Iraqi prime minister tested by early balancing acts

Finding a suitable Sunni politician to assume the Defence Ministry might be far less difficult than agreeing on a Shia for the Ministry of Interior.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi addresses the Iraqi parliament during the vote on the new government, on October 24. (AFP)
Put to the test. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi addresses the Iraqi parliament during the vote on the new government, on October 24. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi should be having a party but he is not. Fourteen of his ministers were approved by the Iraqi legislature, giving him enough reason to celebrate. He is technically the 49th prime minister of Iraq, presiding over a lopsided and incomplete cabinet, which might fall anytime.

However, eight of Abdul-Mahdi’s proposed cabinet members were vetoed by the Chamber of Deputies, leaving strategic portfolios such as defence, interior and education vacant. What Abdul-Mahdi pulled off were less-sensitive posts such as agriculture, youth affairs and labour. If he doesn’t come up with a new list by the next time parliament meets — November 6 — his cabinet might collapse, less than two weeks after its formation.

One strongly vetoed figure, for example, is Hassan al-Rabii, commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an all-Shia militia set up to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. Staunchly pro-Iranian and allied to the prime minister, Rabii was nominated, very surprisingly, for the post of minister of culture. The main sticking points are the ministries of interior and defence, however, not culture. They are being run by the prime minister on an interim basis until suitable candidates are agreed on.

For defence, a tug-of-war is between three Sunni candidates eyeing the post. One is Abdul-Mahdi’s original candidate, Faisal al-Jarba, a Soviet-trained air force pilot who was an adviser to the Iraqi president in 2015. He was vetoed by supporters of Hisham al-Daraji, another ex-officer from the Saddam era.

Daraji was deputy director of operations at the Ministry of Defence and commander of ground troops in the Iraqi Army. Both Jarba and Daraji raised the ire of hard-line Shia blocs in parliament, saying that they were too close to Saddam. Some claimed Jarba was part of Saddam’s aerial entourage.

A third candidate, Najm al-Jabouri, a US-trained officer and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, has put forth his candidacy. He has plenty of supporters due to his performance in the battles for the liberation of Mosul from ISIS and might succeed as a compromise candidate.

At the Interior Ministry, allocated exclusively to the Shias since 2003, the struggle is more complicated. There is only one candidate for the job — Faleh al-Fayyad, the recently fired national security adviser. In addition to his government job, he was head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known in Arabic as al-Hashed al-Shaabi. It was set up three years ago to battle ISIS in Iraq.

Educated as an electrical engineer at Mosul University, Fayyad was arrested by Saddam in December 1980, accused of being part of the Iran-backed underground and kept for five years at the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison. After the fall of Saddam in 2003 he reached the post of national security adviser, falling out with former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after the latter cuddled up to Saudi Arabia and announced that he would abide by forthcoming US sanctions renewed on Iran.

Fayyad’s name was vetoed by the Sairoon bloc of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which controls a plurality — 54 — of the seats in parliament.

Although technically part of the same camp, Fayyad and al-Sadr have been at dagger’s end for years, especially after al-Sadr too tried distancing himself from his Iranian patrons in 2017-18, calling on their ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, to step down and campaigning on ticket that was both anti-Iranian and anti-American.

Although part of the PMF, he has often criticised its politics, seeing that it ought to have remained a non-state player rather than get a political wing and start to yield influence in political affairs.

Ghaleb Shabandar, a ranking Sadrist, appealed to Sadr via Facebook, hinting that Fayyad was responsible for the 1999 killing of his father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, implying that he was working undercover for Saddam.

Finding a suitable Sunni politician to assume the Defence Ministry might be far less difficult than agreeing on a Shia for the Ministry of Interior. On that level, the quarrel is an internal Shia one with parties that emerged after the 2003 invasion, all formerly or now on the Iranian payroll.

Abadi’s Nasr Coalition won 42 out of 329 seats in parliament last May, far from enough to secure a majority. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition got 25 seats, which, when combined with the 48 of Fayyad’s ally Hadi al-Amiri and the 54 of al-Sadr, total 127. That coalition succeeded at naming Abdul-Mahdi prime minister but seem to agree on nothing further.

If either of them walks out on Abdul-Mahdi, his coalition might collapse much sooner than anybody expected. Abadi wouldn’t mind, after being squeezed out of the scene, forcefully by his former proteges, and neither would Maliki, whose candidacy for the vice-presidency was also vetoed by Sadr.

If Amiri doesn’t insert Fayyad or somebody of his like at the Interior Ministry, he, too, would find enough reason to withdraw support from Abdul-Mahdi. Left would be the Sadrists who were behind the blacklisting of his original ministers. They alone, however, cannot help Abdul-Mahdi stay in power.