Thursday, August 20, 2015

Iraq’s Sadrist Deputy Premier Sacrificial Lamb To Anti-Corruption Protests

Deputy Premier Bahaa Araji of the Sadr movement recently resigned upon orders from Moqtada al-Sadr. The day before he said he would walk all over those who accused him of corruption. Apparently Sadr took those charges more seriously than Araji. A few days later he was issued an arrest warrant making his humiliation over having to step down even worse. Araji was a long time Sadrist starting off as a Mahdi Army commander in Baghdad, before heading Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in parliament, and topped off by becoming the deputy prime minister in 2014. Despite their long history, Sadr sacrificed Araji to appease the new wave of anti-graft protests in Iraq.

August marked former Deputy Premier Bahaa Araji’s fall from grace. First, Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced that he was going to dismiss Araji and his other deputies as the first part of his reform program to reduce the size of the government. Next, his boss Moqtada al-Sadr ordered him to resign before he was to loose his position because he was facing accusations over graft. Finally, on August 16 a court issued five warrants for Araji on corruption charges. This was an inglorious end to the highest ranking Sadrist in the government. Araji had faced questions about his scruples for years, and yet nothing happened to him. He was an important figure in the Sadr trend, and was thus protected by his party. Things changed in the summer of 2015 as another round of massive protests started in Iraq demanding an end to the rampant theft within the government, which then got the support of the leading cleric in the country Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sadr acted pre-emptively, and made Araji step down to show that he too was with this new wave demanding reforms in the Iraqi state.

Bahaa Araji started off as a militia leader within the Sadr Trend before moving into politics. He was the head of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad’s Khadimiya district, which gave him de facto control of the important shrine there. He was then elected to parliament in 2005 becoming a member of the anti-corruption integrity committee. In 2010 he won a second term and became the leader of Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in the legislature. His power extended into the security forces as well as he had a commando unit within the Defense Ministry, which reported directly to him. (1) While Araji moved up the ranks he was continuously plagued by corruption charges. For example, in 2012 he was investigated for a money laundering scheme through the Central Bank of Iraq. (2) In 2013 he faced a warrant over a case involving the Red Crescent, but that was later dropped. Araji was a key leader in the Sadr movement in both military and political affairs. He was from an important district in Baghdad, and moved up the ranks from a militiaman to being one of Iraq’s political elite, which paralleled Sadr’s attempt to legitimize his movement amongst the country’s other ruling parties and join them in power. Part of that rise meant taking part in the corruption, which is part and parcel of running the state.

Today Araji stands accused of a new round of corruption charges. More importantly, he was made to step down before Abadi dismissed him to show that Sadr was ahead of the curve in the new effort to root out graft and theft within the government. Sadr was willing to sacrifice him for short term political gain, but will he let Araji stand trial? Top officials in Iraq rarely go to court, and none are ever found guilty. Prime Minister Abadi claims he wants to correct this, but it’s yet to be seen whether he has the will or the means to move forward. Sadr’s backing would give the premier a major impetus to push through with his program, but neither of their intentions are clear right now.


1. Parker, Ned, “59 Iraqi troops held in raid,” Los Angeles Times, 9/27/07

2. Shafaq News, “Liberal bloc denies its MPs involvement in the Central Bank case,” 11/12/12


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