Sunni politician Mohammed Al Halbousi re-elected as Iraq Parliament Speaker

Former Anbar governor asks for presidental nominations within 15 days

Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi at the Parliament in Baghdad. AFP
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Mohammed Al Halbousi, a former governor of Iraq's Anbar province, has been elected for a second term as Iraq's Parliament Speaker after a chaotic first session of the assembly.

His re-election for the role marks the first significant step towards government formation and a rare moment of compromise. Mr Al Halbousi, 41, won 200 votes from 228 MPs present.

Before adjourning the session, Mr Al Halbousi asked for presidential nominations within 15 days.

Tension has been rising between political rivals three months after national elections.

But in a sign that government formation could face more delays, a temporary parliament speaker chairing the session was taken ill as angry politicians surrounded his podium, shouting about the system to determine the largest coalition.

A new alliance of Shiite parties, some with strong ties to Iran, known as the Co-ordination Framework also abstained from the vote, in a possible sign of worsening political divisions.

Iraq held early elections on October 10 in response to one of the core demands of those behind the pro-reform protests that erupted in 2019.

The elections were the fifth parliamentary vote for a full-term government since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Their results have deepened rifts among political rivals, mainly among Shiites who came to power after 2003.

The political movement sponsored by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr made gains in the polls, securing 73 seats in the 329-member Parliament.

Taqadum, the party of Mr Al Halbousi, won 37 seats.

The Sunni politician has gained a reputation for striking compromise between political blocs, winning patriotic credentials among a political class in which Iraqis are rapidly losing faith.

Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s State of Law bloc was third, with 33 seats.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party took 31 seats, while the Kurdistan Alliance and the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance each won 17 each.

Prominent activist party the Imtidad Movement won nine seats, while other independent and smaller parties made up the rest.

After being postponed for four hours as politicians were engaged in closed-door meetings and backroom deals, the session started smoothly when the oldest member of the Parliament, Mahmoud Al Mashhadani, chaired the legislative body and the politicians took the oath.

Then the Co-ordination Framework submitted a list of 88 names to be considered as comprising the biggest bloc, which if confirmed, would be asked to form the government.

Afterwards, the rival Sadrists submitted a list of 78 names.

Chaos erupts

When Mr Al Mashhadani asked to check the names and the signatures on both lists with a committee, chaos erupted inside the hall, causing a heated discussion between him and some Shiite politicians who gathered around him.

He then appeared to faint and was taken out of the parliament building for treatment, disrupting the session.

But proceedings later resumed with the second oldest member, Khalid Al Daraji, chairing the session with 205 MPs present, down from 325 at the start.

The assembly then elected two deputy parliament speakers, a Shiite affiliated to Mr Al Sadr and a Kurd linked to the KDP.

“There is still a long way ahead of us and Iraqis are awaiting a lot from us,” Mr Al Halbousi said when he took over.

“We need to work continuously … we shoulder a big responsibility to retain the trust in the political process.”

He later adjourned the session until further notice.

Sectarian division of power

For months, political rivals from all backgrounds have failed to reach a consensus over nominations for the role of president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker, as well as how to divide ministries and government offices.

Among the Shiites, Mr Al Sadr wants to lead efforts to form a majority government while the Co-ordination Framework, formed by the State of Law and Fatah and other Shiite groups, wants a consensus government where they would gain or retain control of ministries.

Efforts to bring the two groups together under one coalition have so far failed.

Sunnis were divided as to whether to support Mr Al Halbousi for a second term and Kurds have not picked up a nominee for the post of president.

Prominent Kurdish politician President Barham Salih, long known as a moderate leader, is set to end his term.

Under an unofficial agreement reached after 2003, Iraq’s presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister post is for a Shiite and the parliament speaker a Sunni.

Other government posts are divided among the country’s political parties based on their religious and ethnic background.

Tension rose late on Saturday among rivals.

Sadr-Iran rivalry

The Al Salam Brigades militia affiliated to Mr Al Sadr gathered in Baghdad’s eastern suburb of Sadr City, the stronghold for the firebrand cleric.

As Mr Al Sadr tried to attract more Sunnis and Kurds, Ali Al Askari, a spokesman for the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah armed group, warned that siding with him would “destabilise the country.”

“Even if they secure the gains they covet, that could turn into a scourge and everyone will lose,” Mr Al Askari said.

In a clear message to their rivals that they are ready for confrontation, Sadrist Bloc politicians entered Parliament wearing military outfits and traditional death shrouds, signifying a willingness to die.

The words “Jaish Imam Al Mahdi” was written on the shrouds, a reference to Mr Al Sadr’s now disbanded Jaish Al Mahdi militia.

Outside Iraq’s Parliament, the picture was different.

Independent politicians, mainly those affiliated to the Imtidad party, gathered at Tahrir Square, the scene of successive protests in Iraq that culminated in the 2019 protests.

They crossed Al Jamhouriya bridge heading to the Parliament in three-wheeled tuk tuk vehicles that were widely used to ferry wounded protesters in Iraq’s uprising.

“Today is a great day,” said Alaa Al Rikabi, the co-founder of Imtidad and a prominent activist in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

“God willing, it will be a better beginning for the country’s future,” he said, wearing a black suit to mourn those killed in the protests, with the Iraqi flag wrapped around his neck.

At least 560 protesters and members of the security forces were killed in the 2019 protests, which lasted for months, while thousands of demonstrators were hurt, with some suffering life-changing injuries.

Dozens of protesters and activists have been killed since.

Updated: January 10, 2022, 5:45 AM