After a month of wrangling and indecision that extended into the Eid al-Adha holiday, new Iraq Prime Minister Haydar al-Abbadi today succeeded in winning approval for new ministers in his government, including most importantly ministers for defence and interior.
It makes sense to start with the choice of ministers for interior and defence. These important posts were a stumbling block for Maliki’s two cabinets. In 2006, they took a month extra to decide, whereas in 2010 they weren’t decided by parliament at all, as Maliki continued to control them himself or through acting protegées. This time, the candidate for minister of interior, in particular, had caused controversy. For a long time the frontrunner was Hadi al-Ameri, a militia figure from the Badr organization with particularly close ties to the Iranians, whose candidacy caused uproar among many Sunni MPs who remain critical of his conduct during the previous sectarian crisis period of 2005-2007. Today, Ameri gave way to Muhammad Salim al-Ghabban, who shares his Badr background but possibly is seen as less toxic to non-Shiite MPs simply because he is younger and has less baggage than Ameri. For his part, Khaled al-Obeidi who is the new defence minister, had been a candidate back in 2010 as well, when he was nominated by Iraqiyya but quickly was criticized for having moved too close to Maliki. Maybe that sort of person – a Sunni and former Iraq army officers with ties in both sectarian camps – is the best Iraq could hope for in a time when urgent work needs to be done to reorganize the Iraqi army and make it more resilient against the Islamic State terror organization. Both ministers achieved more than acceptable levels of backing by MPs, with Yes votes from the 261 MPs present reported at 173 (Obeidi) and 197 (Ghabban), which is considerably more than what many other ministers got back in September.
As for the Kurdish ministers, it was probably wise of Abbadi to have them approved before parliament in the same batch as the others. The vote on those ministers include some new portfolios that were not voted on back in September (altogether five: migration, tourism, culture, women, and a minister for state), as well as reshuffling two key portfolios whose allocation to individual Kurdish ministers by Abbadi was not to the liking of the Kurdish political parties themselves: Rosch Shaways thereby continues to serve as deputy prime minister, and foreign minister Hosyar Zebari becomes minister of finance.
The vote in the Iraqi parliament today makes the Abbadi cabinet more complete. It maintains differences from the cabinet of his predecessor Maliki in at least two important structural aspects: It has got security ministries approved by the Iraqi parliament with solid backing, and it remains significantly slimmer, with less than 30 ministers (out of the 9 ministers approved today, 2 referred to the reshuffling of ministries already allocated). Moreover there are few “empty” ministries of state with no other purpose than placating particular party interests. Kurds have improved their representation in the cabinet significantly, and the alignment of personnel to ministries is also more in harmony with the wishes of the Kurdish parties.
It can be said that through these additions, the Iraqi parliament has realistically done what it can in the short term to help the Iraqi cabinet achieve a more solid platform for its battle against ISIS. Major legislative acts such as de-Baathification reform, a senate law, and an oil and gas law, will continue to remain on the agenda for a long time, probably with no realistic prospects for early solution. But it will now be the job of the cabinet and the new security ministers, above all, to lead the Iraqi effort in combating the challenge of the Islamic State on the ground in Iraq. To the extent that there is a remaining parliamentary role in the short term, it relates to approval of a draft law for so-called “national guard” units that may be formed to supplement the Iraqi army, particularly in Sunni-majority provinces.