Iraq gets a new speaker
DAMASCUS - Iyad Samaraii, a senior commander in the Iraqi Accordance Front, was voted speaker of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday. The post, allocated to the Sunnis in the division of power that was effected after 2003, has been vacant since Mahmud Mashadani stepped down last December.
Theoretically, Samaraii now shares power with the Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. In reality, due to deliberate marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis since 2003, the post of speaker has been nothing but ceremonial.
Samaraii's Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, holds 44 seats while the Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) has 128. Samaraii won with 153 votes - meaning he was able to win the votes of other Sunni blocs and smaller Shi'ite ones - while his opponent Mustapha al-Hitti (representing the National Dialogue Front, which holds 11 seats) got only 34 votes. Forty-five of the 275 deputies submitted blank papers.
Depending on who one asks in Iraq, there are different views of the new speaker. By all accounts, he is a conservative man, inclined towards radical political Islam. Born in an old Sunni neighborhood in 1946, he studied mechanical engineering at Baghdad University and became involved in the Islamic underground in the 1960s, working against then-president Ahmad Hasan al-Baker.
He worked in the civil service in the 1970s and fled Iraq in 1980, to openly rebel against the Iraqi president. His first destination was Jordan, then Great Britain, where he rose to fame as a loud opponent and member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which was born out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Arab audiences became more familiar with him in the 1990s, when he appeared on satellite TV to speak against Saddam Hussein, in preparation for the 2003 invasion. He was appointed to the US-backed Follow-up and Arrangement Committee, which included current politicians like Ahmad Chalabi, and former prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Ordinary Iraqis accused all of them of having been on the payroll of the US Central Intelligence Agency, which explains why in light of Sunni anger at the post-2003 order, Samaraii distanced himself from staunchly pro-American leaders and became increasingly critical of the US occupation.
Samaraii is not too fond of either the Americans or the Iranians, preferring an alliance with countries like Jordan, which hosted him for some time in the 1980s, and Saudi Arabia. When younger, he dreamt of establishing a theocracy in Iraq - dreams that evaporated with wisdom of age, and changing demographics after the 2003 invasion.
He speaks a language that his constituency wants to hear, calling for a greater say for Sunnis in the decision-making process, a general amnesty setting thousands of Sunni activists free, and a clampdown on Shi'ite militias, like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army.
As secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is headed by current Vice President Tarek Hashemi, he is dismayed by the diminishing role Sunnis have played since Maliki came to power in 2006 and has always called on the prime minister to make sweeping changes in the political system - calls that to date have fallen on deaf ears. Samaraii and his Islamic colleagues, however, find themselves today in a dilemma.
Although they hated Saddam and worked in the underground to bring him down for decades, they cannot but stand up in defense of Ba'athists - languishing in American jails - or standing in the shadow of the hangman's noose. The more these Ba'athists are persecuted, the more they are admired at a grassroots level, living up to the old saying: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Since running for parliament in 2005, Samaraii has had to stand as a Sunni politician, speaking what the Sunni street wants to hear.
Clearly from the 2009 provincial elections, nobody in the Sunni community wanted leaders who promised to bring a theocracy to Baghdad. They wanted people who could bring clean waters to their homes, better security, higher salaries and finer hospitals. All politicians - both Sunni and Shi'ite, with Maliki included - had to speak a new language during these elections, sounding increasingly secular in their political programs. Samaraii's rhetoric has somewhat softened in recent months, but he remains committed to what the Sunnis want - even if not all their demands are in tune with what he believes.
Reports from Baghdad say that Maliki is not too pleased at the election of Samaraii, afraid that the Accordance Front was pushing for a no-confidence vote to bring him down from within parliament.
Apparently, behind-the-scene diplomacy - and force - were used by the prime minister to drown Samaraii's election since January. Another report says that although Maliki had indeed tried to wreck Samaraii's candidacy, he nevertheless said yes - at the final hour - because he reasoned that Samaraii was a man who he could work with, despite the latter's gross criticism of both Iran and the prime minister.
Accepting the new speaker will cost Maliki nothing, and might even mend broken fences between him and the Sunnis. Similar reports coming out of Iraq say that the prime minister is planning an all-out offensive against the Sunni-packed Awakening Councils, and needs Sunni cover when doing so, so it won't be seen as a Sunni-Shi'ite war.
Nothing gives him the umbrella better than the new speaker Samaraii, and his boss, Vice President Hashemi.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.