussion “without interruption” until the budget was adopted. In an unusual step, the speaker’s office added that the issue of passing the budget “requires the presence of members [of parliament] on a daily basis” until the final adoption of the budget.

The political blocs have reached an impasse as Iraq enters its third month of unauthorized spending. The lack of an approved budget favors Prime Minister Maliki, who has long sought greater control over borrowing and spending. In October 2012, Maliki suspended Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) Governor Sinan al-Shabibi, a longtime critic of Maliki’s economic and fiscal policies. It was rumored on February 13 that Shabibi’s replacement, Abd al-Basit Turki, had also been replaced by the cabinet. Maliki is thought to have been aiming for some time to install Abd al-Hussein al-Anbaki, his economic adviser, at the head of the CBI; the rumor raises the question of whether Turki was inserted in the position as a caretaker in order to avoid the impression that Maliki was ousting Shabibi, an internationally respected economist, with a personal adviser.

The key disagreement is over the share of the budget allotted to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Parliamentary finance committee member Jaber al-Jaberi of the Sunni-secular Iraqiyya bloc told media sources that Maliki’s State of Law Coalition was seeking to reduce the Kurdistan region’s share of the federal budget from the 17 per cent stipulated in 2006 to 12 per cent. Kurdish officials have long claimed that Baghdad has undertaken a range of measures in order to reduce the KRG’s effective share of the budget, including increasing the proportion of the budget allocated to sovereign expenditures, from which the KRG is excluded. The push to reduce the Kurdish budget share is reported to be led by Hanan Fatlawi, a State of Law MP seen as one of Maliki’s most aggressive representatives.

In September 2012, KRG Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami announced an agreement under which the federal government would apportion 1 trillion dinars to the KRG to pay international oil companies (IOCs) working in the Kurdistan region. A first installment of 650 billion dinars was made as agreed in early October; however, in November Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani announced that Baghdad would not pay the remaining amount, since the KRG had failed to pump the required daily amount of oil stipulated in the agreement. The KRG responded by reducing oil exports to the rest of Iraq by 50 per cent. Baghdad subsequently implied that it intended to withhold the second payment until the KRG agreed to meet a 2013 export target of 250,000 barrels per day and provided accounting of sales and production since 2008, prompting the Kurds to suspend exports to Iraq altogether in late December. The Kurds are now seeking $3.5 billion to pay IOCs working in the Kurdistan region, which they intend to cover retroactive payments dating back to 2010. Maliki’s coalition has insisted that before any further allocations are made, the Kurds should first pay for the barrels per day of oil that they have failed to export since November.

The budget conflict comes amid increasingly clear evidence that the KRG, dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Massoud Barzani, is looking to expand its economic horizons through relations with Turkey. On January 29, Hawrami announced that the KRG planned to raise exports to Turkey to around 20,000 barrels per day of crude oil and 10-15,000 barrels per day of condensate. Despite US opposition, Turkey has insisted that trading with the Kurds without Baghdad’s approval is legal. On February 8, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that under the Iraqi constitution, the KRG has the right to trade “with any country” and that, as a neighbor, Turkey was merely “helping” the Kurds.

This dispute persists in the absence of a federal hydrocarbons law, which Iraqiyya MP and parliamentary oil and energy committee member Adnan al-Janabi claimed on February 7 was “at the bottom of the government’s list” of legislative priorities. With no such law forthcoming, Baghdad and Erbil continue to compete for the business of international oil companies (IOCs), with Baghdad offering a range of threats and incentives to convince IOCs to work only in southern Iraq. In late January, Maliki held a rare meeting with ExxonMobil head Rex Tillerson, at which Maliki is reported to have made a “substantial” offer including improved contract terms to persuade Exxon to discontinue work with the KRG and return its focus to the $50 billion West Qurna 1 oilfield in southern Iraq. Exxon signed exploration contracts with the KRG in October 2011 that would involve drilling in the areas disputed between Iraq and the KRG, and as recently as December 2012, Maliki ally Sami al-Askari threatened that the Iraqi Army would intervene to prevent Exxon from working in these areas. On February 8, it was reported that Exxon had hired former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey as its representative in Iraq, a move which sources have suggested increases the likelihood that Exxon will ultimately choose Baghdad over Erbil.

The oil dispute is not, however, the only stumbling block for the budget. The Kurds, in particular, seek a share of the Defense Ministry’s budget for the Peshmerga forces. In a statement, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Arif Tayfur demanded that the federal government fund the Peshmerga as it does the forces under the federal Ministry of Defense. Tayfur noted that salaries had recently been allocated retroactively to “hundreds of thousands of Baathists who participated in the Anfal operation,” while the Peshmerga had an “honorable history of fighting the authoritarian regime.” The deputy speaker added that the government must “take care of all the components of the Iraqi people,” comparing the reluctance to fund the Kurdish forces with the government’s disbursal of salaries for “tens of thousands of Sahwa.” A KRG Finance Ministry adviser, Abdulkhaliq Rafiq, has claimed that under the terms of the Iraqi constitution, Baghdad owes the KRG more than $6 billion in overdue payments to the Peshmerga Ministry since 2005. The federal government insists that the financing of the Peshmerga falls under the aegis of the KRG: in a television interview in November 2012, Maliki stated that he would be willing to fund the Peshmerga only if the Kurdish forces were placed under federal control.

The KRG’s share of the budget is not the only allocation to draw criticism, moreover. Provinces within Iraq face reduced shares, and southern oil-producing provinces have been particularly vocal in their demands for higher allocations. The Sadrists have accused the Maliki government of marginalizing the southern provinces, Basra in particular. Abd al-Hussein Resan, a Sadrist MP and member of the parliamentary economic and investment committee, insisted on February 13 that the provincial allocations reflected a centralist tendency on the part of the Maliki government that had been “rejected” by Iraqis. It remains to be seen whether the installation of Sadrist Planning Minister Ali al-Shukri as acting finance minister, in place of Iraqiyya leader Rafia al-Issawi, will have any effect on the Sadrist stance.

Budgetary debates in the past have served as an opportunity for Maliki’s opponents to seek to limit the prime minister’s power. In 2009, Maliki’s rivals on the parliamentary finance committee cut funding to the Maliki-sponsored tribal support councils. It also threatened Maliki’s consolidation of the security apparatus by removing funding from extra-constitutional bodies such as the Counter-Terrorism Bureau and the National Security Council. In the final stages of the budgetary debate, moreover, parliament used the budget to undermine Maliki’s control of the Sons of Iraq, moving funding for the initiative from the Maliki-controlled Ministry of Defense to the Interior Ministry, controlled by Maliki opponent Jawad al-Bolani.

Maliki is in a far stronger position to prevent such challenges today, however. A December 6, 2012 Federal Supreme Court decision rejected a proposal by the Sadrist Ahrar parliamentary bloc to distribute surplus oil revenues to the Iraqi population. The ruling implies that parliament, already robbed of the ability to originate laws by a 2010 decision, cannot add new items to the budget during the debate stage and is restricted to amending spending amounts already proposed by the cabinet. This effectively rules out the possibility of a repeat of the 2009 Sons of Iraq move. Moreover, the recent vote against withdrawing confidence in Youth and Sports Minister Jassim Muhammad Jaafar, a Maliki ally, suggests that the prime minister’s camp has regained momentum in parliament, placing Maliki in a strong position with regard to fighting off challenges to proposed spending on line items.

Protesters postpone Baghdad protest after security crackdown

Tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs gathered in Anbar, Mosul, and Samarra to protest against the government in a day of demonstrations called “Friday of Patience, Baghdad.” The organizers of the Anbar demonstrations had called for a unified prayer at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighborhood, a move that would shift the focus of the protests from Anbar province to the Iraqi capital. Yet a subsequent government security crackdown and the increased likelihood of a violent confrontation ultimately convinced the Anbar popular committees to postpone their plans to move to the capital. In a statement on the Facebook pages of groups associated with the protests, the organizers stated that they had called off the Baghdad protests after “appeals to rebels from religious authorities and tribal leaders.” Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha said the move to Baghdad was postponed because the government did not grant the protesters’ request to travel to the capital. In a Friday sermon, Sheikh Hussein al-Dulaimi said that the Baghdad protests would occur in a week or two once the government prepared to secure the protesters visit.

The proposed demonstrations in Baghdad alarmed Maliki and his political allies, who warned protesters not to move forward with their plan. State of Law MP Sami al-Askari accused foreign interests, Baathists, and terrorists of orchestrating the effort. Kamal al-Saadi, the leader of State of Law in parliament, stated on February 12 that the government had evidence that al-Qaeda in Iraq and Baathists were using the planned demonstrations as a pretext to surround the Green Zone. The Maliki government used this alleged terrorist plot to launch the security crackdown ahead of the Friday protests. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said the security forces would respond with an “iron hand” to stop those who might disturb stability. A report from al-Sharqiyah television stated that the Muthanna Brigade, belonging to the Sixth Iraqi Army Division currently deployed near Abu Ghraib, closed the road from Anbar to non-Baghdad residents, while the Baghdad Operations Command blocked the route from Salah al-Din. Security forces also surrounded various Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, including Ameriyah, Adhamiyah, Adil, and Saydiyah. Reports also circulated news of preemptive security raids on the Abu Hanifa mosque and elsewhere in Baghdad. These measures remained in place in the capital on the intended day of the protests.

The appeals from clerical and tribal leaders not to provoke a potentially violent confrontation with the government and the popular committees’ willingness to accede to such requests shows that the demonstrators are still seeking to maintain a peaceful protest movement. Yet the demonstrators continue to seek ways to increase the pressure on Baghdad to address their grievances. The proposed move to Baghdad was one such attempt, but it was deterred by the government’s forceful response. As the non-violent alternatives narrow and anger grows, it is unclear how much longer the protesters are willing to maintain the peaceful nature of their movement. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #6: Protesters stage ‘Friday of No Dictator’

February 8, 2013

By Stephen Wicken and Marisa Sullivan

Anti-government protests continued for the sixth week in Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah ad-Din, with major protests in Fallajuh, Ramadi, Mosul, Samarra, and Tikrit. Protests also took place in Hawija in Kirkuk, Baquba in Diyala, and in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Doura and Ghazaliyah. Protests on Friday, February 8, were labeled variously the “Friday of No Dictator” or “Friday of Restoring Rights,” with protesters denouncing the “tyranny and oppression” of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Anbari tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman stated that the demonstrations in Anbar will continue until the “legitimate demands” of the protesters are met. Demonstrators in Hawija shouted the slogan, “no to the repressive regime and no to the federal court.”

Tribal leaders in Anbar province held a conference on February 7 in which they rejected sectarianism. They also condemned an attack by a small number of protesters against a delegation of southern tribal chiefs visiting the Anbar protests on February 4. The condemnation drew support from Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) head Ammar al-Hakim, who called for the government to meet the “legitimate” demands of the demonstrators “as soon as possible, in accordance with constitutional and legal mechanisms.” These calls were echoed on February 7 by a number of provincial government heads from predominantly Shi’a southern provinces. These responses suggest that political and tribal leaders continue to oppose violent escalation, even though the Maliki government is failing to address protesters’ demands and al-Qaeda in Iraq is attempting to incite broader violence. 

A number of car bombs also on February 8 targeted Shi’a areas in central and southern Iraq. Although no one immediately claimed responsibility, the attacks bear the hallmark of the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq. Two car bombs targeted a bird market in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyah neighborhood killing at least 17; two more exploded in the town of Shomali, in Babel province, killing at least 14; and one detonated on the outskirts of Karbala city, killing two. ISI has previously demonstrated its capacity to attack the southern provinces of Iraq. In September 2012, the terrorist group launched a wave of attacks the targets of which included the southern cities of al-Nasiriyah and Basra, as well as the shrine of Ali al-Sharqi near al-Amarah in Maysan province. Friday’s attacks demonstrate ISI’s ability to launch attacks into normally well-protected Shi’a areas such as Kadhamiyah and Karbala, suggesting expanded logistical support and coordination. In the context of what has become an increasingly sectarian political crisis, any increase in attacks against Iraq’s Shi’a population has the potential of provoking retaliatory sectarian violence.

Sadrist takes over Finance Ministry from Issawi

Iraqiyya’s ministers continued their boycott of cabinet meetings—a move that has encouraged Prime Minister Maliki to place them on “compulsory leave” and replace them with acting ministers. This week, Muqtada al-Sadr approved the appointment of Ali al-Shukri, the current Minister of Planning, as acting finance minister in place of Iraqiyya leader Rafia al-Issawi. In a statement, Sadr insisted that the decision was taken “to serve national interests.” The decision suggests that the threat issued by Sadr to withdraw his existing ministers from the cabinet if the demands of anti-government protesters were not met was, in fact, a gambit intended to gain concessions from Maliki. It may also shed light on rumors that the head of the Sadrist Ahrar parliamentary bloc, Bahaa al-Araji, is to be replaced. Last week, Araji publicly refused Maliki’s request that Sadrists take up the posts of the Iraqiyya ministers. This raises the possibility that Araji is at odds with Sadr over whether the Sadrists should cooperate with Maliki and is being sidelined. Jaafar al-Moussawi is reported to be one of the contenders to replace Araji as Sadrist parliamentary leader, although Araji was still referred to as head of the Ahrar bloc in the media and on his Facebook page as of February 8.

Shukri’s appointment in Issawi’s place dealt a significant blow to Iraqiyya and raises further questions about how that bloc will posture as protests continue. Iraqiyya has portrayed itself as the primary advocate for the demonstrators’ demands and launched the boycott of cabinet as leverage to achieve them.   Maysoon al-Damalouji, Iraqiyya’s spokeswoman, announced on February 6 that Iraqiyya ministers would only return to cabinet sessions if the protesters’ demands were met, echoing the terms articulated by other Iraqiyya leaders. The same day, however, Ayad Allawi, Damalouji’s coalition and party leader, set a new and higher bar for Iraqiyya’s renewed involvement, imposing the adoption of a cabinet bylaw as a condition for Iraqiyya’s ministers to return. The cabinet bylaw was an item included at Iraqiyya’s behest in the Erbil Agreement during the 2010 government formation process, and was intended to clarify the responsibilities of the prime minister, ministers, and ministerial committees. A draft of the bylaw was presented to the cabinet in August 2012, but was rejected by Iraqiyya. Still, Allawi seems to have inserted his own demands into the debate in bringing up the Erbil Agreement. His action likely represents an attempt to regain greater influence or control over the bloc that he formally heads, but within which he has been marginalized by Issawi and Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.

Iraqiyya is now in an exceedingly difficult situation: Maliki has made clear that he will not accept Iraqiyya ministers continuing to run their ministries without attending cabinet sessions. Iraqiyya has rebuffed this demand because continued involvement in government and the compromises this participation would require would only further alienate Iraqiyya from the protesters that form the chief constituency for many of the bloc’s members. Yet the current boycott has given Maliki the opportunity to oust Iraqiyya from its most important ministry, namely, finance. The Sadrists have agreed to go along with Maliki’s effort to replace Issawi, unlike in early 2012, when the prime minister tried a similar move and failed. Issawi’s ouster deprives Iraqiyya of its only significant ministerial portfolio and its ability to limit the power of the prime minister through financial oversight. It also leaves Speaker Nujaifi as the only leading Iraqiyya member with a position of national significance.

Iraqiyya’s influence within the parliament is also under pressure. Parliament voted on February 5 not to dismiss Youth and Sports Minister Jassim Muhammed Jaafar, a member of the Turkman Islamic Union and Maliki’s State of Law Coalition who faces corruption charges. The parliamentary session attracted an unusually high attendance, with 255 MPs turning out compared to an average of 180-200; only 102 votes were cast against Jaafar. The high turnout and low proportion of votes to remove Jaafar suggest significant mobilization of Maliki’s allies, and was likely intended to underscore support for the prime minister in parliament. The strong pro-Maliki showing is a response to two initiatives aimed at limiting the prime minister’s power, both of which face legal hurdles and are unlikely to succeed. In early January, Nujaifi initiated the first stage in a no-confidence vote against Maliki; weeks later, MPs voted to limit the terms of the prime minister, president, and parliamentary speaker.

The next test of Maliki’s strength in parliament likely will be the vote over the 2013 budget, which is reported to have been postponed until February 9 on account of continued disputes between parliamentary blocs. In 2009, disparate anti-Maliki parties came together to limit the prime minister through the allocation of financial resources. For example, they threatened funding for Maliki initiatives, such as the tribal support councils and the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. The outcome of the upcoming budget debate will depend on the relative strengths of the pro- and anti-Maliki blocs in parliament. Right now, the pendulum appears to have swung in Maliki’s favor. If this situation persists, the pro-Maliki bloc may place significant pressure on Nujaifi (and potentially threaten his removal), while ensuring funding for Maliki-favored projects and diverting resources away from his political rivals.

Another major political test will be the provincial elections, currently slated for April 20, 2013. This week, Muqdad al-Sharifi, the chief electoral officer of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) board and a member of the Shi’a National Alliance, suggested that elections might be delayed on account of the security concerns prompted by the ongoing anti-government protests. Sharifi claimed that IHEC staff in northern and western Iraq had received threatening letters, which could hinder their ability to conduct the vote on schedule. Sharifi also stated that the names of a number of candidates in the upcoming provincial election had been submitted to the Accountability and Justice Commission for audit. He gave no further information on the names or affiliations of the barred candidates. The move echoes the de-Baathification crisis that preceded the 2010 parliamentary election, in which mostly Sunni candidates were disqualified in an opaque and politicized process. The termination of de-Baathification law has been one of the protesters’ demands. The threat of postponing elections or removing Sunni Arabs through de-Baathification raises concerns that Sunni Arabs will be further alienated from the political process and may choose to pursue their objectives through violence.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #5a: Largest Turnout of Sunni Protesters in Iraq Since Crisis Began

February 2, 2013
By Marisa Sullivan and Omar Abdullah
Tens of thousands of Sunnis participated on Friday, February 1, in a day of demonstrations called the “Friday of Loyalty to Fallujah’s Martyrs,” a reference to the violent protest in Fallujah the week prior during which Iraq Army forces killed eight demonstrators.  Friday’s anti-government protests were the largest since the movement began in late December. Demonstrators in Anbar, Ninewa, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Baghdad reiterated their demands that the government cancel Article 4 of the Counter-Terrorism Law (which facilitates arrests on security charges), release Sunni detainees held under that law for extended periods without charges or trials, and reform the de-Baathification legislation that has barred many Sunnis from government employment. Crowds also denounced the Fallujah incident and called for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Students in Mosul condemned the “invasion” of university campuses by Iraqi Army forces, and demanded that security forces act in the national interest and be less aggressive with Iraqi citizens. Demonstrators in Mosul also burned the Iranian flag and carried signs demanding “Nouri, Leave!”
The largest protest occurred in Anbar, where popular committees protected the crowds and searched attendees in order to ensure that they were unarmed, lest anyone attempt to escalate into violence.  Sizable demonstrations also took place in Ninewah and Samarra, with smaller protests in Bayji, Salah ad Din; Baqubah, Diyala; and Baghdad’s Adhamiyah, Ameriya and Doura neighborhoods. The protests remained notably peaceful, and clerics rebuffed calls from al-Qaeda in Iraq for Sunnis to take up arms against the Maliki government. While pro-government protests staged during the early weeks of the crisis have since tapered off, supporters of the Iranian-backed, militant proxy group Asaib Ahl al-Haq gathered in Kut on Friday to denounce Turkey and recent statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to form an “rational government” in Iraq.
Amidst the demonstrations, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq met to discuss the current crisis and the protesters demands with several Shi’ite politicians from the National Alliance, including Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Hadi al-Ameri, and Khalid al-Attiyah. Mutlaq said the meeting was productive, unlike previous ones, and that they reached an agreement to follow up on detainee cases and transfer those held by the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior to facilities run by the Ministry of Justice.
Also on Friday, Muqtada al-Sadr called his ministers to Najaf to discuss the possibility of withdrawing from the government if the protesters’ demands are not addressed. Sadr last pulled his ministers in January 2007, after Maliki refused to set a timetable for the US withdrawal. It is not clear how serious Sadr is in threatening a similar boycott. The move may be an effort to exert leverage over Maliki, and Sadr may not follow through on his rhetoric. Last year, for example, under pressure from other Shi’a parties and Iran, Sadr pulled back from previous threats to side with Iraqiyya and the Kurds in the no-confidence effort even after a much-publicized visit to Erbil.  Nevertheless, the Sadrists are not cooperating with Maliki right now.  On Thursday January 31, Sadrist MP Bahaa al-Araji refused Maliki’s request that Sadrists fill the posts of Iraqiyya ministers who are currently boycotting the cabinet. Prominent Iraqiyya leader and Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi applauded the Sadrists’ actions and said that Maliki’s effort to enforce compulsory leave for Iraqiyya ministers was unconstitutional.
On Saturday, Maliki called for dialogue to resolve the political crisis in a news conference with Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Maliki stressed that the current standoff does not serve anyone, while Hakim urged the Iraqiyya list to end its parliamentary boycott in order to “create the right climate to speed implementation and application of the resolutions of the Council of Ministers and meet the needs of the demonstrators." Hakim had recently returned from a trip to Iran where he consulted with leaders including Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the current political crisis.
Also on Saturday, hackers calling themselves “Team Kuwait” targeted the prime minister’s website, posting a picture of two mourning women declaring their support for Iraqis who were fighting Maliki’s oppression. The pictures were removed within several hours, and the Maliki government did not comment on the incident, which was the second cyber-attack against Maliki’s office in the last two weeks.
Friday’s protests show that Sunni tribal and religious leaders are continuing their strategy of peaceful demonstrations, despite fears that the current political crisis would escalate into widespread violence following last week’s incident. The peaceful nature of the protests also suggest that tribal leaders have retained control and influence, and that thus far al-Qaeda has not been able to capitalize on disaffected Sunnis to broaden armed resistance.  Reports of outreach between tribal leaders in Anbar, Ninewah, and Salah ad-Din and southern tribes in an effort to foster a dialogue about the protesters demands also indicates a broader movement amongst Iraqi tribes to resolve the crisis. The Maliki government’s response also continues to be one of restraint. Ongoing negotiations between political blocs as well as Iraq’s tribal leaders suggest that all sides have concluded that a violent escalation is not in their interest, at least for now. Still, Maliki is unlikely to accede fully to protesters’ demands, as doing so would undermine a key pillar in his strategy for maintaining security and political dominance.

Friday, February 1, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #5: Friday's Protests Will Gauge Direction of Iraqi Crisis

February 1, 2013
By Stephen Wicken and Sam Wyer
The Iraqi Army’s fatal shooting of eight anti-government protesters in Fallujah on Friday, January 25, has increased fears that violence will escalate further. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has attempted to use a combination of concession and repression to deescalate tensions and gradually force the reduction of anti-government protests.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense, for example, quickly opened an investigation into the Fallujah shooting. The army also withdrew from Fallujah to avoid further confrontations with angry protesters or radical elements. Maliki then held a joint security meeting with provincial security officials in order to stress the Iraqi Government’s “keenness to deal positively with the demonstrations and the demonstrators.” Meanwhile, the head of the committee tasked with addressing demonstrators’ demands, Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, announced on January 29 that the government would increase the salaries of around 41,000 members of the Sahwa movement. The move is likely aimed at discouraging Sunni tribesmen from joining or supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Maliki has also begun to move against the tribal leaders who have assumed leadership of the protest movement, however. Maliki was reported to have removed the security detail of prominent Anbari Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha on January 30. In response, the Council of Anbar Tribes pledged to protect Abu Risha in the absence of government protection. Then on January 31, an Iraqi Army force—reportedly deployed from Baghdad—arrested Sheikh Meshaal Nawaf al-Hassan and his two sons in Tikrit. Hassan is thought to be a strong supporter and prominent organizer of the Salah ad-Din protests.
Sunni tribal leaders largely have refrained from calling for a violent reaction to the Fallujah incidents, and many have urged restraint. It is possible that Abu Risha and Dulaimi tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman are awaiting Maliki’s response to the former’s ultimatum that the government turn over the troops responsible for killing protesters in Fallujah within seven days – a deadline that would expire this coming weekend. Various Iraqi tribal representatives held a Conference of Iraqi Unity in Najaf  on January 28,in which they called for the rejection of sectarianism, the release of uncharged detainees, the unity of Iraq, and the de-escalation of the tension in Anbar. The possibility remains, however, that tribal leaders are quietly mobilizing forces in anticipation of further clashes.
As tribal leaders take an increasingly prominent role in Sunni political landscape, Sunni parliamentarians appear to be receding in importance. This is likely due to their inability to formulate or communicate a clear response to the political crisis. This is particularly evident in the case of Saleh al-Mutlak, who was reported on January 28 to have resigned from his post as Deputy Prime Minister in protest at the government’s failure to meet demonstrators’ demands. Subsequent facts challenge this report, however.  On January 30 Mutlak’s website stated that he had received the Jordanian Ambassador to Iraq, Mohammed Mustafa Qura’an, in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister. Mutlak was also said to have met with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft on Thursday 31 January to discuss bilateral relations.
Mutlak’s ambiguous status further obscures Iraqiyya’s response to the ongoing crisis. Iraqiyya’s ministers are thought to have been boycotting cabinet meetings but continuing to run their ministries. After Maliki announced on January 24 that he would place boycotting ministers on “compulsory leave” and replace them, Iraqiyya denied boycotting the meetings, insisting that it would attend “all sessions” concerning the interests of Iraqi citizens. On Thursday, January 31, however, Iraqiyya MP Liqa’a Wardi appeared to confirm that Iraqiyya members were boycotting both the cabinet and parliament “in solidarity with the demonstrators.” The absence of a coherent and clearly communicated strategy on the part of Sunni politicians stands in contrast to their apparent unity in parliament on January 27, when they joined Kurdish, Sadrist, and ISCI MPs to garner 170 votes to limit the terms of the president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker – a symbolic vote clearly aimed at Maliki. Iraqiyya’s MPs seem to have turned out in force and voted in unison for the measure.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the umbrella group of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and other radical groups will likely find more opportunities to exploit widespread disillusionment about Sunni political marginalization, increasing the potential for violent confrontation. In retaliation last Friday’s shooting in Fallujah, ISI militants attacked Iraqi Army posts around Fallujah, forcing the army to withdraw. Following these attacks, on January 30 ISI released an audio statement calling for Iraqi Sunnis to take up arms against the Maliki government. ISI spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urged Sunnis to “continue with your blessed demonstrations, and prepare to hold weapons, which the apostate will force you to carry.... only at that time will we restore our dignity.” This raises the possibility that AQI might attempt to provoke further confrontations by attacking security forces during Friday’s protests.
Protests planned for Friday, February 1 have been labeled ‘Friday of Loyalty to Fallujah’s Martyrs’. These protests, particularly in Fallujah, will indicate whether demonstrators are committed to nonviolent opposition to the Maliki government. The behavior of the crowds will illustrate how much control tribal leaders are able to maintain. The protests will also test security forces’ ability to maintain restraint in the face of heated rhetoric and popular anger. Friday’s protests will therefore provide a significant indicator of whether the anti-government protest movement escalating on a path to confrontation and violence.