March 15, 2013
By Ahmed Ali and Stephen Wicken
Violent attacks have targeted at least 10 candidates for the upcoming provincial elections since the candidate lists were announcedin January. The attacks bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), suggesting that the group is seeking to disrupt the electoral campaign and dissuade Sunni Arabs from political participation. Meanwhile, recently resigned Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi defied an arrest warrant by appearing at an Anbar protest, demonstrating his determination to continue his vocal criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraqi Kurd ministers boycotted the cabinet meeting to protest the recent passage of the budget and they continue to examine their options with Baghdad.
Violence aims to disrupt politics and shake confidence
Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced on January 4 that 8,275 candidates had been registered for the provincial elections scheduled for April 20. Since then, there have been at least 10 attacks on candidates, primarily in predominantly Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq. The majority of the victims have been candidates running on lists connected to the Sunni Iraqiyya coalition that contested the 2010 parliamentary elections. They have included candidates of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s Uniters list; Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiyya list; the United Ninewa Coalition, led by prominent Ninewa tribal leader Abdullah al-Yawar; and the Justice and Construction Gathering, led by Dildar Zeibari who, like Yawar, ran on Ninewa Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi’s al-Hadbaa list in 2009. There have also been attacks on candidates belonging to the National Tribal Gathering of the Mother of Two Springs, a pro-Maliki party in Ninewa, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) Citizens’ Bloc. Although it is possible that some of the attacks may be the result of local or political rivalries, many of the attacks bear the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Historically it has opposed Sunni Arab participation in the political process. Seen in the context of the ongoing anti-government protests in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, the attacks may demonstrate renewed attempts on the part of AQI and other militant groups to disrupt the electoral process.
Meanwhile, on March 14, various reports indicate that about five suicide bombers attacked the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the nearby Foreign Ministry and Communications Institute in central Baghdad, killing 26 and wounding 63 including the attackers. Three suicide car bombs reportedly targeted the MoJ, and two suicide bombers dressed as security forces subsequently entered the ministry before being killed by the responding security forces or blowing themselves up inside the building. Baghdad Operations Command reported that responding Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) cordoned off the area and secured the building. Several MoJ employees reported a confused and disorganized response by the ISF. Maliki is reported to have visited the MoJ after the attack. In response, Iraqi politicians from across the spectrum condemned the attack while calling on the government to improve security measures and intelligence collection efforts.
No groups have claimed responsibility for the attack, but the nature of the attack indicates a possible AQI operation. AQI likely launched the attack to manifest operational capability and send a message that it can still target fortified establishments. These spectacular attacks also seek to undermine the confidence of the Iraqis in their government’s ability to provide security. It remains to be seen if the MoJ was targeted due to its supervisory role of Iraqi prisons, where many AQI elements are held.
Will the Shi‘a-Kurdish alliance survive?
The budget vote in the parliament generated a quick reaction from the Iraqi Kurds, who protested the decision as an attempt to marginalize them and an attack on the principles of the political process. On March 9, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani invited the representatives of the Iraqi Kurdish parties in Baghdad for a meeting in Arbil and a statement was subsequently issued criticizing Prime Minister Maliki and his State of Law Coalition (SLC). The statement also called on the National Alliance – of which the SLC is a member – to take action against Maliki’s policies. Furthermore, the Iraqi Kurds boycotted the cabinet meeting on March 12, presumably to protest the passage of the budget. It is not clear whether the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have a unified position on withdrawing from the cabinet and completely boycott the Baghdad government.
Although the Iraqi Kurds were involved the discussions leading up to the vote, they remain surprised by the fact that their allies – the Iraqi Shi‘a parties – went ahead and voted on the budget without their presence. Overall, however, their response thus far has been measured. This can be attributed to the fact that their demands for oil company payments can be addressed through political agreements and executive decisions by Maliki. Additionally, toning down the anti-Maliki rhetoric may serve the Iraqi Kurds, depriving the premier of the opportunity to present himself as a defender of a unified Iraq confronting Iraqi Kurdish ambitions. Moving forward, the absence of President Jalal Talabani’s mediating role raises the possibility of increased tensions: both Maliki and the Iraqi Kurds will need a mediator if they are to ensure a continued Iraqi alliance between the Iraqi Shi’a and the Iraqi Kurds.
Renewed protests condemn local politicians
Protesters in Baghdad, Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala took to the streets under protests titled “Friday of Supporting Imam Abu Hanifa.” The name refers to the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah area where prayers were disallowed last Friday. During today’s prayers, the mosque’s imam condemned last Friday’s shutdown. It is important to note the reported participation of parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi at the protest, in addition to cooperative security forces. In Anbar, protesters likened Maliki to Bashar al-Assad and the situation in Iraq to that of Syria. Moreover, they called on the protesters to withdraw from the political process. Recently resigned Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, the subject of an apparent arrest attempton March 12, was in attendance despite a reported arrest warrant against him. Finally, protesters in Kirkuk’s Hawija demanded their local politicians withdraw from the government.
It is evident that protesters are continuing to focus their efforts and energy on condemning Maliki and his policies. Simultaneously, they are seeking to place pressure on Iraqiyya politicians to withdraw from the government in the aftermath of the resignation of both Issawi and Agriculture Minister Izz al-Din al-Dawla.