The Iraq Report: Iraqi rocket scientists and imploding elections

The Iraq Report: Iraqi rocket scientists and imploding elections
This week in Iraq: Electioneering heats up, with alliances tested and new overtures to Kurdish 'kingmakers'.
8 min read
31 January, 2018
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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Iraqis have faced yet another dramatic week as the campaigning for the elections slated for May heats up, with politicians engaging in cloak-and-dagger tactics, accusing each other of skulduggery, and shifting alliances. With electoral lists changing so rapidly in just a few months, many Iraqi voters are confused as to who stands for what, and which list they should vote for.


Former ministers accused of corruption who sought refuge abroad have also been hauled back to Iraq in a first-of-its-kind international law enforcement operation in collaboration with Interpol. While Iraq still ranks highly as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, this latest effort indicates either that Iraq is moving towards cleaning up its act, or it is simply neutralising political threats while attempting to maintain the image of fighting corruption.


Abadi’s coalition rips at the seams


Since announcing earlier this month that local and national elections would be held simultaneously on 12 May, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has faced a series of political disasters, leading some to doubt whether he is charismatic enough as a leader to hold his list together before they are tested in the polls.


Abadi harmed his credibility as a unifier after forging a political alliance earlier this month with the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces, after spending much of the battle for Mosul assuring Iraqis that no militants would be able to field candidates in local elections without first disarming. Abadi named his new electoral list the “Victory Alliance”, seeking to capitalise from the perception that he was instrumental in the defeat of Islamic State group extremists.


However, and less than 48 hours later, the pro-Iran PMF, or Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic, publicly announced they would be splitting from the Victory Alliance and contesting elections separately under their own “Conquest” list, against the prime minister. Essentially, and by allying with the PMF, Abadi ensured that they would have grounds to proceed with fielding their own candidates, but failed to calculate that they would abandon him once they got what they wanted.


A little more than a fortnight later, the incumbent suffered yet another blow to his prestige, with senior Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim announcing that he would also be parting ways with Abadi. Hakim – scion of an influential Shia clerical family – declared he would be setting up his own “Wisdom Alliance” to contest elections against the prime minister, declaring that he would continue to try to work with Abadi “for the shared benefit of the country”.


Despite the positive-sounding rhetoric, reports suggest that Hakim threatened to walk out on Abadi soon after the departure of the PMF’s Conquest bloc. As Abadi was unwilling to guarantee better political positions should the Victory Alliance claim victory in May, Hakim decided to weaken Abadi by leaving the list and creating his own.


Aside from Abadi’s position appearing increasingly weaker, further criticism has been levelled at the decision to hold both local and national government elections on the same day. Holding the polls together means it is likely that the groups which dominate the national vote will also control provincial councils. This may be problematic as, ordinarily, midterm local elections often act as a barometer for the people’s level of contentment with the national leadership, whereby they can punish them at the ballot box in the provinces. By bringing the votes into synchronicity, however, the federal government has essentially erased that opportunity.

Iraq's national Police Day celebrations, earlier this month [AFP]

Overtures to Kurds as Baghdad politicians curry favour


As the feuds over the elections intensify, the Kurds are being courted by Abadi’s government as well as his rivals, each seeking to get the Kurdish vote on board in order to outmanoeuvre the others.


The Kurds have only recently taken a severe drubbing and lost about 40 percent of territory they gained when IS swept across two-thirds of Iraq in 2014. In October, once IS was largely routed, Abadi launched a military operation against the Kurds to reclaim the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as well as other territories deemed to be under federal jurisdiction. With deep partisan divisions, the Kurdistan Regional Government quickly buckled under the pressure, and found themselves under siege by not only Baghdad, but also neighbouring Iran and Turkey, leading to the collapse of the presidency of veteran Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.


The KRG’s autonomy was severely curtailed, with airports practically shut down, border crossings taken over, and financial independence undermined by the federal government. Abadi took an increasingly hard line, claiming that Kurds were Iraqi citizens, and therefore the responsibility of the Baghdad government, not Erbil’s regional administration. However, and since the Kurds have been deemed neutralised as an existential threat to Iraq’s territorial integrity, Abadi and his rivals have been reaching out to them to coax them into an alliance.


Abadi’s government is now considering lifting the air blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan which was imposed following the controversial independence referendum held last September. All flights to and from KRG-controlled airports had to be redirected to Baghdad, exacerbating an already painful financial crisis in Erbil.


The lifting of the flight ban is being seen as an overture to the Kurds to get them to re-engage in politics in the Iraqi capital, while the recent debacle of losing Kirkuk is still fresh in many minds. This could, in effect, place the Kurds in position of kingmaker, as their votes could determine who eventually gains control in Baghdad, while increasing Kurdish influence by allowing them to demand certain political concessions, perhaps relating to control over key federal ministries.


The lifting of the flight ban follows the reopening of Iran’s borders with the KRG, and parliament’s decision on Tuesday to lift the ban on Kurdish foreign exchanges trading. However, Baghdad is still keen to show who is top dog, and has pressed ahead with a deal signed with global oil giant BP to develop Kirkuk’s oil fields. Baghdad wants Erbil’s engagement, but wants to ensure the Kurds “understand their position” in Iraq’s federal structure.

US energy firm Orion is expected to sign a deal to extract natural resources near Basra, in Iraq's south [AFP]

‘Hamas’ rocket scientist, corrupt minister deported to Iraq


In a strange turn of events, the Philippines announced last Monday that it would deport an elderly Iraqi rocket scientist that Manila alleges provided the Palestinian Hamas movement with technical knowledge to fire ballistic missiles at Israel.


Accompanied on camera by the Iraqi scientist in handcuffs, national police chief Ronald Dela Rosa said that Iraq tipped off the Philippines about the presence of Taja Mohammad al-Jabori. Dela Rosa added that Jabori, 70, admitted to being a member of the Palestinian organisation, but that he was being deported for visa violations rather than militant activity.


However, The New Arab reported that Iraqi officials had not filed any legal charges against Jabori and denied that he was a person of interest to Baghdad, and hence had not filed an extradition request as indicated by Filipino authorities. If anything, Baghdad believes that Jabori, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, was a “victim of fabrication by the Israeli intelligence services to portray him as a terrorist”.


Jabori was a military technology scientist who was employed by the former Baathist regime under Saddam Hussein. Following the 2003 invasion, and after a spate of murders of Iraqi scientists, Jabori fled to Syria, then to Europe. An anonymous Hamas official told Quds Press that Jabori was not a member of its organisation, but was targeted by Israel in collaboration with Manila on suspicion of being a member.


Aside from Baath-era scientists, Baghdad has also been dealing with other, more easily verifiable criminal activity – corruption.


Iraq is widely considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking tenth on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Apart from the largely unchecked activities of powerful militias controlling ministries and state institutions, powerful men and women who belong to more traditional political parties are also involved in embezzling millions from the Iraqi state and engaging in fraudulent contracting.


Interpol handed over Abdel Falah al-Sudani to Iraqi authorities last Thursday in the first official collaboration between the international law enforcement agency and Baghdad’s criminal justice system.


Sudani – a member of the ruling Da’wa Party – served as Iraq’s trade minister from 2006 to 2009, and was sentenced in absentia in 2012 to seven years imprisonment on corruption charges. After charges emerged against him in 2009, Sudani – who is also a British national – was captured as he attempted to flee the country, but was then released on bail – at which point he successfully managed to escape to Lebanon. With the Iraqi government failing to recapture the disgraced minister, he was placed on Interpol’s wanted list in June 2014 on graft allegations and was arrested in Beirut last September, finally now delivered back into Iraqi custody.


While it is encouraging that Sudani was finally captured, Iraq has an amnesty law that allows officials to escape jail time by simply paying back whatever they pilfered from public coffers. Further, concerns have been raised about other ministries that are rife with corruption, with officials remaining largely untouchable due to their connections with powerful crime syndicates and pro-Iran militant groups.


Although Sudani was a fugitive abroad, these officials are seemingly free to continue their corruption unchecked while walking free in Iraq, leading to speculation that he is being punished for political reasons rather than as part of a genuine fight against corruption.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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