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IRAQ: Parliament elects a controversial Sunni speaker who riles Kurds

December 3, 2010 |  7:39 am

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Osama Nujeifi, a leading but controversial figure in the Iraqiya coalition, was elected speaker of the Council of Representatives last month with 227 of 295 votes. His election marked a first step in implementing an agreement that ended an eight-month deadlock in Iraq. The agreement gave Iraqiya the position of speaker of parliament, the National Alliance the position of prime minister — thereby leaving Nouri Maliki in office — and the Kurdish alliance the presidency, ensuring the return of Jalal Talabani.

Carnegie logo The choice of Nujeifi as the Iraqiya candidate for the speaker’s position is not surprising: In the April elections, he garnered 275,000 votes — only Maliki and Ayad Allawi received more. But the choice is likely to prove controversial among Kurds.

Nujeifi and his brother Atheel Nujeifi, the governor of Nineveh province, are considered Arab nationalists and have long rejected Kurdish claims over Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh. Their outspoken views — as well as similar stances of other players within Iraqiya — were a key obstacle to the formation of an alliance between Iraqiya and the Kurdish parties that could have created an alternative to a State of Law government.

Nujeifi has made many statements bound to anger the Kurds. Previously, as a member of parliament, he accused Kurdish militias of driving people out of their residences in some areas in Mosul, a statement that spurred a Kurdish walkout from parliament and forced Iraqiya to issue an apology and distance itself from Nujeifi’s charges. In early 2010, the Kurds even threatened to sue Nujeifi for stating that Kurds do not belong to the Iraqi entity — which some Kurdish members of parliament saw as a violation of the constitution and a call for ethnic cleansing.

In addition, he claimed Maliki had shown him documents proving the Kurds were trying to frighten Christians into leaving Mosul. Maliki’s spokesperson, Ali Dabbagh, promptly denied any such conversation. And when Allawi traveled to the Kurdish capital Eribil in March to discuss forming a government, Nujeifi tried to distance himself from the initiative, declaring that Allawi only represented his own National Accord party, not the entire Iraqiya.

Recently, however, Nujeifi has tried to improve his relationship with Kurdish leaders. He has toned down his rhetoric, called for dialogue, and in late October visited Erbil — his first trip to Kurdistan. However, the outstanding issues that separate his position from the Kurds’ were apparently not discussed, let alone solved. These steps have not been enough to quiet Kurdish concerns: When the Council of Representatives voted for speaker, many Kurdish lawmakers reportedly did not cast their ballots for Nujeifi.

After his election as speaker, Nujeifi has attempted to recast himself as a serious statesman who stands above the political fray and will control the parliament in a professional manner. He has declared that he no longer represents Iraqiya — although the position was given to Iraqiya as part of a power-sharing deal negotiated among the main parties. He has also called for penalizing lawmakers who fail to participate in parliamentary sessions and pressed for the sessions to be televised. Despite these actions, it remains to be seen whether he can live down the controversies surrounding him.

-- Marina Ottaway and Danial Kaysi in Washington

Photo: Osama al-Nujeifi, center, the elected parliament speaker, speaks to lawmakers in Baghdad on Nov. 11. Credit: Karim Kadim/Associated Press

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