Don’t forget about Iraq’s parliament

Iraqis who voted decisively for change in the March 2010 election have some reason to be disappointed with the familiar faces dominating the government, which was unveiled yesterday after nine months of negotiations. But there’s one institution in the Iraqi political system which will soon take on an unmistakably new look: the Council of Representatives. ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Iraqis who voted decisively for change in the March 2010 election have some reason to be disappointed with the familiar faces dominating the government, which was unveiled yesterday after nine months of negotiations. But there's one institution in the Iraqi political system which will soon take on an unmistakably new look: the Council of Representatives. With some 213 out of 275 members losing their seats in March, Iraq's Parliament now offers the best hope for political change and progress towards the consolidation of Iraq's fledgling democracy. Avoiding the dangers of either state fragmentation or a return to autocracy will require an active parliament which monitors and checks a powerful Prime Minister and gives a political voice to a disappointed Iraqiyya coalition.  

Perhaps the most notable change I noticed while in Baghdad last week, as compared to an earlier visit over the summer, was the tone among the political class. In contrast to the dire warnings of exclusion and the death of Iraq's democracy that were prevalent then, the current mood appears to reflect a desire to move forward with the new government. It may be as simple as mere exhaustion with the drawn out government formation process, but part of this change in tone may also be due to the positive early marks given to the work of the new Parliamentary leadership: Speaker Osama Nujaifi, an Arab nationalist from the former regime's stronghold of Mosul, and his First Deputy Qusayal-Suhail, a leading member of the Sadrist coalition that draws its support from the large, urban Shiite populations in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Iraqiyya's real role could well be found as much in the important Speakership position as in the still-nebulous National Council for Strategic Policies, while the Sadrists will only ultimately transform into a purely political movement if they move in the direction of leadership figures like Qusay al-Suhail. 

Iraqis who voted decisively for change in the March 2010 election have some reason to be disappointed with the familiar faces dominating the government, which was unveiled yesterday after nine months of negotiations. But there’s one institution in the Iraqi political system which will soon take on an unmistakably new look: the Council of Representatives. With some 213 out of 275 members losing their seats in March, Iraq’s Parliament now offers the best hope for political change and progress towards the consolidation of Iraq’s fledgling democracy. Avoiding the dangers of either state fragmentation or a return to autocracy will require an active parliament which monitors and checks a powerful Prime Minister and gives a political voice to a disappointed Iraqiyya coalition.  

Perhaps the most notable change I noticed while in Baghdad last week, as compared to an earlier visit over the summer, was the tone among the political class. In contrast to the dire warnings of exclusion and the death of Iraq’s democracy that were prevalent then, the current mood appears to reflect a desire to move forward with the new government. It may be as simple as mere exhaustion with the drawn out government formation process, but part of this change in tone may also be due to the positive early marks given to the work of the new Parliamentary leadership: Speaker Osama Nujaifi, an Arab nationalist from the former regime’s stronghold of Mosul, and his First Deputy Qusayal-Suhail, a leading member of the Sadrist coalition that draws its support from the large, urban Shiite populations in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Iraqiyya’s real role could well be found as much in the important Speakership position as in the still-nebulous National Council for Strategic Policies, while the Sadrists will only ultimately transform into a purely political movement if they move in the direction of leadership figures like Qusay al-Suhail. 

Osama Nujaifi was elected Speaker of Parliament on 11 November as part of the complex power-sharing deal that broke the deadlock on government formation. Until this point, Nujaifi was best known for his strident opposition to Kurdish territorial claims in northern Iraq. Indeed, Nujaifi has been a constant thorn in the Kurdish side and a speech of his earlier this year led to Kurdish calls for him to be sued as an Arab chauvinist. Meanwhile, Osama Nujaifi’s brother Atheel, governor of Iraq’s northern province of Ninewa, has been involved in armed stand-offs and mutual rounds of hostage-taking with Kurdish military forces in the Nujaifi family’s home state. However, the caricature of the Nujaifis based on their inflammatory stances on Arab-Kurdish relations misses that they are keen strategists and part of an emerging indigenous leadership in the Sunni Arab community.

Two examples from the years I spent working on Arab-Kurdish issues in Iraq for the United Nations stand out as illustrative of the Nujaifis’ capacity for long-term thinking. In January 2008, Osama Nujaifi convinced 120 Sunni and Shiite legislators to sign a petition opposing Kurdish claims to Kirkuk and committing them to promoting a strong role for Iraq’s national government. The petition was noteworthy for Nujaifi being one of the first Iraqi politicians to use specific issues to organize a cross-sectarian alliance. Later that year I had a conversation in Mosul with Atheel Nujaifi about what it would take to initiate negotiations on Arab-Kurdish disputes. He replied that the Arab political class remained scattered on the local and national levels and that the time for talks would be after new provincial and national elections had restored to something approaching what he considered to be political normalcy. 

Fast forward two years. In January 2009, Atheel Nujaifi was elected governor of Ninewa in a landslide after the Nujaifis assembled a local coalition consolidating Sunni Arab tribes, secularists, and neo-Ba’athists. This model provided a general blueprint which Iraqiyya was to follow in the March 2010 national elections, with Osama Nujaifi helping to spearhead Iraqiyya’s strong showing by receiving more personal votes than any politician in the country not named Maliki or Allawi. With Osama having now parlayed his personal popularity into the Speaker position, has the time for negotiation come?

The inclusion of the Sadrist leader Dr. Qusay al-Suhail as the First Deputy Speaker is also intriguing. In previous Parliaments the First Deputy position has often outstripped the Speakership in influence over running the Parliament. This has been due to the ineffectiveness of former speakers such as Mahmoud al-Mashadani and because, as is the case now, the First Deputy is a Shia who represents the largest political bloc in Parliament.  The elevation of al-Suhail to this post speaks to the political heft the Sadrists have acquired and represents a down payment for their critical support in securing Prime Minister Maliki a second term.

The role of the Sadrists in the new Iraqi government, and behind them Iran, is a source of substantial angst in the United States. These concerns, and the risk of the Sadrists using potential control of security and service ministries to create a state within a state, were described to me this past week by one of Prime Minister Maliki’s advisors as a "genuine risk."  However, my meetings in Baghdad with a full cross-section of the Iraqi political class indicate an Iraqi consensus that it is far preferable to have the Sadrists inside the government than their militia back out on the street. Qusay al-Suhail was also someone for whom high personal regard was expressed, with the words "academic", "intellectual", and "quiet" repeatedly used for the man who is a water resources development expert, professor at the University of Basra and a member of a number of civil society organizations in Iraq.

The Sadrists represent what is perhaps Iraq’s single largest demographic: its young, poor, and fast-growing urban Shiite population. As one member of Iraqiyya stressed to me, this group has never before had political representation. Other Shiite parties have traditionally catered to the clerical class and merchant elite, and the hoped for transition of the Sadrists from street combat to political combat in the halls of Parliament is critical to the development of Iraq’s democracy. The Sadrists have already displayed an organizational adeptness: holding primaries to ensure that they fielded locally popular candidates in the 2010 elections and engaging in the "give and take of politics" to secure unparalleled influence in the new government through the surprise endorsement of their erstwhile ally — but more recently sworn enemy — Nouri al-Maliki for the Premiership. It is however still an open question as to whether this evolution is limited to the mastery of the electoral mechanics necessary to gain access to power or whether it represents the beginnings of a commitment to the broader aspects of a democratic system.

I was relatively unsurprised during my recent visit to find strong support and even pride expressed in Osama Nujaifi among the Sunni community. What was unexpected is the initial welcome he received outside of Iraqiyya. A parliamentary ally of Maliki told me that Nujaifi is trying to position himself as the leader of the Sunnis — and that is "healthy." Other Shia politicians gave Nujaifi credit for how he responded to criticism that his acceptance speech unfairly attacked the outgoing government and failed to condemn terrorism. (In the next Parliamentary session Nujaifi apologized and issued a denunciation of terrorism in all its forms.) Kurdish parliamentarians with whom I met, including some who had previously called for Nujaifi to be sued for anti-Kurdish remarks, said they had voted for him as Speaker because it was time to turn a new page in their relations and that he had made a good start in the position. Meanwhile, Qusay al-Suhail was pointed to as headlining an effort by the Sadrists to show that they have responsible professionals that can contribute to governing Iraq.

The new Parliamentary leadership has also repeatedly stressed that they now represent all Iraqis rather than their own political blocs and said that they will make monitoring the government and fighting corruption their priorities. They appear to be trying to add early substance to this rhetoric by getting out of Baghdad to visit Iraqi cities of economic, political and symbolic significance. In late November, Nujaifi and Suhail led a Parliamentary delegation to assess local conditions and hear local concerns in the oil rich port city of Basra.  This was followed a week later by a visit to the Shiite religious center of Najaf to meet the provincial council and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who according to Aswat al-Iraq spoke to the delegation of "the need to activate the role of Parliament." 

These visits however pale in comparison to Nujaifi not just attending, but also speaking at, the 13th Party Congress of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Kurdistan Region’s capital of Erbil last week. The KDP is the more Kurdish nationalist of the two major Kurdish political parties and has been the greatest target of the Nujaifis’ ire and invective over the last seven years. Osama Nujaifi’s speech in Erbil followed an opening statement to the Congress by KDP President Massoud Barzani on the Kurdish right to "self-determination" that has provoked consternation among Arabs in Iraq and the broader region. Rather than lapse into the familiar cycle of recriminatory rhetoric, however, the Speaker’s remarks instead focused on national reconciliation and the familiar theme of Parliament’s task of monitoring the executive. Separately, Atheel Nujaifi, who earlier this year was labeled a "criminal" by Massoud Barzani and threatened with arrest in the Kurdistan Region, quietly visited Erbil for talks on Arab-Kurdish power sharing in Ninewa. He matter of factly responded to the self-determination remarks by telling Baghdad’s Al-Alam newspaper that Barzani’s speech was directed at an internal Kurdish audience and need not affect government formation.

The rapprochement between previously bitter enemies such as the Nujaifis and the KDP on the one hand, and the Sadrists and Maliki on the other, shows the real promise of the coming political period. The current sweetness and light will undoubtedly be sorely tested as Parliament tackles difficult political issues including De-Ba’athification, the U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership, oil and revenue sharing legislation, and the future of Kirkuk. However, notwithstanding this, the historical pattern in Iraq is for newly established governments to pursue conciliatory approaches as they seek to consolidate their standing. Therefore, if the country’s politics are indeed moving into a negotiation interval, it behooves U.S. policymakers to consider how the current period can best be taken advantage of to stimulate an active and productive Parliament.

To date the lion’s share of U.S. and media attention regarding power-sharing in the new Iraqi government has been focused upon the creation of a National Council for Strategic Policies to be headed by Iraqiyya leader Iyad Allawi. This body may yet emerge as a meaningful forum for deliberation on strategic issues and even play a role in policy-making, but at the current moment the only constitutionally guaranteed counterweight to the executive branch is the Parliament. The U.S. should focus more on this institution, which in addition to its existing constitutional authorities has a membership that shares a relatively broad consensus on the need to balance the growing authority of the Prime Minister — and is now headed by two individuals who represent the strongest indigenous strains of Iraqi nationalism to emerge post-2003.

The history of the Sadrists and hard core elements of Iraqiyya are far from pretty, but these groups need to have a stake in the political system if Iraq is to ultimately achieve the stated U.S. goal of a stable, self-reliant nation able to chart its own course in the region. The elevation of Osama Nujaifi and Qusay Suhail to leadership roles among the sea of unchanged faces, which largely date to Iraq’s exile politics of the 1990s, is noteworthy and represents an opportunity. The U.S. should make it a priority to engage these two figures on the basis of their rhetoric that they now represent all Iraqis rather than their respective political parties (potentially providing diplomatic cover for meetings between U.S. officials and the Sadrist Suhail) and with the aim of furthering the shared goal of activating the role of this critical institution.

Sean Kane is a Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace and just returned from a two-week visit to Iraq. The views presented in this article are his alone.

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