Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politician, Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi, was forced to step down. He took three ministers with him, and his Progress Party (Taqadum) announced a boycott of all its activities in parliament.
The highest court in Iraq, the Federal Supreme Court, stripped the 42-year-old politician of his Parliament membership due to fraud. A party colleague had complained that Halbousi had adjusted the date on a resignation letter he had written earlier. That party colleague, incidentally, was also told to leave by the judge.
Halbousi has called the ruling ‘strange’ and ‘a sign of a lack of respect for the constitution.’ He says he will not accept it, but the ruling cannot be challenged. The fact is, the judges could have found much better reasons, as the Sunni parliament speaker is known as a cunning businessman who used his position to enrich himself and his family.
That resignation letter was part of his rule in Parliament; all members of his party had to write one at the beginning of their term. Halbousi is not the only one who uses this ace up his sleeve to keep his party members in line, and that’s why it’s strange that he is now being tripped up by it.
But it is also not so strange, when you know that he has made quite a few enemies. He was a member of the government dominated by Shiite parties, but before that, together with the Kurds he had tried to form a government without them. And with their biggest counterforce, the Shiite cleric-politician Moqtada al-Sadr, who angrily threw in the towel when that formation didn’t materialize.
Among pro-Iranian Shiite militias, distrust of Habousi is so great that his house in Anbar was attacked with rockets. Halbousi worked with the Americans after 2003 and still maintains good relations with them. Last year he declared that a stop had to be put to the transport of weapons and militias between Iraq and Syria – which directly went against the interests of Iran that supplies Hezbollah and Hamas that way.
He was the youngest parliament speaker at 37 years, and is called the most powerful Sunni politician since Saddam. He is the only one who has lasted more than a term as speaker – because he has his connections deep inside the crevices of government and institutions. That doesn’t promote his popularity among Shiites, but probably prevented him from being sent away until now.
At home, in the Anbar province, he also has enemies. As a governor, he managed to build up the province in record time after the terror group ISIS had been expelled. But he is part of a relatively small tribe, and the large tribes think he has drawn too much power to himself. Corruption is widespread, but about Halbousi, there was increasingly the feeling that he took more than his due. Hence also that lawsuit against him, filed by a member of one of those Sunni tribes.
The strange thing about the case is that the Supreme Court also suspended that member of Parliament – because he should never have written that undated resignation letter. If you extend that ruling, you have to wonder how many Sunnis would remain in Parliament. And then there’s the question of why Halbousi was caught on this minor charge, when the evidence for his corruption is much larger. But addressing that would have meant that other, and particularly Shiite, politicians would have been dragged down in his fall.
There is also another charge, which also seems much stronger. Halbousi is accused of collaborating with a company in which the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak plays a role. That company advocates for regional cooperation (‘normalization’). However, there is an Iraqi law that criminalizes all contacts with Israel and Halbousi could be arrested if those ties are proven. The Supreme Court has referred the case to a lower court for further investigation.
Halbousi would not be the first Sunni politician who has to flee from Iraq to escape vengeful lawsuits. The most famous one is Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Vice Prime Minister who was accused in 2011 of ties with Al-Qaeda. When Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant against him, he fled to Turkey. In 2016, Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi was sent away by parliament due to corruption and threatened with arrest. Obeidi was particularly popular in Mosul.
That the court is anything but impartial has also been evident from previous rulings. It recently put a stop to the return to the Kurdish party KDP of its headquarters in Kirkuk, occupied by the Iraqi army. Earlier, it declared the Kurdish Oil Law invalid. That virtually all Shiite parties have armed militias is in violation of the constitution, but the court does not address that.
The dismissal of the most important Sunni politician does not stand alone. A month ago, the Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani decided to redirect funds intended for the reconstruction of Sunni areas after ISIS, to Shiite regions. The recent sacking of the head of the Iraqi anti-terror brigade CTS is also seen in this context, because it worked with the US and is a counter-force to the Shiite militias.
The ruling shows the danger Iraq is in, now that part of the Shiite parties not only rule through politics, but also through the court and their armed militias. And under the influence of neighboring Iran they are trying to sideline their rivals.
The timing seems no coincidence, with the war in Gaza ongoing since a month. Iran is putting heavy pressure on politicians in Iraq to side with it, especially against the US. Pro-Iranian militias have (as part of the so-called Islamic Resistance) carried out dozens of rocket and drone attacks on American troops in Iraq (and Syria) over the past weeks. Those troops are there to train and assist the Iraqi army in the ongoing fight against ISIS. Pro-Iranian Shiite politicians are increasingly calling for their departure.
The question is how long the relatively weak Iraqi Prime Minister can hold out. Sudani knows that economically, Iraq cannot do without the US, especially since the national reserve of the Iraqi Central Bank of 100 billion dollars is secured over there. Moreover, Baghdad needs waivers under US sanctions legislation to be able to buy gas from Iran for its power generation.
The war in Gaza is already dividing Iraq, with the Kurds quietly staying out of it while the pro-Iranian Shiite parties have been hosting members of Hamas in late October. That Mohammed Halbousi as a Speaker called for a summit of Arab parliamentarians to end the violence in Gaza will not have been well received among that latter group. This is their war – which will only be called off when Tehran wants it.
Halbousi’s successor (also a Sunni) already knows one thing for sure. He will only remain Speaker as long as the Shiite parties – driven by Iran – allow it.