Iraq’s new ministers more of the same mould

Sunday 12/02/2017
Iraq’s new Defence Minister Erfan al-Hiyali

London - At the end of January, Ira­qi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi managed to gain parliamentary ap­proval for his nominees to the crucial ministries of Defence and the Interior. Erfan al-Hiyali, a Sunni, has taken up the post of De­fence minister and Qasim al-Araji, a Shia, has become the new Interior minister.
The position of Defence minister had been vacant for half a year and that of the Interior minister even longer. Mohammed al-Ghabban resigned as Interior minister last July after a terrorist attack in the Karrada district of Baghdad killed more than 300 civilians preparing for end-of-Ramadan festivities.
The public outrage was so great that Ghabban was forced from of­fice, even though he hails from the extremely powerful Iran-backed Badr Organisation, an affiliation that usually makes politicians im­mune to answering for their short­comings.
About two months later, Defence minister Khaled al-Obeidi, was sacked after lawmakers loyal to for­mer prime minister Nuri al-Maliki accused him of weakening the army and for being responsible for mis­appropriation of state funds and corruption, allegations he denied.
Maliki made the move to weaken Abadi and chip away at his allies to make a political comeback. He was forced out of office in 2014 for what was perceived as rampant sectari­anism against Sunni Arabs.
Last October, with US and Ira­nian backing, Iraq launched its long-awaited campaign to recap­ture Mosul from Islamic State (ISIS) extremists, who had captured it in 2014. Not having a Defence minis­ter at the time was embarrassing for Abadi.
It is, however, very unlikely that filling the two cabinet positions will make much, if any, difference in how Iraq conducts itself. The ap­pointments of Hiyali and Araji are in some respects similar to those of Obaidi and Ghabban in 2014.
The Interior Ministry, which con­trols most of Iraq’s security appara­tuses, including the federal police, has long been the purview of the Badr Organisation. Araji, like Ghab­ban is from Badr, whose sectarian militia is one of the most power­ful of the Iranian-sponsored death squads and has been accused of killing thousands of Sunni civilians in Baghdad.
Iraq’s federal police are militias in uniforms and it is highly unlikely that Araji will steer the ministry’s course from that which was pre­scribed for it a decade ago. After all, Badr is led by Hadi al-Amiri, a former cabinet minister and one of Iran’s most loyal militant leaders, having also fought for Tehran dur­ing the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
He is also one of the main com­manders of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which has been formally accepted as a branch of the Iraqi military by the Abadi government. With such weight and authority behind him, Araji will simply continue the sta­tus quo.
Hiyali, on the other hand, will continue a succession of weak, inef­fectual or easily disposed of Sunni Defence ministers. Hiyali was in former president Saddam Hussein’s army but was discharged for at­tempting to overthrow the Ba’athist regime. Upon his return from exile, he served in Maliki’s Golden Divi­sion, branded the “Dirty Brigade” for its sectarian violence. Although he is a Sunni, Hiyali’s links to the Baghdad establishment are clear.
During the Maliki administra­tion, the ghost soldiers scandal, which was blown open by Abadi in 2014, showed how tens of thou­sands of fake soldiers were on the Defence Ministry’s payroll with their salaries being collected by the commanders. There has been little evidence that corruption is still not rampant in the ministry.
Observers say that whoever holds the Defence portfolio will likely be an ineffectual Sunni who can be easily shunted aside if he becomes inconvenient, while the Interior Ministry will always be controlled by Badr militiamen. The faces change but the roles remain the same.