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an unconstitutional council? tensions between iraqi leaders deepen over new political body

Mustafa Habib
A powerful new administrative council inside the Iraqi government was supposed to resolve conflicts between competing political parties. Instead the prospective chair of the council has resigned before he even had…
19.10.2011  |  Baghdad

A fortnight ago, former Iraqi prime minister Ayed Allawi, heads of the Iraqiya opposition party, gave up his prospects of one of the highest positions in the country: he resigned his prospective seat on the National High Council for Strategic Policies. In doing so, he told reporters that he felt that he had no choice as the Iraqi regime was becoming more totalitarian and that Iraqi politics were no longer democratic.

While those close to the former prime minister, and main political rival of the current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, say that Allawi did the right thing, the seat he was giving up doesn’t actually exist yet.

The idea of a National High Council for Strategic Policies was first mooted during negotiations that took place after the Iraqi parliamentary elections in March 2010. Results were close. Allawi’s party won a total of 91 seats while al-Maliki’s State of Law party won 89.

Both of the parties insisted on their right to head the government, with the ensuing wrangling interrupting the business of state for months. Finally in November 2010 a settlement was reached. One of the conditions of allowing al-Maliki to take charge of Iraq was that a new position be created for Allawi that was equal in importance to the top jobs in the country already.

Allawi’s new job was to head the new policies council. The draft law for establishing the council describes its job as “active participation in resolving conflicts that hinder the political process in Iraq, setting the general rules of the country’s highest policies, submitting recommendations and proposals related to legislation and laws, reforming the judicial system according to the Iraqi constitution, discussing strategic treaties and agreements related to the security, defence and sovereignty of the country and submitting proposals related to the amendment of laws in force, particularly those issued by the dissolved Revolutionary Command Council [headed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein].”

The membership of the policies council was to be composed of Iraq’s president and his deputies, Iraq’s prime minister and his deputies, the speaker of the house and his deputies, the president of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan and the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the top legal body in the land, as well as two MPs from each of the four main political blocs in parliament.

The council was supposed to be formed several months ago. But it still does not exist. And the decision to form it is not at all unanimous; there are political opponents to it and plenty of indications that the council’s birth was never going to be an easy one.

And now the body that was supposed to expedite political processes in Iraq, and which was central to the formation of the current government, looks likely to deepen the current political crisis in Iraq.

“We have lost all hope of resolving disputes with the State of Law coalition,” a spokesperson for Allawi’s Iraqiya list, Maysoun al-Damlougi, told NIQASH. The State of Law party “is still manoeuvring and postponing agreements. This is not something we will tolerate forever.”

Some observers are already wondering whether there is any reason for the policies council to exist, now that Allawi has said he doesn’t want the job of heading it.

As MP Mohammed Sayhoud, a member of al-Maliki’s party, told NIQASH, “there is now no reason for the creation of this council. Allawi is not interested in this post any longer – and according to agreements made, the post should be held by Allawi.” Sayhoud also called upon members of Allawi’s bloc not to insist on the policies council, arguing that they would only disrupt the state’s work by doing so.

In fact, they have already done so. When Allawi announced his decision not to take up the top job at the policies council, a statement by his party said that: “Just because Allawi doesn’t want this position, this does not mean that the Iraqiya coalition doesn’t want the council. This is part of the deal made after the elections.”

A few days ago the Iraqiya bloc also withdrew from parliamentary sessions in protest at the fact that the draft law on the National High Council for Strategic Policies was not on the agenda. Even if the Allawi’s party gets their wish, things are unlikely to get any easier – mainly because Allawi is just about the only individual acceptable to all components of the multi-faceted Iraqiya bloc, which is also always in danger of splitting along political and partisan lines.

By giving up the chairmanship of the National High Council for Strategic Policies, Allawi is also causing an imbalance in the precariously balanced Iraqi parliament. After the elections, the deal that eventually satisfied all comers involved a system of points. The number of points any bloc had denoted how ministries and important political positions were shared between all parties. Each ranking political position cost a number of points and this was supposed to mean that each political party got a share of power, without taking power from their political rivals.

According to local news media, every 2.24 MP’s seats within parliament were equal to one point. This meant that parties could “spend” their points on certain positions: each of the presidential positions was worth 10 points, each of the deputies’ position five points. A major ministry was three points, the first service-related ministry equalled 2 points and the second, 1.5. All other less important ministries were one point and the policies council was given the remaining eight undistributed points.

Iraqiya MPs say that giving up the head of the policies council means the equation becomes unbalanced and impacts on Iraqiya’s share of parliamentary power.

“The council is an electoral entitlement and is not a gift from the other political blocs,” Iraqiya MP, Arkan Arshad, told NIQASH. “So we can’t give up that easily. If the council is not formed, the electoral formula will be unequal. And we warn the State of Law bloc against attempts to impose any other person on us, as head of the policies council, even if that person is from within our own list.”

Behind the scenes, rumour has it that al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc would stop opposing the formation of the policies council if exactly that happened: the top job at the council was given to someone from within the Iraqiya bloc who was not a leading member. This would create divisions within the Iraqiya bloc, which is al-Maliki and his party’s main rival.

Al-Maliki has used this strategy once before. The defence ministry is supposed to belong to the Iraqiya bloc. He eventually gave the ministry to

Al-Maliki has used this strategy in selecting a candidate for the Defence Ministry, which was supposed to be the share of the Iraqiya Coalition. After rejecting all of the names that Allawi nominated, he eventually gave the ministry to Sadoun al-Dulaimi, the current Minister of Culture and a member of the Iraqiya bloc although not a particularly popular one. Giving al-Dulaimi the job sent the message that al-Maliki and the State of Law party were not beholden to Allawi and his Iraqiya list. Sadoun al-Dulaimi is currently Iraq’s acting defence minister.

And also from behind the scenes, a source in al-Maliki’s bloc has said that the Iraqiya party is only standing firm on the formation of the policies council because it wants to use it to monitor government performance, and to disrupt and criticize.

Besides the political wrangling, there are also other issues that cloud the formation of the National High Council for Strategic Policies.

Possibly the most important objection to the council is thrown up by the Iraqi constitution itself. Iraq’s constitution was ratified in 2005 but it stipulates only three leading bodies in the country – executive, legislative and judicial - which would balance the power of the executive branch out with the power of parliament and the law courts.

The draft law on the National High Council for Strategic Policies gives it a variety of powers over the legislative, executive and judicial branches, which again, make its formation tricky and possibly unconstitutional.

Iraqi legal expert Tariq Harb told NIQASH that the creation of the policies council was not really going to be helpful in solving the nation’s issues.

“If such a council is eventually formed, its decisions will only be regarded as advice or opinion. The three leading authorities will then either endorse or reject the council’s opinions,” he explained.

So for the time being, the current political impasse remains. Some of the conditions of the agreement reached after 2010’s elections have still not been fulfilled, al-Maliki’s government still lacks ministers for several ministries related to security and Iraqi politicians are unable to come up with solutions to existing national problems.

Tensions between the two Iraqi leaders Allawi and al-Maliki, which first emerged after 2010’s elections, also seem to be increasing; getting the pair to sit together at one negotiating table will remain a very difficult task.

While the parties fight, no serious efforts appear to be being made to reach a consensus that would put national interests before partisan conflicts.

In an interview with MIQASH the critical independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, said that “the current political process is awkward. Anything could happen. The conflict between Allawi and al-Maliki is very dangerous and is disrupting the political process. Existing conflicts between the two should be resolved as soon as possible,” Othman concluded.