Iraq woes deepen amid charges of Maliki comeback plot

Sunday 02/10/2016
Sacked Finance minister Hoshyar Zebari

LONDON - Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s for­mer prime minister, has been accused of under­mining his successor, Haider al-Abadi, after allegedly engineering the dismiss­al of a second senior government minister in the space of a month.

Hoshyar Zebari, who held the Fi­nance portfolio, was dismissed in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in September that he claims was both unconstitutional and political­ly motivated. Zebari, a Kurd, said he believed the vote was part of a hid­den political agenda “carried out by the State of Law parliamentary bloc, headed by Nuri al-Maliki”.

He said in a statement that parlia­mentary Speaker Salim al-Jabouri had been complicit in what Zebari described as a “vindictive, short-sighted” decision that was clearly intended to narrow political agen­das.

The removal of Zebari, one of Iraq’s most experienced political leaders, came weeks after a similar parliamentary vote ousted Iraq’s Sunni Defence minister Khalid al- Obeidi.

Both men were central to the Ab­adi cabinet — Zebari as the official in charge of overseeing a major inter­national loan to salvage the coun­try’s ailing economy and Obeidi as the one in charge of spearheading the military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Michael Knights, a veteran Iraq analyst with the Washington Insti­tute for Near East Policy who had recently returned from Baghdad, commented on Twitter: “I know a guerrilla war when I see one and Maliki is mounting a very effective political insurgency, back on his clandestine home turf.”

Both Zebari and Obeidi, who have dismissed corruption allega­tions levelled against them, were removed by a simple rather than an absolute majority of the parliament in secret votes, contrary to the con­stitution.

Zebari said he planned to chal­lenge the vote in the courts. He said his removal would jeopardise efforts to reintegrate Iraq into the world financial system, including implementing a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF has said it was commit­ted to the deal with Baghdad, with or without Zebari.

Maliki’s opponents claim he has exploited divisions within both Kurdish and Sunni factions in par­liament to undermine his rivals. Zebari is linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in Erbil that is at odds with the opposition Gorran Movement and elements of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Observers have speculated that Maliki’s ultimate target is Abadi himself, although it might take more than a simple majority to re­move the prime minister.

Abadi took over in 2014 after vigorous efforts by Maliki to cling to power despite presiding over the loss of Mosul and a large area of Iraqi territory to ISIS forces. He secured the country’s shared vice-presidency for a year until the post was abolished in 2015.

Maliki’s parliamentary power base is the State of Law bloc but he is also widely seen as the mas­termind of the shadowy ad hoc Re­form Front that groups opposition­ists from a number of parties. The Reform Front exploited rivalries within the Sunni block to target Obeidi and generate enough parlia­mentary support to remove him.

The latest political manoeuvrings come at a time of intense specula­tion about when Iraq will launch a long-awaited military offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. It is an is­sue that is likely to be at the top of the agenda when Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader and head of the KDP, makes an anticipated visit to Baghdad for talks with Abadi.

The Defence post is likely to re­main vacant at least until an appeal by the ousted Obeidi makes its way through the courts. Any nominee for a replacement must win the support of parliament and there is a fear that sectarian elements will try to play politics with an appoint­ment that would normally, but not automatically, go to a Sunni.

The hiatus automatically compli­cates plans for the retaking of Mo­sul, which explains why the United States lobbied so intensively but unsuccessfully, to retain Obeidi.

The situation could be further complicated if a pro-Iranian, a nominee of the Reform Front or a non-professional ends up with the Defence portfolio. Some analysts see it as improbable that an autumn offensive against ISIS could go ahead without a Defence minister in place.

Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, underlined the current po­litical perils when he told Voice of America’s Kurdish service: “Now there is no Finance minister, no Defence minister, no Interior min­ister.” He said the Foreign minister might be the next to go.

“If the policy is to bring down the Iraqi government, this will desta­bilise the situation because the question is, if this government is to go, who’s going to form the next government?” Hussein said. “How would you form it? When will it ma­terialise? This is a dangerous thing.”