Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presumably wants to choose his successor, but he cannot publicly name one without creating a rival undermining his own authority.
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On November 14, the Iraqi Supreme Court issued a final decision on the fate of Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi over forgery charges after months of legal deliberation. The court’s decision came following a lawsuit brought by Sunni Member of Parliament Laith al-Dulaimi, a former member of Halbousi’s Taqadum party, accusing the speaker of preventing his participation in Parliament through manipulation, threats, and forging an official document (his signature and the date of an old, undated resignation letter) in January. Ironically, the court also dismissed Dulaimi as a parliamentarian based on the undated resignation letter that he had submitted to Halbousi July 15, 2022. Dulaimi filed the lawsuit in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of his exclusion from Parliament.
The court decision prompted the resignation of three Taqadum ministers from the government, and it led to the suspension of the activities of members of parliament serving on various committees. In the 2021 legislative elections, Halbousi’s party secured 37 parliamentary seats solidifying his status as the most prominent Sunni political figure in the country. However, the court decision is unlikely to disrupt the political process or result in a reshuffling of the government.
A personal dispute between Halbousi and Dulaimi started during the 2021 parliamentary elections and culminated in profound political discord between the two men. Consequently, Dulaimi submitted an undated letter of resignation to Halbousi on July 15, 2022, but Halbousi did not certify it until January 15, 2023. During this period, Dulaimi continued working in Parliament and had requested the withdrawal of his resignation letter.
Halbousi expelled Dulaimi from the Taqadum party based on alleged noncompliance of Dulaimi with the party’s bylaws, asserting that Dulaimi had voluntarily submitted the letter resigning from his seat in Parliament.
However, Dulaimi accused the speaker of altering the resignation letter, initiating protracted legal disputes between them. Dulaimi claimed that lawyers representing Halbousi acknowledged that the speaker had manipulated the undated letter related to his resignation in 2022. This prompted the court to oust Halbousi from the speakership and revoke his membership in Parliament.
Halbousi, who secured reelection as speaker in January 2022, has historically exhibited a good bit of political finesse. In a strategic maneuver in September 2022, he theatrically submitted his own resignation amid frustrations over the government formation process. This calculated move proved to be a political gambit, successfully consolidating his influence, as members of parliament overwhelmingly renewed their confidence in him.
His ascent to power at a relatively young age has stirred envy among the established figures of the Sunni political old guard. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of them embraced the court’s decision and went so far as to advocate for placing him under house arrest, restricting his travel, and seizing his financial assets. Additional legal proceedings have been initiated against the former speaker, with his opponents seeking to bar him from politics.
Paradoxically, the court ruling could also elevate Halbousi’s standing within the Sunni areas of Iraq, solidifying his popular support. He could be construed as yet another casualty of a Supreme Court that has been accused of being used as a political instrument to penalize adversaries of the Coordination Framework, the ruling coalition of Shia parties. Whether Halbousi will be able to play such populist politics successfully, given the hostility (and long-standing jealousy) of many of his Sunni colleagues, remains uncertain.
While compelling evidence implicates the speaker in this case, he is not the lone political figure in Iraq to have been dogged with allegations of improper or illegal behavior, including corruption. However, the Iraqi legal system has primarily concentrated its prosecution and punishment on individuals from Sunni and Kurdish backgrounds, prompting concerns about its impartiality and fair treatment across political and ethnosectarian affiliations. The Federal Supreme Court’s unprecedented removal of the most senior official of the Parliament and highest ranking Sunni politician will intensify allegations about the politicization of the judiciary to achieve political objectives, particularly by the Shia majority.
Nonetheless, this particular controversy has unfolded within a broader intra-Sunni conflict, compounded by interference from the Coordination Framework, which has led a media campaign to tarnish Halbousi’s reputation implicating him in a money laundering scheme and accusing him of colluding with Kuwait over the shared Khor Abdullah waterway and conducting illegal communications with foreign governments. Halbousi’s relations with the Coordination Framework have also become frayed because he accused the Framework of failing to adhere to the pledges made to him and his party during the government formation process.
Despite effectively mobilizing Sunnis, the former speaker has faced significant discontent within elected Sunni political circles and from his Gulf allies due to his leadership style and political strategies. The judicial ruling not only highlights internal divisions within the Sunni faction but also bolsters the influence of the Coordination Framework. Presently, the first deputy speaker, Mohsen al-Mandalawi, a Shia, could assume the role of interim speaker, cementing Shia control over the legislative branch until the election of a new Sunni leader.
The timing of Halbousi’s removal is also significant and sensitive, coming just a month ahead of provincial elections. Further complicating the landscape, Shia cleric and populist Muqtada al-Sadr, once an ally of Halbousi and the victor in the preceding parliamentary elections, has advocated for a boycott of the elections. Sadr is also a political casualty of a February 2022 Supreme Court ruling that a two-thirds quorum is required to hold a parliamentary session to elect the president. This ruling derailed Sadr’s ability to form the government.
The question is whether Halbousi, another casualty of the Supreme Court, will also boycott the elections in response to the recent court decision. However, any boycott led by Halbousi and his party could be political suicide as it may have limited influence on the elections, given the improbable collaboration with his heretofore divided Sunni rivals. These rivals may even welcome a boycott by Halbousi’s party, as it could afford them the opportunity to assume control over the provincial councils and local governments.
Halbousi and his Taqadum party are navigating a delicate situation. On one hand, participating in elections, if legally viable, could be seen as bestowing legitimacy on a political system that has systematically marginalized the party on the national stage. On the other hand, a Taqadum boycott could inadvertently offer political rivals a political advantage by sidelining Halbousi and his organization at the local level.
In 2005, Sunni groups boycotted the national elections and a constitutional referendum, which marginalized them and helped undermine the legitimacy of the post-2003 political system. The subsequent lack of authentic Sunni involvement in Baghdad’s politics in that era contributed to the emergence of a Sunni insurgency and, subsequently, Islamist extremism, culminating in a civil war. However, the probability of Halbousi’s election boycott having similar impact is remote, given that other Sunni political parties stand ready to replace him and his party.
The Supreme Court’s decision deals a substantial blow to Halbousi’s political aspirations and ascendancy, yet it is unlikely to have a wider impact on the broader Sunni community or ignite greater political upheaval. Nevertheless, it represents a victory for the Coordination Framework, temporarily granting it control over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. This disruption to the balance of power in Iraq could aggravate political and economic grievances that could unsettle the relative stability amid ongoing regional conflicts.
The views represented herein are the author’s or speaker’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of AGSIW, its staff, or its board of directors.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and the Mustafa Barzani Scholar of Global Kurdish Studies at American University’s School of International Service. He is a TEDx speaker and former lecturer at the University of Kurdistan Hewler. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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