On 16 April 2008 the Iraqi government confirmed that its two top security officials in Basra – General Mohan al-Firayji as well as Abd al-Jalil Khalaf – had been transferred to “high-ranking positions” in the defence ministry in Baghdad. The transfer seems to have been a demotion in everything but the name.
It can be useful to briefly recapitulate the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of these two officers. Early in 2007 General Mohan had reportedly been among Nuri al-Maliki’s candidates for leading “the surge” in Baghdad, and when he was sent to Basra in the subsequent summer he was very much seen as Maliki’s man. By the autumn both British and Americans tended to indulge in panegyrics about Mohan whenever questions about Basra’s security situation arose. Such was the faith in one man’s ability to control Iraq’s second city that on many occasions, leading US officials were content to refer to the “tough four-star general” as a guarantor for Basra’s tranquillity. Both Mohan and Abd al-Jalil Khalaf reportedly shared an anti-militia attitude; Khalaf also went further than any of his predecessors in highlighting the plight of Basra women and their exposure to extreme pressures from radical Islamists.
Rumours about Mohan’s removal being imminent began circulating in December 2007 and intensified on the eve of the recent Basra clashes, when Maliki travelled to Basra to personally oversee the operations. Thus, Mohan’s decline was in progress prior to the latest showdown with the Sadrists and certainly not something that came about as the result of that fighting. Around a fortnight prior to the operations, Mohan complained about “Iranian” influences in Basra at a time when he and Khalaf were subjected to angry demonstrations by members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement. Khalaf also had gone quite far in criticising the Sadrists through his singling out of port management (a long-standing Sadrist fief) as a sphere of undesirable militia activity.
The replacements for the two demoted officers are reported as Muhammad Jawad Huwaydi (chief of operations) and Adil Dahham (police chief). Background information on the two is sketchy so far, but it is noteworthy that Huwaydi seems to have had some kind of special operations background before he assumed control of the 14th division of the Iraqi army. Unlike Mohan, he is thought to be from outside the area. As for the new police chief, who was previously employed in Baghdad, someone in the defence ministry with an identical name (the new appointee is sometimes referred to as Adil Dahham al-Amiri) was cleared by the de-Baathification committee in early 2007. If this turns out to be the same person, it would suggest a background from the old Iraqi army rather than a long-time connection with ISCI’s Badr Brigades.
While it is true that there is a conspicuous link here to the early March demonstrations by ISCI/Sayyid al-Shuhada (which specifically requested the dismissal of General Mohan and Abd al-Jalil Khalaf), it is also worth recalling that in the same period, ISCI members circulated rumours about yet another attempt to have Maliki replaced by ISCI’s own Adil Abd al-Mahdi, not least because of dissatisfaction with Maliki’s centralist stance on the provincial powers act. Crucially, the rumours of a replacement of Mohan in Basra antedated all these events. Apparently, then, the dominant parties of the Maliki government have been brought closer together by the latest series of crises, rather than having pursued a shared agenda consistently for several months. Recent reports of increased pragmatism on the part of Maliki vis-à-vis Kurdish claims in the oil question could be another expression of a ruling clique that sees the necessity of first and foremost staying united in the face of growing parliamentary opposition of the kind seen in the debate over local elections – where Sunni and Shiite Islamists as well as secularists came together to challenge Maliki in a demand for early elections.