The upcoming Iraqi National Conference

Hey, did you know the Iraqis are about to hold a National Conference of 1,000 delegates to choose the 100 members of the interim Iraqi parliament? Not many in the western press seemed to notice, either. (Note the same AP story from Jamie Tarabay shows up five out of 10 stories, so dupes don’t count.) Robin Wright of the _Washington Post_ has a good story, too.
[UPDATE 28-July: Now they’re taking notice.]
But that matches my experience on the ground. While the media buzz about Afghanistan’s loya jirga seemed quite lively, I’ve not heard much interest among reporters here about the conference, which will, in essence, select the legislative branch of the Iraqi Interim Government. As Jamie says:

The conference was stipulated by a law enacted by the departing U.S. civil administration last month. Made up of delegates from Iraq’s 18 provinces as well as tribal, religious and political leaders, the gathering will choose 80 of its delegates to join a 100-member national assembly. The remaining members will come from the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council.
The assembly will have the power to approve the national budget, veto executive orders with a two-thirds majority and appoint replacements to the Cabinet in the event a minister dies or resigns.

And there are a lot of problems already, thanks in part to the fact that 19 or 20 (I’ve heard two numbers) of the seats are already apportioned to the former members of the old Governing Council. Yes, that means Ahmed Chalabi might be a parliamentarian, as well as the PUK’s Jalal Talabani and the KDP’s Massoud Barzani. If the heads of the parties decided to take the seats reserved for them, that should make for some interesting floor debates!
Interestingly, I was talking with my friend Sayyid Ayad Jumaluddin last night, and he said the Chalabi had not participated in any meetings leading up to the conference — which will be this week, but for security reasons the specific time and place have not been announced. Nor had anyone from the Iraqi National Congress sent any delegates to the National High Committee, a body that has been laying the groundwork for the conference. As Wright says:

Chalabi has been mobilizing a new Shiite bloc that includes supporters of rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr. Chalabi’s goal is to win a seat and ultimately become leader of the council to be formed at the conference, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.

We’ll see. But right now, I think this puts Chalabi in the same rejectionist category as Sheikh Dr. Harith al-Dhari, the head of the Islamic Cleric’s Association and imam of the Mother of All Villages mosque. (Formerly Mother of All Battles mosque.)
I’ve spoken with al-Dhari and he rejected the whole idea of the interim government, as established by the TAL, as illegitimate. And Jamie quotes him as saying, “We decided not to take part in any political organization as long as the occupation exists in Iraq.” If, by occupation, he means the presence of any U.S. troops in Iraq, he’s going to be in the political wilderness for a long time. Just as well, as stories swirl about him darkly that he’s somehow connected with the hostage taking. A lot of foreign dignitaries come to him as their go-to guy on getting their nationals released although he claims no connection with kidnappers. Needless to say, his protests of innocence are met with skepticism.
On the other end of the religious spectrum, Moqtada al-Sadr’s organization has pointedly not been invited, Jumaluddin said, because of the arrest warrant hanging over his head. But subgroups of Sadr supporters have been invited and may eventually take part. The conference’s organizers, of which Jumaluddin is one, are waiting to hear from them.
But this conference should be fun to cover. It will be like an old-fashioned presidential convention, complete with smoke-filled back-rooms and arm-twisting. Expect a fair amount of political skullduggery and coalition building. Groups such as the Islamic Dawa Party (Hizb’dawa), SCIRI and the Iraqi Islamic Party can be expected to make a religious coalition while the KDP, PUK and INC will be a secular bloc. Further complicating matters is interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s party, the Iraqi National Accord, which has a long rivalry with the INC. Look for some fireworks between those groups as Chalabi’s minions — assuming they show up — try to undermine the INA and weaken Allawi before the parliament ever convenes. Anything to make Allawi look ineffectual strengthens potential challengers’ hands for the elections in January — and you know who (*cough* Chalabi *cough, cough*) will definitely be looking to fill Allawi’s chair next year.
But more grandly, the secular/liberal and the religious/conservative blocs will be the centers of power in Iraqi politics for some time to come, so watch the coalition building start now.
Jaime lists a lot of problems this week’s conference, including security, squabbling over how delegations from the provinces are picked and just general inexperience with democracy. Jumaluddin cautioned that the established parties, such as SCIRI, the INC and others with long experience opposing Saddam Hussein with have a real advantage over the newly formed local parties and independent candidates. They know how to cut deals, politick — and they’re well financed. The problem, however, is that they represent, in total, only about 20 percent of Iraqis (Not counting the Kurdish parties.) That means the majority of non-Kurd Iraqis are up for grabs — for parties that have no idea how to campaign or operate in a legislative body. I can barely imagine the outrage that will occur when some fledgling party gets its lunch handed to it by, say, Hizb’dawa, after the smaller party trades its votes on some key issue only to get screwed because its representatives didn’t understand the details of the bargain.
Jumaluddin also warned of stealth candidates. As in the United States, where a candidate — for example — runs as a moderate Republican but when elected turns out to be deeply conservative, some members of this week’s conference will attempt to push forward “independent” candidates in the interest of “representation.” These ostensibly independent candidates will be anything but. They will be cats’ paws for the major parties and can be expected to vote reliably with their patrons.
“Iraqis don’t know what democracy is,” said Jumaluddin as he chewed on a truly magnificent Cohiba. Then he told me a joke: An old woman asks her son, “What is this democracy I hear so much about? What does it mean?” Her son tells her that every four years there will be a new president. “Isn’t that wonderful, umma?” The old woman thinks about that for a moment, and then asks, “Does that mean every four years there will be looting and fighting?”
The Iraqis have an odd sense of humor.
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One Comment on “The upcoming Iraqi National Conference”

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