Friday, September 7, 2012

With Less Involvement in Iraq, US Interests and Iraq’s Future in Jeopardy

By Ali Rawaf

Writing about Iraqi politics has become more frustrating than starting a fire by rubbing two sticks. There are hardly any positive political developments and our politicians are stuck in debating issues that bear no substance or benefit to the people.

To remind you, as soon as the last US soldier stepped outside the Iraqi borders, things have been going downhill.  Today, Maliki's Iraq almost seems as far from democracy as it was under Saddam Hussein. The PM is on a journey to court as much power into his hands as possible. The opposition forces continue to lose ground. And the Iraqi people continue to suffer from poor quality of life.

Soon after the US left, Maliki moved to prosecute his VP for alleged terrorist activities, a move that reignited sectarian tensions and as he is being tried in absentia, Iraqis are reminded of the sectarian violence that they thought was winding down.

Last week, the Minister of Communication resigned after growing interference from the Prime Minister in moving ministry officials around with no regards to the minister, who is a member of the same political entity of the VP. Anonymous sources say that three top leaders from the same political party have given their support to Maliki, after his perpetual threats of ousting them from their positions.
Maliki is also in a major political battle with the Kurds. As Iraq’s oil revenue grows so does the fight between Baghdad and the Kurdish federal region over oil contracts that are being granted to foreign companies by the regional government. Maliki’s office says that the central government is the only one that is authorized to grant such contracts. As a result, foreign companies are growing more hesitant to do business with Iraq and the Kurds renewed their calls for secession.

The growing frustrations with Maliki’s politics lead to a meeting between the major political parties in parliament. They agreed to question Maliki within the constitutional power the parliament. A day before Maliki was going to be summoned, a military unit under his command lifted the belt of concrete blocks that fortify parliament against bomb attacks, a move that was seen as a threat.

The PM also threatened the parties that if he was going to be questioned, he would divulge embarrassing secrets about those who question him. As a result, the efforts to oust him or question him withered.
Iraqi politicians claim that Maliki seems emboldened by the US lack of interest in Iraqi affairs and an expanding Iranian support. That lack of involvement from the US and the West will not only cost Iraqis, it will cost the US interests in the region.

Iraq so far has helped lessen the effects of the US sanctions against Iran by letting local banks handle Iranian trade transactions and Iraq is also helping Iran send military supplies support the Syrian regime through Iraqi airspace.

Despite calls from Iraqi parties, regional and foreign countries, and US VP Joe Biden to halt both activities, Maliki remains defiant and those activities still go on. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Arrest Warrant Issued for Iraqi Electoral Commission Head

By Ali Rawaf

An Iraqi court issued a warrant for the arrest of the president of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, Faraj Al-Haidary for alleged bonuses that were awarded to some of the Commission personnel. The warrant states that he will be in custody for a 3 day-investigation.
Ever since the March 2010 election results were announced, declaring Maliki’s rival political bloc the winner, the PM and his partly started a campaign against the Electoral Commission, claiming that his president and staff collaborated with winning bloc.

Soon after securing a second term, Maliki sought an order from the High Court to enlist the Electoral Commission and other independent bodies under the authority of the PM’s office. The move infuriated several political parties and later, even though the Court ruled in the Maliki’s favor, it later clarified that no entity has authority over the independent bodies such as the Central Bank and the Electoral Commission.  The Court clarification came after there was an outrage by Parliament and the heads of political parties over what was clearly a violation of a constitutional article.

Two months later, the PM’s party in Parliament, State of Law called for the investigation of the president of the Electoral Commission and his Deputy over fraud allegations. The rest of the parliament saw how politicized the questioning was by the State of Law members and called to end the investigation. A couple of months later, the State of Law bloc returned and called for the disbanding of the current Electoral Commission and replace it with new staff.

This move along with a series of actions taken by the PM and his party are alarming. After the US withdrawal from Iraq, the PM got the High Court to issue an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President, Tareq Al-Hashimi and asked parliament to vote his Sunni Deputy, Salih Al-Mutlaq out of his post. While the effort to oust the latter failed, the former is currently called a fugitive VP in the news and his office staff and body guards are under arrest. Recently, the VP said three of his body guards died in prison because of torture. The moves have been regarded as reasons for the new escalation in sectarian tensions and violence in Iraq.

 I regard them as a serious threat to our fragile and diminishing democracy. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kurdish, Sunni Frustration Could End Iraq Government Coalition

By Ali Rawaf

Kurdish President Threatens to End Coalition

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (Left) and Kurdish Regional President
Masood Barazani (Right)
Masood Barazani, the president of Iraq's Kurdish region gave harsh criticism of the Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, calling his party a "a small group that is hoarding all aspects of power while practicing ideological terrorism against those who criticize it."

The Kurds have been in a political conflict with Baghdad over several issues. On top of the issue is Baghdad's stubbornness to not let any oil companies enter into any contracts with the Kurdish government. Most recently, the central government threatened to exclude Exonn Mobil from future auction if the company signs any contracts directly with the Kurdish government. While the central government announced that Exon froze the contract with the Kurds, the Energy Committee in the Kurdish Parliament announced the contracts were actually still intact. 

The Kurdish regional president has also been critical of the way Baghdad has handled the case of Tareq al-Hashimi, Iraq's VP who is supposed to undergo a trial for alleged terrorism acts he oversaw. The VP's hiding has escalated the conflict between the PM Maliki and the Kurds, who view the trial as another way of intimidation to Maliki's rivals. 

Ayad Allawi (Head of the secular al-Iraqyia group), VP Tareq al-Hashimi,
and Salih al-Mutlaq (Deputy to the Prime Minister)
Iraqi Sunnis
Iraq's Sunni's have also been outraged at the authoritarian practices of Maliki's government. At the same time the US troops completed its withdrawal from the country, al-Maliki ordered the arrest of as many as 800 Sunnis ex-Baathist from Sunni provinces, accusing them of conspiring with al-Qaeda to overthrow the government.  

The PM went after his Sunni deputy, Salih al-Mutlaq, for publicly criticizing him. Maliki asked Parliament to vote him out of office but most of the parties in Parliament rejected the measure. 

The Sunni have become very dissatisfied wit the government and a few provinces have asked to form a federal state similar to the Kurdish model. The PM said it wasn't constitutional and went after the provincial councils who made the request and threatened them with legal consequences. When it turned out that the constitution required a vote of two-thirds of the provincial council or a vote of ten percent of the regional population to make a federation, Maliki said it wasn't the right time. 

Al-Iraqyia, the political entity of which both al-Hashimi and Mutlak are members, asked Maliki to step down from his post and let someone else take over. Al-Iraqyia has also been threatening to bring up internal political disputes during the Arab League meeting, which is set to take place in Baghdad at the end of March. 

Maliki Hoarding Power
Many of the decision recently made by the office of the prime minister have been alarming. After the government formation deal was cut, Maliki sent the Iraq's High Court to place under his control many independent entities such as the Electoral Commission, the Integrity Commission, and the Central bank. 

Maliki is also emphasizing on his role as the commander in chief of the armed forces, a role that is only ceremonial according to the constitution. His government has been known for establishing the Baghdad Force, a special unit that is trained by the Americans, which reports to Maliki him self. He has maintained both ministries of defense and interior under his control as acting minister, even though the government was formed long time ago. 

The PM recently announced that he is in a good position to be elected again, breaking a promise he made last election that he would push for term limits and that he wouldn't run for office again. 

'Discontent and Division'

According to a recent Gallup poll that measures a country's 'wellbeing', suffering in Iraq is the highest since 2008(before the end of the sectarian fight). The percentage of 'suffering' Iraqis is among the highest in the Middle East while the percentage of those 'thriving' is among the lowest.

The percentage of those satisfied with the living standards dropped to 32% in 2011, down from 50% in 2010. Joblessness and lack of security have also contributed to the rise negative emotions among Iraqis, particularly anger and sadness.

Looking Ahead

Iraq's fragile government coalition could be coming to an end. The Sunnis have been dissatisfied for a long time but they don't have a parliamentary majority to vote down the government and try to form their own. They need to have the Kurdish support and a couple of Shiite parties on board to actually form a different coalition. Shiite groups like al-Sadr's political wing (Which holds 40 seats in parliament) and Badr have been  in disagreement with Maliki's Dawa party over several issues. While it is unclear whether this type of political frustration could vote Maliki out of the prime minister office or call for new elections, they are good signs that there is some sort of opposition to check on the expanding powers of the PM. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Can Iraq Abolish the Death Penalty?

Note: This piece was originally published on the Dart Society Reports. To see the piece on the Dart Society Reports, click here
A commentary by Ali Rawaf
In Iraq, it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t have a ma’doom, a family member who was executed by the government. It is so common that Iraqis routinely mention it to qualify for government jobs, a pay raise, or a political post.
Saddam Hussein’s regime was condemned by international human rights organizations for excessive use of the death penalty, mostly carried out against political opponents and those who participated in the uprising in 1991. For decades, detainees were sentenced to death despite having no access to attorneys or any chance to appeal their sentences. Confessions were mostly extracted by torture, without any adequate investigation.

Citing such practices, human rights groups urged the United States to enact a moratorium on the death penalty after the invasion in early 2003. Two months after entering Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority put the moratorium in place.
The moratorium was suspended in 2004, when the Iraqi interim government reinstated the death penalty for those under the age of 70. The government claimed it was a viable deterrent, in a time when terrorist attacks were on the rise and many Iraqis were still seeking punishment of Saddam Hussein and the men in his regime for their crimes against humanity.
Once the moratorium was lifted, things moved swiftly. In 2005, Parliament passed a terrorism law approving the death sentence not only for those who commit terrorist acts, but also for those who finance, provoke, plan, or enable such acts. Furthermore, the terrorism law offered amnesty and anonymity to al-mukhbir al-sirri, secret informers who report alleged terrorist activities. Those reports contributed to the detention of thousands of Iraqis. This has created a weak judicial process, where many Iraqis are detained and sentenced to death shortly after getting arrested.
By 2007, the number of executions has skyrocketed, making Iraq among the top five countries in the world for executions. In 2011 alone, at least 279 people received the death sentence and another 1,300 were on death row, according to Amnesty International.
Iraq’s government has also received criticism for televising many confessions of those who committed acts of terrorism, which it has been doing. They are heavily advertised to the public and are regularly broadcast on the state-funded TV channel. While the government says these confessions are meant to provide a sense of security and justice, it’s difficult to find out under what conditions those confessions were given. Critics say televising them highly undermines the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.
Detainees are sometimes tortured and forced to confess crimes or terrorist acts during pre-trial interrogations, confessions they later denounce in court. In the period surrounding a televised confession, key political figures, including members of Parliament or the cabinet, often make public statements that can influence the sentences handed to those detainees. In June 2011, the state broadcast confessions by members of an armed group who admitted to murdering a whole wedding party after raping several women and the bride. Members of the armed group received death sentences within a week of the televised confessions, an insufficient time for adequate investigation, proper legal representation or an appeal.
More recently, the same TV channel showed footage of confessions by bodyguards of the current vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. They admitted to assassinating government officials and committing several other terrorist acts on his behalf. These crimes can be punishable by death sentence under the terrorism law. Only after televising the confessions did the Central Criminal Court issue an arrest warrant for the vice president.
Critics of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki say this is an example of his abuse of the justice system, which he uses to bring down political opponents. Al-Maliki and his bloc have announced that they are looking to put al-Hashimi through a trial similar to Saddam Hussein’s.
“We provided a fair and clean trial to Saddam, the dictator of Iraq, and we will ensure and be determined to provide a fair trial to Mr. Tariq al-Hashimi,” Al-Maliki said at a news conference.
Such statements politicize the judicial process and diminish its transparency. Since the arrest warrant was issued, al-Hashimi has fled to northern Iraq, the home province of the Iraqi president who has offered al-Hashimi temporary protection.
The increasing pressure by the international community and watch groups on Iraq to abolish the death penalty might finally be working. Last October, members of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee said they had been discussing new legislation that would abolish the death penalty. Some parliament members, citing security concerns, immediately criticized the initiative.
Yet with a complete U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of last year, and a diminishing political engagement, it will be extremely tough to see those talks about ending the death penalty turn into an actual legislation.