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tide of opinion turns
desperate measures for fugitive iraqi VP

Haider Najm
Accusations of terrorism against VP Tariq al-Hashimi caused a political crisis in Iraq. Now the VP is running out of options. There’s a media campaign against him, he’s become more placatory and…
15.03.2012  |  Baghdad

Late last year an arrest warrant was issued for Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. The warrant maintained that al-Hashimi was involved in a number of what were described as terrorist offences – basically, it said that death squads under his command had been behind 150 attacks over six years against a variety of his opponents.

Because al-Hashimi was the most senior member in the opposition Iraqiya party, the arrest warrant sparked off a political crisis in Iraq with opposition politicians boycotting proceedings in the Iraqi parliament and effectively halting government business. Iraqiya party members are mainly Sunni Muslims while Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling coalition is mainly made up of Shiite Muslims.

Critics and members of the opposition party immediately saw the warrant as politically motivated, coming as it did, shortly after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The arrest warrant was seen as a move by al-Maliki to consolidate his power.

Al-Hashimi himself said that the warrant had no basis. And at first, it seemed that there were many politicians who supported him. Al-Hashimi travelled to the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of country, where he evaded the arrest warrant and although Kurdish politicians tended to take a more mediatory role, they seemed to be offering their covert support by allowing al-Hashimi to stay in their state, which has its own borders, military and government. But now it seems that al-Hashimi’s support, wherever it came from, is waning.

A source close to senior politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan told NIQASH that Kurdish politicians are close to sending al-Hashimi back to Baghdad. Five Kurdish judges had visited Baghdad in January to look into the allegations against al-Hashimi. The source says that the Kurdish group returned home believing that there was something to the arrest warrant. And based on that, the source said, “the Kurds have changed their position. They have opted not to give any more statements with regard to his case.”

In a meeting of senior politicians, Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Saleh, stressed that the region should not become too much more involved in al-Hashimi’s case, the source said: “It might have a very negative impact on Kurdish relations with Baghdad, Saleh said.”

And in a statement leading Kurdish politician, Jalal Talabani, who is also the President of Iraq (al-Hashimi is his deputy), gave to local Kurdish bi-weekly newspaper, Hawlati recently, Talabani admitted that “Iraqi Kurdistan has pleased one political party by hosting al-Hashimi in the region but at the same time, it has angered another.”

According to analysts, this kind of statement did not take the usual conciliatory tone Talabani demonstrated when making statements about the al-Hashimi case.

Some have suggested this may be due to the fact that during a confession from al-Hashimi’s guards on national television – a broadcast that many legal experts considered prejudicial – they admitted to taking part in the assassination of judge Najm Talabani, a member of the leading Kurdish politician’s own tribe; other members of Talabani’s tribe have also called for al-Hashimi, who is apparently residing in a property owned by Talabani, to be handed over.

And meanwhile, other Kurdish politicians have also been distancing themselves from al-Hashimi with a number of less-than-friendly comments.

One politician noted that the case has done more damage to Kurdish-Baghdad relations than years of unresolved conflicts. Another Kurdish official more or less suggested that Baghdad send a military force into Iraqi Kurdistan to arrest al-Hashimi.

The Deputy Minister of the Interior for Iraqi Kurdistan, Faeq Tawfiq, who had previously said that if Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki wanted al-Hashimi so bad he should have had him arrested at the airport on the way to Iraqi Kurdistan, recently said his ministry “will not defend or protect al-Hashimi. Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites and the accusations they make against one another are of no interest to us,” he added.

That attitude indicates big changes in the way the Kurdish politicians are looking at the al-Hashimi problem. At one stage, analysts were suggesting that, of all the players in this political impasse, it would be the Kurdish who came out on top: they would be able to use the issue to negotiate ongoing problems between themselves and various political parties in Baghdad.

And it is true that dealing with al-Hashimi has brought the Kurdish politicians closer to the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition party, Iraqiya, of which al-Hashimi is a member. But it seems that the Kurds are now rethinking all this. As the sources put it, nobody wants to defend what some have started calling a “lost cause”.

As a result, rumour has it that al-Hashimi’s freedoms as a guest in Iraqi Kurdistan are being restricted.

Back in Baghdad, al-Hashimi also seems to have been abandoned by several senior figures that had been overtly backing him: Abdul-Ilah Kazim, his former spokesperson, and Shakir Katab, the official spokesperson of the Renewal political party that al-Hashimi heads- the Renewal party is part of the opposition Iraqiya bloc. At first, the pair had supported al-Hashimi but have recently started to attack him.

It’s also been noted that colleagues in the Iraqi Islamic Party, that al-Hashimi headed previously, have also become strangely reticent to voice any firm opinions on their former leader’s case.

Tariq al-Hashimi heads the Renewal political party, which he founded in 2009. Previous to this al-Hashimi, a Sunni Muslim, was head of the largest Sunni-based Islamic party, the Iraqi Islamic Party. After the 2010 elections, al-Hashimi, whose Renewal party is part of the mostly secular Iraqiya political bloc, headed by Ayed Allawi and the main opposition group to the current Iraqi government, was made second Vice President of Iraq.

In fact, part of the evidence against al-Hashimi apparently came from a former fellow party member in the latter, a source inside the justice system told NIQASH.

And as the number of those defending al-Hashimi shrinks, his accusers and critics seem to be growing - and becoming louder. They’re also coming up with some more unexpected condemnations.

Doubts are now being raised about his tribal affiliations and his kinship ties, something that is of great importance in Iraqi – and other Middle Eastern nations’ - politics where the kind of position one holds depends greatly on the sort of loyalty one can command.

In media outlets run by the Iraqi government, a campaign appears to be being waged against al-Hashimi whereby attackers are disputing his background and his family and tribal ties, along with other scurrilous rumours.

For example, a short video was posted on Facebook sites showing al-Hashimi apparently consorting with disreputable politicians. One part of this video showed al-Hashimi in the back of car while Mohammed al-Dahabi, a general who ran Jordan’s intelligence services between 2005 and 2008 and who was recently arrested on charges of money laundering, abuse of power and embezzlement charges, waved goodbye to him.

The links are weak, to say the least. And when this was pointed out by a visitor to the Facebook page – he asked “what relationship do the two men actually have?” – further accusations and bad language was used, attacking al-Hashimi.

Additionally a few days ago, other local media carried a leaked memo – it was sent between intelligence services in Baghdad and said that al-Hashimi had been in the northern city of Mosul, holding meetings with armed Sunni Muslim extremists, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and also with members of the now outlawed Baath party, the mainly Sunni Muslim-dominated party led by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In light of recent deadly attacks around the country by groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, this is hardly something that would make al-Hashimi more popular.

Some observers feel that al-Hashimi has not really been helping himself either. In interviews he has taken a hard line, denying the arrest warrant’s accusations and saying they are politically motivated.

In the past al-Hashimi had accused Iraqi PM al-Maliki of human rights and constitutional violations. When he arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan, he described what he saw as a plot against him like this: “our political opponent is feverishly and relentlessly working to accuse us of criminal acts and is prosecuting innocent people from among our guards and office employees.”

However this seems to have changed. There has been no comment in response to recent attacks on him and al-Hashimi and those close to him seem to have relaxed that tough attitude somewhat in a strategy aimed at defusing tensions.

That strategy can be seen in the latest written statement from al-Hashimi’s office, given out in response to alleged intelligence on al-Hashimi’s intention to escape Iraq. A few hours after this intelligence surfaced Baghdad demanded that officials in Iraqi Kurdistan hand al-Hashimi over to face trial. Al-Hashimi denied rumours of his planned escape and put out a statement which called upon PM al-Maliki “not to take all information he receives seriously because the purpose behind some of this information is to intimidate.”

“This false information has a destructive impact because it simply maintains the current state of instability, it creates unjustified fears, and undermines confidence among the different parties’ politicians,” the statement said.

Rather than taking an offensive line, al-Hashimi seems to be going on the defensive, making fewer appearances in the media and taking this kind of more placatory tone.

That placatory position has expanded to include sending a private message to al-Maliki, delivered by two envoys from al-Hashimi’s own party in Baghdad, with the aim of solving the issue “through peaceful dialogue rather than oppositional and rigid rhetoric”.

According to insiders, the proposal apparently suggested that al-Hashimi’s bodyguards, who had already confessed, should be prosecuted and that al-Hashimi should be declared innocent. He would also then be allowed to retire from Iraqi politics and leave the country.

The corner stones to this strategy seem to be being laid already; in a February interview, al-Hashimi insinuates that his guards could have committed crimes without his knowledge and that he couldn’t completely guarantee their integrity.

Despite this though, those inside al-Maliki’s office said that the PM rejected this proposal, refusing to negotiate a political solution.

So what will happen next? In light of recent developments, it seems there are two options remaining for the man who is still officially the highest ranking Sunni Muslim politician in Iraq.

Firstly, and possibly most likely: he escapes from Iraq. This is something that other Iraqi politicians, wanted for various crimes, have also done. Should this happen, al-Hashimi would be trialled in absentia

It is uncertain where al-Hashimi would then end up. Some have said Turkey because of his good relations with other politicians there. Others suggest Kuwait where he used to work before getting involved in Iraqi politics. An additional option might be Qatar.

Al-Hashimi’s second option would be to turn himself in to Baghdad, after coming to some kind of political deal such as the one mentioned earlier that would save him but sacrifice his bodyguards. However this option is the more dangerous one for al-Hashimi because of the risk of ending up in court, and therefore capital punishment if things go wrong there.