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.