Iraqi officials prep for Iran trip after confirmations

Published October 20th, 2014 - 05:52 GMT

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will visit Iran Monday after lawmakers approved his choices for the critically important Defense and Interior portfolios.

The ministers’ appointments complete the formation of a government that will strive to push ISIS out of the sprawling territory it has seized in recent months.

In Baghdad Sunday, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said Iraq was making “progress” in the struggle against ISIS.

Addressing a news conference in Baghdad, and joined by the foreign ministers of Mauritania, Kuwait and Iraq, Elaraby said “the Iraqi government overcame an impasse and made progress against ISIS. But the government should continue its fight against ISIS not just militarily, but also ideologically and financially.”

Control over the two powerful ministries has long been a source of tension among Iraq’s feuding political factions. The U.S. and other allies have been pushing for a more representative government that can reach out to Sunnis, who felt marginalized by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunni discontent is widely seen as having fueled ISIS’ dramatic advances in Iraq since June, when it captured the country’s second largest city Mosul.

Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker from Mosul, was selected for the post of defense minister, by a vote of 175-85. He had served as an officer in Saddam Hussein’s military and holds a doctorate in political science.

Mohammad Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite lawmaker with Abadi’s State of Law political bloc, was approved as interior minister by a 197-63 vote. He holds degrees from universities in both Tehran and London and he is currently pursuing a doctorate in political science in Baghdad. He was a long-time opponent of Saddam and was detained in 1979.

It was unclear whether Ghabban, nominated on behalf of the Badr Organization, will ultimately generate support in the Sunni community, since the group has been prominent in both battling ISIS but is also accused of widespread human rights violations during the civil war of the previous decade. Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq’s long-serving foreign minister, was named finance minister, having previously been voted in as deputy prime minister. Shiite lawmaker Adel Fahd al-Shirshab was named tourism minister, and Kurdish lawmaker Bayan Nouri was appointed minister of women’s affairs.

Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, with ISIS in control of about a third of the country.

Iraq’s U.S.-trained and equipped armed forces collapsed in the face of the militants’ advance, abandoning heavy weapons that the extremist group is now using in battles across both Iraq and Syria.

Many have blamed the army’s poor performance on Maliki, saying he replaced top officers with inexperienced or incompetent political allies in order to monopolize power. From 2010 until his resignation in August, Maliki had held both the interior and defense portfolios, in part because lawmakers could not agree on nominees for them.

The U.S. began launching airstrikes against ISIS in August and along with Western allies has provided aid to Iraqi forces and Kurds fighting in the north. But Washington has repeatedly called on Baghdad to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, saying only a unified Iraqi government can defeat the extremists.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the completion of the Iraqi government a “very positive step forward.” “These were critical positions to be filled in order to assist with the organizing effort with respect to [ISIS],” Kerry told reporters in Boston Saturday.

The State Department praised the move in a statement, saying the ministers “represent the diversity of Iraq, and complete an inclusive Cabinet.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden congratulated Abadi “on the selection and approval” of the seven new Cabinet ministers in a telephone call. Biden’s office said the two discussed steps “to rebuild Iraq’s security forces and enlist all of Iraq’s communities in the fight” against ISIS.

Iraqi lawmakers expressed hope that the new government would help boost morale among troops in the field.

“I think that the security situation will improve after the selection of the two ministers, because now troops know that when they fight, the whole country and all the political blocs are supporting them,” said Rsoul Radhi, a Shiite lawmaker from Abadi’s bloc.

“All security and political efforts should now be directed toward retaking the territories held by ISIS,” he added.

Lawmakers approved most of Abadi’s Cabinet on Sept. 8 and officially voted him in as prime minister, bringing a formal end to Maliki’s eight-year rule, but Abadi requested a delay in naming defense and interior ministers because lawmakers had not agreed on his proposed candidates. Candidates put forward on Sept. 16 were rejected by parliament.

“Security issues should now be the priority for Iraqi officials and politicians who showed today they are aware that political wrangling will lead the country nowhere,” said Kurdish lawmaker Perwan Muslih. “All efforts should be directed toward the common enemy.”


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