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Iraq: Outrage as exiled Sunni officials plan to return

Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi (R) perform the weekly Friday noon prayers at the Sunni Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad on January 11, 2013 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images]
Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi (R) perform the weekly Friday noon prayers at the Sunni Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad on January 11, 2013 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images]

Iraqi Sunni political figures have returned or are negotiating their return to the country following a national reconciliation agreement, causing outrage amongst the powerful Shia political factions.

Former Finance Minister Rafi Al-Issawi, a prominent political figure who held a number of positions until he resigned as the finance minister under former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's government in 2013, returned to Iraq earlier this month and turned himself in over corruption and terrorism charges.

In June 2017 while he was still in exile, Al-Issawi was sentenced to seven years in prison in absentia on charges of corruption and the squandering of public funds. He – along with other Iraqi Sunni leaders – was also accused of terrorism.

On 21 June, however, Iraq's parliamentary speaker Mohammed Al-Halbusi stated that Al-Issawi has no ties to terrorism and that the allegations against him are "malicious". He acknowledged that the politician's return is a part of the "years-long UN efforts involving Iraq's political and social reconciliation dossier. President Barham Salih has been engaged in Issawi's return."

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Al-Halbusi's statement triggered a strong reaction from Shia political factions and figures, including the Fatah Alliance's leader Hadi Al-Ameri who warned that he would be strongly opposing Al-Issawi's return and questioned how President Barham Salih and other officials knew of his return beforehand.

Prior to the parliamentary speaker's statement, on 19 June the State of Law Coalition led by the former Prime Minister Al-Maliki warned that it would "take up arms if Saddam Hussein's Baath [Sunni-led party] was brought back to political life, as well as the terrorists and killers." This was despite a tweet by Al-Maliki himself, two days prior to that threat, in which he stated that "In Rafi Al-Issawi's case, we will respect the decision of a professional and impartial judicial system, in its judicial context."

According to the US-based media outlet Al-Monitor, a senior source within Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc the Iraqi Forces Alliance informed it that "President Barham Salih and Faleh Fayadh, chairman of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units, sought to bring Issawi back to his standing [as a Sunni leader]."

Following his return, the potential for other Sunni figures' return is now open, with the source adding that "the talk is focused now on other Sunni leaders, such as former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, who will be able to come back in case a settlement is reached in Issawi's dossier, considering that the dossier mainly revolves around him and that he was behind the 2013 demonstrations."

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Also involved in the negotiation for the leaders' returns is the recently-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who has promised to rid the country of much of its sectarian and factional politics as well as protect protestors from harm by Iraqi security forces and the Iran-backed Shia militias.

The source included this in its revelation, saying that another leader, the former Governor of Ninevah Atheel Al-Nujaifi "opened a direct channel with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi so as to have his judicial file settled and have a political return to Mosul." He added that Turkey and Qatar are also pushing the Iraqi government for his return.

Al-Nujaifi himself also spoke to Al-Monitor, saying that he will "return to Iraq once the files involving him are resolved." The files against him involve charges of corruption and of negligence in the performance of his duties during Daesh's takeover of the city of Mosul in 2014.

The negotiation of the reconciliation agreement for the return of exiled Sunni leaders comes as many in the international community look towards the new Iraqi government under Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi to stem the country's sectarian tensions and crackdown on dominance by any one political faction. In efforts to prove that it is performing this, government forces raided the headquarters of a prominent Iran-backed Shia militia and arrested many of its members last week.

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