Cabinet appointment illustrates militias’ hold on Iraq’s political system
BAGHDAD--Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi found himself in recent days forced to play by the quota rules in order to go forward with his cabinet, and start working as quickly as possible to tackle the urgent economic, social and security issues awaiting the new government.
Iraq’s parliament gave its vote of confidence Saturday to seven cabinet ministers, including the key oil and foreign affairs posts, completing the 22-member cabinet of Kadhimi.
But, the vote did not pass without sparking a new controversy as Kadhimi came under militia pressure to replace the already-nominated minister of culture, poet and prominent civil rights activist Fares Harram.
Iraqi cultural circles were surprised, last Thursday, when the name of Hassan Nazim surfaced as a candidate for the culture portfolio instead of thjat of Harram after a semi-official announcement that Harram is the only candidate for the position.
Harram confirmed that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia exerted great pressure to exclude him, by launching a fierce smear campaign against him saying he is “an atheist”.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, whose leader Qais Khazali, saw Harram as a threat to his militia’s web of interests which the Iranian-supported movement had woven within the ministry of culture for years.
The militia tried to have Harram, who was a leading face in Iraq’s protest movement since last October, to pledge to be on its side. But he refused disclosing that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (without naming it) tried to contact him through two mediators when he was nominated by Kadhimi.
“I got two calls from two friends, each one told me that he has a letter from a political bloc saying that I will not pass unless I sit with them and arrange issues,” he said.
“The mediators told me that I will lose the ministry, and I answered them to let it be,” which is what happened, he added.
Harram said he could not contradict his principles “for the sake of a ministerial post” having demonstrated in the past “with Iraqi youths against the quota system, administrative failure and financial corruption”.
Fares Harram is a poet from the Najaf, who played a vital role in protests in his town, and was known as protest coordinator with the leading activists in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and various provinces. Protests have played a major role in destabilising the political system, and led to the toppling of the previous government led by Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Harram, who had also refused to be part of the cabinet of last MP Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi, saw his exclusion by a militia accused of involvement in the of killing of Iraqis, and the stealing of government funds as evidence that “the deep structure of the quota system still paralyzes government work”.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is known to control the Ministry of Culture and the disbursement of its resources through Laith al-Khazali, the brother of the militia’s chief Qais al-Khazali.
The Ministry provides significant financial revenue, especially in the book printing and tourism sectors, and the licensing of alcohol sales, which have been major sources of funding for Al-Asa’ib movement, which have 15 seats in the Iraqi parliaments. This allowed it to claim the culture portfolio in the government of Abdul-Mahdi.
To keep its hold on the ministry of culture, Al-Asa’ib chose a candidate that it deemed less risky than Harram. The candidate was Hassan Nadhem, a university professor from the city of Najaf.
Sources say that the Al-Asa’ib requires from any candidate for the culture portfolio that he commits to allocating a quota of government contracts to certain companies in the private sector, and to keeping a number of officials in ministerial positions.
The same sources say that Tehran recently asked its militias in Iraq to search for new funding due to the scarcity of financial resources as a result of US economic sanctions on Iran.
The ministries of culture and labour in the Abdul Mahdi government used to finance all the activities of the Al-Asa’ib militia, which does not seem to be changing in the new government, according to sources.
Observers said that the circumstances that marked the completion of Kadhimi’s cabinet makeup proved once again that freeing government work from the yoke of militias’ dominance remains an elusive goal that will not be achieved under the current government as the new PM tries to balance his ambition for change with the complex political, economic, and social realities of Iraq.