Endless disputes mar process of naming leaders of top Iraq posts

'I saw it with my own eyes… members of parliament were selling their conscience,' said lawmaker Majida al-Tamimi.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Newly elected Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi (C) arrives for a meeting during a visit to Basra, on September 18. (AFP)
Not without controversy. Newly elected Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi (C) arrives for a meeting during a visit to Basra, on September 18. (AFP)

LONDON - The process of naming the parliament speaker, the president and the prime minister in Iraq since May’s election has been marred by disputes, serious accusations and U-turns.

Iraqi members of parliament elected a speaker on September 15, more than four months after the elections, which were complicated by vote fraud allegations and a partial ballot recount.

The selection of Mohammed al-Halbousi as parliament speaker, however, did not pass without controversy. Halbousi, a Sunni politician, won the vote thanks to the support of the pro-Iran bloc led by militia leader Hadi al-Amiri. Halbousi also received the bulk of Kurdish votes in parliament.

“[Iranian Major-General] Qassem Soleimani has successfully reunified Shia forces and secured posts for Sunnis that have followed them,” Iraqi political commentator Hisham al-Hashemi told Agence France-Presse.

In Iraq’s post-2003 political system, the post of parliament speaker is reserved for a Sunni politician, while the prime minister is a Shia and the president is a Kurd.

Prior to the vote, Halbousi’s most serious rival for the post, former Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, said he suspected members of parliament had been bribed to vote for a certain candidate.

Obeidi, who belongs to the bloc headed by caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, did not comment after Halbousi was elected but other lawmakers protested that some of their colleagues were taking photos and writing down the names of parliamentarians who voted for Halbousi.

“What happened was a mark of disgrace on parliament. I saw it with my own eyes… members of parliament were selling their conscience,” lawmaker Majida al-Tamimi told a local radio station in Basra.

“When I spoke to him (a member of parliament), he said ‘I am a buyer and there are sellers.’ I told them, ‘Don’t you feel any shame?’,” added Tamimi, who belongs to the bloc headed by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The incident drew condemnation from Abadi, although he did not direct blame at a specific party.

“I would like to point something out, something that has been mentioned in the media and by lawmakers. There is no need to cover it up. In my observation of what took place, it is clear there were sides that wanted to make sure that lawmakers would vote in a certain direction,” Abadi said.

“In whose interest do you take photos of what members of parliament were voting for? They were either offered something or were blackmailed by something… In both cases it is a criminal offence. That’s why I am calling on parliament (to investigate it) and let the public attorney be involved, too. This is a dangerous issue.”

Who is the next prime minister?

Iraq’s biggest political blocs are struggling to agree on whom to field for the post of next prime minister despite the withdrawal of rival heavyweights from the race, including Abadi and Amiri.

Traditionally, the largest bloc in parliament names its choice for prime minister for lawmakers to vote on. However, because some lawmakers have reportedly switched sides or joined larger blocs, both al-Sadr and Amiri claim to lead the largest bloc in parliament, prompting both leaders to discuss agreeing on a consensus candidate.

Reports suggested that al-Sadr and Amiri might agree on Shia politician Adil Abdul-Mahdi for the role but a delay in announcing his name prompted observers to say that Mahdi was not the consensus candidate but a distraction to buy time.

Kurd vs. Kurd for presidency 

Iraq’s rival Kurdish politicians also broke with tradition in the fielding of their nomination for the country’s presidency. The last two Iraqi presidents were from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) but this term the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) wants the presidency, arguing that it has a larger number of lawmakers in parliament.

The PUK named veteran politician Barham Salih as its candidate. Salih had left the PUK in 2017 to found the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ). He has resigned from the CDJ and rejoined the PUK so he can be nominated for president.

The KDP said it rejected Salih’s candidacy but the party has yet to announce its own candidate. Reports suggested that former minister Hoshyar Zebari could be the KDP’s pick.

Zebari, who is a maternal uncle of KDP leader Masoud Barzani, is likely to be viewed as less fitting for Iraq’s presidency than Salih given Zebari’s fervent support for the secession of the Kurdistan region from the rest of the country.

“Zebari went from representing Iraq as foreign minister for a decade to leading the Kurdish referendum to divide the country. Someone like former Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih would be a more suitable candidate because he is well liked across Iraq based on the fact he has always spoken of a united and federal Iraq, something a ceremonial position like the presidency needs,” wrote Iraqi commentator Hamzeh Hadad for the website 1001iraqithoughts.com.

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