2013 Iraq Update #15- Maliki Hints at Post-Election Plans
April 12, 2013
by Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali
De-Ba‘athification concessions imply move to majority government
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved closer to a political majority government this week, presenting Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak as his Sunni Arab representative in a government that increasingly is composed solely of Maliki’s allies. Mutlak, who recently broke with his former colleagues in the predominantly Sunni Iraqiyya coalition to rejoin Maliki’s cabinet, was chosen to announce that the cabinet had approved a set of amendments to the Accountability and Justice Law that governs de-Ba‘athification. The amendments, which address one of the key demands of the protesters that have been demonstrating against the Maliki government since December, are intended to position Mutlak as Maliki’s key Sunni ally, mediating between the prime minister and Sunni Arabs who feel they have been marginalized and persecuted under Maliki. With Kurdish parties continuing to boycott both the cabinet and parliament over their opposition to the passing of the 2013 federal budget, the move suggests that Maliki is comfortable moving forward with Mutlak and his Arab Iraqiyya coalition as part of a Shi‘a Arab-dominated majority government that excludes the Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs opposed to Maliki.
The proposed amendments would allow qualified firqa-level Ba‘ath Party members – heads of party branches, the fourth-highest of the party’s ten levels – to hold government jobs. More controversially, they would also grant state pensions to some members of the Fedayeen Saddam, the Ba‘athist paramilitary organization. A further amendment would close additions to the register of those blacklisted under the Accountability and Justice Law at the end of 2013. Although these amendments fall short of the demand issued by anti-government protesters in January that the Accountability and Justice Law be repealed entirely, they constitute significant concessions to Iraqi Sunnis, who have been affected heavily by de-Ba‘athification measures since 2003. In tandem with amendments announced by Mutlak in March abolishing the “secret informer law” used by security forces to target Sunni Arabs and ending the seizure of property and funds from former Ba‘athist officials, Maliki can now present himself as having addressed some of the demonstrators’ key demands.
The amendments will face strong opposition in parliament, however. The proposed amendments have drawn strong criticism from Shi‘a political factions, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Citizen Bloc, the Fadhila Party, and a number of MPs from within the Shi‘a National Alliance and Maliki’s own State of Law Alliance. The Sadrist Trend, whose ministers abstained from voting on the amendments in cabinet, has come out strongly against them. Sadrist parliamentary leader Bahaa al-Araji threatened on April 9 that the Sadrists would mobilize against the amendments. The Sadrists historically have taken a hard line on de-Ba‘athification, a position that has been extremely popular with their support base in the predominantly Shi‘a south. Attacking Maliki over the amendment as they have done this week – with Sadrist MP Hussein al-Mansouri even accusing Maliki’s Dawa Party of increasingly close relations with the Ba‘ath Party – may prove to be a successful electoral tactic as the provincial elections draw close.
Maliki does not need the amendments to pass in parliament, however, to benefit from the issue. A parliamentary vote on the amendments will not take place before the end of the voting period for provincial elections, which is scheduled to begin with special voting for members of the security forces on April 13 and end with general voting on April 20. In the meantime, the prime minister can represent himself as having responded to certain of the anti-government demonstrators’ key demands and can portray Mutlak as an effective mediator between himself and the protesting Sunni. In so doing, he can reach out to possible supporters among moderate Sunni and Shi‘a, weakening the Mutahidun (United) bloc of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, his more hardline Sunni opponents. The renewed threat of a Sadrist government boycott over the de-Ba‘athification amendments is unlikely to concern Maliki, who appears increasingly confident in his ability to win the Sadrists back onto his side as he has done repeatedly in recent months. The ongoing Kurdish boycott of government and parliament will have little effect, and Maliki’s recent announcement that boycotting Kurdish ministers will be placed on leave represents a clear message that Maliki feels secure without their participation. Maliki has previously used the policy of placing absentee ministers on leave to good effect against Sunni rivals, splitting the Iraqiyya alliance and forcing Rafi al-Issawi out of government. Continuing their boycott, therefore, raises the prospect of permanent Kurdish exclusion from Baghdad.
Provincial elections results will be the key test for the longevity of Maliki’s political majority government. Should Arab Iraqiyya perform poorly – a distinct possibility, given Mutlak’s continued lack of popularity in Anbar – Maliki may prefer to jettison his erstwhile ally. A delegation from the Kurdistan Alliance has been engaged in negotiations with the National Alliance that may yet result in a deal that brings the Kurds back into government. The performance of the Sadrists in southern Iraq, too, may change Maliki’s calculations: should the Sadrists compete strongly with Maliki for Shi‘a Arab support, he may seek to marginalize them in government. In the meantime, however, Maliki has achieved a functioning political majority government.
Security forces raid headquarters of political party
On April 6, a security force contingent from the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) raided the Baghdad Headquarters of the moderate and secular Iraqi Nation Party (INP). According to the leader of the party, Mithal Al-Alusi, “at six a.m. my people saw 30 hummers, army cars. Generals were there … They said it was Mithal they looked for … They know what we have as a weapon, is our Party.” The force did not make any arrests and only confiscated “licensed weapons and properties that belong to the party.” The BOC – which answers to Prime Minister Maliki – has yet to issue an explanation for the raid or even confirm it. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the real purpose of the operations or to know the real motivation behind it. Reports have since emerged that Brigadier General Ali Fadhel Imran, the commander of the 54th Brigade, led the raid. The BOC has previously raided the INP Headquarters in March 2011. Then, the BOC denied that it carried out a raid, saying instead that it had requested the evacuation of the building since it was state-owned. The INP issued a statement clarifying that it rented the building from a citizen.
The consistent targeting of Alusi and the INP is emblematic of the difficulties facing secular parties in Iraq. In 2008, the Iraqi parliament removed Alusi’s parliamentary immunity after he visited Israel. He was able to regain it after the parliament’s decision was rescinded by the Supreme Court, but during the parliamentary sessions discussing his visit, Alusi was very critical of Iraqi politicians who are close to the Iranian government.
Alusi may be the target of Iraqi government pressure due to his vocal and consistent critique of Maliki and the Iraqi government’s connections to Iran and Syria. For example, in a March 19 remark during an interview Alusi stated that Maliki’s office is implicated in corruption. When the INP decided to boycott the provincial elections, Alusi criticized Maliki and stated that “the current Prime Minister [Maliki] does not believe in democracy.” These statements cause damage to Maliki’s public image, especially in the West, and the raids are possibly intended to retaliate against him. Alusi believes that by raiding the INP headquarters, “Mr. Maliki wants to give me and the party a clear signal we should be careful, [that] if we talk more about his connection to Syrian intelligence and Iranian Revolutionary Guard we will be attacked.”
Other parties have been targeted by security forces as well. In March 2011, security forces surrounded a Baghdad office of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and the offices of its newspaper, Tariq al-Sha‘ab. The forces ordered their evacuation, offering the explanation that the buildings were state-owned. Both operations took place against the backdrop of the February 2011 anti-government protests which the ICP supported. In March 2012, a police force raided the offices of Tariq al-Sha‘ab and confiscated the weapons of the building’s security detail. More recently, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) announced in February 2013 that an army unit raided its general secretariat building in Baghdad without warrants and confiscated weapons belonging to the building’s guards and the guards of IIP members of parliament.
It is yet to be known if there is a legal justification for the raid on the INP’s headquarters due to the lack of an official statement from the BOC. Nonetheless, the INP raid and those preceding it indicate Maliki’s continued willingness to mobilize security forces like the BOC to target political opponents. The raid comes two weeks before the provincial elections and thus raises questions about the post-elections environment. It also presents a worrying situation that should be closely monitored by the U.S. and international community since the government and Maliki face few internal obstacles to continue on this track.
Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali are research analysts at ISW.