Speaker of Parliament Elected amid Rancor
Two more US servicemen were killed by guerrilla attacks over the weekend, and the Green Zone took mortar fire near the Iraqi parliament again, during a recess, on Sunday. This news comes a day after a car bomb and mortar attack on Abu Ghraib prison, left 44 US troops wounded along with over a dozen Iraqis.
Enough security to allow a meeting of the parliament was achieved, however, only by closing major bridges in and out of Baghdad and placing restrictions on the circulation of drivers in the capital. Member of parliament and cleric, Shaikh Hussein al-Sadr, warned that such measures invonvenience Baghdadi shopkeepers and others and could produce dislike for the parliament if they continued (ash-Sharq al-Awsat). Meanwhile, journalists complained about being locked out of the proceedings. And women deputies, a little less than a third of the total, complained that they were not being offered any important cabinet or executive posts in the negotiations for the formation of a government.
The Guardian reports that the Iraqi parliament finally decided on a Sunni Arab speaker, Hajem al-Hassani, on Sunday. Although this step does break the logjam to some extent, it is not exactly a huge breakthrough in and of itself. It is now forgotten that it was supposed to be a pro forma decision taken the very first time the parliament met. There is also some evidence that the selection of speaker has alienated the Sunni community rather than pleasing them.
If the parliament stays deadlocked very much longer, the intrepid Anthony Shadid reveals, there is serious talk among the grand ayatollahs in Najaf about bringing millions of protesters out into the streets to force the politicians’ hands. (Actually the subtext here is that such massive Shiite protests would put pressure on the Kurds to give up some of their maximalist demands and come to a compromise. Such an ultimatum in the streets would be extremely dangerous, especially if it threw Kirkuk into chaos).
The voting patterns for the two deputy speakers are analyzed by Al-Zaman in Arabic. Although the parliament members were supposed to vote for three slots, a Sunni Arab, a Shiite and a Kurd, for speaker and 2 deputy speakers, it appears that many deputies just voted for two candidates, the Sunni and the Shiite, not bothering about the Kurd. The person with the second most votes after al-Hassani was Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite nuclear engineer close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Shahristani only received 171 votes out of the 241 representatives in attendance. He was supported by the United Iraqi Alliance, which has 146 reliable votes. So some proportion of the Kurds, secular Shiites, and Sunni Arabs who make up the rest of parliament declined to support him.
The person with the third greatest number of votes was Arif Tayfur, a member of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, who received 96 ballots in his favor. Since the 77 Kurds in parliament will have voted for him to a person, it seems clear that he got almost no votes from the religious Shiites of the UIA.
As for al-Hassani and the speaker position: The problem is that there are only 17 Sunni Arabs in the parliament. Three of them ran on the largely religious-Shiite United Iraqi Alliance list, and so were unacceptable to the Sunnis. Of the remaining 14, all but two had served in parliament under Saddam Hussein, or had other links to the Baath Party, and they were therefore unacceptable to the Shiites (and probably the Kurds as well).
Despite their Baath connections, two prominent Sunnis from this group made a bid for the position of speaker, backed by Sunni Arab parties and notables. The first was Adnan al-Janabi, supported by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. He was rejected by the UIA on the grounds that his brother had been close to Saddam. Allawi, a secular figure who had been attempting to rehabilitate the more moderate Baathists, was furious at this rebuff.
Then last Wednesday, the Sunni Arab caucus met and put forward Mishaan al-Juburi (Jiburi). The UIA viewed him as having been close to Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, however, and flatly rejected him.
BBC World Monitoring translated an al-Arabiya report on what happened next:
‘ Text of report by Iraqi Al-Sharqiyah TV on 2 April
Groups supporting Mish’an al-Juburi, member of the Iraqi National Assembly, have continued their popular activities for nominating him for the post of the National Assembly Speaker.
The demonstrators in Tikrit north of Baghdad demanded that their choice of Deputy Mish’an al-Juburi as the candidate for this post be respected. Al-Sharqiyah TV correspondent said that the Iraqi forces provided protection at the demonstration in which thousands of people took part, including political and religious figures, in addition to tribal chiefs in Salah al-Din and other governorates.
This was followed by a two-minute video report on the demonstration by Ahamd Fadil, Al-Sharqiyah TV correspondent in Tikrit, who said: “In response to the objection announced by the United Iraqi Alliance to the nomination of Deputy Mish’an al-Juburi by the national dialogue council which represents Sunnis in Iraq, for the post of Speaker of the National Assembly, a demonstration kicked off in Tikrit in which many of those who demanded that their choice be respected took part.”
The report included short interviews with Al-Juburi’s supporters who called for Al-Juburi’s nomination to be endorsed and rejected what they described as partitioning of Iraq.
The correspondent added: “In the slogans they shouted, the demonstrators called for the rejection of sectarianism and urged safeguarding the interests of Iraq in completing the structuring of the National Assembly and moving ahead with serving Iraq.” ‘
Once those 15 were excluded, only two possibilities were left in parliament. They had both been expatriates in the Saddam years, and on the outs with the Baath. One was Ghazi al-Yawir, the interim president, who was at first thought a shoe-in for the job. But he withdrew from consideration, making a play for a position of vice president instead.
That left Hajem al-Hassani. He had been a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a successor of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood. The Iraqi government web site says of him:
“Minister of Industry & Minerals
Dr. Hajem Al-Hassani
Dr. Al-Hassani was born in Kirkuk in 1954 and graduated from Mosul University. In 1979 he moved to the U.S. to study international trade at the University of Nebraska and earned a doctorate in industrial organization from the University of Connecticut. He has lectured at a number of American universities, managed an Internet company and worked most recently as head of the American Investment and Trading Company in Los Angeles. He has been a member of the board of a number of NGOs. Dr. Al-Hassani worked in the Iraqi Opposition for a number of years and became a member of the Politburo and then official spokesman of the Iraqi Islamic Party. He was elected to the follow up committee of the London Conference and has served as a Deputy Member of the Iraqi Governing Council and the Deputy Chair of its Finance Committee.”
Al-Hassani was appointed by Allawi to oversee the disbursement of compensation money to inhabitants of Fallujah who suffered property losses during the American assault on the city in November and December.
Why al-Hassani wasn’t the first choice of the Sunni Arab caucus in parliament is obvious– he was considered an outsider, a long-term expatriate. The Allawi secular ex-Baathists are no doubt suspicious of him as a Muslim fundamentalist.
As for the Iraqi Islamic Party itself, its leader, Muhsin Abdul Hamid, had angrily withdrawn from the interim government to protest the November assault on Fallujah. Al-Hassani represented the IIP on the cabinet, but he refused to resign. As a result, he was expelled from the party.
Al-Hassani had to run for parliament on the small Iraqiyyun Party of Ghazi al-Yawir, since he had broken with the IIP.
So if ordinary politics were happening in Iraq, al-Hassani would be the skunk at the tea party as far as Sunni Arabs were concerned. He declined to do anything practical to protest the attack on Fallujah, and flagrantly disregarded party discipline in his own party.
But as it transpires, al-Hassani is one of only two non-UIA Sunnis in parliament who are acceptable to the Shiites, and the only one of the two who would accept the job.
The whole sorry episode is a matter for some alarm, in my view.
Choosing a speaker of the house should not have taken so long or been so acrimonious.
The punitive attitude of the Shiites toward Sunni Arabs who had had anything at all to do with the Baath Party is scary, since most Sunni Arabs who amount to anything inside the country, did. The rule ought not to be guilt by association but actual guilt of some crime.
Twelve of the Sunni Arab members of parliament have been put on notice by the new deputy speaker, Hussein Shahristani, that they are nothing but Baathist lackeys in his view. That isn’t much incentive for them to reach back out to their community to join them in cooperating with the Shiites and ending the guerrilla war.
The demonstration in Tikrit for al-Juburi shows that Sunni Arabs feel that fanatical Shiite sectarianism is blocking their respected leaders. Since the whole point of giving the Sunnis symbolic posts like speaker of the house was to mollify them and draw them into the new government, I’d say it was counter-productive to drive the Sunnis to popular protest about the process.
For the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who had been at the pinnacle of government and society, having the post of speaker of the house is not exactly the most thrilling thing to ever happen to them, anyway. That they are represented by a long-time expatriate who has no local grass roots and was expelled by his own party is pretty ominous.
The Allawi secularists and the Kurds may well be a little alarmed at the possibility of a fundamentalist Shiite-Sunni alliance at their expense. Al-Hassani won 215 votes out of 241 deputies present, in a secret ballot. Since he was favored by the United Iraqi Alliance, I am puzzled. Who were the 26 deputies that opposed him? Al-Zaman says that Iyad Allawi was absent for the vote. Did he and the 33 other deputies who were absent deliberately boycott the vote? We know that the Iraqiya list was furious over the rejection of al-Janabi for the post. Did his fellow Sunni Arabs even vote for him? Were any Kurds (75 seats) nervous about a fundamentalist Sunni Arab from Kirkuk? Since the ballot was secret, there is no way of knowing.
That is, you might well be able to construct an alternative headline for this story saying “Angry Secularists and Sunni Arabs boycott Shiite Shoe-Horning of Fundamentalist Expatriate Sunni in as Speaker.”
So all the celebratory prose you will read on Monday from Western analysts about how this election of a Sunni Arab speaker is such a great leap forward and a sign of building communal harmony will need to be leavened with a little realism if the development is to be understood in its Iraqi context. Not everything in Iraq can be reduced to the issue of whether it is good or bad for the Bush administration or the Blair government.