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31.07.2014 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

Iraq has finally found a president

NB-106401-635417999893722877After parliamentary elections in March 2014, Iraq has, for the longest time, failed in attempts to form a legislative and executive branch of government which has resulted in a new protracted internal political crisis (and as we well know, after parliamentary elections in 2010, a similar crisis lasted for more than 9 months). At this time, the main reason for the “power vacuum” is the insurgency of Arab Sunni provinces, supported by the international radical Islamist group “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). Government troops were unable to put up any serious resistance to the advancing rebels and fled in panic, leaving behind military equipment and heavy weapons that were recently purchased from the United States. As a result, about a third of Iraqi territory of Iraq, including land borders with Syria and Jordan, fell under the control of ISIS. Kurdish defense forces, the Peshmerga Brigades, did not allow ISIS militants to advance on to Iraqi Kurdistan and the province of Kirkuk. The central authorities have managed to retain control only over Baghdad and its surrounding areas and the southern provinces, which is densely populated with Shiite Arabs and borders Iran and Kuwait.

Under these conditions it was difficult to bring together a parliament and effectively form new governmental bodies. The vast majority of Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections and did not participate in parliamentary sessions. And as per the agreement between the main ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, the three senior government posts shall be distributed as follows: the Speaker of Parliament is to be an elected representative of the Sunni population, the country’s president, a Kurd and the Prime Minister, a representative of the parliamentary majority, a Shiite. Negotiations between the coalitions and parliament party alliances for nominations of candidates to these posts have been unduly delayed for the above mentioned reasons.

On July 15, only after a third attempt, did they manage to bring together a new parliament and elect its speaker, a Sunni Arab by the name of Salim al-Jubouri. And on July 24 did the name of the new president of Iraq become known; a representative from the Kurdish minority, Mohamed Fuad Maasum. And over the course of the next 15 days, the parliamentary block having won elections is obligated to present its candidate for the post of prime minister for approval by the new president of the country.

The 76-year-old Fuad Maasum is one of the founders of the second most influential Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and in 1992 he became the first Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan. To the post of president of Iraq he replaces the permanent Secretary General of the PUK, 80-year-old Jalal Talabani, who served as president of the country since 2005, but after suffering a stroke he has been undergoing treatment and rehabilitation in a German clinic for close to two years; and just days before the new Iraqi parliament was convened, he returned home. Mr. Maasum’s candidacy was supported by the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and his colleagues on the PUK, as well as the deputies of the regional parliament. Fuad Maasum was elected as president in the second round after already receiving 211 of 275possible votes in the federal parliament (election of the candidate must garner the support of two- thirds of deputies).

Based on his biography and track record, Mr. Maasum can be a worthy replacement for Jalal Talabani. Fuad Maasum was born in 1938 in Koya, located just to the east of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, though his family was originally from the area near the Iranian border, Havraman. Fuad Maasum and Jalal Talabani have known each other since childhood and both their families are well known in the town of Koya. Mr. Maasum studied in religious schools and at age 18 went to Cairo to study at al-Azhar University. There he received a master’s degree in Islamic studies and a doctorate in philosophy.

Upon his return to the country he began his political career as a member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), but after a trip to Syria he left the party over what he described as the hostile views of its leaders against the Kurds. In 1964 Maasum joined the KDP. In 1968 he became a professor at the University of Basra in southern Iraq and worked at the KDP office there. In 1973 he was the KDP’s representative (Mullah Mustafa Barzani) in Cairo. Fuad Maasum held this position until 1975; he then left Egypt and together with Jalal Talabani became one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) splintering away from the KDP.

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, he was a member of the Kurdish negotiating group in Baghdad, and in 2005 was elected to the Iraqi parliament where he headed the faction of the “Kurdistan Alliance” for two consecutive terms. Mr. Maasum has proven himself to be a very experienced politician with moderate views; while at the same time he possesses the ability to negotiate and find compromises among the Kurdish parties and among Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

Despite the importance of his appointment as the new President of Iraq, a new authoritative leader from the Kurdish minority, it should be kept in mind that the office of president carries a more representative character. All further intrigue from the perspective of the external players and the internal political conflict is associated with the search for an acceptable candidate for all parties to the post of prime minister. And it is precisely this politician who, in the next 4 years, will be relying on the Arab-Shiite majority in parliament in order to define the political course of the Iraqi state and to improve the legislation.

The loss of confidence by the Sunni, Kurds and in segments of the Shia population is shown in the government’s political failure and in accusations of corruption where the current Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is attempting to be reappointed to the position for a third term. Nobody is excluding the fact that it is highly possible that al-Maliki and his inner circle are fearful of parliamentary investigations and prosecutions and are therefore desperately clinging to power. The main foreign players in Baghdad in the form of Washington and Tehran are beginning to realize the malignancy of the current regime and the danger in al-Maliki’s clan maintaining power, but they are unable to agree on a replacement for him. As of today, they are presented with two options. First, Maliki manages to convince Iraq’s foreign patrons and most Shiite Arabs that he cannot be replaced and continues to push his candidacy for the post of prime minister for a third term. This option is most is likely to lead to the final collapse of Iraqi state into three distinct enclaves. The other option includes the external players and the Arab-Shiite majority finding a successor to al-Maliki, who in a short time will establish contacts with the Sunni population along with the Kurds, attracting them to work actively in the new legislative and executive bodies and in the government’s power structures. At the same time it would be warranted for Baghdad to establish a dialogue with Riyadh and Doha in order to convince their rulers that Sunni Arabs are taking their rightful place in the new Iraq and Iraq will act independently of Tehran’s foreign and domestic policies. Thus, you could create the preconditions for curtailing the assistance and support from the Gulf Arab states for the radical Islamist group, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” on the territory of Iraq.

The election of a Kurdish politician to the post of President of Iraq indirectly confirms that Iraqi Kurds are going to continue to work within the central legislative and executive bodies and are not intending to secede from Iraq. Obviously, in Erbil they are still hoping that the new Iraqi government will listen to the wishes of the Kurdish voters and can satisfy most of their needs and demands, in particular, adopt new laws with regards to the production of hydrocarbons and implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which provides for the gradual peaceful solution to the issue of the administrative of Kirkuk.

Stanislav Ivanov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, PhD in history and columnist for the “New Eastern Outlook”.

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