Inside Iraqi politics – Part 3. Examining the legislative branch


The first two installments of The Long War Journal’s series on Iraqi politics examined the structure, challenges, and progress of the executive branch. This installment looks at the legislative branch.

Understanding the constitutional structure and current composition of Iraq’s legislative branch is a prerequisite to analyzing the much-maligned progress of key legislation. As with the executive, the political diversity of Iraq’s legislature presents many significant challenges and a few opportunities to meeting the legislative benchmarks considered important to stability and reconciliation.

The structure and function of the Iraqi legislature

Iraq’s Constitution ostensibly vests legislative power in two entities: the Federation Council and the Council of Representatives, or COR. The nonexistent Federation Council is vaguely outlined as a body of representatives from various regions, but its exact authority and makeup remain open issues to be determined by the COR. The COR is Iraq’s functioning parliament, consisting of 275 elected officials who oversee the executive branch, pass laws, ratify treaties, and approve the nominations of government officials.

Elected in December 2005 and having first met on March 16, 2006, parliament members also elect Iraq’s president, who in turn appoints the prime minister from the majority political coalition within the COR. The body is supposed to meet for two four-month sessions per year with two-month breaks in January-February and July-August, though this schedule has been altered as needed when members have failed to meet legislative deadlines. The COR is currently in one of these special sessions because its members failed to pass the 2008 budget at the close of 2007. A minimum of 138 members is required for quorum, though the parliament can continue to function with less if the previous legislative session was never closed. Poor attendance has been a problem in regular sessions.

“On any given day, about 100, sometimes fewer, sometimes more members are absent,” said a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. “The speaker and   even more strongly, the first deputy speaker, have made the point that the members should attend and that it’s their responsibility. However, it remains the case that many members do not attend.”

While many members miss sessions, “real” political agreements are often brokered outside of official COR debate, spurring sufficient participation when issues come to a vote. This paradigm is similar to how the US Congress works, though Iraq’s parliament has a greater degree of absenteeism.

“When there’s an important vote and once the political agreements done behind the scenes have been accomplished, what usually happens is the membership will come together and the bloc leaders are able to pull enough people in so that a vote can take place,” said the diplomat. “When push comes to shove, [they] can be gathered together.”

Laws can be created in two ways: initiated by the executive branch and passed to the COR for debate and ratification, or initiated by the COR, passed to the components of the executive, and then bounced back through the parliament. Typically, bills are drafted by the prime minister’s office, then debated and approved by the Council of Ministers – a body within the executive branch consisting of about 40 of the heads of Iraqi ministries – then moved on for debate, revision, potential judicial review, and approval by the parliament.

After majority approval by parliament, bills are presented to the Presidency Council – the president and two vice presidents – who can sign it into law or veto the legislation. Once signed, the proposed legislation becomes law after it is published in the official government gazette, a summary of parliamentary action. This extended debate process – spanning fractious deliberative bodies in both the executive branch (the 40-member Council of Ministers) and the legislative branch (the 275-member COR) – demands a level of coordination difficult for Iraq’s politically diverse government and prohibits speedy passage of legislation.

“The lack of coordination and cohesion between the executive and the legislature   is a particular problem that has to be solved in order to make the kind of political progress that this country needs,” said the Western diplomat. “And there are people working very hard to get that political cooperation. It’s not easy, but I think things are headed in that direction. There are some signs of the urgency, the need for political leadership by the prime minister and the Council of Ministers.”

“[It’s] very difficult for a democratic body of legislators – let alone an executive branch with a ministerial group that’s a mixed and fractious coalition – to come to agreement on key things,” said Phil Reeker, Counselor for Public Affairs at the State Department. Reeker noted that democratic processes familiar to Westerners are brand new to Iraqis, who have also been struggling to learn how to govern in the midst of extreme violence.

“Now, with better security, you do have a little less trouble at least getting to parliament and focusing on passing legislation,” said Reeker.

As there are no plans to alter the structure of the government under the Iraqi Constitution, most US officials believe that stronger leadership from the prime minister’s office, enhanced communication between the legislative and executive branches, and encouragement by US advisers are the best bets for moving legislation forward. As a benefit, the government’s decentralized structure has successfully forced Iraq’s various religious and ethnic sects to interact and form political coalitions, even as it has significantly delayed agreement on key proposals.

The 275 member Iraqi parliament is divided among a wide variety of political blocs, most of which are in turn composed of various parties. Click image to view.

A whirling political kaleidoscope

Iraq’s parliament is composed of political blocs made up of various parties that reflect the demographic diversity of the country.

The speaker of the COR is Mahmoud Mashadani, who is with the largest Sunni bloc. First Deputy Speaker Sheikh Khalid al Attiya is an independent within the largest Shia bloc, and Second Deputy Speaker Arif Tayfur is a member of the main Kurdish bloc. The sectarian groupings are reflected in the leadership as well as the composition of the COR itself. The membership changes frequently because of resignations or political moves, and various US officials can offer only approximate numbers for the distribution of political parties and blocs within parliament.

The largest political bloc is the United Iraq Alliance (UIA), a primarily Shia group that currently holds about 85 seats. The UIA is dominated by two better-known political parties: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.

Some analysts consider the conservative Shia ISCI an Iranian proxy, others see it as a US ally, and all regard it as the major competitor to the Sadrists in southern Iraq. Recent platform changes by ISCI have stressed nationalism and distanced the party from Iran, including a politically loaded name change and pledge to seek guidance from Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, as opposed to a previous focus on Velayat-e-Faqih, a school of Shiite governance led by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Analysts debate the motivation behind the changes – some argue they earnestly reflect the Iraqi nationalism and anti-Persian sentiment among ISCI’s constituency, while others suggest the shift has been executed with Tehran’s practical blessing. In any case, the new platform generally advances the concept of nationalism, which could enable reconciliation.

The Islamic Dawa Party is a conservative Shia Islamist party that had been outlawed by the previous regime and its members sentenced to death by Saddam Hussein. Dawa also has ties to Iran, a relationship historically characterized by the party’s previous support of the Iranian revolution and Tehran’s welcome of exiled Dawa leaders and backing of their insurgency against Hussein. But the relationship is complex; party leadership moved from Iran to London in the late eighties, and Dawa officials have been involved in forging ties to both the US and emerging Sunni leadership. These moves include recent negotiations regarding a long-term security and economic agreement with the US, the legal authorization for continued US military presence in Iraq, the government’s adoption of grassroots Sunni security forces, and an increased distribution of reconstruction funds to the predominantly Sunni Anbar province.

Another large Shia group of about 28 seats is held by the Sadrist Movement led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the son of legendary deceased cleric Mohammad Sadeq al Sadr. The younger Sadr has very close ties to Tehran, characterized by his flight to Iran at the start of the US military “surge” in February 2007. And in contrast to ISCI’s moves away from Iranian influence, Sadr is studying to become a cleric under Khamenei’s Velayat-e-Faqih. The larger Sadrist Movement is a loose confederation of elements not completely under al Sadr’s control, some of which were complicit in past sectarian cleansing, others which are more moderate. The party was a part of the ruling United Iraq Alliance, and hence the executive government, until members walked out of both in an April 2007 protest over government plans to forge a lasting security agreement with the US. Some Iraqi and US officials believe that the cohesion and influence of the Sadrist Movement is waning, as the militias associated with them become less popular, and as Sadrist ministers individually negotiate returns to the government without Muqtada al Sadr’s blessing. Another notable Shia party is the Islamic Virtue Party (IVP), which holds 15 seats. The IVP is considered a branch of Sadrism because it follows the teachings of Mohammad Sadeq al Sadr, but nevertheless could be considered a competitor to those who follow his son. The IVP also withdrew from the ruling bloc in protest over a continued US presence in Iraq.

These entities – the UIA bloc containing ISCI and Dawa, the Sadrists, and the Islamic Virtue Party – constitute “the basic building blocks among the Shias,” according to the Western diplomat.

The Kurds are largely grouped in the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan (DPAK), considered the most unified voting bloc in the COR. The DPAK consists of 53 members primarily drawn from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The bloc is closely allied with US interests, though its members are strong advocates of weak federalism, and sometimes make independent moves that seem to conflict with Iraqi nationalism. Independent or otherwise affiliated Kurds hold another five or six seats outside of the DPAK.

The current major Sunni bloc is called the Tawaffuk or Iraqi National Accord Front, which holds about 40 seats and is composed of three parties: the General Council for the People of Iraq (GCPI), the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), and the Iraqi National Dialogue Council (INDC). Tawaffuk’s platform is anti-Iranian and pro-Sunni, though its parties are not considered widely representative of Iraq’s larger Sunni population by some American officials, because many Sunni leaders sat out of national elections.

The Sunni bloc is led by Ayad al Samarrai of the IIP, and its former chairman is the controversial Adnan al Dulaymi of the GCPI, who is widely believed to be involved in insurgency and sectarian violence. Terrorism charges against Dulaymi have spurred several US and Iraqi raids on his offices over the past two years and calls by other members of parliament for his prosecution. Last December, Dulaymi’s son and many of his bodyguards were detained in connection with the manufacture of car bombs, which “provoked issues within both Tawaffuk and   a great deal of controversy and some significant time within the COR,” said the Western diplomat. “Several days running were spent talking about his issues within the COR debate.” Dulaymi, who has survived several assassination attempts, has thus far avoided prosecution because rivals fear a backlash against his arrest.

In addition, Tawaffuk’s Mahmoud Mashadani was briefly suspended as the Speaker of the COR in June 2007 because of his divisive politics, frequent violent outbursts, and use of bodyguards to physically intimidate and even attack other members of parliament. A frequent critic of US forces, Mashadani retained his position after the Tawaffuk bloc boycotted the government to win his reinstatement. Initially part of the ruling government coalition, the bloc’s five ministers also quit Maliki’s cabinet last August over perceived dominance by the Shia and Kurdish parties, but Tawaffuk is currently negotiating their return.

Overall, the distribution of sectarian-based political affiliations in the COR is about 45 percent Shia, 20 percent Kurdish, and 15 percent Sunni Arab, roughly reflecting the proportion of the three major ethnicities and sects in larger Iraqi society. The remaining 20 percent – approximately 54 seats – are divided between Shia and Sunnis who are explicit secularists, independents, and minority representatives, including Yazidis, Chabeks, and Assyrians. The most significant political bloc among this group is the Iraqi National List (INL), which holds about 25 seats. The INL is a hodge-podge of political ideologies and sects aligned as a secular alternative to sectarian-based coalitions, and it is dominated by the Iraqi National Accord (INA) party. The pro-American INA is headed by Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister in 2004-2005. Founded in 1990 under a charter of overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein, the INA is considered a moderate party; many Sunnis regarded the Shia Allawi as an acceptably nonsectarian prime minister.

The important wrinkle in Sunni representation

Change wrought by the Anbar tribal Awakening is a vital component of evaluating the interest and intent of Iraq’s Sunnis, as well as possibilities for Iraqi federalism and long-term reconciliation. The current Sunni representatives in parliament are “minimally” representative of the wider Sunni population because most Sunni leaders and tribal structures boycotted the last national elections, according to various US military and intelligence officials.

“Because most Sunnis boycotted those elections, IIP was able to sweep the field,” said a US intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity. “But despite being the Sunni voice in Baghdad, they have been completely unable to prevent either the anti-Sunni pogroms in Baghdad or the rise of al-Qaeda in the Sunni provinces.”

Provincial elections that are scheduled to take place in October and subsequent national elections in late 2009 will be important, as they will give Sunnis with the popular and US-allied Sahawa al Iraq, or Iraqi Awakening, official status within the government. This will officially establish their de facto influence, codifying both Sunni rejection of insurgency and lasting status within larger Iraqi society.

“While a number of the sheikhs are skeptical about the prospects for democracy in Iraq, as a general rule they are more than happy to consolidate the practical power they already wield through democratic means,” said the US intelligence official. “The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) and its Tawaffuk Front coalition partners recognize the amount of popular support that Sahawa al Iraq has, and have done everything in their power to stall local elections until they can find a way to … retain their current power.”

Some US officials argue that the emergent Sunni leaders are predisposed to reconcile and realistic about their new role in Iraq society.

“[Reconciliation] would just be letting them come back and be the minority they are and now recognize themselves to be,” said Stanton. “Because being a minority doesn’t mean you’re powerless in this parliamentary system, because the Shia are fairly fractured and there will be Shia from time-to-time who will caucus with the Sunnis and Kurds to make deals.”

Sectarianism and diverse representation: crippling or workable?

While the media has focused on a narrative of unrelenting sectarianism as the cause of the COR’s inertia on passing legislation, many American officials believe this view ignores some context, including the decentralized design of the government under the Iraqi constitution and a lack of experience with democracy among Iraqi officials.

“[Sectarianism] is clearly an element; political parties are formed along sectarian lines and political blocs, too,” said Reeker. “That’s not uncommon in countries all over the world. That does not have to be a recipe for disaster. What it means is finding the mechanisms under the constitution they have to get through those things and do what it takes to govern, so that all the parties in government and the citizenry can feel secure and comfortable.”

And despite the splintered character of the country’s political and demographic makeup, as well as the enhanced sectarianism that flared during the bloody conflict in 2006, both Americans and Iraqis are quick to describe the existence of a strong nationalistic sentiment in Iraq.

“There’s a sort of nationalism in Iraq that frankly people don’t realize,” said Reeker. “Sectarianism is not as etched or hard-wired into the society here   as people think based on what was absolutely brutal, horrific sectarian violence   after the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006. If you look back in history, Iraq was a place where the Sunnis and Shia mixed, it was a place where there was a certain strong Arab nationalism. So [reconciliation is] something they have to keep working. They have these very difficult debates, but they have found certain mechanisms   to get some of this done, whether it’s passing budgets, executing them, getting money moved out to the provinces.”

With improved security, only time will reveal if such nationalism will result in sufficient accord within the Iraqi legislature. Many US officials shun the term “reconciliation” in favor of “accommodation,” given the difficult diversity of Iraq’s sects, ethnicities, and interests.

The next installment of The Long War Journal’s series on Iraqi politics will discuss the status of specific pieces of legislation considered important for stability and reconciliation.


  • Marlin says:

    Bill –
    Wretchard writes:

    The impasse in Baghdad is partly the result of a logjam of sectarian interests. There are also a fair number of politicians, who because of the sectarian nature of the coalitions, are stooges of Teheran. A new election law could sweep the logjam away in a flood, with the stooges in the bargain. Electoral reform is supremely important for long term success. It is the linchpin of “reconciliation”.

    Do you agree that the new provincial election law just passed by the Iraqi Parliament today could have this kind of effect?
    The Belmont Club: The key to Iraqi reconciliation

  • Bill A says:

    I think Wretchard makes a very relevant point, but do not necessarily know for sure whether it will have the scope he’s suggesting. Here’s why:
    1. The new law(s) relate to provincial elections, and the brands of Iranian stooge that can do the most to harm stability and reconciliation are in the national government.
    2. From what I understand, the law is vague about whether each election will still be a closed party list or whether they’ll vote for specific candidates; the provinces are supposed to work it out individually with the UN. So we might see more of the same in some areas, especially if/where they can’t get a census together by October, which is complicated by a lot of population shifts because of displaced persons.
    3. Even if it is not a closed list, a lot of the same people will get to power who have de facto power anyway, such as SIIC guys in the south and Awakening folks in the West. The specific candidate version will have more implications if and when it gets to the national level.
    But he makes a good point, depending on how this plays out and is executed, and if modifications influence national elections in 2009.
    I think this is more huge news because it shows that folks in the COR are willing to let the new Sunni leadership into government, as well as decentralize governance to the sort of weak federalism that Thomas Jefferson might get a kick out of, and that will actually get things done like sorely needed reconstruction.

  • Hamidreza says:

    Thanks for the valuable analysis Bill.

  • Bill A says:

    No problem. BTW, I’m trying to get a copy of the law itself which will shed light on both the specificity of elections and the distribution of power (federal/provincial). I’ll know more then.

  • Kirk Sowell says:

    Thanks for treating this issue. This is a lot better than most analysis of Iraqi politics in the English-language media. But I have a few points to add –

    – The formal English name for Hakim’s party is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, not SIIC. They came out with a clarification on the English name when they realized the connotations SIIC had in English. For details, see the Int’l Crisis Group study on the Supreme Council.

    – Sadr has 30 seats, not 28. He has 28 on the UIA list, but the two members of the Risaliun list are also Sadrists. (I know, WaPo has made the same mistake.)

    – I believe that the Islamic Virtue Party – more commonly just called the Fadhila Party – left the UIA not over US forces but their marginalization inside the UIA by Hakim, and Hakim’s attempt to throw them out of power in Basra. Fadhila is anti-US, but this is not the reason they left.

    – In re to Dawa: remember that the 25 Dawa seats are split between the “mainline” Dawa to which Maliki belongs and the 13-seat Dawa Party – Organization of Iraq led by Abu Karim Anzi. The latter has not formally left the UIA, but is not supporting Maliki in parliament. Also, the 12 members of Maliki’s Dawa faction are split between him and Ibrahim Jaafari, who is trying to throw Maliki out of party leadership.

    – The Iraqi Accord Front (al-jibhat al-tuwaffuk) had 44 seats until a couple weeks ago when nine independent Sunnis left to join Salih Mutlaq’s Iraqi Dialogue Front. That leaves Accord with 35 (your translation, “Concord”, is better for “wifaq”, the name of Iyad Allawi’s Wifaq Party, which leads the Iraqi list).

    – You are right on in regard to the conflict between the Awakening forces and the Accord Front, especially Tariq Hashemi’s Islamic Party. They hate Hashemi. This is why Accord will not support new elections, and keeps trying to negotiate their way back into the Maliki government, although it has met few of their demands.

    – I also agree with Bill’s comment on the provincial elections, except to add that the results could be very different this time because Sadr boycotted the provincial elections before, and Yaqubi has been activitly courting the tribes, so Fadhila could be a force there as well. Also, Allawi’s Wifaq Party could be a force given the widespread tribal resentment at Hakim’s Supreme Council.

  • Bill A says:

    Kirk –
    Thanks for the feedback. A few things:
    You are correct about the Dawa split, and I should have noted the division. If I recall correctly, the Dawa Iraq Organization leadership fled to Lebanon and Syria as opposed to Iran. I’ll add a succinct update.
    My sources say Fadhila left because of US involvement, but you could be right. I’d love to see any third party material on this, if you have a link.
    Those points aside, the remaining proportions of seats in the piece were obtained from the Iraqi government and State Department diplomats working with the COR, who cautioned that they were approximate because of the constant shifts (this is disclaimed in the piece). Best information available at publication.
    Thanks for the comment, very helpful.

  • Kirk Sowell says:

    I think you did an excellent job with this piece if you are relying on English-sources only, which was my impression. You can get more precise seat totals from the Iraqi parliament website (, but the English version doesn’t have the lists. And even the Arabic lists occasionally conflict with what is reported in the Arab media (esp. in re to the UIA). As you note, they do shift from time to time, but the lists on the parliament website match media reports about 95% of the time.
    Yes, Dawa Org. Iraq went to Syria rather than Iran.
    The presence of US forces was an issue for Fadhila, but Yaqubi’s main fight is with Hakim, not the US. I reach that conclusion from reading Yaqubi’s speeches and Arab media reports . I haven’t seen this reported well anywhere in English. Most Arab newspapers don’t have archives, and right now al-Hayat’s (the best source) is down, so I don’t have anything that is readily accessible link-wise.

  • DubiousD says:

    Thanks again, Bill, for helping us make some sense of Iraqi politics.
    In a future post, could you possibly summarize the many political “benchmarks” we keep hearing about? Are the goals being met? Are they reliable barometers of political progress?

  • Bill A says:

    Some have been addressed in this piece (i.e. Establish minority rights in Iraqi legislature: met) and the previous installments of this series, though not explicitly in relation to the 18 benchmarks. Those related to legislation will be addressed in the next/last installment, as well as some information on how realistic they are. Not sure if I’ll lay out the 18 explicitly, though that might make a good graphic.

  • KnightHawk says:

    An excellent series thank you laying this all out, and doing so in an easily digestible form.


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