Thursday, August 25, 2016

Iraq's Parliament Ousts Defense Minister

By Patrick Martin and Emily Anagnostos with Tori Keller

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his entire cabinet are at risk of a no-confidence vote following Parliament’s ouster of Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi. 

The Situation

The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) voted to withdraw confidence in Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25.
  • The Reform Front, an opposition party in the CoR driven by Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has spearheaded the process to oust Obeidi.
  • Obeidi attended the CoR on August 1 for the questioning session, the prerequisite for a vote of no-confidence. However during the interrogation, Obeidi accused his rivals within Etihad of corruption during a questioning session on August 1, including Speaker Juburi. The Federal Court acquitted Juburi of the corruption charges on August 9. Following Juburi’s acquittal, Obeidi’s rivals requested to proceed to the vote of no-confidence.
  • The CoR met on August 23 to consider the vote of no-confidence. However, the CoR lost quorum when two parties, the Sadrist Trend-affiliated Ahrar Bloc and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), walked out of the session.
  • The CoR met on August 25 to take up the issue again and voted no confidence.

The vote was rendered by a simple majority, while the Constitution stipulates that dismissing a minister requires a vote of absolute majority.
  • The CoR announced that Obeidi was dismissed; 142 CoR members voted against him, 102 voted in support, and the rest of the 263 attending CoR members abstained.
  • 142 members was enough for a simple majority. The Iraqi Constitution (Article 61.8.A) mandates that a minister be dismissed on the basis of an absolute majority, which is 165 CoR members.
  • A frequently-citied legal expert and two State of Law Alliance (SLA) stated that the requirements for removing a minister is a simple majority, contradicting the Constitution that states that removing a minister requires an absolute majority.

Context and Implications

Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the allied Reform Front exploited internal rivalries within the Sunni political bloc to oust Obeidi. The Sunni bloc remains vulnerable to further fracture.
  • The Sunni political bloc, Etihad, is not unified. Obeidi’s party, Mutahidun, is a rival to the Iraqi Islamic party, to which Speaker Salim al-Juburi belongs. Etihad has remained a fixture in the CoR out of necessity to counter Shi’a political dominance, but the parties are not cohesive.
  • Obeidi’s removal was partly a self-inflicted casualty by Etihad. Obeidi accusations against his rivals within Etihad, including Speaker Juburi, during his questioning session on August 1, publically exposed a major rift between senior Iraqi Islamic Party and Mutahidun leaders, with Mutahidun leader Osama al-Nujaifi calling for Speaker Juburi’s removal.
  • The Reform Front is the shadow political bloc that emerged after the parliamentary crisis in April 2016 in which a rump Parliament formed and attempted to oust CoR Speaker Juburi.  It is covertly led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 
  • The Reform Front exploited the internal Sunni political rivalry that led to questioning Obeidi to generate the necessary support to remove this key minister from PM Abadi’s government.
  • Maliki has attempted to regain the premiership by weakening his political rivals. He targeted Obeidi to 1) dismiss a key ally to Prime Minister (PM) Haidar al-Abadi and 2) weaken Etihad as a force that could resist his influence in the CoR.
  • Obeidi’s removal leaves the Iraqi Sunni political parties significantly weakened within the government. Speaker Juburi, himself the target of persistent efforts by the Reform Front to remove him from office, remains weak and vulnerable to a future no-confidence vote.
  • Internal Sunni disagreements and Obeidi’s removal could complicate national reconciliation efforts between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’a, essential to long-term success following the potential recapture of Mosul from ISIS.

The successor Defense Minister could be a worse partner to the U.S. and anti—ISIS Coalition in Iraq.
  • Etihad will likely insist that the Defense Ministry remain a Sunni position. However, the intra-Sunni fighting will inhibit any consensus on a replacement candidate. Therefore, should a Sunni candidate become Defense Minister, he will be weaker than his predecessor because he will lack full political backing from the Sunni parties.
  • It is possible that a compromised political figure may take the Defense Ministry, and may be more receptive to Iranian interests than those of the U.S. 
  • A Reform Front candidate or a pro-Iranian Defense Minister chosen from a proxy group such as the Badr Organization may restrict U.S. involvement in Iraq on the eve of major military operations to retake Mosul.

All ministerial positions – including the Prime Minister – are at risk if only a simple majority is required for no confidence, should the judiciary uphold this reading of the constitution.
  • The precedence of dismissing a minister with only a simple majority puts all weak ministers and allies of PM Abadi at risk.
  • A simple majority can be as low as 83 CoR members. The Reform Front, a Maliki support base, is in reach of the numbers to consistently vote out ministers. Maliki could push through the dismissal of any minister, provided that he is able to exploit political differences to generate the numbers necessary to balance against opposition blocs.
  • The CoR also began on August 25 to question Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the prerequisite for the vote of no-confidence. In addition, CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi remains a target of Reform Front animosity and remains vulnerable to a no-confidence vote.
  • The precedence of simply majority may also put the position of PM Haidar al-Abadi at risk. However, it will be more difficult to achieve a consensus on a replacement for PM Abadi, which would result in the collapse of government and trigger the process to form a new government.
  •  Iran and the U.S. have also made it clear that they are not willing to see PM Abadi go, having blocked a previous attempt by Maliki to oust him in April 2016. He will likely remain in his position, but severely weakened and robbed of political support from allies.

Moving Forward

Iraq currently has no Minister of Defense or Minister of Interior.
  • The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are split between the Ministries of Defense and Interior. The ISF currently has neither minister on the eve of the Mosul operation.
  • The former Minister of Interior, Badr Organization member Muhammad al-Ghabban, resigned on July 5, 2016 following the massive attack killing hundreds of civilians in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood on July 3. The Interior Ministry is currently led by a deputy minister aligned with the Badr Organization.
  • A minister is constitutionally deemed resigned from his position on the date of the withdrawal of confidence. As with the Minister of Interior, it will be PM Abadi’s responsibility to nominate an acting Defense Minister until a new candidate is approved. To date, a candidate for either the Defense or Interior Ministers has not been named.

The U.S. campaign to defeat ISIS by recapturing Mosul is in jeopardy.
  • U.S. coordination will continue through the Joint Operations Command (JOC).  However, Obeidi’s removal will likely diminish the U.S.’s ability to effectively coordinate with the ISF on the eve of strategic anti-ISIS operations in Mosul.
  • Political inability to fill the vacant position will delay the timeline to recapture Mosul, and remaining ISIS-held cities in Iraq. The U.S.’s intensive lobbying effort among political parties to retain Obeidi in his position failed, highlighting the limits of U.S. diplomatic influence within Iraq’s shifting political environment.
  • PM Abadi’s position to resist pro-Iranian overtures may be limited, especially if a Reform Front candidate, a pro-Iranian candidate, or a non-professional candidate assumes the Defense Ministry. 
  • The U.S. may lose its ability to operate in Iraq if a candidate opposed to the U.S. and Coalition presence in Iraq assumes the position.
  • The fracturing of Sunni political parties will prevent the reconciliation of Sunni populations to the government, a requirement for strategic success.