March 13, 2013
By Stephen Wicken
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has once more attempted to sideline recently resigned finance minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of Iraq’s most influential Sunni politicians and the premier’s most vocal critic. Issawi was the target of an apparent arrest attempton March 12 by Iraqi Security Forces. Maliki’s move to intimidate or arrest Issawi makes clear that the prime minister intends to continue targeting his political opponents – particularly prominent Sunni leaders – through use of the security apparatus. In an atmosphere of rising sectarian tension, such incidents are likely to play well with each side’s political constituency, reinforcing disaffected Sunni Arabs’ sense of victimization and intent to oppose Maliki while drawing support from Shi‘a Arabs who support Maliki’s aggressive line on those they deem as supporters of terrorism.
The apparent arrest attempton March 12 occurred as Issawi was travelling to the funeral of Muthana Jarwan al-Kubaisi, who was the chairman of the district council of Rutba, a town in Anbar province near the Jordanian border. Kubaisi had been a candidate for the upcoming provincial elections running on Issawi’s list until he was assassinatednear Rutba on March 11. Issawi said that he was travelling to the funeral when his convoy was “intercepted” by a “heavily armed military force backed by helicopters.” It does not appear, however, that Issawi’s convoy was stopped, raising the likelihood that the move was intended to intimidate Issawi rather than detain him.
Issawi deniedclaims by a government source that he had sought to fleeto Jordan but had been prevented by the Iraqi embassy in Amman which refused to help him because, having resigned from his position as finance minister, he no longer has “official status.” The management of the Trebil border crossing into Jordan confirmedsubsequently that neither Issawi nor embassy staff had come to the crossing. In a speech to protesters in Ramadi following the incident, Issawi took a confrontational tone, insisting that he would leave Anbar only as a “dead body.”
Maliki likely used armed assets against Issawi while the parliamentarian was in Rutba in order to persuade him to flee Iraq. Such was the case when Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another prominent Maliki critic, was allowedto leave Iraq for the Kurdistan region in December 2011 despite the arrest of a number of his bodyguards. Hashemi was subsequently sentenced to death after being found guilty in absentia of organizing murders of political opponents and financing terrorism. Hashemi remains in exile in Turkey: he has kept up his criticism of Maliki, but his political party has been critically weakened in his absence. The claim by an “anonymous government source” that Issawi had sought to flee for Jordan may therefore have been intended to discredit Issawi.
Since the arrests of members of Issawi’s protection detail in December, rumorshave circulated of arrest warrants issued for Issawi and Iraqiyya parliamentary leader Salman al-Jumaili on charges of inciting terrorism. Similar rumors have also appearedregarding former Awakening leader and Anbari strongman Ahmed Abu Risha, an ally of Issawi in the upcoming elections. A warrant against Anbari tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, who has been extremely vocal in his criticism of Maliki since anti-government protests began, has also been reported; Ali Hatem has denied the existence of the warrant. Most prominently, in February, special forces attemptedto arrest Anbari protest spokesman Said al-Lafi, with whom Issawi has appeared in public, at a mosque in central Fallujah. The attempt was foiled when demonstrators helped Lafi to escapethe scene.
The incident also comes at a time of rising political violence ahead of the upcoming elections. In addition to the murder of Muthana Jarwan al-Kubaisi, a member of the district council of Hit also in western Anbar was also assassinatedon March 11. Two electoral candidates in Ninewa were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in separateincidents in Mosul on March 11-12. The bodyguards of Iraqiyya candidate for Baghdad Sabah al-Khafaji were attackedby unidentified gunmen in western Baghdad while hanging election posters on March 6, while Hussein al-Janabi, an Iraqiyya candidate in Babel, was assassinatedalong with two of his guards in the north of the province on February 22. While these assassinations are likely related to local political rivalries, the increase in political violence will only heighten tension ahead of the voting.
The move against Issawi has been denounced by Maliki’s usual critics, but has yet to draw comment or support from the premier’s allies. In addition to Issawi’s own Iraqiyya list, whose spokeswoman Maysoon al-Damalouji describedthe incident as “terrorist and criminal,” the office of Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani condemnedthe attempted arrest as “provocative,” notingthat it would deepen rifts between Iraqi communities. Sadrist MP and parliamentary security and defense committee member Hakim al-Zamili, a former deputy health minister who was accused of using the health ministry to run death squads targeting Sunnis between 2005 and 2007 but released amid rumors of witness intimidation, also criticizedthe move against Issawi, insisting that Iraq’s already fraught political situation “does not need further escalation.”
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak calledthe arrest attempt “cowardly” and praised “the positions of the Anbar tribes that have accompanied Issawi.” There has not as yet been any indication that Anbari tribes were involved in preventing Issawi’s arrest as they were in protecteing Said al-Lafi. Mutlak’s statement, therefore, likely was intended to curry favor with the Anbaris who chasedhim from a demonstration in Ramadi in late December because of his continued involvement in the Maliki government. Although Mutlak was reported to have resigned on January 28 in protest at the government’s failure to meet protesters’ demands, he has continued to play an active role, particularly within Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani’s committee tasked with responding to the protesters, the concessions made by which Mutlak has defended. However, while apparently playing a role in helping Maliki to ensure quorum in order to pass the 2013 federal budget, Mutlak was forced to state his “anger and indignation” at the killingof anti-government protesters in Mosul on March 8 in order to have a hope of retaining some credibility with Sunni Arabs.
Given the claims that Issawi was attempting to flee to Jordan and the rumors of an outstanding arrest warrant, Issawi is likely to remain in Anbar, surrounded by his tribesmen and supporters. The latest development diminishes significantly the likelihood that Issawi will seek to return to parliament in order to benefit from parliamentary immunity from prosecution, as Maliki’s State of Law Coalition predictedhe would do following his resignation from the finance ministry. Instead, he is likely to intensify his criticism of Maliki from his home province, amplifying his denunciations as the provincial elections approach. Should Maliki send forces to Ramadi or Fallujah, where Issawi’s support is strongest, in order to attempt to arrest him, the prospects of armed clashes are extremely high. Such confrontations would almost certainly escalate Iraq’s ongoing crisis, with grave implications for Iraq’s security and stability at a time when violence from Syria has begunto spill over the border into Anbar.