BAGHDAD – After months of infighting, Iraq’s parliament Sunday elected a prominent Sunni Arab Islamist as its new speaker.
Ayad al-Samarrai, who heads the parliament’s main Sunni bloc, won by a comfortable margin. The leading contender before Sunday’s secret ballot vote, al-Samarrai has been a vocal critic of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who recently rebranded himself as a secularist.
Samarrai’s election, coming as the Obama administration prepares to begin drawing down American forces in Iraq, could aggravate ethnic and sectarian tensions that appear to be rising again, or it could prove to be a major step toward easing the longstanding friction between Sunni and Shiite Arabs.
There had been widespread speculation that al-Samarrai’s election might increase the likelihood of a parliamentary no-confidence vote against the U.S.-backed al-Maliki, whose removal would prompt a major shake-up in Iraq’s fledging, Shiite-dominated government.
After his election Sunday, however, al-Samarrai dismissed the notion his Iraqi Islamic Party is considering such a move.
“It is not and it has never been in the program of the IIP to bring down the government,” al-Samarrai said in an interview with McClatchy. “We will only use our position to pressure the government and parliament into doing a better job.”
Other Islamic Party members also said Sunday a no-confidence vote isn’t on their agenda.
“We don’t have any will to remove Maliki,” said Alaa Makki, an Islamic Party member. “We don’t think that would be productive at this point. We need to build up our government, not take it apart.”
Makki said the parliament has been largely dysfunctional for the past three years, and al-Samarrai’s election will help change that. “We have been paralyzed by bad leadership,” he said. “We need this reform.”
The parliament’s last speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also a Sunni Arab, stepped down in December after lawmakers criticized what they called his erratic behavior. The speakership has been vacant since his departure.
Parliament’s delay in selecting a new speaker has held up several important pieces of legislation, including amendments to Iraq’s constitution and a law that would spell out how the country’s oil revenue should be shared. Sunni Kurds have wrested control of most of Iraq’s northern oil fields from Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs control the Rumailah fields in southern Iraq, as well as Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf.