Iraq’s ministerial roulette grinds on as do fears of Iranian influence

Conflicting remarks may reveal little more than a government forced to kowtow to the will of its allies.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C) in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Limited margin for manoeuvre. Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C) in Baghdad. (Reuters)

The ministerial wheel of fortune continues to spin as Iraq’s struggle to appoint ministers to head its security and defence ministries enters the penultimate phase.

Nominations put forth by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to fill the seats of defence, interior and justice were leaked in an official letter obtained by Iraqi newspaper Al Sumaria.

Names included Iran-favoured for the interior Falih Alfayyadh, a former head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces; former parliamentary Speaker Salim al-Jabbouri for defence; and Kurdish Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin for justice.

The names are no less controversial now than when they were first proposed.

As many laud the new head of state as an “independent,” others fear the outcome of prolonged ministerial roulette and the latest nominees could tip the balance in the interest of Iran.

Another contentious proposal — which has since been dismissed — envisaged a reshuffle in which the Defence Ministry seat would no longer be assumed by a Sunni politician as a requirement of the muhasassa framework.

As an institution in which Washington has long embedded itself, the Defence Ministry could have devolved to Iran with which Iraq’s Shia political parties have cosy ties. However, the potential to disrupt the sectarian-based apportionment system fell through in absence of public support of the unconstitutional move to seat a Shia instead of a Sunni politician in the ministry.

Changing the way seats are divvied up was criticised by the head of Binaa bloc and former head of Iraq’s Integrity Commission Talal al Zobai, who voiced distrust of moves that Abdul-Mahdi cloaked in promises of “enacting reform.”

The United States, like Tehran, is carving out new tributaries of power in western Iraq in the form of military bases from Saladin to Anbar to insulate itself against being ejected from the political game board it designed 16 years ago.

The US actions betray US President Donald Trump’s promise for the United States to exit “dumb wars” in the region and depict a dangerously imbalanced relationship between Iraq and its former occupier.

As the United States and Iran race to secure control of Iraq’s resource wealth and strategic importance, the unresolved ministerial vacuum will gnaw at Iraq’s sovereignty and ability to rule according to its people’s wishes.

Lack of parliamentary quorum, mistrust, Iran’s recalcitrance to vet actors it fears will not bend to its will and deepening rifts between rival political blocs might explain the prolonged scramble over ministry jobs but Baghdad’s position on the flourishing of US bases is no clearer.

During a trip January 9 to Baghdad, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Baghdad and was allegedly urged to keep US troops stationed in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Conflicting remarks may reveal little more than a government forced to kowtow to the will of its allies that have helped prop up the post-2003 Iraq state.

During former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s tenure, Iraq denied claims of unauthorised US troops and associated cases, a tradition that Abadi’s successor adopted. During a news conference in December, Abdul-Mahdi rejected allegations of secretly establishing US bases.

However, the narrative of a “strong and stable” government has not convinced attentive world audiences that the United States is completely out.

The men who take up seats of security and military institutions will either grant Iran an uncontested victory, which it has arguably achieved in the realm of institutionalised religion, politics and trade, or welcome a heightened phase of the United States’ and Iran’s proxy war in Iraq.

Evidence of newly implanted US military bases reignited old arguments, either in favour of keeping the United States or Iran firmly put.

Reports placed the number of newly formed secret US bases at three, all in Anbar province.

Nayef Al Shammari, vice-chairman of parliament’s Security and Defence Committee, raised doubts over the transparency of the United States’ security practices and the absence of reliable data laying bare the true figure of US installations and personnel on Iraqi soil.

He scolded Baghdad for its wilful blindness towards what many view as the United States’  in the post-ISIS phase. “Al Asad Airbase is the only base whose existence is known” to central and provincial authorities, he said.

Assurances from Abdul-Mahdi hit back against speculations that Iraqi officials were not informed of Trump’s 3-hour surprise visit. The prime minister professed knowledge of the visit and boasted to have rejected Trump’s request to travel from Baghdad to greet him and the first lady.

Trump’s December visit carries echoes of George W. Bush’s meeting with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in 2007 at the same base following a request similar to that Abdul-Mahdi declined.