DAMASCUS - Iyad Samaraii, a senior commander in the Iraqi Accordance Front, was
voted speaker of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday. The post, allocated to the
Sunnis in the division of power that was effected after 2003, has been vacant
since Mahmud Mashadani stepped down last December.
Theoretically, Samaraii now shares power with the Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki and the Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. In reality, due to
deliberate marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis since 2003, the post of speaker has
been nothing but ceremonial.
Samaraii's Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, holds 44
seats while the Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) has 128. Samaraii won
with 153 votes - meaning he
was able to win the votes of other Sunni blocs and smaller Shi'ite ones - while
his opponent Mustapha al-Hitti (representing the National Dialogue Front, which
holds 11 seats) got only 34 votes. Forty-five of the 275 deputies submitted
Depending on who one asks in Iraq, there are different views of the new
speaker. By all accounts, he is a conservative man, inclined towards radical
political Islam. Born in an old Sunni neighborhood in 1946, he studied
mechanical engineering at Baghdad University and became involved in the Islamic
underground in the 1960s, working against then-president Ahmad Hasan al-Baker.
He worked in the civil service in the 1970s and fled Iraq in 1980, to openly
rebel against the Iraqi president. His first destination was Jordan, then Great
Britain, where he rose to fame as a loud opponent and member of the Iraqi
Islamic Party, which was born out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Arab audiences became more familiar with him in the 1990s, when he appeared on
satellite TV to speak against Saddam Hussein, in preparation for the 2003
invasion. He was appointed to the US-backed Follow-up and Arrangement
Committee, which included current politicians like Ahmad Chalabi, and former
prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Ordinary Iraqis accused all of them of having been on the payroll of the US
Central Intelligence Agency, which explains why in light of Sunni anger at the
post-2003 order, Samaraii distanced himself from staunchly pro-American leaders
and became increasingly critical of the US occupation.
Samaraii is not too fond of either the Americans or the Iranians, preferring an
alliance with countries like Jordan, which hosted him for some time in the
1980s, and Saudi Arabia. When younger, he dreamt of establishing a theocracy in
Iraq - dreams that evaporated with wisdom of age, and changing demographics
after the 2003 invasion.
He speaks a language that his constituency wants to hear, calling for a greater
say for Sunnis in the decision-making process, a general amnesty setting
thousands of Sunni activists free, and a clampdown on Shi'ite militias, like
the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army.
As secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is headed by current
Vice President Tarek Hashemi, he is dismayed by the diminishing role Sunnis
have played since Maliki came to power in 2006 and has always called on the
prime minister to make sweeping changes in the political system - calls that to
date have fallen on deaf ears. Samaraii and his Islamic colleagues, however,
find themselves today in a dilemma.
Although they hated Saddam and worked in the underground to bring him down for
decades, they cannot but stand up in defense of Ba'athists - languishing in
American jails - or standing in the shadow of the hangman's noose. The more
these Ba'athists are persecuted, the more they are admired at a grassroots
level, living up to the old saying: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Since
running for parliament in 2005, Samaraii has had to stand as a Sunni
politician, speaking what the Sunni street wants to hear.
Clearly from the 2009 provincial elections, nobody in the Sunni community
wanted leaders who promised to bring a theocracy to Baghdad. They wanted people
who could bring clean waters to their homes, better security, higher salaries
and finer hospitals. All politicians - both Sunni and Shi'ite, with Maliki
included - had to speak a new language during these elections, sounding
increasingly secular in their political programs. Samaraii's rhetoric has
somewhat softened in recent months, but he remains committed to what the Sunnis
want - even if not all their demands are in tune with what he believes.
Reports from Baghdad say that Maliki is not too pleased at the election of
Samaraii, afraid that the Accordance Front was pushing for a no-confidence vote
to bring him down from within parliament.
Apparently, behind-the-scene diplomacy - and force - were used by the prime
minister to drown Samaraii's election since January. Another report says that
although Maliki had indeed tried to wreck Samaraii's candidacy, he nevertheless
said yes - at the final hour - because he reasoned that Samaraii was a man who
he could work with, despite the latter's gross criticism of both Iran and the
Accepting the new speaker will cost Maliki nothing, and might even mend broken
fences between him and the Sunnis. Similar reports coming out of Iraq say that
the prime minister is planning an all-out offensive against the Sunni-packed
Awakening Councils, and needs Sunni cover when doing so, so it won't be seen as
a Sunni-Shi'ite war.
Nothing gives him the umbrella better than the new speaker Samaraii, and his
boss, Vice President Hashemi.