Iraq’s new ministers more of the same mould
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.