Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraq: Between Constitutional Details and Ukrainian Repercussions

Iraq: Between Constitutional Details
Employees of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission conduct a partial manual recount of votes for the October 10 parliamentary elections, in the capital Baghdad on November 23, 2021. Ahmad AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Hussein Alzoubi

It’s been six months since the official results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections were announced. The political players are still practising exhaustion policies to hinder the constitutional achievements, especially the formation of the government.

The pro-Iran forces affiliated with the “Coordination Framework” made this abundantly clear. The Framework, led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, includes Shiites and paramilitary leaders who did not achieve their goals during this round of elections. These forces refuse to form a national majority government headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement, which won 73 seats, through its alliance with the Sovereignty Coalition, which holds the majority of the Sunni parliament members, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the party with the most Kurdish seats in the country.

The Framework believes al-Sadr leadership is a blow to the Shiite component, even though the Sadrist bloc is Shiite. Supported by Iran, it insists on forming a consensus government with all the political movements represented. That is the same thing that happened in 2003 and caused a public uproar, which led to overthrowing Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government in 2017 and holding early parliamentary elections.

The Federal Supreme Court played an important role in many obstructions since the first session of the Iraqi parliament focused around the Speaker of Parliament.

The most senior member usually holds the first session, during which a speaker for the new parliament is officially elected. However, an altercation in parliament escalated to injuring the senior speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, and he was taken to hospital. At the same session, Mohamed al-Halbousi, rejected by the Framework, was elected Speaker of Parliament. A series of cases filed before the Federal Court began after that, including the illegitimacy of opening the door for candidacy for the presidency and the eligibility of the candidates, including former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the candidate backed by the Tripartite Alliance (Sadrist Bloc, the Sovereignty Alliance, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party). That caused the country to be under the mercy of a caretaker government indefinitely.

Blocking Minority

The position of prime minister is effectively the most important government position, especially with the powers granted to him by the constitution, which dwarf even the president himself. Customarily, since 2003, the position has belonged to the Shiite, the largest population component in the country.

Usually, this Shiite position is implicitly approved by Iran and then presented to the other parties as a forgone conclusion. However, things were different this time. Al-Sadr’s project isn’t aligned with that of the Coordination Framework. It seemed that Iran had failed, for the first time, to dissuade Sadr. The repeated visits of Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force in the IRGC, to Baghdad don’t seem very fruitful in gaining grounds within the Shiite ranks.

The continuous delays made al-Sadr unable to accomplish the most crucial step, winning the presidency. Although customarily the president is a Kurd, the alliance of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which the current Iraqi president belongs to, a rival to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and historically close to Iran as well, entered an alliance with the Framework and disrupted the Sadrist project. That was achieved through the Administrative Court, which reinterpreted the constitution text to require the presidential election to have a two-thirds majority of attendance and quorum. If the candidate does not obtain 220 votes from the attendees, he can be elected by a simple majority, provided that the quorum remains a two-thirds majority.

That means in case there is no consensus between all the political forces, including the two main Kurdish parties (the KDP and the PUK), any candidate, even if he can get a simple majority, may fail if a single bloc withdraws because it means the quorum condition is not achieved.

That means any president has to come into position through a prior agreement. Despite what appeared to be a victory for the Tripartite Alliance regarding opening the door for candidacy, State of Law MP Alia Nassif believes that “It is a legal violation if the presidential elections are determined by absolute majority instead of the two-thirds majority.” Nassif added, “some will inquire in the Federal Court about the constitutional time limit because the parliament cannot get an extension past the 30 days the constitution allows.”

If the Federal Court appeals again within the next two days, the time limit that is no longer constitutional will be extended pending the new ruling. And if the appeal is approved, the decision to reopen the candidacy door is no longer constitutional, which means the status quo will remain as is, and the Democratic Party will remain the most prominent victim. However, if the Federal Court considers political balance, the parliament will be held hostage indefinitely to compromises and bargaining.

Waiting for Iran

Iraq: Between Constitutional Details
Iraqi judges attend a court session at the Supreme Judicial Council in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on December 27, 2021, as the court is set to announce the verdict in the bid filed by the Hashed al-Shaabi ex-paramilitary alliance contesting its defeat in the October 10 parliamentary election. Iraq’s highest court rejected a bid filed by the ex-paramilitary alliance contesting its defeat in the October 10 parliamentary election. Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP

The researcher in Iraqi politics, Maysam al-Janabi, said in an interview with Fanack that the political chaos, which has turned into constitutional chaos, can be stopped if Iran directs the forces of the Coordination Framework to forego the policy of obstruction. But it depends on whether that is in Tehran’s interest.

Al-Janabi refers to pro-Iran political forces, especially the militarised ones, which harmonizes with Iran in its statements and actions. At one point, they moved against the UAE, accusing it of rigging the elections. Later, they threatened to bomb them with drones. Some said the drones that targeted the UAE did not come from the Yemeni Houthi militia but rather these factions.

But that escalation against the UAE faded after the Emirati official, Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited Iran. Things shifted, according to al-Janabi, towards an escalation of sectarian violence, in the form of assaulting headquarters of Sunni parties and claiming the existence of factions derived from the “Islamic State” like “Ghosts of the Desert”, which turned out to be pure media propaganda.

Al-Janabi believes the goal of this entire charade is to maintain the status quo until Vienna talks regarding the Iranian nuclear agreement are concluded. If the outcome is favourable to Iran, the political waters in Iraq won’t be still for long after. Otherwise, Tehran will use its allies to keep Iraq as a puppet state while carefully observing the situation in Ukraine.

Al-Janabi demonstrates the harmony between the paramilitary forces in Iraq with the Iranian decision-maker, with the Ukrainian crisis. Iran’s position, which is closer to Russia, was reflected in the media of the Coordination Framework that, in turn, supports the Russian military operation in Ukraine. For example, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia led by Qais Khazali hung a huge picture in the centre of Baghdad, near its headquarters, of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the phrase “We Support Russia” written in English, despite the pro-Ukraine public opinion, as well as the opposing the government steps to remain neutral to avoid any potential friction. For the same reason, Iraq abstained from voting during the UN General Assembly on the resolution for Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”.

Undoubtedly aware of its influence in Iraq, Russia has used its consulate in Basra to announce that the door to volunteer in the Russian army to participate in the Ukraine war is open. The consulate said in the statement that it “continues to receive requests from volunteers to join the ranks of the Russian army, in its military operation against the Nazi regime in Ukraine, supported by the US and its NATO allies.” It also adds, “In this regard, we would like to inform you that the Russian forces have sufficient strength to solve this problem. We thank you for your understanding and solidarity with us.” Sources in Basra, who requested to remain anonymous, rule out that Iraqi citizens would volunteer with Russia.

On the economic level, the Central Bank of Iraq raised the bar when it recommended the government not to sign any new contracts and to suspend financial transactions with Russia following the US Treasury sanctions imposed on Moscow.

The bank issued an official document addressing the cabinet General Secretariat: “We would like to inform you that due to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the US Treasury has imposed sanctions on Russian financial and economic institutions, to limit Russia’s capabilities in the war.” and adds “to protect the Iraqi financial system, we propose to halt any government contracts with Russia, and to do the same with any financial payments through the financial system in Russia.”

The position of the Central Bank reflects the political compass of the caretaker government headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Since its formation, this government has sought to put Iraq on a path that restores life to the lost country due to foreign interventions and the militarized forces sponsored by foreign states. Because for the time, Iraq remains one of the essential files for key decision-makers, globally and regionally. Amidst all this, the everyday Iraqi citizen struggles to make ends meet in a country floating on a sea of oil.

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