Iraqi Prime Minister Seizes on Militia Scandal to Seal the End of Campaigning

Kirk H Sowell

Bad news often can profit someone, and in Iraq that someone might be the incumbent prime minister. With the May 12 parliamentary election looming, Haider Al Abadi has latched on to a scandal that may tar his main opponent, Badr Organization leader Hadi Al Ameri, who also heads the Fatah Coalition that is made up of Iran-aligned militias. While both men often speak of their leadership roles in the war against ISIS – Al Abadi as commander-in-chief and Al Ameri as the most senior political figure in the Hashd (or Popular Mobilization) paramilitary forces – Al Abadi supports close military ties with the US and economic integration with the industrialized world, while Al Ameri takes an anti-American line and would push Iraq closer to Iran. Given Al Abadi’s standing amid a fragmented field, the polls will likely result in continuing Iraq’s engagement with the West.

But first, the scandal. This involves the assassination of a senior Hashd official. On April 29, Hashd’s finance director, Qasim Dhaif Al Zubaybi, was assaulted by gunmen in his Baghdad home. He died later that day in hospital. Al Abadi quickly appointed the national security advisor, Falih Al Fayyad, who is also the administrative director of the Hashd, with heading an investigation. Al Fayyad is also the head of a political party that is part of Al Abadi’s Nasr Coalition, so as far as Badr was concerned he was not the favored choice.

Al Abadi escalated the issue on May 3 when he discussed the murder in a speech. He did so not in his capacity as the national leader, but at a campaign rally. Al Abadi introduced the topic by talking about legislation he sponsored to provide statutory regulation for the Hashd. While the Hashd’s administration is viewed skeptically by many, its fighters are widely respected, especially by Al Abadi’s Shia voter base. So he boasted of how he raised the salaries of Hashd fighters to that of their peers in the armed forces.

And this is how Al Abadi introduced his connection to Al Zubaydi. He explained that at a recent meeting, when the issue of Hashd salaries came up, Al Zubaydi suggested that the rolls be cleaned of “ghost positions” – jobs that existed only on paper. Al Abadi claimed that Al Zubaydi said there was opposition to this because elements within the Hashd itself benefited from the corruption. Thus, Al Abadi declared that Al Zubaydi had been killed “treacherously” – which implies someone on the inside – and, raising his voice, declared: “There are corrupt figures who are stealing salaries of Hashd fighters!”

Al Abadi went on to say that he warned “senior figures in the Hashd,” whom he left unnamed, about the need to verify the salary roll. Al Abadi emphasized, “I won’t mention names, because I mentioned one by name a year and a half ago” and they threatened him. The only Hashd faction he has ever singled out for criticism in this regard is Badr, which he once accused of taking more salaries than they contributed in fighters. Even without this hint, Al Abadi’s accusations against his rivals in the Hashd is clear, and the Fatah Coalition is so closely associated with the Hashd that in the media they are often referred to as “the Hashd Alliance.”

Badr has allowed Al Abadi’s attack to go without response. Badr and the Hashd itself have issued formal statements of condolence for Al Zubaydi’s death, but the fact that the prime minister has just implicated senior state figures in murder was just left hanging. The air of intimidation that surrounds topics related to Iran-backed militias in Iraq is such that major local media outlets have not investigated the murder beyond quoting Al Abadi’s speech and noting the opening of an investigation.

One major outlet that did raise it was Al-Sharqiya, a Sunni-oriented TV channel that has seen its journalists murdered for investigating militia activities in the past. The evening of Al Abadi’s speech, it aired his comments and interviewed Ahmad Al Asadi, a parliamentarian and militia leader who was the Hashd’s official spokesman until December and is now spokesman for the Fatah Coalition. Pointedly asked why Al Abadi seemed to be implicating senior Hashd figures in murder, Al Asadi responded as if he did not understand that his own coalition was under accusation, repeatedly responding in general terms that Al Abadi was commander-in-chief, and that if he had any evidence, he would take action accordingly.

Al Abadi began this campaign with an enormous advantage, using his status as the nation’s leader in a successful war against a terrorist group as well as his defeat of the Kurdish independence effort last fall. Badr and its allies, on the other hand, likewise have many admirers for their role in the war, and the militia parties’ strong organizational roots will partially offset Al Abadi’s advantages. Since January, Al Abadi has received some negative headlines, most notably over protests related to deteriorating public services. Thus, a scandal in the Hashd, involving the killing of someone fighting corruption, is perhaps just the story he wants to end the campaign on.

Kirk H Sowell is a political-risk analyst and publisher of the biweekly newsletter, Inside Iraqi Politics.