Shiite majority in Sunni-dominated Nineveh

The New Region

Apr. 03, 2024
Image of Shiite majority in Sunni-dominated Nineveh

The December 2023 Nineveh Provincial Council elections saw Shiite dominance for the first time, impacting governance and reconstruction efforts post-ISIS. The Council faces power struggles, and criticisms over representation.

The Nineveh Provincial Council elections, held on December 18, 2023, marked the first council formation after the ISIS period (2014-2017). The election outcome saw the emergence of the first council led by a "Shiite bloc," with 16 seats affiliated or loyal to the Coordination Framework out of the council's 29 seats.

The noteworthy political transition in the country's second-largest province, where the majority of residents are Arabs and Kurds of the Sunni sect, could have far-reaching implications.

Beyond the realms of politics, administration, and security, it may also impact social, cultural, and potentially even religious aspects in the future.

The narrative of this transformation unfolds with the "Nineveh for its People" party securing five seats.

Led by former Nineveh governor Najm al-Jubouri, the party's trajectory was marked by controversy when Jubouri was disqualified from participating in the elections.

This ruling stemmed from his inclusion in the de-Baathification decision announced by the Accountability and Justice Commission in November 2023.

Mohannad al-Jubouri, leveraging his popularity gained during the "liberation" war against ISIS and his father's tenure as governor, known for launching reconstruction projects, was propelled into the election spotlight.

His father, former Nineveh governor Najm al-Jubouri, unable to run due to disqualification, directed support toward Mohannad, who garnered the highest number of votes, totaling 55,747.

However, alliances such as Taqaddum led by Mohammed al-Halbousi, Sovereignty led by Khamees al-Khanjar, and "Al-Hasm" led by Osama al-Nujaifi and Thabet al-Abbasi, secured no more than two seats each.

Meanwhile, the "Determination" bloc led by Muthanna al-Samarrai and the "Renewal" bloc led by Falah al-Zaidan each attained one seat.

These political blocs, collectively securing 13 seats in the Provincial Council, were predominantly composed of Sunni Arab forces.

Initially, they banded together to form a coalition named the Unified Nineveh Bloc. However, their unity faltered over time due to successive withdrawals by some members, resulting in the loss of several seats.

In terms of the forces aligned with the ruling Shiite Coordination Framework, alliances associated with or closely tied to it secured 10 seats.

Among them, three were claimed by the National Covenant Alliance, led by Falih al-Fayyad, who heads the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), while two seats were won by the National Identity bloc, led by Rayan al-Kildani, the commander of the Babylon Brigades associated with the PMF.

The National Dignity Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law Coalition, secured two seats. Additionally, three seats were designated for quotas representing the Shabak, Yazidis, and Christians, all won by candidates associated with the Coordination Framework.

Kurdish forces secured six seats, with four seats going to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, and two seats to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) bloc led by Bafel Talabani.

The PUK bloc formed an alliance, the Union of Nineveh People. However, due to political discrepancies between Kurdish parties within and outside the region, and with the PUK aligning politically with the Shiite Coordination Framework on certain issues, members of the PUK joined the Coordination Framework's alliance in the council, bolstering its membership to 12 seats.

Shiite dominance and Kurdish discontent

On February 5, 2024, the Nineveh Provincial Council convened its inaugural session. Ahmed al-Hasoud, representing the Al-Aqd Alliance (Shiite Coordination Framework), clinched the presidency.

Meanwhile, Mohammed al-Jubouri, representing the Unified Nineveh Bloc (Sunni Arab Alliance), was elected as the council's vice president.

Additionally, Abdul Qadir al-Dakhil secured the position of governor with an overwhelming majority vote during the same session, following his nomination by the Unified Nineveh Bloc. As per established political conventions, this role is traditionally designated for Sunni Arabs.

In late November 2023, Dakhil was appointed by the Prime Minister's Office to succeed Najm al-Jubouri as governor.

He garnered backing from Shiite leaders in Baghdad, including prominent figures like Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, and Qais al-Khazali, as well as support from Sunni and Kurdish leaders. This consensus made him the preferred candidate among the victorious factions in the Nineveh elections.

On February 10, 2024, the Nineveh Council re-elected Sirwan Rozhbayani, a candidate from the KDP, as the first deputy governor for the second term. Omar Namiq al-Mawla, representing the Coordination Framework forces, was elected as the second deputy governor.

The KDP's decision appears to be a response to its reduced representation in the current Nineveh Provincial Council compared to previous terms.

Previously, along with its allies, the party held a third of the council seats and the position of council president, granting it substantial influence in governing the province. Fares Brifkani, a council member from the party, recently announced his resignation, citing personal reasons.

The decrease in the KDP's seats compared to previous terms, particularly in January 2005, January 2009, and April 2013, has upset the long-standing balances within the council since 2005.

This balance had previously made Sunni Arab forces from the province have a predominant representation in the government and local council, while also allowing Kurds to wield considerable influence in administrative and political decisions in Nineveh.

After weeks of conflict and stalled sessions, the Nineveh Provincial Council voted in mid-March 2024 to establish a range of committees within the council, totaling 20 in number.

The "Future of Nineveh" alliance, comprising Shiite forces, took the helm of 11 committees, including those for Integrity, Security and Defense, Services, Investment, Planning, Legal Affairs, Districts and Suburbs, Compensation and Migration, Labor and Social Affairs, as well as Culture and Tourism.

The Unified Nineveh Bloc and the KDP assumed the chairmanship of nine committees, overseeing sectors including Reconstruction and Housing, Energy, Education, Finance, Agriculture, Industry, Sports and Youth, Human Rights and Civil Society Organizations, as well as Endowments and Religious Affairs.

Criticism Mounts Against the Council

The polarization along sectarian lines and the subsequent allocation of top positions and committee assignments by the Provincial Council presidency have drawn substantial criticism from political figures, activists, and intellectuals.

These actions are seen as driven by narrow party interests and the principle of political power-sharing, neglecting the well-being of Nineveh by disregarding principles of competence and specialization.

Activist Lazem Hamid emphasized that "committees should have been allocated based on competence, professional expertise, or experience, while ensuring representation from various political factions."

He further highlighted that the Health Committee was entrusted to a council member with a legal background, whereas a member trained as a doctor was assigned to the Agriculture Committee.

The division of the council into two factions and the allocation of positions based on partisan interests, coupled with members withdrawing from blocs, are raising concerns among political and cultural leaders in Nineveh.

This situation could hinder local authorities' ability to carry out crucial tasks such as reconstruction, service provision, and addressing security-related issues arising from the aftermath of the conflict with ISIS.

According to Ahmed al-Mashhadani, a lecturer at the College of Economics at the University of Mosul, the city is eagerly anticipating the commencement of significant infrastructure initiatives.

Currently, Mosul lacks vital facilities such as an airport, hospitals, specialized medical centers, and even basic sewage and water drainage systems.

Additionally, there is a notable absence of modern road projects to manage traffic flow in and around the city while facilitating internal connectivity.

Besides these hurdles, Mosul faces a housing crisis and a notable surge in land prices. Efforts to expand the city's basic infrastructure have been fruitless for over 24 years. These challenges are exacerbated by economic conditions marked by insufficient investment across multiple sectors, the closure of factories, and the neglect of the agricultural industry. Rather than progress, the agricultural sector in the province has regressed, lacking development and modernization.

Mashhadani contends that addressing these issues demands extraordinary efforts from both the Nineveh Provincial Council and the provincial administration.

"The ongoing disputes among the winning factions, particularly over sharing positions and resources, do not augur well for resolving Nineveh's challenges in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Following a fortnight of position allocations within Nineveh's electoral mandates, Mohammed al-Jubouri, Deputy Head of the Nineveh Provincial Council, along with council member Marwan al-Zeidan, defected from the "Unified Nineveh" bloc to join the Coordination Framework bloc. This move was confirmed by Youssef al-Sabawi, a member of parliament and a prominent figure in the Renewal Movement.

Moreover, the "Taqaddum" alliance, holding two seats and representing a significant faction within the Unified Nineveh bloc, has opted to withdraw from the bloc and align itself with the Coordination Framework bloc.

Coordination framework gains majority support

Following two weeks of negotiations over the allocation of positions within the Nineveh Provincial Council, Deputy Head Mohammed al-Jubouri and council member Marwan al-Zeidan made a pivotal decision.

They withdrew their affiliations from the "Unified Nineveh" bloc and formally aligned themselves with the Coordination Framework bloc. This move was confirmed by Youssef al-Sabawi, a prominent figure within the Renewal Movement and a member of parliament.

In another notable development, the Taqaddum alliance, which holds two seats, previously aligned with the Unified Nineveh bloc, has opted to depart from its former affiliation and join the Coordination Framework bloc.

This strategic move has significantly shifted the balance of power within the Nineveh Provincial Council, as the Coordination Framework bloc now commands a majority with 16 seats.

This marks a historic milestone, as it represents the first time that Shiite forces have secured a majority in the council. With this newfound majority, they wield considerable influence over key decisions, including the potential to influence the appointment of the governor and other government positions.

Their ability to nominate and reject candidates according to their preferences underscores their newfound authority in the decision-making process.

Ahmed Abdul Ghani, a 44-year-old engineer hailing from Mosul, paints a bleak picture of the Nineveh Provincial Council in its nascent stages, dubbing it 'a bad omen'.

He perceives political wrangling, fluctuations, and the divisive tactic of parceling out positions among parties as defining characteristics of the days ahead.

"The rhetoric championed by political factions during the election cycle centered on bridging divides and prioritizing the betterment of Nineveh,” Abdul Ghani remarked. “It pledged support for vital initiatives in healthcare, education, and rebuilding efforts, aiming to restore the dignity of citizens often undermined in their interactions with government bodies. Yet, the early council sessions, ensuing disputes, and defections within blocs sadly underscore the hollowness of these promises."

Abdul Ghani emphasized that Nineveh, devastated by ISIS control and subsequent military operations, is among the most deprived provinces in terms of services.

He contended that what it requires is a cohesive local government where all factions unite to address citizens' needs. However, he doubted the current council's capability in this regard, asserting "its members prioritize the interests of their respective parties over those of Nineveh."

Despite being liberated from ISIS control seven years ago, Nineveh continues to grapple with the devastating aftermath of military operations. Much of its essential infrastructure, including government institutions, service facilities, and public amenities, remains in disrepair.

Reconstruction efforts are hindered by funding challenges and implementation hurdles, compounded by concerns about corruption. Moreover, the influence of armed factions over certain institutions further complicates matters, as they often demand a share in reconstruction projects.

The newly formed local government in Nineveh is confronted with formidable challenges in stabilizing the region, bolstering essential services, and addressing the delayed reconstruction efforts.

Retired teacher Munir Issam cautioned that the discord within the provincial council could escalate into more serious conflicts, particularly given that certain factions have ties to armed groups with a military presence in Nineveh.

He elaborated that the political conflicts witnessed in Nineveh prior to ISIS's influence could reemerge, presenting comparable risks once more.

Council member Saadoun al-Shammari asserted that these disputes will detrimentally affect the council's effectiveness, stressing the importance of prioritizing issues beyond political interests.

He further emphasized the need to concentrate on priorities such as reconstruction, activating investment, and enhancing healthcare services in the province.

Activist and Mosul observer Saad al-Wazan noted a prevailing sense of disappointment among the public due to the conflicts within the council regarding power, positions, and gains.

He observed that there was optimism among the public that the new council would promote stability and social cohesion while prioritizing reconstruction and services.

However, the absence of a clear majority within the council has resulted in alliances and compromises that have undermined the interests of Nineveh.

Wazan underscored another detrimental consequence of these compromises: the lack of effective oversight or, in some cases, complete absence thereof, regarding the performance of the local government.

Former Nineveh governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, currently serving a seven-year prison sentence in absentia, foresees an escalation of disagreements and divisions within the Nineveh council in the near future. Despite this outlook, he characterized the current political dynamics as positive.

Nujaifi, whose son Abdullah is a member of the Nineveh council, stated that "political activity in Nineveh has been halted since 2017 because society was in a state of significant breakdown after the events of ISIS, and before that, between 2003-2014, political activity was under immense pressure due to the rejection of the political process by the community at that time."

However, the dominance of the Coordination Framework over the Nineveh Provincial Council does not represent a "healthy state" for many of the residents of Nineveh, especially since Mosul, with a population of over two million, the vast majority of whom are Sunni, has only two orphaned seats in the council. These seats are held by inexperienced young men, one of whom is the son of Nujaifi.

According to some, this will lead to the marginalization of the will of Mosul and Nineveh as a whole, empowering the economic offices affiliated with Shiite parties to strengthen their influence in the province, with narrow individual and party interests prevailing over the public interest.

Neglected will

Political researcher Ghanem al-Abid believes that "the will of the people of Nineveh is absent from representation in the local government and the current provincial council, considering that most of the winning forces in the elections are affiliated with or led by parties from Baghdad or other Iraqi provinces.”

He also predicted that tensions in the province will rise "due to the actions of the political factions comprising the council, who prioritize their partisan interests above all else, with their conflicts unrelated to serving the people of Nineveh."

He highlighted that the process of electing Abdul Qadir al-Dakhil for the governor's position indicates the presence of a "party dictating the pace of the governor's election," emphasizing that divisions and issues arose within the council during the election of the deputy governors.

Abid further anticipated that disagreements will escalate within the council in the near future: "Council members lack adequate political experience, compounded by their affiliations with various political blocs.”

The presence of numerous factions and parties within the Nineveh Council, each with its own distinct agendas, is expected to contribute to the anticipated state of instability, as predicted by both observers and politicians.

Such instability may hamper effective governance, potentially leading to discontent among Mosul's residents. Of particular concern is the perceived lack of proportional representation for the city of Mosul within the council, with only two members despite its significant population. This disparity stems from lower voter turnout in Mosul compared to the surrounding districts and rural areas.

Mustafa al-Talib, a member of the Political Science Association at the University of Mosul, points to two primary factors contributing to the city's reluctance.

“Firstly, there's a deep-seated resentment among Mosul residents towards the political establishment, which has consistently failed to deliver on past electoral promises,” he said. “Secondly, Mosul's relatively detached stance from tribal or religious affiliations has diminished, if not entirely removed, the influence of such factors in rallying support for particular candidates. This stands in stark contrast to other districts and rural areas in the province, where tribal allegiances hold significant sway.”

Talib characterized the situation in Mosul as a case of compounding one mistake with another, stating that "rather than seeking change by selecting capable representatives for the council, Mosul residents opted to withdraw entirely from the political arena, leaving the field open to external forces from Baghdad, Anbar, and Salahadin."

Mohammed Ghassoub, the head of a monitoring center for studies, offered a series of observations regarding the elections in Nineveh, highlighting two prominent phenomena.

”The first involves the proliferation of fraudulent lists and parties, while the second pertains to the inheritance of political and administrative positions,” he said.

Referring to "fake lists and parties," he indicated those established by external forces and parties aiming to establish influence within Nineveh province. Some of these lists managed to secure representation, with certain political figures ensuring positions for their sons, brothers, and relatives within the council "to secure positions within the local government."

Ghassoub accused undisclosed political figures of leveraging their sway within the government, political funds, and the allegiance of certain government entities to them, pointing to local groups supporting the placement of "inheritance" candidates into significant roles.

Economic offices and militias

A source within the Nineveh Governorate Office, speaking on condition of anonymity, highlighted a significant issue plaguing Nineveh at present. They pointed to the dominance of economic entities linked to armed groups and political factions across various economic domains.

This control spans from contract allocation for projects to the oversight of economic sectors and extends to facilitating the smuggling of oil derivatives and sulfur from the Makhmour fields south of Mosul.

He also highlighted that these offices enforce profit percentages on all factories operating in Nineveh, including cement plants like Badush Cement Factory, Hammam al-Alil Cement Factory, and Sinjar Cement Factory.

Additionally, they acquire shares from all projects and contracts assigned by the authorities for execution. He drew parallels between this situation and the circumstances in Mosul during the period of influence of terrorist organizations affiliated with ISIS before 2014.

Writer and researcher Adel Kamal asserts that with the dominance of forces and parties linked to these economic offices, notably the Coordination Framework, the entire governance of Nineveh falls under their influence.

He highlighted that the economic offices have garnered legislative backing, indicating the possibility of decisions being made directly or indirectly in their favor.

The entrenchment of control over economic affairs and its intertwining with the imperative of fostering a conducive investment environment adds layers of complexity to the prospects of economic revival in Nineveh.

Specialists underscore that rescuing Nineveh from its present plight hinges on revitalizing its economy. Nawfal Suleiman, the Director of Statistics for the Province, revealed that poverty and unemployment rates soared to 33 percent in 2023. He further noted that the most affected demographic comprises youths aged between 15 and 24, underscoring the pressing need for sustainable employment opportunities.

In efforts to alleviate this concerning figure, Shifa Taha, the head of the Worker Unions Federation in Nineveh, has emphasized the vital role of rejuvenating the industrial sector, which he characterized as being in a state of "clinical death”.

Taha urged the local government to take action in revitalizing dormant government-run factories and providing support to private factory owners. He highlighted that numerous government-owned factories, including those producing soft drinks, textiles, pharmaceuticals, dairy products, and more, are currently either inactive or in ruins.

Taha cautioned that 1,200 private sector factories have halted operations and production due to the devastation inflicted on the city during the ISIS era. He urged for support in the form of grants and loans to their owners until they can restart operations, underscoring that revitalizing them could generate 100,000 job opportunities in Nineveh.

Nevertheless, revitalizing these projects and initiating new ones necessitates financial assistance and the establishment of a conducive competitive atmosphere. However, the monopolization and imposition of fees and financial burdens by influential entities on project owners severely impede Nineveh's recovery prospects, as the region continues to grapple with the aftermath of battles to liberate it from ISIS.

*This feature was produced in collaboration with the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ)

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