Provincial Elections Set; Amnesty Announced for Prisoners; Muqtada Said to be in Qom

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic on the passage by the Iraqi parliament of three important laws. These included the annual budget, a general amnesty that will free thousands of mostly Sunni Arab prisoners in the teeming Iraqi security prisons, and finally a “law on the provinces.” The action came in the wake of threats by powerful politicians to dissolve parliament if it could not do a simple thing like pass a budget.

Al-Zaman (The Times of Baghdad) reports in Arabic that there was not actually a vote, but rather the laws were passed as a package by consensus. The consensus reflected a political deal among the major parties rather than a recorded vote of a majority of the MPs. Al-Zaman calls the method of the vote “unconstitutional.” (They are protesting the lack of a recorded individual voice vote; it may be they also object to the bundling of the three separate laws together, which made MPs vote up and down, yes or no). Many MPs had interests in some of the laws but opposed a third, and therefore had to choose between betraying their interests or accepting legislation they really opposed. Al-Zaman quotes MP Salih Mutlak (a secular, ex-Baathist Sunni who is in the opposition) and MPs of the Sadr Movement as expressing fierce opposition to the law regarding amnesty for prisoners because it allowed for a delay in their release of six months.

This undemocratic and unconstitutional way of passing through legislation that the Americans insist be approved, in the teeth of opposition from a majority of MPs, was ironically employed in passing the constitution itself. Some version of it was passed without an individual voice vote in late August of 2005 (after the deadline set by the Transitional Administrative Law) and then the US embassy went on tinkering with the text right up until the October 15 referendum! It is ironic that when the Americans make their influence felt most strongly in the Iraqi government, that government acts least democratically.

The budget that the parliament sort of passed, on its sixth try, awarded the Kurdistan Regional Government 17% of the $40 billion central government budget, with the proviso that this proportion be revisited in 2009 after a census, to be completed by the end of December, 2008. (Many Arab delegates do not believe the Kurds constitute so large a proportion of the total population of Iraq).

The law of the provinces bestows special prerogatives on them that al-Hayat does not specify. McClatchy says it also sets Oct. 1 as the date for provincial elections.

The setting of a date for provincial elections is extremely important. I have argued that elections in the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces are a necessity for calming Iraq. Diyala, for instance, is 60% Sunni Arab but is ruled by the pro-Iranian Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the provincial elections of January, 2005 (the turnout in al-Anbar was 2%). Thus, virtually none of the governments in the center-north and west of the country has much real legitimacy. It will be easier for the US to turn over security duties to elected provincial authorities who have the backing of significant numbers of Sunni Arabs, and so the elections could pave the way to a US drawdown in those provinces.

One reason that the provincial elections have been delayed is that there are fears in Baghdad that the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr will sweep to power in the Shiite south. It from all accounts has gained in popularity as the current dominant provincial party there, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has become much less popular. (ISCI has been trying to run many of the southern Shiite provinces, but has not been able to provide security and services at the level desired by local people). Presumably one reason for bundling the law of the provinces with the amnesty law was to make Sadrist MPs vote for the package. They did not want to grant amnesty to Sunni Arab prisoners, but only by supporting this step could they get a date certain for provincial elections, which they think they will largely win.

Since the Sadrists want a quick US withdrawal, for them to sweep to power in many of the provinces (possibly including in Baghad province), could strengthen this demand.

One of my Shiite Iraq friends, from Najaf, thinks that there are no circumstances under which ISCI would turn the southern provinces over to the Sadrists, and that the vote will therefore be fixed.

Back to the parliamentary actions. The amnesty law provides for prisoners to be released who have not committed serious crimes (e.g. genocide & murder). It is a major victory for the Sunni Arab coaltion, the Iraqi Accord Front, which made its passage a condition for their return to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. There are some 60,000 prisoners in Iraqi and US custody, many of them suspected of helping Sunni guerrillas, and many of whom have not yet been charged with any crime even though they have been held for many months.

Al-Hayat also reports that it has learned that Muqtada al-Sadr is studying in Qom with Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, in order to become an independent religious jurisprudent in his own right. He is expected to be able to announce that status later this year. Theoretically, the laity could then begin following his rulings on the practice of Shiism. Last December, al-Hayat reported that Muqtada was studying in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad, who is originally from Afghanistan.

And the newspaper says that US talks with Iran on issues in Iraq will begin in the Green Zone in Baghdad on Thursday.

McClatchy reports political violence in Iraq on Wednesday:

‘ Baghdad

A civilian was injured when a mortar shell hit Shaab police station in Shaab neighborhood north Baghdad around 8:00 am.

Two IED exploded targeting American army convoys in Ur neighborhood and Qanat Street east Baghdad between 1:00 and 1:15 pm. The US army confirmed the news saying that the two explosions caused minor injuries for two soldiers.

Gunmen broke in al Somood primary school in Zafariyah town southeast Baghdad around 2:00 pm. The beat the wife of the guard and hung her three old years son.

Police found three bodies in Baghdad today. The three bodies were found in Rusafa, the eastern side of Baghdad in the following neighborhood (1 body in Fadhil neighborhood and 2 bodied in Waziriyah neighborhood.)

Diyala

Gunmen opened fire targeting building workers while the workers were in their way to work from Sadiyah town to Himreen town northeast of Baquba city today morning. Five workers were killed and two others were wounded.

Police found a head of a civilian in Khalis town north of Baquba.

Kirkuk

Local police of Kirkuk found a body of a civilian in Sargaran town northwest of Kirkuk city yesterday night. Police said that the body was shot in the chest. ‘