Interview conducted by Joel Wing.
Kirk H. Sowell
The post-Saddam generation of Sunni politicians in Iraq have faced one setback after another. Their latest is the loss of power as many of the top leaders have either been dismissed or run out of office on criminal charges such as Tariq Hashemi, Osama and Atheel Nujafi, Rafi Issawi and Salah al-Mutlaq. Does this constitute a sea change in Iraqi politics or will the old guard hold onto power in the next round of elections? To help shed light on this subject is Kirk Sowell editor of Inside Iraqi Politics. He can followed on Twitter at @UticaRisk.
- Since 2003 Iraq’s Sunni politics have been deeply divided. Over time, a series of leaders did emerge and gained top positions within the government. That included figures like Vice President Tariq Hashemi, Speaker of Parliament and Vice President Osama Nujafi and his brother Ninewa Governor Atheel Nujafi, Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, and Deputy Premier Salah al-Mutlaq. They came from different backgrounds and parties and would work with each other as much as argue with one another. Overall, could you say that they had any common themes or was there always dissonance between them?
These men have shared common challenges, and despite differences, they’ve all had to grapple in one way or another with the common challenge of facing Sunni Arab loss of power and place in society. This has corresponded with a loss of identity, as Sunni identity has been based for decades upon an identification between Sunnis and state power, complemented by the erroneous notion that they were the demographic majority. Hashemi and the Nujayfi brothers have in common that they were always closely tied to regional states – Hashemi was the leader of the Islamic Party, the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so tied to Qatar. The Nujayfis are proxies of Turkey, and their 180 degree flip-flop on dealing with the Kurds and Sunni autonomy in the 2010-2011 period was because of the change in policy in Ankara.
Isawi and Mutlak, both of whom are from Fallujah, I view as more pragmatic, trying to find a way to represent their people’s interests and reach a middle ground. From a coalition standpoint Isawi has been closer to Nujayfi in recent years than Mutlak, but I view this partly as a response to former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to prosecute him after Isawi turned against him politically. Isawi is dependent on regional states now, but I think this was forced on him.
- All of those politicians are either on the run from the law or are out of office. Do you think this marks the passing of the old guard or do some of them still have enough of a base and patronage networks to get elected again and regain top jobs?
I think Iraq’s citizens, be they Sunni Arab, Shia or Kurd, would benefit from the entire political class passing on, but unfortunately I don’t see this happening. The Nujayfis, despite having lost official positions, are still holding on and planning a comeback. In the case of former Ninawa Governor Uthil al-Nujayfi, despite his many failures he has a chance to come back. There are two reasons for this. One is that he retains Kurdish backing, so (assuming there can be a new election) to be reelected as governor he only needs about 30 percent of the Arab vote, either voting for his list directly or for blocs that are willing to re-elect him. The Kurdish parties have total security control in their areas, so depending on how many votes they can gin up, they might be able to increase their allocation from 11 out of the 39 they got in 2013 (Nujayfi’s Mutahidun won just eight seats, and he was elected with the support of some small Arab parties, which have now abandoned him, and the Kurds.)
Also, based on our interviews with people still in Mosul, Uthil retains a base of support, mainly because of the Shia militia threat. While locals recognize Uthil as being a front for Turkey, many view it as a protector against Iran-backed forces. So if Baghdad can liberate Mosul without Shia militia involvement, then Uthil may be finished. But if there are reprisals, even if exagerrated (it is the perception that matters), or if Uthil’s Turkey-backed militia are able to play some kind of a role, then he could come back.
The next election will determine whether Mutlak can hold on, but he’s pretty much out of the public view now, and there was a scandal with regard to a ministerial committee to help internal refugees which he headed, with allegations of overspending, skimming and the like. His bloc got 11 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, but nearly half of them belong to the faction of Ahmad Abdullah al-Jiburi in Salah al-Din. Mutlak is very flexible and pragmatic, so I would not count him out, but 2018 will be an uphill fight.
As for Hashemi and Isawi, Hashemi is done for sure. And Isawi probably is as well, given the recent convictions for him, and the general political environment on the Shia scene. I’m less convinced of the allegations against him than against Hashemi, and even with Hashemi I think they were overblown. But Isawi will likely need to sit out another electoral cycle.
- Issawi was just found guilty but not for the terrorism charges that got him run out of office but rather minor corruption infractions. Could you explain what happened in his case and the background to what led to the warrants against him in the first place?
The allegations against Isawi, the corruption charges for which he was convicted last month, originate from charges announced at a press conference by Integrity Commission Chairman Ala al-Saadi on March 31, 2014. On the same day, Saadi announced broad-based charges – without specifying the basis for the allegations against Isawi, Falah al-Sudani, Muhammad Allawi, Hazm al-Shaalan and Ayham al-Samarrai. It is notable that during Saadi’s period in office, which ran from 2011 through 2015, and who served unconfirmed as an “acting” chairman on Maliki’s behalf, he never charged anyone close to the prime minister. And this press conference came just one week before parliamentary elections held in 2014. These were the only five people specifically named – there were some low-level administrators as well – and three of them are tied to Iyad Allawi – Samarrai and Shaalan were ministers in Allawi’s government (electricity and defense, respectively), and Muhammad Allawi is his cousin and was promoted by him for the Communications Ministry post in the 2010-2014 Maliki government. Sudani, who served under Ibrahim al-Jaafari, just seems to have been thrown in because he is such a notoriously corrupt individual.
- Speaker of parliament Salim Jabouri is the only Sunni still holding onto a leading position in the current government. Is he from the same school as the older politicians mentioned before and pushing similar policies or is he trying new things?
I would frame the issue in terms of pragmatism more than substantive policy, and there are two things to understand about Jiburi, regarding his party, and himself. He belongs to the Islamic Party, which has performed a total flip-flop politically since 2013. They were key leaders in the 2013 Sunni protest movement, and were part of Nujayfi’s Mutahidun in the last electoral cycle. So they were part of the group that was using the most extreme Sunni sectarian rhetoric in the run-up to that election. But over the past two years they have gradually shifted, and despite their ties to Qatar, and are now firmly aligned with the Hayder al-Abadi’s government, and with Baghdad against Turkey in regional politics.
But Speaker Jiburi’s persona is also part of it. Whereas Nujayfi, his predecessor as speaker, is abrasive and ego-driven, Jiburi has a more mild and professional demeanor, and has been the perfect Sunni partner for Abadi. He is also from Diyala, along the sectarian fault-line, where the Badr militia is based, and he even gave a speech at Badr’s annual conference last year, praising their role in the fight against Sunni terrorists. With the Islamic State defeated in Diyala, his home province, which previously had a slight Sunni Arab majority, is now under Shia militia occupation, and Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri runs it as it were a semi-independent Afghan-style warlord sanctuary. So Jiburi is acutely conscious of the weak position Sunnis are in, and sticking close to Abadi, who is in the midst of a political struggle with Ameri, is his best choice.
This has also blown open the Mutahidun coalition, of which the Nujayfi and Islamic Party were two of its four key factions. (The Mutahidun, with 25 MPs, had about two-fifths of all Sunni Arab MPs in the current parliament.) Mutahidun is effectively defunct now, and this first became obvious last May when Jiburi facilitated the vote, which had unanimous Shia backing, to impeach Uthil as Ninawa governor. The Islamic Party’s faction in Ninawa also turned against Nujayfi in the election to choose his successor, and the new governor, Nufal Hamadi al-Akub, defeated the Nujayfi-backed candidate by a margin which the IP provided. Turkey’s military action in Ninawa increased this split. Whereas Uthil was the primary defender of Turkey military deployment, falsely claiming Baghdad had approved it, on December 9 Jiburi sponsored a conference in Baghdad in which he gave a speech defending Baghdad’s rejection of the Turkish presence.
- Do you see any new Sunni politicians emerging either in parliament or at the provincial level that could become national leaders, and if so are they pushing any new ideas or the same ones as their predecessors?
I think I would start by saying that any discussion of Iraq’s Sunni politics needs to start with this bifurcation which has taken place between those Sunnis who are aligned with Baghdad against regional Sunnis states, and those who are aligned with regional states. So the first place to look is Ninawa, since anyone new coming up on the Turkey/Qatar side will be subordinate to the Nujayfis. The most outspoken figure is MP Abd al-Rahman al-Luwayzi, who was elected on Nujayfi’s list in 2010, split with him, and is unquestionably Iraq’s leading anti-Turkey Sunni Arab politician.
The new Ninawa governor, the above-mentioned Akub, may turn out to be a significant figure, but he’s only been in office for four months and is still working out of Irbil and Kurdish-controlled areas of Ninawa. Another figure to watch is Defense Minister Khalid al-Obaydi. He was a military advisor to Uthil prior to his appointment in October 2014, and indeed was with him when Mosul fell the previous June. But he has hewed closely to Abadi and has so far kept enough distance from his old political patrons to survive in Baghdad. He is a native of Mosul, and is well-respected there.
The governors in Salah al-Din and Anbar, Raed al-Jiburi and Suhayb al-Rawi, respectively, are presently too dependent on Abadi for support to even negotiate with him in any meaningful sense. The Sunni political scene in Salah al-Din is especially a mess, as the province is largely under Shia militia security control yet the key Sunni figures are fighting one another. The main fight is between Raed and Ahmad Abdullah al-Jiburi, who was governor for two terms through 2014, but resigned (partway through the second term) to join the Abadi government. He was then left jobless when Abadi abolished his position, “Minister of State for Provincial Affairs,” in August. So Ahmad’s allies on the council held a meeting in Baghdad, better to be out of Raed’s security control, and removed him from office, and then tried to reelect Ahmad. But then Abadi, for no clear legal reason, declared the Salah al-Din council’s vote removing Raed invalid because it was held in Baghdad, and then recently appointed Raed “acting governor,” something he lacks the authority to do.
The point is, Salah al-Din Sunnis are totally powerless and forced to vie for the patronage of Shia leaders to stay in office. In Diyala they were worse off, and I’ve mentioned above Badr’s dominance of it. Neither Speaker Jiburi nor any other Sunni has any heft there.
In Anbar it is not much different. Governor Rawi is now in a position of great prominence with the liberation of most of Ramadi, but he is 100 percent dependent upon Abadi, who has decided on a discretionary basis to give Rawi’s employees and Sunni Hashd fighters salaries, and could turn the spigot off tomorrow if he wanted. Yet Rawi’s position is worth emphasizing, because of what it says about the Sunnis’ position: like Speaker Jiburi, he belongs to the Islamic Party, the party that was leading anti-government protests in 2013. Even after Rawi was elected in December 2014, he initially was still talking up the Sunni autonomy option, but quickly gave that up. The way Abadi manages Anbar policy, he has essentially appointed himself as Anbar governor, and made Rawi his chief-of-staff; Rawi oversees the machinery, but Abadi decides everything.
In terms of other Anbar figures, I’ve already mentioned Mutlak and Isawi, both of whom have many strikes against them. Thafir al-Ani, whose namesake town of Anah in north-central Anbar remains under jihadi occupation, has grown more prominent in the media with so many others discredited, and has also developed a more modest and conciliatory demeanor in the face of the catastrophe that has befallen his province. Salman al-Jumayli, who was part of Mutahidun, is planning minister, and Qasim al-Fahdawi, a key Mutahidun neminsis, is electricity minister. But both have weaknesses – Jumayli failed to win a seat in the last election and was roundly criticized for taking a ministry; indeed I think that is the reason Abadi chose him, because he knew Jumayli would be weak. And then Fahdawi, who is from Ramadi, is electricity minister – and the ministry is like an albatross, he was strongly criticized over the summer.
Unfortunately, if I had to put money on it, the chief alternative to Rawi in Anbar is likely to be Muhammad al-Karbuli, the head of al-Hal in parliament. He has been getting a lot of attention from his seat on the Security & Defense Committee. In the 2014 elections he appeared in more TV ads than any candidate in the country who wasn’t the head of a major bloc (Maliki, Nujayfi, Allawi). While the parties are all corrupt, others have a political program as well, whereas al-Hal is a Karbuli family business. Muhammad’s brother Ahmad al-Karbuli was the industry minister in the last government, and does not appear to have done anything with it other than try to make money on contracts, and then fled the country ahead of an arrest warrant. His elder brother, party leader Jamal al-Karbuli, has been chased by corruption claims since he was vice-president of the Iraqi Red Crescent nearly a decade ago. Recently there were new warrants issued for several former IRC executives, some with business ties to Karbuli, but there appears to be an unwritten rule that warrants are not to be issued for the politically connected (the warrant for his brother Ahmad was issued under Maliki, shortly after Karbuli turned on Maliki).
Yet I am told that the Islamic Party and al-Hal may run together in the next election. If that intention holds, they should win, and the party that wins the most seats on the list would get the governorship. So post-Islamic State Anbar will most likely find itself in the hands of old-style parties, but ones aligned with Baghdad.