Sadrist movement MPs have sided with former political and sectarian opponents to oust the Iraqi PM. Their leader talks to NIQASH about how the whole thing started and explains why al-Maliki has to go, what pressure from Iran has been like and why they’re not scared of the PM’s secret files.
The head of the Ahrar bloc in Iraq’s Parliament, Diaa N. al-Asadi, spoke to NIQASH about why he and his fellow MPS are standing behind a move to withdraw confidence from current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Ahrar bloc has 40 seats in Iraq’s Parliament and is particularly important because it is basically the political wing of the Sadrist movement, a multi-million-member group that follows crusading Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Sadrist movement also incorporates the former Mahdi Army, a militia held responsible for much of the violence against American troops as well as the conflicts that nearly plunged Iraq into a sectarian, civil war following the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. Over the years, the Sadrist movement has disarmed and, as a political force in the form of the Ahrar bloc, has become a crucial part of al-Maliki’s current coalition government; it has also been engaged in community work and seems to be becoming popular with Iraqis that did not previously support it.
"God alone knows the amount of pressure exerted on the Sadrist movement because of this."
But now the Sadrists seem to be turning against the man who leads the coalition they are part of. In terms of current affairs, many have been interested to see the Ahrar bloc side with former political opponents to attempt to oust al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite Muslim. In doing so, the Ahrar bloc is on the same team as Iraqi Kurdish politicians and politicians from the Iraqiya bloc, a mostly Sunni Muslim bloc from the other side of the secular tracks.
Together, this sizable opposition to al-Maliki was first trying to gather enough votes in Parliament to stage a “no confidence” vote. This has not succeeded and now al-Maliki’s hope that a question session before Parliament – a kind of political trial - may result in the kinds of answers that could oust the PM.
Nonetheless there still seem to be a lot of questions about exactly what has been going on and why – and whether this non-sectarian effort to oust the leader some politicians have gone so far as to call a “dictator” is a sign of things to come in Iraq.
Al-Asadi talks to NIQASH about how the “no confidence” initiative got started, why it faltered and why the Sadrist movement is joining with their former political opponents.
NIQASH: So how did this initiative – to withdraw confidence from al-Maliki’s regime – get started?
Al-Asadi: A series of events. There were a lot of negative indicators regarding the performance of the government; the Iraqi people went to protest on the streets to demand reform and improved levels of services; those demands were not politically driven.
Additionally the government has not respected the Erbil agreement [formulated to end a nine month dispute over who should run the government following 2010 elections] and they have caused political crises over [deputy PM] Saleh al-Mutlaq and Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi. All of these factors have combined to create a lot of pressure. There was an urgent need to find a definitive solution.
NIQASH: Can you give us more details about this initiative to withdraw confidence?
Al-Asadi: Other political parties – the Iraqiya bloc and the Kurdish bloc - came to us, complaining about the way al-Maliki was governing. They felt that al-Maliki was creating these crises and then resolving them in ways that served only his interests.
We, the Sadrists, were already unhappy with him. And they asked us to take a patriotic stand.
That’s why Muqtada al-Sadr met with al-Maliki in Tehran, when al-Maliki was there. We discussed with him what his version of the crises was and his ideas on how to solve them.
But al-Sadr also wanted to hear what other parties had to say. That’s why he went to Erbil to meet with Masoud al-Barzani, the president of [the semi-autonomous region] Iraqi Kurdistan.
It was at this stage that al-Sadr said he was for the use of constitution and legislation [to get out of the political impasse]. The results of that meeting in Erbil and of another in Najaf ended in a letter that was sent to al-Maliki’s office.
This letter contained nine points, suggestions for the resolution of the political crisis in Iraq. Seven of the nine points focused on reform and the other two suggested a motion of no confidence was possible if the other seven points were not dealt with, and if limits were not put on how long the Iraqi prime minister could be in power. This letter was ignored by al-Maliki’s office.
NIQASH: Who came up with the idea of withdrawing confidence?
Al-Asadi: In a meeting in Erbil attended by the leaders of various political blocs and also by al-Sadr, the President [of Iraq] Jalal Talabani suggested it because he felt there was a lot of support for the idea. Talabani himself felt that his role was being marginalized and his powers diminished.
Those who met in Erbil concluded that al-Maliki really had no intention to reform and that the best way change this situation was to initiate a motion of no confidence. Al-Sadr said that he was with them if they collected 124 votes [from MPs] supporting this motion. In which case, he would join them and then there would be enough votes [the Ahrar bloc have 40 votes, 163 were needed].
NIQASH: Yet it seems there were not actually enough votes to get this motion of no confidence moving. What happened?
Al-Asadi: During the meetings in Erbil and then Najaf, the Iraqiya list said they could guarantee 75 votes. Kurdistan said they had 50 and with our 40 votes, that would be enough. But the Iraqiya list couldn’t deliver those votes, some of their members refused to sign.
Al-Maliki was also talking about checking on false signatures and starting a criminal investigation. But that was just confusing things. The signatures submitted to Talabani were unofficial; they were just there so that everyone involved knew there would enough support for the initiative.
NIQASH: Some critics have said the current political crisis can be attributed to the fact that al-Maliki’s government has not respected the Erbil agreement. Your thoughts?
Al-Asadi: The Erbil agreement was not signed by the political blocs. It was signed by a handful of political leaders, of which al-Maliki was one. At the time the political bloc he currently heads did not exist.
But yes, in general, the reluctance to implement the Erbil agreement has led to increased tensions – firstly with the Iraqiya bloc and then with the Kurdish regional government. That is why the perception is that the Iraqi government is being monopolized by Shiite Muslim interests and influenced by Iran.
NIQASH: So what do you have against al-Maliki?
Al-Asadi: Our main concern is that al-Maliki doesn’t have a plan to administer the country. And if he has, then we want to know about it. If he hasn’t, then there’s a big problem because we are living in a country that needs comprehensive, fast and integrated development.
The problem with the group led by al-Maliki, is that it believes it is superior to others. They say they have the political experience and the intellectual heritage that makes them better and more capable of finding solutions and taking decisions. That is an erroneous idea.
NIQASH: Your party is part of the al-Maliki’s bloc. But you want to withdraw confidence from his regime. How does that compute?
"The Sadrist movement did not join al-Maliki’s bloc for any sectarian reasons. We didn’t join it because it was Shiite Muslim. We joined it because of the US occupation of Iraq"
Al-Asadi: This is an important issue and I’d like to clarify it. The Sadrist movement did not join al-Maliki’s bloc for any sectarian reasons. We didn’t join it because it was Shiite Muslim. We joined it because of the US occupation of Iraq.
Everybody – both inside and outside of Iraq – knows that the Sadrist movement opposed the US presence in the country and we tried all military, political and social means to end this occupation.
When the current government was formed in 2010, US troops were still present in Iraq. So we chose to join forces with the political parties who also opposed the US presence in Iraq. Other parties supported the US presence here and they had their reasons for that.
NIQASH: So you’re saying that if the Iraqiya bloc or the Iraqi Kurdish had wanted the US to leave too, then you would have joined them?
Al-Asadi: Yes, certainly. The Sadrist movement supports any patriotic party in the country, regardless of religious or ethnic identity.
NIQASH: But you ended up in a political alliance comprised of purely Shiite Muslim interests anyway.
Al-Asadi: Frankly speaking, the Sadrist stream wanted the bloc to be more than a Shiite Muslim bloc. We wanted it to be a patriotic alliance that put the country’s interests first. But things didn’t go as we hoped.
We felt so disappointed. There was also increasing pressure from the people of Iraq who went out onto the streets to protest; in fact, the Iraqi people blamed us for not supporting them and we were accused of supporting the government in its policies. Actually we weren’t. At that time, we thought it was better to write, or to discuss, our thoughts with members of the bloc we belonged to.
Additionally, other external influencers were saying that this bloc was marginalizing Iraq’s Sunni Muslim and Kurdish people.
NIQASH: You’re talking about outside influences – who do you mean?
Al-Asadi: There are a lot. The Turkish are not happy with the Iraqi government’s management of the country. Although we have our reservations, we do acknowledge that this does accurately reflect the fears of a neighbouring country. There are also other Arab countries, especially among the Gulf Arab states, which have similar feelings.
The Sadrists have been tarred with the same brush. But we don’t accept that this is our fault, we have been unable to do anything about these criticisms.
NIQASH: Do you think the US supports al-Maliki?
Al-Asadi: The US wants any Iraqi prime minister to have the following three qualities: to have popular support, to be able to obtain the consensus of the various political blocs and to have relations with neighbouring and Arab countries.
Al-Maliki has a strong popular base but he can’t forge a consensus between the political blocs. Additionally, some of the Arab and Gulf countries, as well as Turkey, now seem to have reservations about al-Maliki. The US is monitoring the situation carefully.
NIQASH: Has the Sadrist movement been under any pressure because of the fact you’re taking part in this initiative to try to remove al-Maliki?
Al-Asadi: God alone knows the amount of pressure exerted on the Sadrist movement because of this. There’s been pressure from some religious authorities and also from some neighbouring countries. There was also pressure from our popular base, who started to question us because they thought we were taking a stand against a Shiite Muslim coalition. However, slowly, they’re starting to understand our position.
NIQASH: Was there pressure from Iran?
Al-Asadi: Huge pressure from Iran and they also put pressure on other parties. But the Sadrist stream didn’t succumb. The leader of the Sadrists is from a Shiite family that is a religious authority in this country.
NIQASH: Rumour has it that part of the pressure has seen Iran halt funding to the Sadrists.
Al-Asadi: The Sadrist movement wasn’t getting any funding from Iran. These are just lies circulated by our opponents, the same people who accuse us of splitting the Shiites. We want everyone to know that the Sadrist movement deals with political conflicts from a patriotic, rather than a sectarian, point of view – despite the fact that this is a political party with a religious basis.
NIQASH: Al-Maliki has also managed to build an alliance with the former extremist Shiite Muslim group, the League of the Righteous, who split from the Sadrist movement.
Al-Asadi: We consider this a cheap political trick that’s beneath a party with a long history and traditions like the Dawa party. And the Dawa party has used that alliance to blackmail the Sadrist movement because of what we’re doing with this motion of no confidence.
This government is not loyal to any allies, it uses blackmail and the threat of old files to threaten opponents. A government like that is incapable of managing national affairs.
NIQASH: Are you still a member of the political alliance headed by al-Maliki today?
Al-Asadi: Currently we are still an important part of this alliance, regardless of our position related to the withdrawal of confidence from al-Maliki. If the political blocs succeed in collecting enough votes to withdraw the confidence then we will support them.
NIQASH: The option of no confidence through a vote by MPs – at least 163 were needed and the parties against al-Maliki missed this figure by less than a dozen votes – no longer exists. What other options do you have for getting rid of al-Maliki?
Al-Asadi: There are currently two methods for withdrawing the confidence from an Iraqi prime minister. We’ve since started on the second method and have submitted a request to question the Prime Minister in Parliament.
There are now three committees preparing questions, and the questions focus on legal violations and the squandering of public funds. Possibly the most important issue though, is how the Prime Minister is working with his Cabinet. Two years have passed and still there’s no legislation governing the internal work of the prime minister’s office.
We’re waiting for Parliament to reconvene to start this questioning process.
NIQASH: Of course, al-Maliki might choose not to turn up to this questioning session.
Al-Asadi: I believe he will attend. He wants the session because he wants to disclose the contents of some important files he has. We’ve heard that he’s ready for the questioning and that he has these files.
Unfortunately, every time we criticize the government and its performance, the Prime Minister threatens to reveal these secret files. Why does he hide these files in the box? Why does he only talk about them when there are crises? We don’t agree with these intimidatory methods he is using.
NIQASH: If you do succeed in ousting al-Maliki, do you have a successor in mind for the PM’s chair?
Al-Asadi: Those who met in Erbil agreed that whoever replaces al-Maliki should also be a member of the current coalition. They could be from any party though, even the Dawa party [al-Maliki’s party]. The most important thing is to remove al-Maliki.
NIQASH: So you don’t want to nominate someone from the Sadrist movement for the job?
Al-Asadi: Of course, the democratic process ensures that all options are open. But as Sadrists, we do not intend to do this. And this is in order to prove a key issue. We, a Shiite Muslim party, have sided with Sunni Muslim and Kurdish parties against a Shiite Muslim Prime Minister. And this is not because we wanted to gain for ourselves but because we have been driven by the national interest. Not our own political interests nor our sectarian affiliations.