No friends for Iraq
As this week’s Arab summit sidestepped Iraq‘s quagmire, Iran and the United States were getting ready to step in, writes Salah Nasrawi

For months Iraqhas been in turmoil as political wrangles and grave sectarian violence continue to grip the country. A general election is due in few weeks and many fear that it won’t bring peace because Iraq‘s political system has broken down.
National efforts to resolve the sectarian conflicts have failed as rival factions remained entrenched in their positions on a wide variety of disputes, primarily on power and wealth sharing.
This has prompted frustration among ordinary Iraqis who see the chances of defusing the situation peacefully shrink and ethno-sectarian struggle escalates and their country plunges deeper in violence.
So, can world and regional powers assemble enough diplomacy to guide the country out of its current impasse where Iraqis have failed?
An Arab summit in Kuwait this week has ignored the worsening situation in Iraq despite its direct bearing on the regional stability and peace. Far little attention was paid in the summit which ended Wednesday to the crisis in Iraqthan other Middle East issues.
But surprisingly, the United Statesand Iran, the other foreign nation which is accused of muddling in Iraq, have reportedly succeeded in easing current tensions to pave the way for the 30 April election.
While Iran has sent its point man in Iraq, the United States dispatched its top diplomat on Iraqi affairs in what Baghdad media described as separate mediating efforts to solve Iraq‘s on going crisis.
As the story goes the two emissaries managed, each in his own way, to head off further deterioration in the strained relationships between Iraq’s main communities, though there has been no talk about durable solutions to Iraq’s outstanding problems.
First, we read about a USenvoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Brett McGurk, being able to broker an oil deal between the Shia-led government and the Kurdistan Regional authority that had helped to achieve a breakthrough on the state budget.
Under the agreement Iraqi Kurdistan will export crude via the country’s main oil marketing company, potentially removing a major obstacle in a dispute with the central government over oil export.
McGurk, who shuttled between Baghdad and Kurdistan in diplomacy, said his mission was part of the UScommitments to Iraq under a Strategic Framework Agreement that cleared way to the US troop withdrawal in 2011.
The “US is proud to stand with the Iraqi people, equidistant from all political blocs, as neutral broker and facilitator where appropriate,” McGurk wrote on his twitter account on Saturday.
“The United Stateswill continue to serve as a neutral broker with all sides as talks accelerate in the coming weeks,” Vice President Joe Biden later said in a statement.
Kurdistan Regional Government had insisted to take oil exports into its own hands through a pipeline it built bypassing the central government and.
But a statement following McGurk’s shuttling said it agreed to export 100,000 barrels of oil per day through the Iraqi pipeline network from 1 April “as a good will gesture” until the issue is solved.
Some media outlets also suggested that McGurk was engaged in mediation effort to end a four-month standoff in Iraq‘s western province of Anbar between the Shia-led government and Sunni insurgents.
The USmediation was reportedly involving the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in return for new security arrangements that would give local authorities a larger say in policing the province.
 As for Iran, Iraqi media outlets suggested that General Qasim Soleimani, Iran‘s most influential intelligence official, visited Baghdad‘s Green Zone last week in a bid to defuse an internecine dispute that threatens the ruling Shia alliance.
Soleimani has reportedly succeeded in brokering a tentative truce between Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and other top Shia leaders who have engaged themselves in a nasty war of words in a highly polarized election campaign.
According to different accounts, Soleimani, who supervises Iranian foreign policy in Iraq, pressurized the Shia leaders to mend fences in order to avert the breakdown of the Shia alliance ahead of next month’s polls.
Tense relations between Al-Maliki and Shia leaders Amar Al-Hakim and Muqtada Al-Sadr have been further strained in recent months as Iraqis remain split over Al-Maliki’s attempts to bolster his chances for a third term.
Iran remained tight-lipped about Soleimani’s business in Iraqbut Iraqi media also reported he was involved in attempts to resolve the disputes between Al-Maliki and the Kurdistan Region and Sunni politicians over their ongoing disputes with his government.
Yet, the question remains whether McGurk and Soleiman were actually trying to provide a way out for Iraqor their initiatives were just part of their efforts to consolidate a détente between the two countries following Iran‘s historic nuclear deal last year. 
Indeed, few Iraqis are convinced that Iranand the United States have enough good will to help Iraqending its lingering tragedies no matter what initiatives they are putting forth.
Many Iraqis fear that Iran and the United Statesmay turn their country into a play ground as they are trying to assemble a regional package that could ease the path for a larger geostrategic deal.
Iraqis who see their bickering leaders fail to end the bloodletting and heal a divided nation find the reports about the peace efforts by the two protagonists too good to be true.
The Arab-Kurdish schism is wider than could be bridged by flamboyant diplomacy or self-congratulatory tweets.
Soon after McGurk flew back to Washington Kurdish politicians resumed their criticism of Al-Maliki government over its policy toward Kurdistan. Many Kurdish MPs said they will continue boycotting the parliament over the budget dispute.
Relationship between Iraq’s semi-independent northern region and Baghdad have remained at low ebb since December when Kurdistan completed a 400,000 barrels a day pipeline which will allow the region to export oil independently through Turkey and Baghdad retaliated by cutting off the region’s revenues.
In one of his most scathing attacks against Kurds, Al-Maliki warned this week that Kurdistan can do alone with its oil.
“The Kurds had the illusion that they could control the oil in the north themselves. They believed that neighboring Turkeywould support their plans. But the Turks are not Kurdistan‘s sponsor. On the contrary, they would devour the Kurds in one bite,” he told German Der Spiegel in an interview.
“Kurds only have a future as part of Iraq….. And only Iraqcan safeguard the production and export of that oil,” he said.
Relationships between Kurds and Shia have taken a nose dive this week following the murder of a Shia journalist by a member of the Kurdish presidential guards.
Tensions rose at the scene of the murder after the shooting sparking ethnic fever with mourners and protesters shouting anti Kurds slogans.
Al-Maliki himself rushed to the scene where he stood over the body of the slain journalist and vowed that he would personally avenge his death.
“It is my responsibility to avenge this killing. Blood is for blood,” Al-Maliki told the state-owned Iraqiya television as he left the scene.
Such anger reveals deep-seated hostility which can only worsen the already blazing bickering between the Kurds and the Shia-led government.
Kurdish politicians condemned what they termed as anti Kurd’s chauvinism and demanded that Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani stand up to Al-Maliki.
  On the other hand, Soleimani seems to have failed to achieve a breakthrough in relationships between Al-Maliki and his key Shia rivals. Soon after he left Baghdadthe two camps escalated their rhetoric.  
In launching his group’s election campaign on Friday, Al-Sadr called on all Iraqis to participate in the forthcoming elections to prevent “thieves” and “beneficiaries” from gaining power.
Al-Sadr, who had denounced Al-Maliki earlier as a “tyrant” called on his followers to go to polls en mass in order to prevent Iraq falling again to a “dictatorship.”
It is bloody business as usual in Iraq, where politics is run by rival warlords and greedy political leaders who compete for power and resources.
At the same time, neither Irannor the United Statescan claim that they have a solution to the Iraqi crisis because they are part of its problems.
Iraq needs patriotic, foresighted and honest leaders who should do everything to stave off its collapse with the help of true friends, backed by as much outside advice as the country will stomach.
Unfortunately, as the Kuwait summit and all previous Arab gatherings have shown, Iraq has no real friends who can reach out to during crisis. Tehran and Washington will still be able to fill the vacuum.

The enemy next door

Desperate to win a third term in office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is turning up the rhetoric against his neighbours, writes Salah Nasrawi
Last week, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki invited dozens of foreign representatives for a conference in Baghdad in a bid to enlist international support for his government’s efforts in combating terrorism.
Al-Maliki used his lofty rhetoric to press on his guests the idea that the unabated violence in Iraq was driven by foreign fighters and sought international help to curb the flow of funding to terrorists from Iraq’s Arab neighbours.
Internally, Al-Maliki has been in a fighting mood recently, charging his political rivals with aiding terrorism. The counter-terrorism conference seemed to be designed to put his foreign audience on notice. 
Nonetheless, in both cases Al-Maliki has seemed to be trying to shore up domestic and world support for his faltering government just as the 2014 elections season gears up.
The Iraqi organisers said that Al-Maliki’s government would present evidence to the conference that “certain countries” supported terrorism on Iraq’s soil, but it was not clear if in fact it did.
Earlier, Al-Maliki had accused neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Iraq, and the Gulf state of Qatar of backing militant groups in Iraq and across the Middle East as well as terrorism worldwide.
“They are attacking Iraq through Syria and in a direct way, and they have announced a war on Iraq, as they announced it on Syria. Unfortunately, this war is on a sectarian and political basis,” he told the French television network France 24.
“These two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian, terrorist and security crisis of Iraq,” he said.
Yet, as the conference ended it became clear that the delegates were not interested in buying Al-Maliki’s argument that Iraq’s problem was that of terrorism alone.
A final statement only paid lip service to Baghdad, suggesting instead that Iraq should “forge a national strategy to fight terrorism based on legal and national bases and resolve all social, economic and cultural disputes.”
Al-Maliki has in the past blamed unnamed Arab neighbours for interfering in Iraq, but by accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of declaring war on the country he has now made a bold play to turn up the heat on the Sunni Arab countries by implicating them in destabilising Iraq. 
As the elections loom, Al-Maliki seems to be using the confrontation to consolidate the public behind his rule, tapping into the deep well of emotion about the Iraqi Shia in the past suffering at the hands of their Sunni neighbours.
The direct attack on the Sunni Gulf governments comes as Iraq is gripped in its worst prolonged period of bloodshed since the US-led invasion in 2003, with some 2,000 people killed already this year.
Al-Maliki’s accusations came shortly after Saudi Arabia unveiled a new counter-terrorism package that punishes those who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom or join extremist groups or finance them.
Under the new law, those who join such groups or support them could face up to 30 years in prison.
By implicating Saudi Arabia publicly in the conflicts in Iraq, Al-Maliki apparently wants to take aim at the kingdom’s measures by trying to portray its anti-terrorism discourse as hypocritical.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq is believed to have drawn in hundreds of young Saudis who have joined the Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This has been responsible for most of the terrorist attacks and is now battling in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
Riyadh has repeatedly denied sanctioning the influx and has threatened to prosecute those Saudis who have joined the terrorist groups. It was quick to reject Al-Maliki’s accusations and condemned them as “aggressive and irresponsible.”
Two of Saudi Arabia’s allies in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, also came to its support. While Bahrain denounced the Iraqi move, Abu Dhabi summoned Iraq’s ambassador to protest against the accusations that Saudi Arabia has been supporting terrorism in Iraq.
However, Al-Maliki seems to have soon found solace in GCC divisions over how to deal with Islamists around the region.
Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar recently as the gas and oil-rich emirate refused to join the GCC’s anti-terrorism strategy.
Seeing tensions rise between the Gulf Sunni allies must have suited Al-Maliki’s ploy perfectly, as they serve his intentions to portray them as supporters of terrorism.
On the other hand, Al-Maliki seems to have been emboldened by US support for his government’s anti-terrorism drive, including the new delivery of American weapons and ammunition to the Iraqi army to fight against Sunni rebels.
This week, the US embassy in Baghdad said Washington had sent 100 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, along with assault rifles and ammunition, as part of its anti-terrorism assistance to the country.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the embassy said the delivery was made earlier this month in order to help bolster Iraqi forces fighting Al-Qaeda. It also promised to send more weapons in the coming weeks.
Al-Maliki seems to be capitalising on reports about strained US-Saudi relations over a host of Middle East issues, including the war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear deal. The US-Saudi relationship has deteriorated, as the Saudis have expressed reservations about the Obama administration’s policies towards Syria and Iran, both of which are close allies to Al-Maliki.
US President Barack Obama will travel later this month to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to discuss Saudi arming of rebel groups in Syria seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Here again, it would make sense if Al-Maliki planned to exploit the frayed relationship between the two old allies by revelling in the alleged hypocrisy of his Saudi adversaries.
Meanwhile, Al-Maliki will probably also be further encouraged by the recent reports that Iraq has increased its oil production, news that could ease US concerns that oil prices will not go upward.
The International Energy Agency unveiled on Friday that Iraq’s oil output had jumped by half a million barrels a day in February to average 3.6 million barrels a day.
Iraq said in December that it would target oil production of 4.1 million barrels a day this year.
By increasing Iraq’s output, Al-Maliki, probably in collaboration with his Iranian allies, may hope that Iraq will be able to challenge Saudi Arabia’s grip on the world market and ease pressure on crude prices.
All in all, the Iraqi premier seems to be playing the terrorism card both domestically and externally to re-emphasise his version of the troubles in Iraq. 
What al-Maliki wants both Iraqis and the world to believe is that Al-Qaeda terrorists are the only reason for the deteriorating security situation in the country as he continues to consolidate his power.
By his standards, it is the enemy next door and foreign agendas which are fueling the sectarianism in Iraq and not the marginalisation and exclusion of Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
Iraq’s sectarian split has escalated considerably over the past year. While Al-Qaeda remains a real threat in Iraq, al-Maliki’s hard-line positions and some of his extremist allies keep on fueling a larger Sunni insurgency. 
Iraq’s conflicts have been driven principally by widespread discontent among the country’s Sunni Arab minority, which has been complaining about the government’s mistreatment and demanding changes to the post-Saddam political system, which they say has favoured the Shias. 
Tensions have been mounting between Iraq’s two Muslim sects since December 2012 when Sunni protesters started weekly anti-government marches across Iraq.
Since January, Iraq’s western cities have seen fierce clashes pitting government security forces against Sunni insurgent groups.
Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi and its key city of Fallujah have effectively moved out of the Iraqi government’s control, with Sunni tribal forces taking command of both of them.
In recent weeks, the clashes with the security forces have spread to other Sunni-populated provinces, exacerbated by the recent fighting in the Anbar province.
Sunni anti-government rebels now claim that they have formed a unified command, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, to be in charge of the rebellion.
Many local tribal councils, headed by former senior Saddam army officers, have been formed in Sunni-dominated provinces and are said to be coordinating attacks against Iraqi security forces and officials.
This may not yet be the high point of an overall Sunni rebellion in Iraq, especially for most Sunni Arabs who are still seeking a political solution to end their grievances. 
But the Sunni revolt is drawing a deeper dividing line in Iraq’s politics and poses one of the biggest challenges to the country’s unity.
It is Al-Maliki who seems to be unwilling to grasp the reality and to try reconciliation, preferring instead to interpret the Sunni uprising as an instance of foreign-instigated terrorism.

An Iraqi Don Quixote

The Iraqi prime minister was once a novice politician who rose to national prominence only to lead his country into tilting at windmills, writes Salah Nasrawi

]In the eight years since he took the post of Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki has won a reputation for concentrating power in his hands in a country that prides itself on being pluralistic, federal and democratic.
Al-Maliki’s autocratic leadership style has drawn the wrath of both his foes and his allies and raised fears that Iraq’s Shia prime minister is becoming another edition of its former dictator Saddam Hussein.
As Iraq prepares for crucial elections next month, many Iraqis believe that Al-Maliki is rallying the country’s Shias behind his tough policy against the Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds in his bid to win a third term.
Observers believe that his re-election may deepen Iraq’s communal divisions and push the terror-torn and ethnically and sectarian divided country to the brink of collapse.
In what was perceived by his rivals as being a constitutional coup d’état Al-Maliki last week declared the parliament to be “finished” and accused its Sunni Arab speaker, Osama Al-Nujaifi, of conspiring to topple the Shia-led government.
He also defied the parliament and decided to go on spending from the state coffers despite a standoff over a controversial draft 2014 budget that the assembly has not yet ratified.
Al-Maliki’s harsh rhetoric and the anger and disdain he has displayed towards the parliament come as Iraq remains gridlocked by a political crisis that has paralysed the central government amid a surge in sectarian violence.
Since December, Iraq’s army and security forces have been pitted in fierce fighting with Sunni insurgents in the Anbar province. The troops’ failure to regain control of the city of Fallujah and many parts of the province reflects Al-Maliki’s incompetence as the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.
The fight now threatens to spread into other Sunni provinces and to derail the 30 April elections.
Sunni Arabs have been protesting against what they consider to be their marginalisation and exclusion by Al-Maliki and have boycotted the government and occasionally the parliament.
The Kurds meanwhile have also been protesting in order to press their demands for greater autonomy and a larger say in national decision-making.
Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has repeatedly warned that the autonomous Kurdistan Region will seek full independence if Al-Maliki persists in “breaking the pride and dignity of the Kurds.”
Shia leaders, nominally the prime minister’s allies, have not been less dismayed by Al-Maliki’s authoritarian style, and many of them have been voicing frustration with his attempts to increase his prestige at the expense of restoring normality to the country.
While disenchantment with Al-Maliki is growing, so too is the danger that the Iraqi state may not hold together.
Al-Maliki first came to power in 2006 after a prolonged crisis over selecting a prime minister. He was an accidental choice after Shia leaders failed to agree on a candidate who would not be vetoed by the Kurds and Sunnis.
Al-Maliki has remained in the post since then despite his failure to solve a lingering government crisis, curb escalating violence, end rampant corruption and make significant changes in the living conditions of a population fatigued by decades of dictatorship, military conflict, international sanctions and foreign occupation.
His lack of executive experience, solid political background, statesmanship skills and visionary leadership have been visible in his mismanagement of the government and the animosities he has created with most of the key political factions.  
The official government Website does not carry a biography of Al-Maliki, but several other sites provide profiles of him based on information gathered from various sources.
According to these sites, Al-Maliki was born near the Iraqi Shia holy city of Kerbela in 1950. He joined the underground Shia Islamic Dawa Party in the 1970s, attended a religious college founded by Shia clergy and later worked as a clerk in the local department of the Ministry of Education in Hillah.
Al-Maliki escaped Iraq in 1979 following a crackdown by Saddam on the Dawa Party, which was accused of being involved in subversive activities.
After spending some time in Syria he travelled to Iran where he joined other anti-Saddam dissidents who were fighting alongside the Iranians in the 1980-1988 Gulf War.
Two years after the War ended Al-Maliki returned to Syria where he spent the next 23 years under the protection of the intelligence forces of the regime of Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad and later of his son Bashar.
He lived under the nom de guerre of Jawad Al-Maliki near the Shia holy shrine of Sayeda Zeinab outside Damascus among thousands of Iraqi exiles who were resisting Saddam or seeking asylum in foreign countries.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq that ended Saddam’s regime in April 2003, Al-Maliki returned to Iraq as a scramble for power began among Saddam’s former opponents under the umbrella of American power.
The Dawa Party, probably influenced by Syria, had first opposed the US-led invasion, but it soon joined the American-installed Interim Governing Council and other government institutions with Al-Maliki among its principal leaders.
He was named vice president of a commission charged with eliminating Saddam loyalists from the government, army and security forces. In 2005, he became a member of the security committee of the provisional parliament.
Al-Maliki won a seat in the post-Saddam parliament’s first elections later that year when he was chosen as prime minister after the leader of the Dawa Party, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, was forced out of the race.
But it was largely the pressure exercised by the US Bush administration to end the government deadlock that forced the Shia groups to go for Al-Maliki.
Iraqi political leaders recall how Condoleezza Rice, then the US secretary of state, lobbied and pressured them to support Al-Maliki for the post.
As prime minister, Al-Maliki has sought to project himself as a strong leader at a time of trouble in Iraq. In 2006, he authorised the execution of Saddam and targeted Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni insurgents.
A year later, he led a military campaign against Shia militias loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, forcing him to disband his notorious Al-Mahdi militia.
Al-Maliki also negotiated a deal that allowed Washington to withdraw its troop presence from the country and end the US military occupation of Iraq in December 2011.
In 2010, he won a second term in office after forming a national unity government with other Shias, Kurds and Sunnis.
All this would seem to be cause for celebration among some of his followers who see him as a Shia hero. Yet, the mood among most Iraqis has been anything but celebratory.
Indeed, Al-Maliki’s rule has come to be viewed as a disastrous failure for Iraq, and the last eight years have been catastrophic for its people.
Just days after the last US soldiers left the country, the fragile national unity government began to unravel as Al-Maliki moved against two senior Sunni politicians on terror-related charges.
The government soon became incapable of resolving key issues, such as power and wealth-sharing.
Opponents of the Iraqi leader say that after Al-Maliki was named prime minister for a second term in 2010, Iraqi politics started taking an avowedly sectarian turn with power being concentrated in the hands of his Shia-dominated government.
Al-Maliki, who had been controlling the army, security forces, the election commission, the anti-corruption body and the state-owned media agency, now started developing autocratic habits, and even his closest allies began comparing him with Saddam.
He has also been blamed for using the judiciary to cow his opponents.
For many Iraqis, Al-Maliki is a living clone of Miguel de Cervantes’s famous character Don Quixote. Like the delusional anti-hero of the Spanish author, Al-Maliki is tilting at his own version of windmills.
However, the question now is how long Al-Maliki can maintain his survival skills before he realises that Iraq can no longer be tamed by a strong man.
In 2010, Al-Maliki travelled to Qom in Iran where Al-Sadr was receiving his religious education in order to seek his cooperation to form a government. It needed another trip to Erbil to appease Barzani and make the Kurdish leader facilitate the formation of the government.
As the new elections approach, Al-Maliki will show if he is a real strong man or whether he is playing for time and gambling on his opponents’ weaknesses.
“He will do it again once the 2014 elections are over. This time he will travel to Mosul too to beg Al-Nujaifi,” said Amir Al-Kinani of the Sadrist Movement in an interview with a local media outlet.

Welcome to Iraq’s Shia theocracy

Plans by Iraq’s Shia-led government to institute Sharia family law have come under fire, writesSalah Nasrawi
Iraq’s Shia-led government has drafted a family law for the country’s Shia majority that feminist activists and rights groups say will impose an Iranian-style theocracy, violate women’s rights and sow further divisions in a nation that is already sharply split on sectarian lines.
If endorsed by the parliament, the ja’fari (Shia) personal status law will replace one of the most progressive family codes in the Middle East and revive controversial strict Islamic practices, including sanctioning child marriage. It will also institutionalise the Shia clerical establishment and give it a larger say in the state legal system.
On 25 February, Iraq’s council of ministers said the draft law, proposed by Shia Minister of Justice Hassan Al-Shimari, had been ratified and sent to the parliament to pass into a law. Al-Shimari said 21 ministers out of the 29 present at the cabinet meeting had voted for the bill.
It is unclear, however, if Sunni Arab or Kurdish ministers have endorsed the controversial draft law. Also, there were no reports on whether all Shia ministers had voted for the proposed legislation.
Al-Shimari, a representative of the religious Shia Al-Fadhila Party, sparked uproar when he tabled the bill for discussion by the government in October. Critics condemned it at the time as anti-feminist and a breach of Iraq’s post-US invasion constitution, which forbids the enacting of laws that contravene “democratic principles” and human rights.
Under the proposed law, a Supreme Shia Judicial Council will be established in the Shia holy city of Najaf to supervise nationwide religious tribunals that will settle the family matters of Iraqi Shias, such as marriage, divorce, the custody of children, inheritance and endowments.
The draft law is based on the principles of ja’fari jurisprudence for personal status issues. Ja’fari fiqh, or jurisprudence, is based on the thoughts and teachings of Ja’far Al-Sadiq, an eighth-century Shia imam. It differs from Sunni Muslim schools of Islam in wide-ranging ways and it gives power to the mujtaheds, senior Shia clerics, to derive verdicts.
To understand what all this means, some history and background are vital.
Iraq’s current personal status code dates to 1959 when the revolutionary government that had toppled the monarchy one year earlier passed a law that was widely considered to be progressive because it institutionalised partial equality between women and men in a number of areas, restricted polygamy, created a judicial procedure for divorce and required marriage to be performed only in state-run courts.
The law, which was later amended several times by governments following the ouster of president Abdul-Karim Qassim in 1963, also imposed an 18-year age limit for marriage.
One of the amendments allowed matrimony for persons over the age of 15 but under that of 18 in very strict cases and only by authorisation of a state judge.
The 1959 law was made binding on all Iraqi Muslims regardless of their sect. Christians, Jews and other minorities were covered by a combination of the personal status law, the civil law and their own personal status legal systems.
However, the Shia seminary in Najaf rejected the 1959 family code as un-Islamic and insisted that the clerical establishment should deal with personal family affairs alone.
Since the law’s inception, Shia clerics have urged their followers to consult them for guidance on such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance and not the government courts.
In 2003, and under the chairmanship of Shia cleric Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim, Iraq’s US-installed Interim Governing Council enacted a decree that gave power to non-state courts to rule in all disputes among Muslims concerning marriage and divorce.
The decree was overruled by the US occupation’s chief administrator, Paul Bremer, after domestic and international human rights groups protested against the resolution on the grounds that the imposition of Islamic law would erode Iraqi women’s rights.
As political deadlock now grips the country, the ruling Shia religious groups have found a new opportunity to enact another family law that reflects their own conservative views.
The endorsement has also been announced in the run-up to the 30 April elections, apparently in an attempt by the Shia political groups to play on the sectarian sentiments of sympathetic Shia voters.
The law was sponsored by Shia cleric Mohamed Al-Yakoubi, the spiritual leader of the Al-Fahdila Party, who charges that many of the aspects of the current family law are un-Islamic.
Al-Yakoubi and other proponents of the law argue that Iraq is a multi-sect society and the law should accommodate different interpretations of Islam as well as all people’s beliefs provided that these do not impede the rights of others.
“Shias cannot be committed to verdicts that violate the Sharia. This is not a matter for compromise or bargaining,” Al-Yakoubi said in a statement.
It is not yet clear if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is considered to be the prime marja, or spiritual reference, in the country and is believed to wield enormous power over Iraq’s Shia majority, supports the new law.
Sistani has remained tight-lipped on the controversy, but another senior cleric, Ayatollah Basheer Al-Najafi, has voiced concerns about passing the law without Sistani’s consent.
Sistani is believed to reject the model of Iranian-style theocracy in favour of the separation between religion and politics. He has not wholly embraced the theory of velayat-e faqih, or the guardianship of the Shia jurists, which was espoused by the late Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and is now imposed in Iran.
The theory grants nearly absolute power to the Guardian and institutes rule by Shia clerics.
There is growing evidence to suggest that Sistani is reluctant to show public disagreement with the hard-line Shia clerics who support Iran’s ruling clergy, several of whom have already moved to Najaf and advocate religious guardianship.
After the US-led invasion in 2003, policies adopted by the occupation authority led to the empowerment of Shia Islamists and largely excluded Shia secularists from the new government of the “federal, free and democratic” Iraq.
It was widely believed that the administration of former US president George W Bush promoted the empowerment of Iraqi Shia Islamists following the 2003 invasion as part of a strategy to support moderate Islam and contain extremism.
Noah Feldman, a US professor of law who was a key adviser on the Iraqi constitutional process, described policy in Iraq as aiming to create an “Islamic democracy” in which “citizens can vote for laws infused with Islamic beliefs, ideals, and values, and the state can endorse Islam and fund religious institutions and education.”
These have since proved to be unrealistic, if not false, aspirations, as Shia religious groups have controlled the government and dominated the national political space, pushing leftists, nationalists, liberals and secularists to the sidelines.
This is why the battle over the new draft law seems to be drawing new frontlines between the two groups, as the latter now fear that their lifestyle is at stake should Iraq be pushed into being a religious state.
The critics’ priority now is to try to stop the parliament from ratifying the bill. They argue that the law violates the constitution, which stipulates that legislation should not contradict democracy, the principle of equality before the law and gender equality.
One of their concerns is that the law will give enormous power to Shia mullahs who will oversee religious courts that will operate against the state judiciary system.
Some critics say the law will even encourage paedophilia and rape, a reference to legalising the marriage of girls as young as nine and the lack of appropriate guarantees for freedom of choice in marriage.
A key problem of the new law is that it does not deal with mixed marriages between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims or specify options for Shia Kurds and Sunni Kurds.
Its opponents hope that Kurdish and Sunni MPs will now join the few Shia secularists in the parliament to shoot down the bill when it is brought forward for debate.
The Kurdistan Region Government has also passed its own personal status law that has given further rights to women, and it is unlikely that its members in the Iraqi parliament will support the Shia family law.
There is little doubt that representatives of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs will reject the new law.
Eleven years after the US-led invasion that toppled the secular regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, many Iraqi Shias fear that their country is now being gradually turned into a theocracy.
However, Shia politicians are unfazed by the criticisms and seem determined not only to get the law passed but also to turn Iraq into a theocratic state.   
“A lot of politicians wish to have an Islamic regime in the country, and I am in the forefront of them,” Justice Minister Al-Shimari was quoted by Baghdad’s Al-Mada newspaper as saying on Saturday.
“Those who believe that an Islamic regime contradicts politics should abandon politics and let them go to hell,” Al-Shimari said.