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Chaos in Baghdad:
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Reasons Why Real Political Reform Is Impossible In Iraq

Mustafa Habib
Political chaos in Baghdad saw MPs crossing the floor, upsetting the quota system. But anything positive about this development was offset by MPs’ motivations, which were partisan, sectarian and self interested.
21.04.2016  |  Baghdad
The quota in person, from second left to right: Salim al-Jibouri, Fuad Masum, Haider al-Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki in Parliament. (photo: الموقع الرسمي للبرلمان العراقي)
The quota in person, from second left to right: Salim al-Jibouri, Fuad Masum, Haider al-Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki in Parliament. (photo: الموقع الرسمي للبرلمان العراقي)

Last week MPs in Baghdad appeared to try and punish Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, for an attempt to reform the government; al-Abadi planned to remove senior ministers appointed because of their sect or ethnicity and install what have been described as technocrats to senior positions. It was his way of responding to demands to combat corruption, nepotism and the unwieldy quota system that is always referred back to in Iraqi politics.

However many of al-Abadi’s attempts at reform have been stymied by other politicians, who are more interested in keeping the status quo and hanging onto their own power and influence.

When this new plan began to go awry, with MPs threatening to boycott the vote and organising sit-ins, al-Abadi, together with other senior politicians including the Sunni Muslim Speaker of the House, Salim al-Jibouri, decided to postpone voting on the new positions.

And in an attempt to punish their political leaders for doing this, MPs in Parliament came together to try and vote them out. The plan was to try to remove al-Abadi, al-Jibouri and even Iraq’s President, Iraqi Kurdish politician, Fuad Masum. The three are, respectively, Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish – an example of the quota system in action.

However because of divergent interests within the political groups trying to oust the three men, the only person they succeeded in getting rid of was al-Jibouri.  

On one hand, this can be seen as positive in that it works against the stifling quota system. On the other, if you consider the motives of those involved, the outlook is less rosy.

At a meeting last Thursday, 174 MPs in Iraq’s Parliament voted that al-Jibouri should be dismissed from the job. Voting against that idea were 154 MPs. The two groups who are for or against getting rid of the Sunni Muslim politician are an unusual mixture, composed of all of Iraq’s three main voting groups: Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish.

It’s unusual because normally all three groups don’t end up in the same voting bloc. Normally two of those groups form alliances to go against the third.

In this case the group that wanted to get rid of al-Jibouri included 49 MPs from the Dawa party, the party to which both the current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, belong. It also included 34 MPs from the Ahrar bloc, the political arm of the Sadrist movement, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and 21 MPs from the Wataniya party, which is led by another former Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi and which tries to set itself apart as secular and non-denominational. About 50 MPs from the largest Sunni alliance also joined the anti-al-Jibouri group as did other Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish MPs, who left their usual groups to vote against the Speaker.

The other group, which did not want to see al-Jibouri dismissed, was composed of 61 Iraqi Kurdish MPs, 30 MPs from the Shiite-Muslim-dominated Citizen, or Muwatin bloc, headed by Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and half of the members of the mainly Shiite-Muslim State of Law bloc, to which the Dawa party belongs; this accounted for 60 MPs. And other Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish MPs also joined the pro-al-Jibouri group.

And one could see this split in two ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as positive in that these two groups clearly don’t have anything to do with the quota system that is the standard operating procedure in Iraq, and which sees senior positions distributed evenly between the three major populations.

On the other hand, when one considers the motives of the politicians involved, the outlook is less rosy; their aim is clearly not reform. Rather they are acting out of their own partisan interests, or self interest.

Which is doubtless why just a few days after the first vote to expel the Speaker of the House, the anti-al-Jibouri movement started falling apart. Each set of MPs within it had different aims. The Ahrar bloc wanted to see all three senior positions undone; they wanted to replace not just the Speaker but the Prime Minister and the country’s President. Meanwhile the Dawa party wanted to keep current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, in the job – he is a member of their party after all – but to get rid of the Speaker. Meanwhile the Wataniya party wanted to get rid of the Speaker and the Prime Minister but keep President Masum in the job.

The group was also made up of long-standing foes. For example, even though they are both Shiite Muslim-dominated, the Sadrist politicians from the Ahrar bloc and the Dawa party are opposed in many ways. There were also reports that the Dawa party vote to expel al-Jibouri was a move instigated by al-Maliki and that the former Prime Minister’s real target was al-Abadi, who replaced him.

The cross-sectarian votes are also a result of fractures in long-standing political alliances. Within each major group there are tensions.

It is also true that some of the other MPs who crossed the floor to vote to expel al-Jibouri were acting mainly in their own interests, taking revenge on party colleagues or exploiting the situation in the hopes of promotion.

There were also several violations of parliamentary and Constitutional rules on the matter so that, if the decision was contested, it could be overturned. The wrangle about the legality of the dismissal is continuing this week and shows no signs of resolution. Iraq’s President also has considerable power over issues like this and could have made some difference here, but Masum did not support the sacking of al-Jibouri either. 

The cross-sectarian votes were also a result of the fracturing of long-standing, traditional political alliances. Within each major group – Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish – there are tensions. In the past the different groups used to vote in unison on divisive matters. But that kind of agreement and unity doesn’t happen to the same extent that it used to.

For example, even within the Dawa party, its members are split. Some support former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others support the current Prime Minister. The many agendas currently in play, intersecting with old sectarian and ethnic loyalties, have made it very difficult to pass any laws in Iraq.

“The end of those political quotas is a good thing,” says Ziad Ahmad, a local political analyst. “But change must be gradual and not random. Simply ending a political system that has existed for 13 years in one day will lead to chaos, especially if we consider the current security crisis.”

There is no doubt that Iraq needs change though. State services, like electricity and water, are still random if there at all, unemployment is high as is emigration, people build their own temporary housing and, worst of all, security inside Iraq remains terrible.

“Last week’s political chaos could have a negative impact on the war against the Islamic State group,” al-Abadi said last week. “The army scored a great victory when it was able to push the extremist group out of Heet. But this was undermined by Iraq’s political chaos.”

“The country is facing very difficult challenges,” Salim Shawki, an MP for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, told NIQASH. “And the support pledged by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during his recent visit to Baghdad was conditional on political stability.”

The chaos in Parliament and the dismissal of al-Jibouri, one of the most senior Sunni Muslim politicians in the country, could see the international community accuse the government of sectarianism and it could disrupt military and financial aid, Shawki warned.

Iraqi politicians also need to consider the aims of international partners like the US and Iran. Both the US Special Envoy, Brett McGurk, and Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaifar, have expressed opposition to the expulsion of al-Jibouri from his job.

Considering all of the above, it seems unlikely that Iraq can make any moves toward genuine political reform. The security crisis involving the extremist Islamic State group, the fact that there is no real international support for change at a time when the country is at war and the ever-widening splits within traditional political alliances are all factors that will handicap any kind of real reform – the kind of reform that the Iraqi people have been demanding for months.   

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