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Key Sunni politician’s arrest for corruption raises questions

The arrest of a prominent Sunni party chief shortly after relations between him and the parliament speaker soured has led some to claim political motives are playing a role in the government’s anti-corruption efforts.
A demonstrator waves a large Iraqi national flag during an anti-government protest over corruption and poor services in Tahrir Square in the center of Iraq's capital, Baghdad, on Nov. 8, 2020.

BAGHDAD — The April 18 arrest of Jamal al-Karbouli, head of a prominent Sunni bloc in parliament, as part of the Iraqi government’s continuing attempts to crack down on corruption was unexpected and could influence the country’s Oct. 10 parliamentary elections.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had pledged to fight Iraq’s dismal reputation for widespread corruption when he was sworn in on May 6, 2020. In August, he then issued an administrative order to form a committee linked directly to his office to investigate corruption cases.

Karbouli is head of the National Movement for Reform and Development (al-Hal) party and is from a family that has in recent decades played an influential role in the economic, media and political spheres. He trained as a medical doctor and has held several roles in the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, including as its president in 2003.

He was until recently allied with Iraqi parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi, as was his brother, Mohammed, a prominent parliament member for Anbar province. A source close to the brothers told Al-Monitor on April 20 that Mohammed had initially been accused of involvement as well, but the charges against him had been dropped.

Some April 21 reports stated that Jamal had been released on bail, but the charges against him were still pending. Al-Monitor could not confirm this.

In a previous interview with this journalist in January 2020, Mohammed said he had played a crucial role in helping Halbusi rise in the Iraqi Sunni political world. The Karbouli brothers were not born in the large, almost entirely Sunni Anbar province. However, the center of the tribe and the main sheikhs are located in Qaim in western Anbar, while Halbusi is from the eastern part of the same province.

Halbusi was named parliament speaker in September 2018. In an interview earlier that month with this journalist, Halbusi — at that time governor of Anbar — had complained that a plethora of different forces on the ground in his home province was preventing investment. Mohammed had in a January 2020 interview also stressed the same.

Mohammed tweeted on April 21 in relation to the recently passed budget, noting “we support Kadhimi’s efforts to prevent budget manipulation."

He did not mention anything about a corruption case.

Jamal is also the owner of the Amman-based broadcaster Dijlah TV. An arrest warrant was issued against him last year after the channel broadcast music on Ashura, a Shiite day of mourning. Armed groups at that time attacked the Baghdad offices of the broadcaster, claiming it had “insulted” religion.

During the massive 2019 anti-government protests, Dijlah was one of several broadcasters ordered closed by the government.

The top sheikh for the Karabla tribe, Sheikh Rabaa al-Karbouli, came to the capital last week from his home in Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province near the Syrian border to engage in several meetings, “including with the security forces, and some with important political parties to discuss the issue of Dr. Jamal al-Karbouli's arrest,” he told Al-Monitor.

He said “our meetings were to determine" whether the detention of the prominent Karbouli politician Jamal and his nephew Louay, “since 34 arrest warrants were issued in addition to that for the alleged perpetrator in this corruption cases … was actually due to the corruption” allegations against those individuals “or whether it was of a political nature for electoral purposes.”

Sheikh Rabaa said he and the others at the meeting — he did not specify who else had taken part — had come to the conclusion that “the arrest was for reasons related to [an attempt to cause] electoral disqualification disguised as fighting corruption.”

"Relations between Dr. Jamal and his political bloc and [parliament speaker] Halbusi have been very tense for about a year, but this tension rose sharply about two months ago,” he added.

He said Jamal has four brothers and, in addition to parliament member Mohammad, they are “Ahmed, a former minister of industry; Alaa, a candidate for the western part of Anbar in the upcoming parliament elections in Anbar; and Omar, who is not involved in politics or tribal affairs.”

Sheikh Rabaa said all the brothers except Omar were mentioned in the corruption case for which Jamal was arrested.

Some believe the arrests were unwarranted and politically motivated.

In relation to Qaim, the Karbouli brothers had “helped get authorization for the formation of the Aaly al-Furat Brigade,” a tribal Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) in Qaim, he said, “but this was their only involvement in it.”

The local PMU was trained by a Danish elite military unit. Though initially intended as a multi-tribe force, it is commanded by a man from the Karabla tribe and almost all its fighters are as well. It played a significant role in the retaking of western Anbar from the Islamic State and continues to work closely with the Iraqi army in that area.

Al-Monitor recently reported on Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah (KH) tightening its grip on access points to the key border city, which contains the Karabla historic area of the tribe in which Sheikh Rabaa lives. Sheikh Rabaa was one of multiple local sheikhs and security forces who attempted to get permission for Al-Monitor to access the city after it was stopped at a PMU checkpoint despite having authorization to report from the area. He had offered to accept responsibility for this journalist, who has reported multiple times from the city since it was liberated in late 2017. The PMU at the Sheikh Haidar checkpoint refused to allow Al-Monitor to access the city or visit the sheikh in his diwan.

Part of Kadhimi’s efforts to curb corruption in the country has involved sending military reinforcements to official border crossings, in part to stem income streams for “outlaw groups” and stop them from bringing weapons into the country. However, KH and groups affiliated with it have long openly used another border crossing a few kilometers south of the main one in Qaim and appear at least in this area to have the upper hand.

Among a number of other high-profile recent arrests for corruption was that of the governor of Babil province, Hassan Mandil Al-Sariawi, on April 15. A warrant was issued in March for the arrest of the former governor of the same province, Karrar al-Abadi, for falsification of documents granting land to “martyrs' families and political prisoners.”

The province contains a Sunni-majority town previously known as Jurf al-Sakr that is often seen as having been “occupied” by Shiite-led, non-local armed forces since it was liberated in 2014, including KH. Residents are still not allowed to go back to their homes. Both Halbusi and Mohammed al-Karbouli have in interviews with Al-Monitor in previous years mentioned the preventing of the town’s original inhabitants from returning as problematic for Iraq’s Sunni community.

No official statement had been issued on the arrest of Karbouli or his reported release at the time of publication of this article.