Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Once Again Iraq’s Premier Maliki Goes After Former Finance Minister Issawi

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has increasingly used arrest warrants to intimidate and get rid of his political enemies. The latest example occurred in March 2013 when a court ordered former Finance Minister Rafi Issawi to be detained on terrorism charges. Issawi is from the Iraqi National Movement, which is one of the main rivals to the prime minister’s State of Law, and he has often criticized the prime minister’s rule. In December 2012, some of his bodyguards were arrested, and allegedly confessed to carrying out attacks. That led to the current protests in western, eastern, and northern Iraq along with Issawi eventually resigning. Now the ante has been upped as Maliki is going after the former minister himself. Rather than actually trying to arrest Issawi it appears the warrant was a scare tactic.

On March 12, 2013, security forces stopped the former Finance Minister. Issawi was going to a funeral of a local council head in the Rutba district of Anbar province when he ran into group of vehicles backed by helicopters. The ex-Minister was not arrested however. Afterward, there were some reports that Issawi was attempting to flee to Jordan, and that he was turned away because there was an arrest warrant for him on terrorism charges. That story was later proven false. The entire incident appeared to be for show. If the government wanted to detain Issawi this was a perfect opportunity as he was isolated, while driving through the countryside. The fake claim that he was trying to get out of Iraq appeared to be a justification for the raid. Overall, it was obviously meant to intimidate Issawi, to let him know that the government knew about his movements, and could pick him up when they wanted to. This was just the latest episode in a drawn out drama between Issawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Former Finance Minister Issawi at the podium before protesters in Anbar (Al-Mada)

The current dispute between the two has its origins in the arrest of several of Issawi’s bodyguards. In December 2012, some of the Finance Minister’s security detail was picked up in Baghdad on terrorism charges. A spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council told the media that the head of Issawi’s bodyguards had confessed to involvement in attacks, while a member of the premier’s State of Law list said that twenty families in Anbar had filed lawsuits against members of the minister’s security unit. Later, state-run Iraqiya TV aired a confession of one of Issawi’s guards claiming that he received orders from the minister’s son-in-law to carry out assassinations. Immediately afterward, protests sprang up in Anbar, Baghdad, and other provinces in support of Issawi, which continue to this day. Issawi then started boycotting session of the cabinet, which led to Maliki replacing him temporarily with Planning Minister Ali Yousef Abdul-Nabi of the Sadr Trend in February. The next month, Issawi announced his resignation in front of a huge crowd of demonstrators in Ramadi, Anbar. Iraqiya TV reported that the prime minister did not accept his resignation, because he was being investigated for corruption. This mirrored the arrest of Vice President Tariq Hashemi’s guards in December 2011, which led to a warrant for him, and his eventual self-imposed exile in Turkey. Perhaps Maliki was hoping for that series of events to be repeated with Issawi.

In fact, during the Hashemi affair, Issawi was temporarily targeted as well. On December 15, 2011, security forces surrounded both Hashemi and Issawi’s residences in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Then the pair was forced off a plane at Baghdad airport for a planned meeting with Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani. This all resulted from the arrest of several of the vice president’s guards who confessed on television to carrying out attacks and murders in Anbar. One connected their operations through a number of officials to Issawi. The government then said that it would investigate the Finance Minister, which led to some of his bodyguards to be arrested as well. Hashemi eventually left the country, but nothing came of the charges against Issawi. Perhaps going after the vice president was enough for Maliki at that time. Either way, it set the stage for the current situation where Issawi has again been charged with involvement in terrorism, and members of his security unit being detained.

Even previous to the Hashemi incident, Maliki had brought up accusations against Issawi. In the middle of 2010 for example, the prime minister told the U.S. military he was worried about Issawi’s connections to militants. Then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General Ray Odierno sent a letter to the premier telling him that American intelligence had looked into the matter and found nothing. Then in September, there was a report that while Maliki was attempting to put together a new ruling coalition after parliamentary elections, he threatened to charge Issawi with terrorism if he didn’t join the new government. All of the stories revolving around Issawi stem from the fact that he is from Fallujah, and worked there while it was a base for Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups. Almost every party in Iraq has been involved with violence, so it is no surprise that there are accusations against Issawi. The problem is that in the current political environment nothing ever happens about these reports, because all of the country’s leaders could be implicated, especially if any were ever to go to court. What Maliki has done is to selectively use these accusations against his opponents. Hashemi was a perfect and public example. The current crisis with Issawi is another.

It seems unlikely that Prime Minister Maliki really wants to arrest Issawi and put him on trial. That could lead to a series of unexpected consequences. Rather it appears that the arrest of his guards, and the warrant out for him are just a way to keep him off the national scene, and perhaps force him into exile like Vice President Hashemi. The problem for the premier is that Issawi has not completely followed this script. While he has resigned, Issawi has remained in the public eye through involvement with the protest movement in Anbar that sprung up to support him. He is also trying to campaign for his party in that province before this year’s provincial elections. That could lead to further acts of intimidation. Then again, Maliki might be happy with just gaining influence over the Finance Ministry. This is a very important post, because all government spending has to go through it and the Planning Ministry, which are now controlled by the same person, Sadrist Ali Yousef Abdul-Nabi who is allied with the premier. This is the prime minister’s ultimate goal to trim down the government to just those that support him instead of the unwieldy national unity coalitions. Rather than taking democratic means to achieve that however, Maliki has too often used the security forces, which has all kinds of negative consequences for the future of Iraqi politics.


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