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.