Tuesday, April 2, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #13: Sunni Split as Sadrists Return to Government

April 2, 2013
By Stephen Wicken

Long-standing divisions between Sunni Arab politicians came to a head last week as Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak and allied ministers returned to cabinet sessions, breaking with their former allies. Mutlak’s return confirms the split between his Arab Iraqiyya list and the Uniters (Mutahidun) coalition of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. Justifying his return to government, Mutlak accused Nujaifi and Issawi of seeking to divide Iraq. Divisions over the question of engagement with the Maliki government are also increasingly evident among anti-government protesters in predominantly Sunni provinces, with opposing views coming from the protests in Ramadi and Fallujah. In contrast, ministers belonging to the Sadrist Trend ended their boycott of Maliki’s government within a week, highlighting the political nature of the move ahead of provincial elections while demonstrating that the Sadrists remain firmly within the Shi‘a bloc despite a number of similar attempts to draw a line between their movement and the Maliki government. 

Divisions among protesters on government negotiation

Serious divisions appeared among anti-government protesters in Anbar last week over the direction of the protest movement and the question of negotiation with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The split was exemplified by the differing names attached to protests held on Friday, March 29: the organizers of the protest in Fallujah gathered under the banner ‘No Negotiation,’ while protests in Ramadi and elsewhere took the label ‘Hand-in-Hand We Reclaim our Rights.’ While previous Friday protests have been given more than one name, this is the first time that representatives for the protests have openly acknowledged the difference. A press spokesman for the Fallujah sit-in, Sheikh Mohammed al-Bajaari, told journalists that the Fallujah protesters, in agreement with protesters in Mosul, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Kirkuk, had agreed on the ‘No Negotiation’ banner to demonstrate their rejection of negotiation with the government, noting that only the Ramadi protesters had decided upon the alternative name for the day’s protests. 

The division emerged after the head of the Anbari protesters’ political committee, Abd al-Razzaq al-Shammari, announced on March 24 that the anti-government protesters in each province would begin the process of assembling a delegation to negotiate with the Maliki government. Shammari stated that the delegation would comprise between two and five representatives from each province in which protests are taking place, carrying with them a list of 14 demands. Among the demands, Shammari specifically mentioned the call for the government to hand over the members of the security forces responsible for shooting protesters at Fallujah on January 25. The remaining 13 demands are likely those outlined on January 6, to which the government has already shown reticence in responding; the addition of the demand to surrender the Fallujah shooters diminishes further the likelihood of significant concessions from Maliki. Nonetheless, the prime minister welcomed the decision to form a negotiating committee, likely noting that the decision to negotiate implies recognition of his authority and provides him with an opportunity to make targeted concessions. 

Divisions among the protesters became apparent on March 27 when protest representatives met in Ramadi at the home of MP Ahmed al-Alwani to choose their delegates for the negotiating team. At the same time, the Free Iraqi Uprising, an influential group within the protest movement based in Ninewa, sent a 30-person delegation from Mosul to the Fallujah protest. Arriving in Fallujah, the delegation announced its rejection of negotiations with the government and stressed that any delegation sent to Baghdad would not represent them. Supporters of the group withdrew from the Ramadi protests on March 26, relocating to Fallujah in protest at the desire of proponents of negotiation to “sell” the protest movement. Members of the group may also have been among the 10 or so protesters who were handed over to police in Ramadi on March 22 after chanting sectarian slogans and calling for violence against the government. Protest spokesman Said al-Lafi said that the organizing committee had asked the protesters to refrain from repeating sectarian slogans, only for the small group to pelt the stage with bottles and rocks. They were then surrounded by protesters, who handed four of the group over to the police. 

The split among the protesters over negotiation with Maliki increasingly is mirroring divisions between Sunni Arab politicians over involvement in government. Those divisions were made clearer when Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak returned to cabinet meetings on March 27, abandoning the boycott policy of the Sunni Iraqiyya coalition. Mutlak was joined by Education Minister Mohammed Tamim, a member of his Hiwar party, and Industry and Minerals Minister Ahmed al-Karbouli of al-Hal, also part of Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiyya coalition for the upcoming provincial elections. Mutlak justified his renewed cabinet attendance in a statement by portraying himself as a mediator on behalf of the protesters, listing concessions he had gained from Maliki that included an end to the “secret informer law” that has been used as a vehicle for personal denunciations. While the repeal of the law has been among the protesters’ key demands, the concessions Mutlak claimed to have won are unlikely to do much to endear him to Sunni anti-government protesters, and in any case the explicit split between pro- and anti-negotiation factions will limit his reach to the latter. Mutlak has long been seen as the leading Sunni Arab politician closest to Maliki, and has been forced to balance the demands of appealing to Sunni Arabs and maintaining the relationship with the prime minister that has seen him avoid the fates of Issawi and fugitive vice president Tariq al-Hashemi. Mutlak’s return therefore raises the possibility of other inducements from the prime minister, particularly the position of defense minister with which Mutlak has been linked recently. 

In a subsequent interview, Mutlak’s spokesman Haider al-Mulla insisted that Mutlak was seeking to advance the protesters’ “legitimate demands,” using the opportunity to attack Mutlak’s former allies and key electoral rivals in predominantly Sunni provinces, Osama al-Nujaifi’s Uniters (Mutahidun) list. Where Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiyya are secular nationalists who support the unity of Iraq, claimed Mulla, Nujaifi’s coalition are Islamists who support Kurdish independence and Sunni secession from Iraq. Mutlak picked up Mulla’s line in an interview with al-Iraqiyah state television in which he accused Nujaifi of seeking to form a Sunni federal region from Anbar and Ninewa provinces. Mutlak also alluded to the existence of “serious and important information” about Nujaifi’s electoral ally, former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, recently the target of an apparent arrest attempt. The allusion to Issawi also highlights Mutlak’s proximity to Maliki, who is thought to have been behind the move against the former finance minister. Nujaifi’s coalition responded by accusing Mutlak of selling his conscience in returning to cabinet sessions, while both Tariq al-Hashemi, an ally of Mutlak and Nujaifi in 2010, and Iraqiyya spokeswoman Maysoon al-Damalouji of Ayad Allawi’s Wifaq party, criticized Mutlak’s government participation. Mutlak, in turn, underscored the break with his Sunni former partners by discussing national unity with the leader of the Shi‘a National Alliance, meeting with former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on March 29.

Sadrist boycott ends within a week

The Sadrist Trend’s threat to boycott cabinet sessions in protest at the Maliki government’s security and service failures was revealed as a populist gambit when the Sadrists resumed participation within a week. The brevity of the boycott highlights once more the slim prospects of the Sadrists taking any serious action to curb Maliki’s consolidation of power, even in the face of Maliki’s apparent unilateral decision to postpone provincial elections in two of Iraq’s provinces. 

Only Sadrist Minister of Social Works Nassar al-Rubaie attended the cabinet session on March 26 in order to present the Sadrists’ conditions for participation. These demands included ratifying a bylaw for the cabinet, reviewing the security arrangements in Anbar and Ninewa provinces, and addressing the “legitimate demand”’ of the protesters. The head of the Sadrist Ahrar bloc in parliament, Bahaa al-Araji, announced the same day that Maliki had agreed to the demands and that the Sadrists were therefore considering returning to the cabinet. Araji confirmed on April 1 that the Sadrists had received “positive indications” that progress had been made on the Anbar and Ninewa investigations and the ratification of cabinet rules, and that Sadrist ministers would therefore resume participation in cabinet meetings from April 2. The brief Sadrist withdrawal from government may have served to distance the movement from Maliki’s government in the eyes of some Shi‘a Arab voters in southern electoral battlegrounds. However, in light of the Sadrists’ short-lived budget protest, their deal with Maliki over control of the Accountability and Justice Commission and the position of Judge Medhat al-Mahmoud at the head of the Federal Supreme Court, and their willingness to abandon reservations about taking over the finance ministry, the move once more demonstrates that the benefits to the Sadrists of accommodation with Maliki outweigh those of opposing him more forcefully.

Stephen Wicken is a Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.