Who was the most influential person in Iraq in 2015, the individual who had the most impact on the country? NIQASH editors and correspondents came together to discuss who might have been Iraq's Person of the Year for 2015.
And there were several obvious picks. For example, senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali al-Sistani, who had an unusually strong influence on Iraqi politics and security in 2015. And then in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, there's obviously Massoud Barzani, still the acting President there, whose insistence on keeping his current job has all but stalled the Kurds' nascent democratic process.
If you were contemplating negative impacts, there's Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the extremist group known as the Islamic State; the group caused a security crisis in Iraq, starting mid-2014, that's resulted in huge security upheavals in practice, and a deepening of existing social rifts in theory.
Also interesting is that, despite his best efforts, none of the website's Iraqi editors or journalists picked the country's current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. Perhaps because he has been forced to negotiate a delicate road around and between all the more virulent forces in the country, which has effectively neutralised him.
Following below are NIQASH's picks for Iraqi Person of the Year 2015. Not everyone will agree with all of them - or possibly, any of them - and many readers in Iraq will doubtless be divided according to their own allegiances. NIQASH welcomes readers' opinions on this subject; have your say on our Facebook page by clicking HERE.
An MP for the Iraqiya bloc as well as the head of Iraq's Parliamentary Committee on Media and Culture. As the head of this committee, al-Damluji has strongly supported civil society organisations and given them a role in formulating amendments to laws that her parliamentary committee supervises. In formulating these laws, she organised a lot of meetings with civil society organisations and took into account their suggestions before the laws were read in Parliament. She has most definitely helped in preventing laws that could potentially violate human rights in Iraq. Interestingly, al-Damluji is married to an individual who was a member of former, much-criticised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law party. But this has not affected her support for a balanced and impartial media and her support for civil society actors.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Al-Sistani is one of the most senior clerics within Islam and is followed and respected not just by millions of Iraqis, but by millions of Shiite Muslims around the world. Over the past year al-Sistani has had more of an influence on Iraqi politics than he normally would, given that he follows the quietist tradition where clerics prefer not to interfere in political matters. In the recent past though al-Sistani has done everything from prevent former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki being able to continue in power to calling up volunteer militias to fight against the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, to ameliorating neighbouring Iran’s political influence in Iraq.
His positions are characterised by moderation and he deals with major political events wisely. He has distanced himself from the sectarian attitudes that are threatening the country and has been vocal about the need for dialogue with Sunni Muslims in Iraq. During popular protests in Baghdad in mid-2015, al-Sistani declared his support for the demonstrators even though some of these were members of the local Communist party who had placards saying that local politics were being hijacked by religious MPs.
Al-Sistani is open to meeting with all of Iraq's communities and equally open to criticizing any sector of the community. He sends huge donations to the displaced people in the Sunni-majority Anbar province, part of which is controlled by the IS group. He has said that Sunni Muslims must be part of an all-inclusive national military and he refuses to describe the volunteer militias that were created after he called for all Iraqis to help defend the country against the IS group as “militias”. He deliberately insists they are “volunteers” - because when the emergency is over, volunteers will return to their homes. Many have said that if it were not for al-Sistani, Iraq would have been divided along sectarian lines long ago.
Anwar al-Hamdani is an Iraqi television presenter for a current affairs show on the private Al Baghdadia satellite television station, broadcasting from Cairo. His show has had a big impact on the Iraqi street over the past year as well as in previous years. By taking a critical position against past and present politicians, he has influenced thousands of Iraqis both inside and outside the country. Threatened with arrest for his free and frank expression in the past, al-Hamdani has also broadcast a number of important stories on political corruption. He has proven the power of the Iraqi media to mobilize popular sentiment.
If 2014 was the year of the Islamic State group, then much of 2015 belonged to Iraq's volunteer militias. Drawn to fight the extremists by a call from al-Sistani, the volunteer force has gone from a rag-tag bunch of unskilled patriots to a common sight on many streets in southern Iraq, an unofficial army paid for by the government that is becoming more powerful – and some say, more dangerous - by the day. Ordinary people in Iraq are both concerned about the militia-manned checkpoints that dot their cities and towns, and thankful for them. And even as attempts are made to rein the volunteer militias in, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that these controversial groups will continue to play a major role in Iraqi politics, even after the Islamic State group are expelled.
The militias, known locally as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units, cover the full spectrum of Shiite Muslim political interests in Iraq and Hadi al-Ameri heads one of the largest of these groups, the Badr organization, which has ties to both Iran and the country's controversial former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Ameri, who is also Iraq's Minister of Transport, frequently participates in clever photo ops, posing with senior Iranian military commanders – in particular, the “legendary” Qassim Soleimani. And he has publicly said that Iran is the best friend Iraq has. He has also merged his militia's popularity and power with the political, using his position to score points against political opponents, including current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
With his military posing and his political manoeuvring, al-Ameri represents the increasing impact of the country’s Shiite Muslim militias on the Iraqi people's lives throughout 2015 and, most likely, in the future too.
The Iraqi demonstrators
Although they've been through so much – most Iraqis you meet know at least one person well, who has died a violent death – the locals who started popular demonstrations against judicial and political corruption still had some hope that things could change. Although many young Iraqis continue to want to leave (and do leave, especially after Europe appeared to open its borders to them in the middle of this year) for cities where car bombs are not a regular occurrence, those who took to the streets were prepared to stand up for change at home.
It's not an easy thing to do in a place where you don't know if the soldiers guarding the demonstration will turn their weapons on you. The demonstrations resulted in some of the most significant promises for real reform in years, backed – perhaps most importantly - by senior religious figures in Iraq. Although those promises will likely take a lot longer to be fulfilled – and that is, if they are ever completely fulfilled - the demonstrators who started that process in good faith deserve to be celebrated for their bravery and their hope, in a country where the latter is a particularly scarce commodity right now.
Dakhil is the woman who cried out to the world about the crimes that the IS group was committing against her people, the Yazidis. She is also the Yazidi minority's representative in the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad. When thousands of Yazidis from the Sinjar area were trapped in the mountains after being attacked by the IS group, Dakhil rode in a helicopter up to the mountains. The helicopter crashed and she narrowly escaped death with a broken leg and broken ribs. But that did not stop her in her humanitarian mission. Nor did it slow her international media campaign around the plight of the kidnapped Yazidi women; she has been successful in securing the release of some of these women from the IS group and she continues to contribute to their rehabilitation after their ordeal. As a result she has been recognised internationally, having been awarded a number of human rights prizes including the Bruno Kreisky Prize in 2015.
Dakhil made the whole world feel for her people and she was able to draw the attention of the world's media and world leaders to the Yazidi plight. She is respected throughout the Arab world for her efforts.
Hero Ibrahim Ahmad
Ahmad is married to Jalal Talabani, the head of one of Iraqi Kurdistan's largest and most influential political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Between 2005 and 2014, while her husband was Iraq's President, she was the First Lady of Iraq. After Talabani was felled by a stroke in 2012 and officially left that job in 2014, his wife became just another member of her party's caucus. However behind the scenes Ahmad has a lot more power than this and is widely seen as maintaining her family's control over the PUK. She rarely appears in the media or on public occasions. However it is clear that nothing can change in Iraqi Kurdistan and, in particular, in areas where the PUK holds sway, without her approval. Her son, Qubad Talabani, is currently Iraqi Kurdistan's Deputy Prime Minister and she is the liaison between her party, the PUK, and Baghdad.
Currently Nawshirwan Mustafa, who heads the Iraqi Kurdish opposition party known as the Change movement, is one of the most influential people in the Iraqi Kurdish region. This is not a new thing; Mustafa has been this influential for the past six years too. His friends and his enemies say that, like any great statesman, he is capable of pulling strings delicately. They also say that he has the power to calm any dangerous situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as to provoke tensions.
While his party – a breakaway from the PUK that campaigned on an anti-corruption platform – was in opposition it was able to make significant changes to Iraqi Kurdistan's political life, a life that had previously been characterized by a two-party system where the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, shared power. When the Change movement took part in a broad-based, power-sharing government this year, it continued to make a big difference. After October's political stoush that saw the Change movement kicked out of this power-sharing government, it once again became a major and very important opposition force.
Massoud Barzani heads the most influential and popular political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Although Barzani's term as President of Iraqi Kurdistan officially ended on August 19, 2015, this titan of Kurdish politics has remained influential and in power. Due to the absence of his former, equally significant sparring partner, Jalal Talabani, Barzani has become the pre-eminent political personality in Iraqi Kurdish politics.
The security crisis, which has seen Iraqi Kurdish troops fighting against the IS group around their region, has also seen Barzani's profile, whose image tends toward the military, rise even further.