Coinciding with the passage of hundred days since the formation of Mustafa al-Kadhimi's government, a period that is usually viewed as a probation period, the relationship between Kadhimi and a number of political blocs, particularly the Shiites, has been characterised by an overt escalation. This came about against the backdop of Kadhimi’s issuance, on 14 September 2020, of a list of appointments to senior positions in ministries and independent bodies, which was considered by some blocs as an "establishment of political quotas", while other blocs objected to it because it "falls outside the powers" of the Prime Minister. Kadhimi has been expecting this confrontation for weeks, specifically after he took a decision not to leave what are known as "special posts" and the presidencies of independent bodies to bargaining between the blocs. At the same time, he did not maintain the old staff who occupied those posts because of corruption accusations against some of them, or the need for working with a team that is in harmony with the Prime Minister and close to his tendencies. Of course, the fact that some of the occupants of those posts have reached the retirement age provided a legal basis for the new appointments.

The list of appointments

The list of appointments included sensitive positions such as the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), where Mustafa Ghaleb Mukhaif was appointed as Governor of the CBI (he was previously the Director of the CBI Legal Department) in place of Ali al-Alaq, who had been appointed to this position by the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Salem Chalabi, a lawyer who has wide international relations and who had been holding the position of Advisor to the Prime Minister since the government of Haider al-Abadi, was appointed Chairman of the Trade Bank of Iraq (TBI), which is the bank responsible for foreign commercial exchanges. The former TBI Chairman Faisal Wissam al-Haimus was transferred to the position of Chairman of the Iraq Securities Commission (ISC). Kadhimi's advisor Suha Najar, a businesswoman who was in charge of the investment file at Kadhimi's office, was appointed Chairwoman of the National Investment Commission (NIC).

The three sensitive positions, namely the Governor of the CBI, the Chairman of the TBI, and the Head of the NIC, seem to have been sought by many political blocs due to their great importance in running the economic and financial activities in the country. Those blocs were seeking to distribute those positions among themselves.

The list of new appointments also included assigning Sunni politicians to security positions. The former Defence Minister and Member of Parliament (MP) Khaled al-Obeidi was appointed as Deputy Director-General for Operations Affairs at the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS), which is the second most important position in the Service that Kadhimi continues to head. MP Faleh al-Issawi, who is a member of the Iraqi Forces Alliance led by the Speaker of Parliament Mohammad al-Halbousi, was appointed as Deputy Head of the National Security Service (NSS). Thus, in those choices, Kadhimi has responded to the pressure of the Sunni actors that complained a lot about the marginalisation of Sunni elements in the security positions. Kadhimi also paid attention to the political and regional distribution of the Sunni actors, considering that Obeidi belongs to the Governorate of Mosul and was previously an ally of Osama al-Nujaifi, the leader of the Salvation and Development Front, but recently associated with Khamis al-Khanjar, the leader of the Liberated Cities Alliance, while Issawi, who is one of the politicians close to Halbousi, belongs to Al Anbar Governorate.

Positions of political blocs on the appointments

Rumors have appeared that the new CBI Governor is linked to the Sadrist Movement, but those rumors have not been confirmed. Besides, the Sadrist position, which was expressed by the Movement’s leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in a comment on Facebook, under the account bearing the name of Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi, who is considered close to Sadr, included for the first time an escalation against Kadhimi, as he began his post with the phrase "We are disappointed", considering that the new appointments were a return to the quota system, demanding that they be cancelled, and calling on the members of the Sairoun (Marching Towards Reform) Alliance to disavow them.

Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, issued a statement criticising the appointments, considering them a “return to the quota system”, and declaring that he was not aware of them. While the list of new appointments included assigning Sami al-Masoudi, who is close to the Fatah Alliance, the position of Head of the High Commission for Hajj and Umrah, Amiri stated in his statement that if the purpose of this appointment is to show courtesy to the Fatah Alliance, "Al-Masoudi transcends this matter".

Likewise, the State (Rule) of Law Parliamentary Bloc, led by Nouri al-Maliki, issued a statement expressing its astonishment at the new appointments and calling on the government to adhere to the exclusive tasks entrusted to it as a transitional government whose aim is to restore the prestige of the state and accelerate the preparation of the early election requirements. It is widely believed that Maliki may be among the most affected by both the changes that were introduced recently and those that may be introduced later on, because he had appointed many of the retiring officials, so much so that there are those who view the changes in the positions as a "dismantling of the deep state" that was built by Maliki during his eight years as Prime Minister. What is clear is that Maliki is dissatisfied with the new government and with not having been consulted about its formation. Therefore, he expressed his opposition to it from the beginning. He may even feel that he is targeted by Kadhimi, especially after the latter accused him at a meeting of leaders of Shiite blocs, which was held after the return of Kadhimi from Washington in August 2020, of constantly inciting against his government. Some saw in the decision by the CBI to seize the movable and immovable assets of Maliki’s son-in-law MP Yasser Abd Sakheil, as a result of financial irregularities, a message addressed to Maliki.

Kadhimi responded to the accusations by the political blocs with a statement in which he asserted that the "necessary" changes he made "are in line with an administrative and legal context imposed by the end of the official legal periods of some officials ... and did not come to effect arbitrary changes in institutions ... and on this basis, most of the names put forward were chosen from within the institutions themselves, or from among competent names in certain fields". Kadhimi added that the objections regarding the quotas "must be accompanied by specific information about this alleged quota", wondering: "if the political actors have declared that they were unaware of those changes, and they really did not interfere with them or affect them, then how do they accuse me of introducing changes that were based on partisan quotas?"

Some political blocs have threatened to refer the issue to Parliament on the grounds that Kadhimi does not have the power to make those changes, and that he should have obtained Parliament's approval regarding them. In an unprecedented measure, the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers and the prominent figure of the Sadrist Movement Hamid al-Ghazi sent an official letter to the Prime Minister's Office questioning the legal basis according to which those "appointments" were made, considering that the matter is within the power of the Council of Ministers and not the Prime Minister. This seemed an attempt by the Sadrists to translate their leader's objections into legal language. The MP for Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous) organisation and member of the Parliamentary Integrity Committee Saad al-Mayali also sent a letter to the Prime Minister's Office inquiring about the legal and constitutional basis for those decisions. However, the Prime Minister's Office argues that the decisions were legal because they were based on the principle of "assignment" and not a fixation of those persons in those positions.

Kadhimi’s appeal for Sistani’s support

Interestingly, Kadhimi's appointments were announced following the meeting between the supreme Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani and the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) for Iraq Jeanine Plasschaert on 13 September 2020, and the important messages that emerged from it. This meeting, whose pictures unusually appeared on television, constitutes the first appearance by Sistani since the formation of the Kadhimi government. It involved a message that was widely understood as support for the path of the Kadhimi government. The statement included a call on the current government (without using the word “transitional”) to proceed firmly with the steps that it has taken to implement social justice, control border crossings, improve the performance of security forces so that they would be characterised by a high degree of discipline and professionalism, impose state authority, withdraw unauthorised weapons, and prevent the division of areas of the country into provinces controlled by certain groups by the force of arms under different headings apart from the implementation of the laws in force.

This message clearly constitutes a strong alignment with the Prime Minister in the face of the armed factions that use the "resistance" heading to challenge the state's authority. In a reminder of his previous messages to former heads of government, Sistani called on the government to take "serious and exceptional steps to combat corruption and open major files, and to uncover the aggressors against protesters and security forces ... since the start of the popular movement calling for reform, especially those that carried out kidnappings or stood behind the recent assassinations". Those messages amounted to support for Kadhimi's general "approach" and his government’s programme. At the same time, they made this support conditional to the additional steps that Kadhimi needs to take towards achieving those goals.

The announcement of the list of recent appointments one day after the [Shiite] Authority’s statement is a decision in which Kadhimi seemed to have felt more confident due to the position expressed by Sistani. Furthermore, the reaction of the political actors, namely accusing Kadhimi of returning to "the quota system", is an attempt to show him as the one responsible for the continued corruption and government confusion, and to withdraw the political credit granted to him by Sistani's statement.

Appointments and the anti-corruption campaign

In the face of the "confusion" that arose out of his appointments and the accusations levelled against them, Kadhimi had to confirm his commitment to the approach supported by the Authority. This was translated into an escalation in the measures taken to combat corruption by the committee that was formed by Kadhimi on 30 August 2020 to investigate cases of “major corruption and exceptional crimes”, which was headed by Lieutenant General Ahmed Abu Ragheef and granted exceptional powers. The Committee arrested senior officials such as Ahmed al-Saadi, former Chairman of the National Pension Authority, Shaker al-Zamili, Head of the Baghdad Investment Commission (BIC), and Adel Khudair, Director of the Agricultural Cooperation Bank. The Committee also arrested the influential businessman Bahaa al-Zubaidi, who runs the Key Card Company which is accused of money laundering and is one of two main companies responsible for paying the salaries of employees according to the new electronic system. The company handles the payment of salaries to more than 70 Iraqi government departments. According to press reports, the Committee is looking into seven major corruption cases, mainly the case of the Key Card Company. Concurrently, the Commission of Integrity issued a summoning order and a travel ban against the Governor of Kirkuk and the director of school buildings in the province against a background of corruption in a deal for prefabricated school buildings, in addition to arrest warrants against 23 people involved in this case, and 21 employees of the North Oil Company (NOC) for causing the waste of large quantities of kerosene.

While the campaign has not yet extended to any of the main political leaders, it has demonstrated a great deal of seriousness and "courage" that have been lacking in previous attempts to combat corruption. At the same time, some political actors express their fear that this campaign would become a political tool used by the government against its opponents, for the benefit of a certain economic class in the face of its competitors, or to consolidate the political position of the Prime Minister. Hence, many questions are raised about the legality of the work of the committee that was formed by Kadhimi, especially in light of the existence of constitutional and judicial institutions that are supposed to play this role. On the other hand, there are those who see that a committee of this kind with exceptional powers is the only way to avoid the pressure of politicians and the incitement and intimidation processes against the efforts of official institutions in the face of rampant corruption.

Conclusions

The political blocs will most likely fail in legally nullifying those decisions given that it has been customary since the time of Maliki for the Prime Minister to have the right to assign officials to manage or occupy some positions on an ad interim basis. Besides, the Federal Supreme Court that can decide on those cases is still in recess due to the failure to assemble a quorum after the retirement of one of its members. The Speaker of Parliament Mohammad al-Halbousi is unlikely to facilitate the adoption of a parliamentary decision against those appointments, given that he is a political beneficiary from them. However, what is important is that Kadhimi’s “appointments” have triggered a confrontation that is likely to continue in the coming months between himself and the Shiite political blocs that fear that Kadhimi would assert his political position and use it to expand his influence and network of relations in a way that threatens their interests, turning him into a rival political actor to them in the upcoming elections.

The fear of the political rise of Kadhimi, who adopts a liberal approach and is close to the West, is not limited to the pro-Tehran Fatah and Rule of Law Alliances. It may extend to trends that are moderate and close to him such as the Sadrists and the Wisdom (Hikmah) Movement, which believe that the expansion of Kadhimi's influence ahead of the upcoming elections may allow him to turn into a political power that extracts part of the public stock from them, especially among sectors in favour of reform and adopting a moderate approach. Kadhimi seems to pay attention to the date of the upcoming elections and to be paving the way for the formation of a political trend with which he would enter the elections with new blood and contain an important proportion of the protest movement. This requires that he takes steps to distinguish himself more from the political class and the traditional parties that have lost much of their popularity.

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