After four months of deadlock, Iraqi lawmakers have elected Ayad al-Samarraei, a Sunni Arab legislator and strong critic of Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to the post of parliamentary speaker.
The position of speaker had been vacant since the resignation of Mahmud al-Mashhadani from the post in late December. Mashhadani had been a flamboyant and polarizing figure who frequently engaged in disputes with other legislators.
Experts say Samarraei's election could also lead to new confrontations with Maliki's government, however.
Nevertheless, Samarraei pledged after the April 19 vote that he would cooperate, saying parliament should complement, rather than block, the executive system.
“There is a need to reform our political conditions," Samarraei said. "Foremost among the conditions we should take care of is reforming [the parliament]. In cooperation with the two vice speakers and the political blocs and committees, we will work to update the whole procedure within the parliament in order to achieve the tasks entrusted by the constitution."
Samarraei -- a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party -- also said he would work with all lawmakers in the future, including those who did not vote for him. Samaraei previously headed parliament's Finance Committee, and his election is expected to break deadlocks over future votes on legislation.
Samarraei received 153 votes in the ballot. That compares with 36 votes for his only competitor -- Mustafa al-Hiti. However, 86 lawmakers -- including members of Maliki’s Dawa Party -- either did not vote or cast blank ballots.
'Deadlock Has Been Broken'
"The deadlock that existed -- within the Sunni community, but also between politicians who are aligned differently -- has been broken," says Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program. "The position of speaker of parliament, even though there is no constitutional requirement that it be a Sunni, de facto has gone to a Sunni.
"The Sunni who was in place there, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, was aligned with one particular political bloc close to Prime Minister Maliki. The new person, Dr. Ayad al-Samarraei, is aligned more closely with a different bloc that also includes the Kurds and the Supreme Council. And I think it is maybe a setback for the prime minister in this case."
Neither Maliki nor his spokesman has offered immediate comment on Samarraei’s election. But as parliament was voting, Maliki appeared before hundreds of uniformed commanders at the Interior Ministry and warned that factions within Iraq threaten national unity.
Maliki also has suggested in recent days that unspecified political opponents have been seeking to undermine his government.
Still, after the vote, a lawmaker in Maliki’s Dawa Party -- Kamal al-Sa’adi -- pledged to cooperate with the new speaker.
Strong Central State
Hiltermann tells RFE/RL that the key issue of contention between Maliki and Samarraei is how much power should be controlled by the central government in Baghdad.
"The party that Dr. Ayad al-Samarraei represents is a little bit closer to the Kurds and to the Supreme Council. And together, these are the parties that have effectively ruled Iraq since 2003 -- certainly since the 2005 elections," Hiltermann says. "They are in favor of a greater degree of decentralization though it isn’t always clear whether the Iraqi Islamic Party supports that or not.
"Prime Minister Maliki, on the other hand, has run in the provincial elections on the platform opposing greater decentralization. He has called for a strong central state. And there are a number of parties arrayed alongside him. This is the main dividing issue at the moment between [Maliki] and the new speaker of parliament."
Samarraei heads of the parliamentary delegation of the National Concord Front -- the country's largest Sunni bloc. His Islamic Party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is one of two parties allied in the Concord Front. Hiltermann describes the new speaker as a moderate.
"[Samarraei] is one of the leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party -- the same party that also has produced the vice president, Mr. Tariq al-Hashimi. It is a moderate Islamist party -- a Sunni Islamist party originally close to the Islamic brotherhood but very moderate," Hiltermann says. "Dr. Ayad al-Samarraei is a very intelligent, articulate man -- very well respected in many ways. I think he is quite a departure from the previous speaker, who was more of a flamboyant person. Dr. Samarraei is very calm and I think he will bring excellent leadership to the parliament."
The 63-year-old Samarraei is a mechanical engineer by training. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1962. He fled Iraq in the 1980s out of fear that he would be arrested or killed because of his political activities.
Samarraei then lived in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Britain, before returning to Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report from Baghdad; Simira Balay contributed from Prague