Beirut: Iraqi parliamentarians will vote Tuesday on the eight vacant posts in the cabinet of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi. If he fails to come up with an acceptable assortment, Abdul Mehdi runs a high risk of early failure. He would have to either step down or continue with a lopsided and incomplete government, one in which he has to personally assume all vacant portfolios himself.
A French-trained economist and former communist, Abdul Mehdi managed to secure approval for 14 out of 22 ministers on October 25, becoming the 49th prime minister of Iraq — until further notice. He got filled politically nonsensitive posts, like agriculture, youth affairs, and labour, and left vacant “sovereignty portfolios”, like interior, defence, and education.
The Sadrist opposition
The Sairoun bloc of cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, which controls 54 seats in the Iraqi parliament, vetoed three names put forth by Abdul Mehdi — all either affiliated with or members of the pan-Shiite Popular Mobilisation Units, better known in Arabic as Al Hashd Al Sha’abi.
Although a founding member of Al Hashd, Al Sadr has been increasingly critical of its activities, after parting ways with the Iranians in mid-2017 and inching closer to Saudi Arabia. Given his strong relationship with Iran, Abdul Mehdi is forced to accommodate them, especially after they fell out with his predecessor Haidar Al Abadi, when Al Abadi refused to raise their salaries or include their expenses in the 2018 budget.
Ahmad Al Asadi, spokesman for the Fateh Alliance, said Abdul Mehdi’s first priority should be “justice” for members of Al Hashd, claiming they had been severely wronged by the former government.
Al Sadr has vetoed Hasan Al Rubai, commander of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, a member of Al Hashd, earmarked by Abdul Mehdi for the Ministry of Culture and Qusai Suhail, a geologist and ex-Sadrist, designated for the Ministry of Higher Education.
According to sources in Baghdad, Abdul Mehdi will likely let the Kurdistan Democratic Party nominate one of its members for the Ministry of Culture and grant the vacant Ministry of Justice to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. He will also likely name a Christian independent as Minister of Emigration.
He is also inclined towards reversing the plan to appoint Siba Taii, a 47-year old university professor, to the Ministry of Education, letting ex-Parliament Speaker Usama Al Nujayfi name a member from his bloc instead. Also earmarked for change is Eyad Samarrai, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, who Abdul Mehdi had nominated as Minister of Planning.
Ala’a Hamed, a prominent Iraqi analyst, told Gulf News: “The real problem is with the Minister of Interior. Al Sadr wants to choose a figure who has not been in power before and who is not a member of parliament.” Abdul Mehdi’s original candidate was Faleh Al Fayyad, the former leader of Al Hashd who was fired from his job as National Security Adviser by Haidar Abadi, earlier this summer.
Abdul Mehdi is presently acting Minister of Interior, insisting on Fayyad as his final choice. If the Al Sadr bloc continues to veto him, it could spell serious trouble for the cabinet, especially if no consensus is reached on the Ministry of Defence.
That post has traditionally been in the hands of Iraqi Sunnis since 2003. Abdul Mehdi’s original choice was Faisal Al Jarba, a Soviet-trained air force pilot accused of being the former commander of Saddam Hussain’s aerial entourage. The Prime Minister has abandoned him, going instead for Hesham Al Daraji, the former deputy director of operations at the Ministry of Defence. Both are considered survivors of the pre-2003 era.
A third candidate has put forth his nomination — Najm Al Jabouri, a US-trained officer and veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, hailed by many for his role in the liberation of Mosul from Daesh.
“Membership in the former [Saddam] regime is no longer as sensitive as it used to be,” explained Hamed, adding: “Such affiliation is being used against present candidates by people challenging them for the same post, often from the same religious background.” He added that the crisis in Iraq has changed from “open sectarianism” to “political conflict, coated with sectarianism”.
The Faleh Al Fayyad dilemma
The Defence Ministry dilemma is a Sunni-Sunni one, while the Ministry of Interior has been exclusively in the hands of the Shiites since 2003. Sunni politicians accuse the (Shiite) Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) of monopolising the Interior Ministry and packing its police department with Iran-backed militias to strike at the Sunni community after 2003, punishing them collectively for having produced Saddam Hussain.
Galeb Shabandar, a ranking Sadrist, appealed to Al Sadr openly, saying that Al Fayyad was responsible for the 1999 murder of his father, Mohammad Sadeq Al Sadr, hinting that he had been working undercover for Saddam’s intelligence.
Al Fayyad himself is an ex-political prisoner under Saddam who spent the years 1980-1985 at the infamous Abu Guraib Prison. He fell out with Al Abadi over the ex-premier’s relationship with Al Hashd, and Abdul Mehdi insists on rewarding him with a cabinet post.
During last May’s parliamentary elections, Al Sadr obtained 54 out of 329 seats in Parliament, giving him the largest bloc — but not enough to hold an absolute majority. He had to tactically team up with Hadi Al Ameri of Al Hashd, who obtained 48 seats, giving them a combined total of 102. The State of Law Coalition got only 25 seats, and Al Sadr insists that its leader Nouri Al Malki is not entitled to serve as Vice-President for a second term, given that he had occupied the post since 2014.