x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Election results expose dramatic shifts in power

The reality of the Shia-dominated Iraqi parliament are already being reflected in alliances between the parties involved, writes Kirk H Sowell.

Iraq’s parliamentary elections, held at the end of April, exhibited a tectonic shift in the demographic balance of power and sectarian polarisation.

Due to a low Sunni Arab turnout in mixed provinces, Iraq’s parliament has an outright Shia Islamist majority, having increased to 181 seats out of 328 for 2014. Whereas 2010 saw a high-water mark for the Sunni Arab-secular Shia coalition, winning 101 seats – 91 of those under the Iraqiya coalition headed by former (secular Shia) prime minister Iyad Allawi – those two groups have been reduced to just 76. The Kurdish parties managed to add five seats, increasing to 62.

The results left Sunni Arab factions both weaker and divided. Speaker Osama Al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun won 27 seats, a clear Sunni plurality, but a pyrrhic victory since his factions held 45 seats in the outgoing parliament.

Next came Mr Al-Allawi’s cross-sectarian but predominately Sunni Nationalist Coalition with 21 seats. Salih Al-Mutlak’s Arab Coalition won 11. Then there were ten seats won by assorted Sunni factions aligned with Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister (who is Shia), and five won by the secularist but predominately Shia Civil Alliance.

Once the scale of their loss was clear, Sunni leaders began an effort to unify. Their idea was to form a “Union of Nationalist Forces” (UNF), a broad coalition of Sunni Arab MPs to act as a negotiating counterweight to the Shia Islamist bloc and the Kurds. Talk of the move began on May 19, the day official results came out.

The UNF began to implode a week later when a fight broke out on Al-Baghdadia television’s Studio 9 programme, hosted by the controversial pundit Anwar Al-Hamdani.

On May 26, Mr Al-Allawi met with Sunni leaders at Mr Al-Nujayfi’s house to finalise the new front, but hardly had they met than one of Mr Al-Allawi’s elected MPs, Abdullah Al-Jiburi, appeared on Mr Al-Hamdani’s programme and began denouncing other Sunni MPs of either selling out to Mr Al-Maliki or giving in to threats of legal action.

The essence of Mr Al-Jiburi’s allegations was that Mr Al-Maliki had threatened two major figures within Mr Al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun – Jamal Al-Karbuli of Anbar and Salim Al-Jiburi of Diyala – into supporting his bid for a third term.

Most controversially, Mr Al-Jiburi claimed that Mr Al-Karbuli held an “open market to buy Sunni MPs”, a meeting at which he himself was present. Mr Abdullah claimed this was part of a long-planned effort to create a group who would, based on either greed or fear, vote to re-elect Mr Al-Maliki.

From there the controversy spread to a variety of evening talk shows on other Iraqi television channels and consumed the Sunni political class, causing Mr Al-Nujayfi to stop talking about the UNF altogether. In the case of Mr Al-Karbuli, corruption charges date back to his time as president of the Iraqi Red Crescent.

Mr Al-Karbuli was reportedly released from prison shortly before Maliki’s reelection in December 2010, and his brother Ahmad Al-Karbuli became industry minister at that time. His own service has been dominated by allegations of corruption. Despite widespread suspicion, there was no hint of prosecution until after Mr Al-Karbuli broke with Mr Al-Maliki last summer. There were several pre-election leaks, and indeed last month a Maliki-linked website reported that the judiciary had approved a warrant for Mr Al-Karbuli. Both Karbuli brothers were in legal jeopardy.

Mr Al-Jiburi’s situation is more straightforward. Three criminal charges on obscure claims of ties to terrorism have been raised. He said that they were dropped recently, but said there was no intervention by Mr Al-Maliki.

Together Mr Al-Jiburi’s and Mr Al-Karbuli’s factions within Mutahidun appear to make up a majority of Mr Al-Nujayfi’s 27 MPs. Although Mr Al-Jiburi is unlikely to be able to pull all the MPs from his party away from this group, with Sunnis already weakened, the combined impact of their defection would be devastating.

The picture became clearer on May 30, when Mr Al-Karbuli and Mr Al-Jiburi stood together with a group of Sunni leaders known to be allied with Mr Al-Maliki at a press conference and appropriated the UNF name. They endorsed Mr Al-Maliki’s “majority government” principle.

Ironically, one of the “Maliki Sunnis” was Ahmad Abu Risha, the Anbar tribal leader, who had been a vociferous critic until a year ago when security sources began leaking that Mr Abu Risha was tied to Al Qaeda. Then in December, Mr Abu Risha’s nephew, Muhammad Khamis, appeared in a propaganda video run on state television claiming he was an “emir” in the Al Qaeda offshoot of an extremist faction.

So the younger Abu Risha flipped sides and began fighting with government forces. When Muhammad Khamis was assassinated by a suicide bomber last Wednesday, the government left unsaid that five months earlier it had fabricated criminal allegations against him. Politicised arrest warrants worked before, and they may well work again.

Kirk H Sowell is a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan, and is the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics