Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Politics in Iraq is not the art of the possible. Rather, Iraqi politics is closer to the art of the impossible, an all-or-nothing game that offers players the chance to either reach the pinnacle of political power, or see their ambitions totally crushed.
Since the establishment of the modern state by King Faisal I in 1921, Iraq has witnessed three distinct eras. The first of these was the Iraqi monarchy (1921-1958) which was dominated by seven-time prime minister Nuri Al-Said.
This was followed by the first Iraqi republic (1958-2003) which was completely dominated by Saddam Hussein after the Ba’th Party seized power. We are now in the midst of the second Iraqi republic, in which no single individual or group stands out. This era is characterized by one interesting phenomenon, namely that it seems to produce two kinds of political leaders.
The first kind were those who were quick to ride in on the backs of American tanks, but soon found themselves marginalized. The best example of this would be Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. Then there are those who played no prominent role in the opposition during the Saddam-era but arrived on the political scene in post-invasion Iraq to exploit the power vacuum. Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki is just one such figure.
Finally, there’s a man who is in a class of his own. He was involved in the Arabian horse trade during the Saddam-era, but he had no relationship with the former regime except when it passed laws affecting wealthy land-owners. That man is Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi.
The scion of a prominent Mosul family, Nujaifi didn’t face any difficulties in entering the post-2003 Iraqi political arena. Fate, tribalism, or sectarianism drove many Iraqi nationals to seek a role in politics following the US invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein. However in the case of Nujaifi, his family’s legacy and his personal charisma—after two parliamentary terms and a stint as Minister of Industry—secured him the reputation of being one of the most complex figures on the Iraqi political scene.
Nujaifi became Iraqi parliamentary speaker in 2010, and he now appears as a strong future presidential prospect should this symbolic but important position fall into the hands of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. The post of president is currently held by Jalal Talabani—a Kurd—who remains in Germany for medical treatment after suffering a stroke last year.
Nujaifi is considered one of the most prominent leaders of the Iraqiya bloc headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. The bloc also includes other prominent Sunni Arab politicians such as Saleh Al-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and Tariq Al-Hashimi, Iraq’s fugitive vice president. In the last provincial council elections, the Iraqiya bloc fragmented into smaller groups and organizations, and while the coalition still exists today, it is not as internally unified as in the past.
Osama Al-Nujaifi is himself a founding member and leader of the Motahedoun (United) coalition, which many view as the heir apparent of the embattled Iraqiya bloc, which has lost significant political ground in recent years.
Nujaifi’s politics are controversial. Although he reconciled with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, he remains a strong rival. While during a recent visit to Iran, he attended the funeral of the mother of Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Suleimani, of course, has come under heavy criticism from within the Iraqiya bloc for the allegedly activity of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) within Iraq. The Iraqi parliamentary speaker has now emerged as the Iraqiya bloc’s strongest figure following Hashimi’s trial and conviction in absentia, and a general decline in the popularity of Mutlaq, Allawi, and Rafie Al-Issawi, with many speculating that he could emerge as a presidential contender.
Nujaifi’s family legacy is one of both politics and commerce. His grandfather, Muhammad Al-Nujaifi, was a member of parliament during the monarchist era, while his father also served as an Iraqi parliamentarian during this period. The Nujaifi family remained out of politics during the rule of Saddam Hussein, returning to the scene following his ouster.
Osama and his brother Atheel—the current governor of Nineveh—started out in commerce, particularly the Arabian horse trade. Following the US invasion and the toppling of Saddam, Osama Al-Nujaifi entered the political arena, gaining some early attention for his involvement in a quarrel with Iraq’s Kurds concerning the ethnic identity of Mosul. Indeed, the quarrel between Nujaifi and Iraq’s Kurdish community is almost a defining feature of modern Iraqi politics, with the Kurdistan Alliance strongly objecting to his appointment as Iraqi parliamentary speaker in 2010. Despite this historic disagreement, Nujaifi is well-respected across Iraqi politics, known for his frank positions and moderate credentials.
Official spokesperson for the Motahedoun bloc, Zafer Al-A’ani, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The most important things that distinguish Al-Nujaifi are his directness and honesty. He is clear in everything and frank with both his opponents and allies. He makes his opposition known and announces his allegiances publicly.”
“Characteristics like these might not be in line with the current political situation in Iraq which is rife with conspiracies and under the table deals. But Nujaifi is different, he believes that without credibility we are nothing…he is not one of those politicians who fluctuates in his political positions,” A’ani added.
Regarding the actions of the Motahedoun bloc—which Nujaifi heads—A’ani said: “We have a set platform, but we do not deny that Osama [Al-Nujaifi] sometimes takes positions that are not in line with our own. He is not easily convinced and and he could have a different perspective from yours. In the end, he is serious, determined,and principled.”
As for accusations about Nujaifi’s upper-class background, with some politicians claiming this gives the Iraqi parliamentary speaker a condescending air, Zafer Al-A’ani told Asharq Al-Awsat: “His upper-class background can be seen in his manners and behavior, not in the way that he deals with others. These are not affectations but rather the legacy of coming from a wealthy family. Furthermore, he is very careful about his interaction with others in all things because he is keen to protect his family’s legacy. There are some politicians who don’t have anything to lose so they can do whatever they like, but Nujaifi takes the past, present, and future into account.”
“Nujaifi is a breath of fresh air in terms of Iraq’s Arab and international relations. His position regarding the Syrian crisis has been clear since the beginning, but that did not prevent him from standing against the notion of a US military strike on Syria. During his visits to Iran and Turkey he promoted the Iraqi initiative knowing that some members of his own tribe [Bani Khalid] in Syria have suffered at the hands of the Assad regime,” A’ani said.
From the US to Qassem Suleimani
In his first visit to the US following his election as Iraqi parliament speaker, Nujaifi refused to follow protocol established by president Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who both placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, saying that he considered the Americans an occupying force rather than liberators. However when he visited Iran recently Nujaifi did not hesitate to attend the funeral of the mother of Genernal Qassem Suleimani, who Iraq’s Sunni community view as a major threat to the country.
For his part, Iraq Parliamentary Rapporteur and Motahedoun MP Mohammed Al-Khalidi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Nujaifi’s positions on any issue are not subject to whims. They are fixed positions which are reflected on the international level. Whether visiting the US, Iran, or any other nation, he represents Iraq and any position he takes is for the sake of Iraq.”
Regarding Nujaifi’s performance as parliamentary speaker, Al-Khalidi said: “He has successfully headed sessions of parliament. He is diligent, determined, serious, and able to run things despite the sometimes difficult circumstances in parliament. He is always able to accomplish any task he is given, and he has made a name for himself as an Iraqi leader and statesman that other nations should take note of.”
Eye on the Presidency
Nujaifi has so far accomplished everything he aspired to politically, with the exception of the presidency. The post of president in Iraq is largely symbolic given the country’s parliamentary system of government. According to the unofficial quota system in place in the country, the presidency has been a point of conflict between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, with the post currently held by Jalal Talabani. As the county’s most senior Arab Sunni official, Arab hopes of securing the presidency now rest on Nujaifi’s shoulders.
However MP Ali Al-Shallah of the State of Law coalition—headed by Nuri Al-Maliki—played down Nujaifi and Sunni Arab aspirations for the presidency. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Nujaifi has lofty aspirations but unfortunately he is incapable of taking moderate positions. From the beginning he built his popularity on his enmity towards the Kurds. During the last elections he lost a lot of his popularity, and this forced him to change his discourse to appear more moderate.”
However Shallah allowed that “a partnership between Maliki and Nujaifi could work in the event that the prime minister doesn’t change his positions.” He added: “Nujaifi has many positive attributes. He is decisive but he sometimes embarrasses himself. He is forced to throw the ball into other people’s courts. He has a difficult task before him: how to maintain this same balance in the coming elections.”
“Nujaifi must work on passing more laws throughout the remainder of his term in parliament so he can cite more professional accomplishments,” he added.
However for another perspective, parliamentary advisor Hussein Fawzi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Nujaifi is a fair and honest man. He is educated and principled. He respects the weak more than the strong.”
“Nujaifi has the traits that will enable him to be a prominent international figure and president of Iraq, uniting the Sunnis and Shi’ites to build a unified and democratic country,” he added.