It seems like winter has become the time for new political crises in Iraq. In December 2011, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi forcing him into exile, and starting a new battle with his Iraqi National Movement (INM). Now, in December 2012, the government raided the offices and home of INM member Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, and accused some of his bodyguards of working with Hashemi’s security unit to carry out terrorist attacks. There have been accusations that Issawi has been involved with violence for quite some time, but also reports that Maliki has tried to manipulate them as well to gain concessions. This latest incident appears to be another such case.
The newest controversy started when one of the Finance Minister’s bodyguards was arrested in Baghdad. On December 21, 2012, a member of Issawi’s security detail was arrested trying to enter the Green Zone. A spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council told the press that the bodyguard had a longtime warrant out for him, and that he had been on the run for quite some time. During his interrogation, he implicated other guards, leading to raids upon Issawi’s house and offices leading to nine more guards being detained, and a large number of his staff. The Finance Minister originally claimed that up to 150 members of his entourage were swept up by the authorities. Most were released that day, but the guards remain in custody. Issawi has been a long time critic of the premier’s rule, and comes from the rival Iraqi National Movement (INM). The arrests also came just as President Jalal Talabani was going to Germany for medical treatment after suffering a stroke, and on the one year anniversary of a campaign against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for running death squads, which drove him into exile. That immediately made many political parties and the American government to believe that the prime minister was once again going after his political opponents using the security forces and courts. This has been something that he has been doing since 2008 when he first started to assert himself.
The prime minister’s State of Law immediately tried to deflect criticism. A parliamentarian from the list said that an investigation had not found any evidence to implicate the Finance Minister himself, but went on to claim that his bodyguards were involved with Hashemi’s in attacks. At the same time, he called for a parliamentary committee to look into the matter. Another State of Law member told the press that 20 families in Anbar had filed lawsuits against Hashemi and Issawi’s guards, and that ten judges signed off on the warrants, with the majority being Sunni in an effort to show that the raids were not sectarian. Finally, the prime minister himself said that he was not behind the arrests, only that it was the justice system doing its work. This has been the modus operandi in many of these cases. The premier’s list is the one talking to the media, and giving details about controversial arrests rather than the courts, while claiming that there is no political motivation behind them. Instead of diffusing things, it only increases suspicions.
The INM was predictably upset that the government was targeting another one of their leading members. Deputy Premier Salah al-Mutlaq threatened to withdraw the National Movement from the ruling coalition if there wasn’t an investigation into the arrests. On December 22 and 25 the INM did not attend the cabinet, and on the 23 it did not show up to parliament. The protests were merely symbolic, but united the party. After the conflict with Maliki over the Hashemi debacle in 2011, the list effectively ceased to exist. The leading members disagreed about how to react, and several lawmakers left. Now their outrage brought them together if for just a few days. That wasn’t enough to change Maliki’s course of action, but the reaction of others was.
Finance Minister Issawi at protest in support of him in Anbar Dec. 26, 2012 (AIN)
There was strong backlash by several groups within and without Iraq as well. President Obama called Minister Issawi the day of the arrests, while the U.S. Ambassador Robert Beecroft visited him, and the U.S. Embassy issued a protest to the Foreign Ministry. Starting that same day there were protests in Anbar, Salahaddin, and the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. The Anbar provincial council complained, and then there were more demonstrations in Fallujah starting on December 23 that shut down the highway to Jordan and Syria for several days that drew people from throughout Iraq. The head of the Sadr bloc in the legislature Bahaa Hussein Ali Kamal Araji voiced his concerns, and met with Speaker Nujafi. The Sadrists said that these types of actions cost the government legitimacy, and accused the prime minister of politicizing the security forces. Finally, the Kurdish Alliance protested the raids as well saying that they were unconstitutional. This was a far higher level of outrage than occurred during the Hashemi controversy. The fact that this was the second time that the prime minister was going after an INM leader obviously made people more concerned that Maliki was abusing his power. It also likely made the premier re-think pushing the matter any further as Issawi has not been personally implicated in whatever charges are going to be made against his bodyguards, and there have been no other arrests so far.
The detention of the Finance Minister’s guards came after years of accusations against Issawi. Before he became a politician, he was the head of the Fallujah hospital when the city was an insurgent hotbed. In 2010, Maliki told the American military he was worried about Issawi’s involvement with militants. There were reports for example, that Hashemi and Issawi ran a death squad in the city called Hamas of Iraq in 2006. A member of the prime minister’s Dawa party later said that the group was run by the Minister’s guards without his knowledge. As a result of these concerns, then commander of American forces in Iraq General Ray Odierno conducted an investigation. In August 2010, he sent the findings to the prime minister, which found nothing against Issawi. There were some reports that Maliki tried to use these stories against Issawi. When the government was being put together after the 2010 elections for instance, there was a report that Issawi was threatened to support Maliki’s second term in return for the speaker of parliament position by the prime minister or he would be charged with terrorism. Then in December 2011, when the security forces went after Vice President Hashemi, military units were deployed outside of Issawi’s house in the Green Zone placing him temporarily under house arrest. The Finance Minister then tried to fly to Kurdistan with Hashemi and Deputy Premier Mutlaq, but was forced off the plane. At the same time, some of his security detail were taken in for questioning about supporting insurgents in Fallujah. A Maliki adviser said there were accusations that Issawi was behind assassinations. Many of Iraq’s political figures have been involved in violence at one time or another. Claims that Issawi was involved with insurgents then due to his life in Fallujah should come as no surprise. The fact that General Odierno claimed that he found nothing on the Finance Minister should not be discounted. More importantly, the nature of the arrests of his guards in 2011 and currently point the finger at the prime minister manipulating the charges to pressure one of his critics more than anything.
The Iraqi government is characterized by the number of crises it has gone through. Just as one ends, another presents itself. The last several however, have all been created by Prime Minister Maliki. The arrest of Finance Minister Issawi’s guards is just the latest example. The Iraqi National Movement, Americans, and other leading parties have all seen it as another instance of the premier using the security forces against his political opponents. The fact that it came on the year anniversary of Vice President Hashemi going through a very similar set of circumstances only drove the point home more. Maliki has used targeted detentions before to send the message that anyone that opposes him is vulnerable. This also comes as all the major parties are preparing for the 2013 elections. The fact that there have been such strong reactions not only by the U.S. and the other lists, which were predictable, but on the Iraqi street as well may put a check on the premier going any further. He may have never intended to do so anyway as the arrests were a strong enough message. Now it’s only a matter of the prime minister and Finance Minister coming to some kind of agreement to end this blow up. Unfortunately it will not be the last time Iraq sees this type of incident.
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