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Controversial hopeful

Birgit Svensson / nmJuly 16, 2014

Salim al-Jubouri has been elected Iraq's new speaker of parliament. Not everyone is pleased about the appointment. Still, the moderate might be just what's needed to help break the country's political deadlock.

Salim al-Jubouri
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

In the end it was a clear vote: After a third attempt, the Sunni politician Salim al-Jubouri was elected to the post of speaker of parliament in Baghdad on Tuesday (15.07.2014), winning with 194 votes - 29 more than needed.

The only opposition candidate recently returned from Vienna, Austrian-Iraqi Shorooq al-Abayachi, won just 19 votes. However, almost one in every five MPs was absent from the meeting. The new Iraqi parliament elected on April 30 is made up of 328 MPs, a quarter of whom are women.

Salim al-Jubouri is not a new face among them. The 43-year-old lawyer from Baqouba, the capital of Dijala province, has been part of the political carousel that has defined the post-Saddam era. He's been on the scene ever since the US administration introduced proportional representation to distribute political posts, following the invasion of troops in 2003.

Jubouri is seen largely as moderate and accommodating, and as a Sunni parliamentary speaker, he'll now have a Kurdish and a Shiite deputy.

Whether he'll be able to find some desperately needed common ground between the divided political factions is, however, open to question. Especially since he has no clear support in his own camp.

Father of the constitution

When the majority of Sunni Iraqis boycotted the first parliamentary elections in 2005, Salim al-Jubouri resisted the protest and joined the only Sunni Islamic party running in the election. In doing so, he became an elected member of the first transitional parliament.

Jubouri went on to head the parliament's Human Rights Committee, and traveled to Brussels and Strasbourg. He also served on the committee responsible for drafting the new constitution, which was controversial among many Sunnis.

For the current elections he joined the regional "Diyala is Our Identity Coalition," a predominantly Sunni Arab list.

Iraq's parliament in session
Many are hoping Jubouri can bring some unity to Iraq's divided parliamentImage: Reuters

Melting pot of cultures

Dijala, which borders Baghdad's northeast, is often referred to as "Little Iraq," because people from all of the country's different ethnic groups live there together.

The province is a melting pot of religions and ethnicities. A Kurdish Shiite town might lie next to a Sunni Arab village, or a settlement of Christian or Arab Shiites, for example. And there is a significant amount of tension as a result.

During the civil war of 2006-7 and 2008, the capital Baqouba was a focal point of bloody clashes. As the terrorist group Islamic State continues its advance across Iraq, the city is once again caught in the crosshairs.

Even if many of Salim al-Jubouri's fellow Sunnis see him as a heretic, his election may rescue Iraq in the country's hour of need. A moderate at the head of parliament could help put an end to destructive polarization. After all, there are currently more than enough radical forces in Iraq to split up the country and bring it close to collapse.

Provinces are rebelling against the central government, mainly as a result of the sectarian policies of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The terror group Islamic State has taken advantage of the divisions, and is spearheading the insurgency.

Even if the prime minister continues to defame his serious political rivals - including Jubouri, who, like other influential Sunni politicians before him, was accused of terrorist activities - his re-election seems inevitable.

Iraq at the crossroads?

A new man in the speaker's chair might also help bring about a change in the government's makeup. Jubouri's predecessor, Osama Al-Nujaifi did not mince his words when he said: Iraq stands at a crossroads, and until now, there's been little chance of a real partnership between Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

"Instead, there was a monopoly of power by held by Shiites and the exclusion of others," he said, referring the Maliki's authoritarian leadership style.

ISIS militants holding guns ride in a truck
Have Islamic State militants brought Iraq to the brink of collapse?Image: Ammar Mohammed

The longer ISIS and allied groups keep taking new parts of the country under their control, the more pressing the need for change in Iraqi politics becomes.

According to the constitution, the parliament has 30 days to elect a president, who in turn calls on the head of the strongest political group to form a government. After that, the prime minister is elected.

As one of the individuals who drafted the constitution in the first place, Salim al-Jubouri is likely to make sure they follow procedure. But it may take a little patience - the process of forming the last government in 2010 took nine months.

Meanwhile, fighting between ISIS militants and Iraqi government troops is set to continue. The focus is now the city of Tikrit, which was seized by the rebels on June 11, a day after the capture of Mosul.

The Iraqi army wants to reclaim Saddam's home town. According to the military leadership, the University of Tikrit is back in the hands of the government, while the presidential palace is still occupied by the rebels. Reports suggest the group is holding prisoners in the building, and plans to hold Sharia courts there.