MESOP ANATOMY OF AN DESASTER : Iraq Awaits Court Ruling on Legitimacy of Parliamentary Actions

By Emily Anagnostos – Institute for the study of War – 25 May 2016 –

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s Federal Court will issue an important ruling on May 25 that could have a major impact on the political crisis.  The issues at stake are the legitimacy of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s ministerial appointments and the speakership of the Council of Representatives.  Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a driver of the political party that has raised the legal challenges. Iraq has been experiencing a political crisis since April 12, and protesters have stormed the Green Zone twice since April 30.


They were followers of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been trying to channel a populist protest movement that has been underway since August.  One main issue at stake is the composition of the Cabinet. Sadr and Prime Minister Abadi are not close allies, but they both have sought to replace political party elites with technocratic ministers. Their chief opponent has been Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister and a rival of both. The appointment of ministers requires approval of Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR). The body had fractured on April 12, when a group of members staged an overnight sit-in against Prime Minister Abadi’s slate and the conduct of the Council of Representatives under Speaker Salim al-Juburi.  The group consisted of parliamentarians from many political parties and ultimately claimed a false quorum and enacted legislation. This rump parliament lasted for two weeks, but then disbanded. Some of its members formed a political bloc, called the Reform Front, and launched a legal case to try to preserve some of their rump parliamentary decisions and block some of the ministerial changes underway. The Reform Front is struggling for legitimacy as a legal entity and political power. The crux of the bloc’s legitimacy and its future in the political process has been relegated to the Federal Court to decide. The Federal Court, under longtime Maliki-ally Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud, announced it will hold the first session on May 25 regarding the legitimacy of the legislation passed by the rump CoR on April 14 and the ministerial changes enacted by Prime Minister Abadi on April 26. The Federal Court’s ruling could change the composition and leadership of the Council of Representatives and influence the momentum of Abadi’s reforms.


Iraq’s parliamentary crisis emerged from gridlock over a cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi had announced on February 9 and has tried to execute since then. PM Abadi announced his intent to replace ministers in in Cabinet, which has been a source of patronage for political elites. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr supported the reshuffle and called for the changes to be technocratic, instead of political, appointments. Sadr pressured PM Abadi to present a fully technocratic list by staging a mass sit-in at the entrance of the Green Zone on March 18 and drumming up popular support. The pressure worked and PM Abadi presented a fully technocratic list to the Council of Representatives (CoR) for a vote on March 31. The list was praised by Sadr for its technocratic composition, but other political blocs denounced it due to their lack of input on ministerial candidates. PM Abadi returned the CoR on April 12 and presented a second list which was a compromise of both technocratic and political ministerial candidates. Despite the compromise, political blocs rejected the new list as a partisan attempt to keep the quota system, so it was not put to a vote. When CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi adjourned the session without taking action on the list, several political blocs rejected the delay and demanded an immediate vote. Protesting CoR members, including those from the Sunni Etihad bloc, State of Law Alliance (SLA), the Sadrist-affiliated Ahrar Bloc, the secular Wataniya bloc, and the Kurdish parties, began a sit-in that evening in the CoR building in order to implement reforms.

The sit-in parties demanded the dismissal of the three presidencies, President Fuad Masoum, Prime Minister Abadi, and Speaker Juburi. Members reported on April 13 that they had collection a petition of 171 signatures, which would allow both quorum and absolute majority, required in passing legislation. This was never confirmed and pictures of the list of signatures never seemed to suggest more than 115 signatures, far below the quorum of 165 members. Juburi chaired an emergency CoR meeting the next day on April 13 in accordance with the protesters’ demands in order to discuss the Cabinet reshuffle and quell the protesters’ anger. Sources stated that the meeting met quorum at 174 members. The session, however, quickly descended into chaos after a fight broke out amongst CoR members. Juburi adjourned the meeting until April 14.

The rump CoR formed on April 14 in defiance of Juburi who had arrived to the CoR on April 14, announced that the meeting lacked quorum, and left. The protesters convened their own session, maintaining that the April 13 session remained open and that the quorum reached on April 13 still applied to the session on April 14. Some claimed that the April 14 session also reached 171 CoR members, though later reports stated that it only reached 131 members. The protesters had lost several members overnight, including members from the Kurdish parties and the Etihad bloc. The rump CoR nevertheless claimed they had met quorum and that the actions of April 14 were legal and binding. Under these terms, the protesters voted to dismiss Juburi and replace him with an interim Speaker – Wataniya member and former Baathist Adnan al-Janabi. Janabi adjourned the session until April 16.

However, the rump CoR did not make quorum on April 16, following withdrawals from the Badr Organization, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Etihad. The Kurds had likewise begun withdrawing their support on April 13 and denounced the dismissal of Juburi on April 14. Rump CoR members fell as low as 125 members, far below the quorum threshold of 165 members. The rump CoR lacked the legitimacy to undertake any further legal actions and continued to weaken as an entity which could overtake the legal CoR as the true legislative body.

The Rump CoR Loses Legitimacy

The failure of the rump CoR to meet quorum on April 16 drove the protesters to seek legitimacy from the Shi’a religious establishment. The Shi’a establishment instead rebuked the actions of the rump CoR and called for political agreement, not division. The rump CoR also botched an attempt to gain legitimacy by tricking withdrawn political blocs into returning to a session on April 19, as called for by President Masoum to resolve the split in the CoR. The session made quorum but Juburi failed to appear at the session for unknown reasons. When it was revealed that Juburi would not chair the session and instead the rump CoR was in charge, the Kurdish blocs left in an outrage. The rump CoR claimed that the initial presence in the meeting had met quorum and the meeting was valid, even though the walk-out of several parties left the session far below quorum. The rump CoR suffered another blow when the Ahrar Bloc withdrew from on April 20. As the beacon of technocratic reforms in the April reshuffle process, the Ahrar Bloc had initially provided the rump CoR a stamp of approval of its legitimacy. The absence of the Ahrar Bloc not only further reduced the rump CoR’s numbers far below quorum, but also indicated that the rump CoR could not assume the position of being the “true” CoR and was relegated to a rogue group of CoR members operating outside of the political framework.

The rump CoR continued to fall short of legitimacy and their failure to meet quorum, which they needed in order to operate according to legitimate standards, weakened the rump CoR’s efforts. Even members of the movement saw the continued lack of quorum as a sign of failure and suggested reintegrating into the “legal” CoR.  Meanwhile, the “legal” CoR, chaired by Juburi, made marked success when it convened on April 26 and voted in five new ministers as a part of the Cabinet reshuffle. The rump CoR physically tried to obstruct the vote and claimed that the session lacked quorum, but the vote continued. The success of the CoR to implement reforms in contrast to the weakened rump CoR tarnished the movement and made it clear that the rump CoR would never gain legitimacy next to the legal CoR.

Establishment of the Reform Front

The rump CoR formally ended its sit-in on April 27, moving to form an opposition bloc on April 28. The Reform Front represents the new political bloc under which the members of the now-disbanded rump CoR have organized. ISW assesses that the Reform Front has 84 members, primarily from the Dawa Party and Wataniya bloc. The Reform Front, despite the failure of the rump CoR, continues to maintain that the rump CoR was a legitimate legal body. It maintains that the decisions made in the rump CoR, primarily the dismissal of Juburi, were constitutional and binding. The Reform Front has added to the political stalemate in the CoR by boycotting until Juburi leaves his position and new elections are held. This stance has put the Reform Front at odds with the other political blocs who have rejected the legitimacy of the rump CoR. The Kurdistan Alliance and Etihad have boycotted the CoR as well, but their boycott was the result of the failure to protect CoR members from the April 30 protest which stormed the Green Zone. Ahrar continues to boycott until a technocratic government is installed. Their conditions for return are party-specific, but ultimately hinge on the assumption that Juburi remains as speaker.

Reform Front Composition

The composition of the Reform Bloc currently exists in a two-party polarity between Wataniya members and pro-Maliki members of the Dawa Party, following the withdrawal of the majority of its original participants. This odd alliance between two political rivals, former PM Maliki and his competitor in the 2010 election Ayad Allawi, rests on a similar search for power and influence rather than on common policy objectives. The Reform Front originally claimed to have 98 members on April 28, the majority from Wataniya and Dawa. The Reform Front also boasts a majority of the members from the Dawa in Iraq Party, a party in the SLA but distinct from Maliki’s Dawa Party, as well as several members who have defected from their political blocs.

The Reform Front is not a united front, however, as it has two dynamic leaders within the bloc each vying for control of the Front and the future Iraqi Government.  The pro-Maliki members dominate the Reform Front with an alleged 42 members, and as such Nouri al-Maliki has a strong claim to the bloc as its leader. Maliki had announced his support of the protests in the CoR on April 14, calling the events in the CoR a “mature political movement” in opposition to earlier Green Zone sit-ins that aimed to “bring down the political process.” Maliki denied on April 21 any rumors that he was leading the rump CoR despite the heavy presence of pro-Maliki supporters in the movement. Maliki’s position with the rump CoR offers possible legitimacy to the movement, however his position in Iraqi politics is deeply controversial, and even a deal-breaker, among other political parties and leaders, including Ayad Allawi.

Ayad Allawi joined the rump CoR sit-in himself on April 13 and has operated as a public and vocal spokesman for the Reform Front. Allawi, however, claimed that he has a “fundamental disagreement” with Maliki on May 12, indicating that the Reform Front does not represent a new political party with shared interests but rather a coalition of forces who still answer to their original political affiliations. Allawi and Maliki share a history which will continue to put the two leaders at odds. Allawi’s Wataniya party won the popular elections in 2010, earning the right to the form the government. Allawi was in line to become the next prime minister and replace Maliki, who had held the premiership from 2005. However Maliki persuaded the Federal Court to reword the definition of “largest bloc,” allowing the SLA to gather more political allies in the CoR and reclaim the premiership. Maliki remained Prime Minister and Allawi struggled to remain politically relevant.

The Reform Front made claims of having over 100 members as of May 18. ISW has assessed that the Reform Front has 84 members as of May 19, giving credence to the possibility that the Front does have significant numbers. The Reform Front has attracted most of its members from the SLA, diminishing the latter’s size dramatically. This new configuration would legally make the Reform Front the largest bloc in the CoR, giving it the right to form the government and chose the prime minister. The Reform Front has not yet made claim to this right and the SLA has avowed on May 17 that it still holds the right to the premiership. The weak legitimacy of the Reform Front, however, diminishes its claim to the right to form the government. However, a favorable upcoming ruling from the Federal Court could put the Reform Front in a stronger position as a political bloc in the CoR.

The Federal Court Decides on Legitimacy of Rump CoR

The Federal Court, the highest judicial body in Iraq, will issue a ruling on May 25 regarding the constitutionality of CoR sessions held on April 14 held by the rump CoR and the April 26 session which voted in new ministers under the chairmanship of Speaker Juburi. The court announced on May 12 that it had received six lawsuits regarding the CoR. Three cases regarded the dismissal and replacement of ministers on April 26 and three regarding the constitutionality of two April CoR sessions. The Federal Court announced on May 18 that it would hold the first hearing of those on May 25 in order to rule on the legality of the April 14 and April 26 CoR sessions. A decision regarding the April 14 rump CoR session, during which protesters voted out Juburi, would be a de facto ruling on the legality of Juburi’s position as CoR speaker. A decision regarding the constitutionality of the April 26 will likewise either validate or undermine the future of PM Abadi’s reform program.

Implications of the Court Ruling

A decision regarding the April 14 session will decide whether the actions of the rump CoR were constitutional to dismiss Juburi and elect an interim speaker. The Reform Front has stated it will respect the decision of the Federal Court, however an unfavorable ruling would further diminish the Reform Front’s legitimacy. The Reform Front has maintained that it will not return to the CoR while Salim al-Juburi is speaker. A ruling that established that the rump CoR lacked quorum on April 14 will erase the dismissal of Juburi and eliminate the Reform Front’s leverage over the political process. The Reform Front will need to return the CoR and heed Juburi as speaker or else lose its ability to act as a political party as it has lost its ability to act as political entity following the collapse of the rump CoR.

The decision of the Federal Court on May 25 will affect the decision of other boycotting political parties to return as well. Osama al-Nujaifi, leader of the Mutahidun in the Etihad bloc, announced on May 18 that the party is waiting for the decision of the Federal Court regarding the way forward. The ISCI-affiliated Mowatin bloc likewise announced on May 21 that it is waiting on the decision of the Federal Court “to solve the crisis.” Spokesman for the Mowatain Bloc Habib al-Tarafi stated on May 19 that “the logical and right solution is to wait for a ruling from the Federal Court by resuming CoR sessions again,” and that such court decision will be binding. A judicial ruling could provide the push to break the stalemate in the political process by offering a solid foundation for political blocs to move forward and rebuild the political process.

Likewise, the Federal Court’s ruling on the April 26 session will either add credibility or destroy PM Abadi’s attempts to implement his Cabinet reshuffle. The April 26 CoR session is also under question for reaching quorum, and should the session be found lacking, the decision will set back PM Abadi’s attempts to implement reforms and cost what little momentum he gained from the session. SLA member Jassim Muhammad Jaafar stated that he expected the Federal Court will return the condition of the CoR to what is was before April 26, adding that PM Abadi will be forced to present his new Cabinet again before the session. Jaafar stated that these conditions are “most likely to satisfy both sides” in the CoR, and that he expected the CoR to be unable to hold sessions until after the ruling.

However, it is unclear if all political parties will return to the negotiation table even if the obstacles of the constitutionality of April 14th and 26th are resolved. The issue of legality was only one hurdle for the Reform Front, who may be unwilling to fully cooperate with Juburi as CoR Speaker and may seek new leverage in order to guarantee their return. The Reform Front will continue to seek more members to add to its ranks in order to force the government’s hand into conceding to its demands. The Reform Front will continue to hold the dismissal of Juburi as one of their primarily demands even if the Federal Court rules in favor of his survival. The Reform Front could stall the political process at a time of thawing in political relations, most notably with the announcement that some Kurdish parties will return to Baghdad. The Reform Front sent a delegation to the Kurdistan Region on May 22 to meet with Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani and a delegation from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has not yet announced their return to the CoR. The Reform Front will continue to bid for the KDP’s return to the CoR as a part of the Front. The Reform Front’s growing size and pressure on the government could successfully be used as leverage to achieve its demands through nonconventional means.

The Reform Front has consistently seen that the future of Iraqi politics will be a two-party dynamic between a larger Reform Front and a bloc formed from the current government. Maliki cleverly has a foot in both parties as a prominent leader within the ruling State of Law Alliance and a notable supporter of the Reform Front. Nouri al-Maliki even issued an initiative for political solution on May 23 in which he noted that only he was able to bring the Reform Front back into the fold of the CoR, and that to do so the next CoR session would need to vote on the survival of CoR presidency. If Maliki can successfully reunite the two CoRs, he will cement his position as a leader in the Reform Front and in the future political process. It will also displace Ayad Allawi as leader of the Reform Front.

The Federal Court’s upcoming rulings on May 25 may provide a staging area to resume political dialogue as it can provide a binding resolution to controversial questions. However, beyond May 25, the decisions of the Federal Court will likely prove superficial. The Reform Front is unlikely to renege its demand that Juburi leave its position, if the Federal Court rules in Juburi’s favor, and instead will seek to gain addition leverage over the CoR, likely by courting more political parties, such as the Kurdish parties, to grow its ranks. The ruling can also further complicate the already complex political situation, allowing Maliki the opportunity to work the confusion in his favor and reestablish himself at the forefront of the political scene in Iraq.