Iraqi politicians often give family members high ranking positions and use their influence to help other members. Nepotism is part of Middle Eastern tribal culture and the average Iraqi knows it. But when is it all too much?
The power and influence that members of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s family had were legendary among ordinary Iraqis – and often for horrifying reasons: Hussein’s sons were able to get away with truly heinous crimes because of who their father was. And although the situation is nothing like this in Iraq today, it is still true that family connections are rife in Iraqi political life.
Ordinary Iraqis greet the news that politicians or leading authority figures are somehow related with a mixture of cynicism and suspicion. A politician may have been democratically elected and the appointment of family members to key positions within his organisation may be legal. It may even be transparent. But when family ties and family loyalty are seen as job qualifications, it does not always make for the healthiest politics.
However in Iraq it’s often difficult to find out exactly who is related to whom, especially once you start looking beyond the federal level into state politics and provincial councils.
A source inside the Iraqi Cabinet told NIQASH that examining family trees in Iraqi politics is a sensitive and difficult task. The subject is not often openly discussed, particularly not by local media who are often dependent on political parties for funding or advertising. Even during recent Iraqi protests against corruption, family ties were barely criticised by protestors – unlike in other Middle eastern countries like Yemen, Syria and Libya.
As a recent Businessweek article on the latter subject noted: “the rage that has united young Arabs from Tunis to Tripoli is fuelled not just by hatred of their rulers but also by the widespread and entirely valid belief that those rulers intend to bequeath power to their equally loathsome offspring”.
In Iraq it can be hard to trace political family genealogies for other reasons too. And not least because most of the religious politicians – those who are also clerics or religious leaders; they usually wear turbans and religious dress in parliament – won’t reveal the names of their wives or daughters publicly, nor allow them to be part of their public, political life.
As an Iraqi politician told NIQASH off the record, “the club of wives of clerical politicians is a closed one. The marriages are confined to certain religious or political families”. So it may well be that these politicians are working with their brothers or sons-in-law but it would be hard for the average voter to know this.
In more secular political circles, there are also marriages: MP Safiya al-Suhail is married to former minister of human rights, Bakhtiar Amin; both were connected to former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi’s political party. Salma Jabbo, an advisor on women’s affairs and feminist advocate, is married to deputy foreign minister Labeed Abbawi.
Working out family ties gets even trickier once one begins looking behind the front desk, further into the offices and down the corridors of power. The source speculated that at least 90 percent of those working with any minister or leading official in Iraq would be some kind of relation, either immediate or once and twice removed.
Kinship ties start right at the top. Recently it turned out that the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was distantly related to Hamdiya al-Hussaini, the former chief executive officer of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the body charged with supervising elections and investigating electoral corruption. She is apparently also a distant relative of the IHEC chairman al-Haydari.
After al-Maliki’s list demanded a recount after Iraq’s parliamentary election in March 2010, it turned out that al-Hussaini was actually al-Maliki’s sister in law. She was publicly accused of favouring al-Maliki and of hiring around 50 more family members to work at IHEC and resigned from the commission after seven years in the job.
In terms of those who work with him, when al-Maliki was elected to lead Iraq for the first time he sent official letters to Iraqi army units asking them to nominate soldiers to become part of his personal bodyguard; the soldiers should be from either the district from where his tribe originate or from the Karbala province, where his hometown is located, he said.
Then after his re-election in 2010, he appointed his son, Ahmad, to run the prime minister’s office. Al-Maliki’s sons-in-law also apparently play prominent roles in Iraq’s intelligence services.
Then again, this is hardly unusual in Iraqi politics. The office of the Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashimi is run by his daughter Rasha, who is assisted by his nephew Nasser. And his other daughter Lubna runs his information office.
The former speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, had his office managed by his sons too. Al- Mashhadani was also well known for trying to promote his own wife’s political ambitions – ultimately without any success, as it turned out.
It is also true that these kinds of family ties are part of the culture in the Middle East. Tribal connections and blood lines remain very important. And there is no doubt that there are plenty of political or religious dynasties elsewhere, along similar lines to the US’ Kennedy, Clinton or Bush families.
The Iraqi parliament’s speaker Osama al-Nujaifi is the brother of the governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi. They share similar political leanings, both are Arab nationalists and opposed to the annexation of disputed areas of Iraq by the Iraqi Kurdish.
Saleh al-Mutlaq is one of Iraq’s three deputy prime ministers and two of his relatives also rank highly in national politics: his cousin, Yassin al-Mutlaq is an MP and another cousin Hamid al-Mutlaq is a leading politician.
Then again family ties don’t necessarily equate to similar opinions. At one stage politician Jafar al-Sadr, the son of a leading religious Shiite Muslim religious figure executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980 and cousin of politically popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was touted as a potential leader of Iraq. The politician had completed his religious studies, then studied international law and eventually removed his religious robes and began wearing suits, saying he wished to establish a modern civil state in Iraq.
Jafar also distanced himself from his cousin’s more theocratic politics and although he was considered a candidate for the prime ministerial post at one stage, he eventually resigned from parliament; he told interviewers from news agency AFP that he was disillusioned with lack of progress in Iraq and wished to distance himself from nepotistic politics.
Kinship can also be a double edged sword for Iraqi politicians. Although vice president al-Hashimi has been able to appoint his daughters to senior roles within his office, he is still tainted by the indictment of his nephew Asad al-Hashimi, the former minister for culture, for masterminding an assassination attempt on a fellow politician.
The attack on MP Mithal al-Alousi, the first Iraqi politician to visit Israel in 2004, resulted in the death of his two sons. Asad was found guilty of collusion in the attack, he fled the country and in 2007 he was sentenced to death in absentia.
An anonymous source from Al-Hashimi’s office told NIQASH that, “many politicians still make a link between al-Hashimi and his nephew, the fugitive minister. They use the incident to pressure al-Hashimi when there are clashes and conflicts between the different parties.”
Still, while Iraqis may be happy to tar al-Hashimi with the same brush they use on his criminal nephew, the subject of nepotism has remained relatively taboo up until recently. What is clear though is that, as more discussion begins around family ties in politics and business, the subject is becoming another source of conflict between old Iraqi culture – that of tribal customs and ways that continue to live on at street- and market-level – and the modern constitution that promises equal rights and opportunities to all Iraqis, not just the sons and daughters and second cousins of politicians.