Iraqi Parliament Elects Speaker in Effort to Form New Government

The New York Times
July 15, 2014
By Alissa J. Rubin and Suadad Al-Salhy

Iraqi lawmakers elected a new speaker on Tuesday, taking a small but crucial step toward ending the political deadlock that has frozen decision making as military victories by Sunni militants threaten the country’s existence.

Salim al-Jubouri, a moderate Sunni Islamist, won the speaker’s post with 194 votes of 272 cast. Joining him as deputy speakers were Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, who is a member of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, and Aram al-Sheikh Mohammed, a Kurd from the Goran Party.

The Parliament had tried and failed twice before to elect a speaker, so Tuesday’s decision represented something of a breakthrough since it starts the clock for setting up the entire government. The Constitution requires that in two weeks, the speaker must nominate a president. The president then has four weeks to nominate the prime minister.

Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite lawmaker from the bloc led by Mr. Maliki, sounded similarly pleased.

“We shortened the time compared to the last time — this is evidence that Iraqi democracy is on the right track,” he said, referring to 2010, when it took nine months to select a government. This time, it took less than three months since the election in April.

By custom, a Sunni holds the position of speaker; a Kurd has the presidency, and a Shiite is prime minister. International supporters of Iraq hailed Mr. Jubouri’s selection, clearly relieved that the political process was not entirely broken. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the importance of not losing momentum, an admonition that seemed necessary since lawmakers announced even before the end of voting that they planned to take the full constitutionally permitted time before choosing the president.

“Leaders need to confront that threat with the urgency it deserves,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement, implicitly reminding lawmakers of the government’s losses in the north and west to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Choosing the president and prime minister is far more fraught, however, because it means that lawmakers have to discuss the Kurds’ stated intention of holding a referendum on independence and decide whether to grant Mr. Maliki’s demand for a third term as prime minister. How they handle those challenges will involve horse-trading, promises of cabinet slots, appointments of various kinds and, potentially, even meaningful concessions on questions like the extent that power might be devolved from the center to the provinces.

In addition, Sunnis want an expansive amnesty to free the tens of thousands who have been detained but never charged with a crime, and the release of those who have served their sentences but are still being held.

Mr. Jubouri, the newly elected speaker, said he did not expect a decision for two weeks on the presidency.

Ibrahim al-Jafari, the leader of the National Alliance, the coalition of Shiite parties that is the largest political grouping in the Parliament, was similarly cautious about making any predictions about the next step, indicating that in some measure just getting through Tuesday without major snags was a confidence-builder and that now legislators needed time.

“This is the first station,” Mr. Jafari said. “Now we have to give a break for Kurds and the National Alliance to decide and present their candidates.”

While it is unclear what will happen next, a possible foretaste was evident during the voting for deputy speakers.

Despite an agreement by the political blocs to support a Shiite from the Dawa Party (Mr. Abadi) and a Kurd (Mr. Mohammed) for the two deputy speaker slots, Ahmad Chalabi, a canny political player and Shiite opponent of Mr. Maliki, put himself forward to fill the post designated for the Shiite. Mr. Chalabi’s ultimate goal is to become prime minister himself.

To the shock of many of the lawmakers, and in a rare unscripted moment in Iraqi politics, Mr. Chalabi took 107 votes. While that was not enough to win, it was enough to block Mr. Maliki’s candidate. After a brief adjournment, the leadership persuaded Mr. Chalabi to withdraw his challenge. He agreed, but he had made his point. He might not have enough votes to defeat Mr. Maliki for the prime minister job, but he would have enough to thwart him.

That, according to Harith Al-Qarawee, an Iraqi scholar and fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, “shows the Shia bloc is far from an agreement on the prime minister.”

“There’s a real competition out there,” he said.

Elsewhere, the violence continued Tuesday as two car bombs killed 14 people in Sadr City in Baghdad; a suicide bombing killed eight in a restaurant in Samarra; and two roadside bombs killed eight in Maadan.

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