Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond Iraq’s graft probe

A parliamentary investigation into alleged corruption at Iraq’s Defence Ministry may presage a new political realignment in the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

It all started when Iraq’s parliament began questioning Defence Minister Khalid Al-Obeidi last week on charges of multi-million graft and fraud involving weapons and supplies contracts. 

The probe into the work of the Iraqi defence establishment was initiated by two Shia lawmakers over allegations of irregularities, graft and abuse of power by the Sunni minister.

Iraq’s parliament is known to be disorderly. Infighting among representatives of Iraq’s main religious and ethnic communities in the assembly is common, although the factions try to avoid full-blown confrontation.

What was expected to be another round of Shia-Sunni bickering in the divided parliament surprisingly turned into a political hotchpotch that entangled the defence minister and top lawmakers from his own Sunni bloc.

If Iraq’s sometimes chaotic political process is any guide, it is a fair guess to conclude that after last week parliamentary drama the country’s sectarian and political landscape is about to be redrawn. 

Given the fluidity of Iraq’s political map, the wrangle was quickly interpreted as a sign of new sectarian and political alignments as the end of the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group draws closer amid pressure for government rebuilding in post-IS era.

What happened behind closed doors on 2 August and the political manoeuvring that followed throw more light on how Iraqis may have awakened to a new and tricky order.

Instead of answering questions prepared by the two Shia MPs on episodes of graft in his department, Al-Obeidi launched into a tirade of accusations of corruption against Sunni lawmakers and politicians, including powerful parliamentary speaker Saleem Al-Jubouri.

In a stunning act of self-defence, Al-Obeidi told parliament that he was being summoned for questioning not for any wrong-doing but in retribution for his refusal to allow graft and embezzlement by Sunni politicians.

He specifically named Al-Jubouri, whom he charged with seeking commissions for himself in a $1 billion army catering contract. Al-Obeidi said the speaker had tried to blackmail him when he turned down the request.

In another episode, Al-Obeidi accused a Sunni member of the parliament’s defence and security committee of trying to broker a contract for a firm he owns to sell the ministry hundreds of US-made Humvee armoured vehicles at overblown prices.

Al-Obeidi said the Sunni lawmaker, Mohamed Al-Karbouli, had asked for the ministry to be charged $300,000 per vehicle, when Humvees are normally sold at $60,000 each by the American company that makes them.

“I was walking in a minefield… because of the corruption of the speaker and those who surround him,” Al-Obeidi told parliament, according to a video released later. “They were trading in the blood of [Iraqi] soldiers.”

Al-Obeidi has failed to provide evidence to support his claims, but the revelations have triggered uproar among many Sunni lawmakers who have accused him of making up the corruption episodes.

Some have accused him of targeting Sunni lawmakers while keeping silent on Shia politicians who are no less corrupt than their Sunni peers.

The blame game, however, soon turned into a legal wrangling.

While the parliament  decided Tuesday  to strip al-Jubouri of his immunity to allow investigators to question him, a court found him innocent and decided that there is no evidence to pursue the case.

Iraq’s chief prosecutor said he had filed a complaint against those whose names were mentioned by Al-Obeidi. The country’s judicial authority has also imposed a travel ban on Al-Jubouri and the rest of those on the list.

While the parliament decided on Tuesday to strip al Jubouri of his immunity to allow investigators to question him, a court found him innocent and decided that there is no enough evidence to pursue the case.

Prime minister Haider Al-Abadi asked Iraq’s anti-corruption body to investigate the allegations while the parliament’s transparency committee has started its own probe.

Yet the most immediate challenge remains for the country’s judiciary to follow a due process and investigat one of the country’s most serious corruption scandals.

However, many Iraqis believe that like most corruption episodes unveiled in the past this one also will end up becoming “a closed case” as a result of a lack of evidence and the wrong-doers will almost certainly go free.

Part of the problem, they say, is that this case is situated at the centre rather than the periphery of the system.

Nevertheless, it has underlined the truly horrifying scope of political corruption in Iraq which for years has been bleeding the country dry.

Iraq has been languishing for years at the bottom of the list of most corrupt countries, according to an index of perceptions of corruption compiled each year by the international NGO Transparency International, and charges and counter-charges have showed huge corruption scandals at the heart of Iraq’s political leadership.

From the public perspective, the cases of corruption mentioned by Al-Obeidi and the MPs pale beside the mountains of cash that may have been swindled from the defence ministry’s budget alone.  

Soon after the revelations, the Iraqi media reported many other corruption episodes that involved graft, embezzlement and commissions paid to lawmakers and politicians to facilitate defence ministry contracts.

With Iraq facing a cash crisis due to a sharp fall in oil prices and the increasing costs of the war against IS, the amount of money that can be made from fraudulent schemes is colossal.

Apart from the present corruption scandal, the controversy has also showed that a political earthquake may be in store for Iraq as it braces itself for a final assault on IS to retake the rest of the territory the group has captured and prepare the beleaguered country for a period of stabilisation.

The Al-Obeidi episode has aroused the feeling that the drama may have been orchestrated to prepare the ground for a drastic shift in Iraq’s national politics, especially in the long-simmering sectarian conflict.

Many Sunni politicians say Al-Obeidi has used the parliamentary interrogation and his accusations of Sunni leaders as a platform for a bigger political game that may have dire consequences for the country’s sectarian divide.

To these Sunnis, what looked like Al-Obeidi’s defection from his bloc will cement the fragmentation among the Sunni political groups and weaken the bargaining power of the Sunni community at large.

While Iraq’s Sunni Arabs share many priorities and infighting among them remains relatively rare, their political factions have never managed to find a centre of gravity around which to unify.

The ragtag coalition they forged after the collapse of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003 was primarily established to face up to Shia empowerment.

Such public dissent by a key political leader could put the Sunni bloc in danger of falling apart as it struggles to put the Sunni house in order for the post-IS era.

Indeed, Al-Obeidi’s defection from his bloc could indicate a strategic shift by some Sunni political and tribal factions towards closer relations, or perhaps a political alliance, with the ruling Shia groups.

In a broader perspective, Al-Obeidi’s bombshell in parliament amounts to a strategic vision rather than an emotional reaction or an act of piecemeal self-defence against accusations of corruption.

By targeting top Sunni political leaders and tearing apart the Sunni alliance, Al-Obeidi has willingly and carefully aligned his position with that of the Shia ruling class.

Al-Obeidi is one of the few Sunni leaders who have supported the participation of the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) in the offensive to take back the northern city of Mosul from IS militants.

As defence minister he has also been closely cooperating with PMF leaders in driving back IS militants in other Sunni-populated provinces.

Edging nearer to an alliance with the Shia, Al-Obeidi made a pilgrimage the day after he was quizzed by parliament to the holy shrine of Kadhum, one of the most revered Shia imams.

Though highly symbolic, the visit, broadcast on prime-time television in Iraq, carried a clear message of closeness, and some may say even allegiance, to the Shia.

Significantly, Al-Obeidi’s tribe held a public gathering in a Baghdad hotel this week to show support for the minister, a move seen as a full endorsement by the tribe of the minister’s change of direction.

To put all this into a broader context, the tribe is one of the largest in the Mosul, Hawija, Shirqqat and surrounding areas, now targets to be liberated from IS militants.

Like many Sunni tribes in the Diyalah, Salah Al-Deen and Anbar Provinces that collaborated with the Iraqi security forces and the Shia-led PMF in retaking cities from IS, the Obeidi tribe were signalling their throwing their weight behind the powerful Shia PMF force.

Iraq’s Sunnis have generally been opposed to the PMF taking part in recapturing their areas from IS, but there are two factors which could drive a dramatic shift.

The increasing role of the PMF has become a fait accompli, and the liberation of the Sunni cities is expected to turn into a high-stakes political contest for power which could necessitate much rethinking.

The shift seems to reflect a sense of realpolitik on the part of some local Sunni leaders who probably see the incumbent Shia as likely to prevail.

But it remains to be seen if this shift can unite the community behind this view of a new sectarian and political order or whether it will simply relapse into another round of turbulence in Iraq’s ongoing conflict trap.

add comment

  • follow us on