BAGHDAD — The kidnap and murder of a prominent Sunni sheikh and eight members of his entourage in the middle of the Iraqi capital on Friday, the 13th of February, brought on a crisis from which the shaky government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has yet to recover. Sunni factions walked out of parliament. The funeral of Sheihk Qasim al Janabi, quickly turned into a sectarian, anti-Shia rally. Shia figures, in turn, noted that he tried to rally his followers against the so-called Islamic State, so maybe ISIS was responsible.
Once again the government seems to be whiplashed between conflict and gridlock, and while much of the fault in the past could be laid at the feet of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the stubborn fact is that the dysfunction had many causes, with Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders all contributing to the weakness of the system. The old guard of each faction was so set in its ways, with such long memories of blood and of feuds, that lasting consensus was all but impossible—even when faced with the clear and present danger of ISIS.
If there is hope, it lies with a new, younger generation of more moderate leadership that is just beginning to emerge. These figures are not products of the exile movement against the long-gone Saddam Hussein regime, they were still forming their views during those years.
Instead, they represent the post-2003 interests of their constituencies with a newer, more forward-looking view, less encumbered by the grudges of the past. In the Shia south, one thinks of the new class of provincial governors, such as Akeel al Turaihi of Karbala. In the Kurdish north, Qubad Talibani, the former Kurdish Regional Government representative to the United States and now the deputy regional prime minister, exemplifies this trend. And, in Baghdad, while much focus has been placed on Western-oriented, English-speaking Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, perhaps a more important figure in determining Iraq’s future is the leader of his opposition—Parliamentary Speaker Salim Abdullah al Jabouri.
Al Jabouri is not well known abroad—so much so that a recent New York Times story quoted him simply as a parliamentarian (akin to identifying Speaker John Boehner as a congressman or Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a border state senator; true, but hardly sufficient).
Even Westerners who spent much of the last decade in Iraq may not have met al Jabouri, who labored in relative obscurity until at least 2010. But as the speaker, he is now the de facto senior representative of Sunni interests in Iraqi politics, supplanting more familiar (read: older) figures such as Saleh al Mutlaq; Tariq al Hashemi; the Nujayfi brothers, Usama and Atheel; and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (who’s actually of Shia descent).
Al Jabouri is just 43 years of age in a society that reveres experience and gray hair. He is from the mixed province of Diyala, rather than the more homogenous Sunni power bases of Anbar, Ninewah and Salahdin. And he still carries the academic air of the law professor (at Baghdad’s prestigious Nahrain University) that he once was. But the speaker has accumulated a fascinating résumé.
In his early political life in post-Saddam Iraq, he was a loyal member of Iraq’s Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Iraqi Islamic Party. During this period he served as the youngest member of Iraq’s Constitutional drafting committee, opposing the Sunni boycott of the January 2005 elections, winning a parliamentary seat later that year, and almost dying in an assassination attempt in 2007 that claimed the lives of two of his brothers.
His second political phase began in 2010 when he was appointed to parliament (he ran for a seat but did not win outright, instead being named a replacement member) after defecting to Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya list. He then rose to be chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Parliament. Championing this portfolio brought him into conflict with Prime Minister Maliki but also opened frequent contact with the larger international human rights “community.”
Jabouri’s third phase is marked by his ascension to the role of speaker. After winning his parliamentary seat outright in 2014 (surviving yet another assassination attempt, this one claiming the lives of two of his bodyguards), he quickly became a consensus candidate. When al Jabouri was confirmed for the position of speaker, Maliki was still the clear front-runner for the prime minister slot. For days, he was prepared for perpetual conflict with the PM’s office. But with the ascension of Abadi, he has instead forged a new path as the loyal opposition to a more moderate and amenable prime minister.
Al Jabouri is moderate by temperament, he prefers incremental, rather than radical change, and he keeps his relatively exalted position in perspective. He likes to say that most days the sitting members in parliament number about the same as his former lecture classes at university—and he begins each day thinking what he will “teach” his fellow members in that session.
This is not to say that the speaker will not be involved in defending the prerogatives of both his institutions and his constituencies.
Al Jabouri wants to restore the power of an institution that he believes did not fulfill its constitutional responsibilities in the past. He intends to call ministers and other executive officials to account for their actions. The parliament called the oil minister in November and senior Iraqi Army officials to testify in December.
At the same time, al Jabouri has become the de facto political leader of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis. Delegations from Anbar, Ninewah and Salahdin provinces form a steady line of supplicants to the speaker’s office. Their concerns will be a constant factor in any political calculus.
Al Jabouri’s message to the worried and restive Sunnis of Iraq: “Calm down.” The Sunni citizens must accept the government, reject political violence (although violence against ISIS is both authorized and encouraged) and reintegrate into the Iraqi political system.
Al Jabouri insists all Iraqi citizens be treated equally before the law. He wants the government to move quickly to form national guard units in the Sunni provinces, reform the de-Baathification law, and declare an amnesty for all political crimes, effective the date of passage. All of these are long-standing Sunni issues.
When I asked al Jabouri if the amnesty must also cover controversial Shia figures such as Maliki, Bayan Jabr, and Ahmed Chalabi, he nodded yes, without hesitation. Whether this certainty comes from observing the international human rights scene, or from a “gut feeling” about needing to move forward, or from his personal experience of how any leader can be rightly or wrongly accused—whatever the motivations, this strikes me as a genuine chance to hit the proverbial “reset button” in Iraqi politics. And the movement in recent weeks toward passage of both a national guard bill creating provincial security forces and de-Baathification reform is a hopeful sign.
But is al Jabouri truly the moderate he appears to be, or is this simply an expedient political mask? How far has he moved away from his Muslim Brotherhood roots? Can he leverage a weak office (after all, he is a speaker who does not represent a majority in the parliament) into real power? Will he be able to overcome his youth, in a society that tends to dismiss those without gray hair? Can he overcome his relative anonymity to become a real figure in Iraqi politics? Can he stand up to the demands of external Sunni powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey?
It may not be overstating the case to say that Iraq’s future hangs on positive answers to all these questions.
No one can be Pollyannish about Iraq’s future. The political stakes are existential and passions are running high in this immature, fragile democracy. No one is under any illusions that the violent version of Sunni Islamic extremism exemplified by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) will disappear any time soon, even if ejected from Iraq’s cities as an organized force. And during our interview, both the speaker and his aides repeatedly emphasized that the government could not “belong to Iran.” Competing perspectives over what it means to have a government dominated by Iraq’s 60 to 70 percent Shia Arab majority will be a defining feature of political disputes for years to come. But the speaker appears to be pragmatic on this issue, having visited Iran himself in December.
In short, there is cause for hope for the new Iraqi government. Both speaker al Jabouri and Prime Minster al Abadi have adopted much more moderate tones than their predecessors. And this will be important in the days to come. The forces pulling Iraq apart are primarily emotion and passion, sectarianism and fear. Rational interests—most notably the need to share oil revenues equitably and to remain united against self-interested and rapacious neighboring states (and terrorist quasi-states)—continue to be the glue holding Iraq together. If the leadership can remain calm and carry on while still acknowledging their very real differences, then there remains cause for optimism.