BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s reckless spending on its battle against Islamic State, including over $1 billion on Shi’ite militias accused of human rights abuses, is undermining efforts to keep the country functioning, the finance minister said.
In an interview with Reuters, Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd who is mostly seen as a moderate, accused past and present Iraqi leaders of mismanagement, poor planning and failing to reach out to the only people he says can defeat Islamic State — Sunni tribesmen.
When the al Qaeda offshoot swept through northern Iraq in June, it faced hardly any resistance from the U.S.-trained army.
The Shi’ite-led government turned to Iranian-backed militias after the army was humiliated by just several hundred ultra-hardline militants.
“Part of the economic and financial problem we have is this expenditure on the popular committees, on the militias on the army, on the contracts,” said Zebari as he rolled prayer beads trough his fingers in his office and listed Iraq’s challenges.
“The key areas where the budget was recklessly spent was on these military efforts without proper planning and on the volunteers.”
Iraqis who joined the fight against Islamic State are called volunteers and these include Shi’ite militias who appear to act with impunity in the name of taking on Islamic State.
Asked how much cash was channeled to the militias, Zebari said:
“I think they are paying their salaries, their food their clothes and weapons and so on. Over a $1 billion since June for the militias.”
While Iraqi leaders pinned their hopes on the militias, Sunni Muslims accused them of kidnapping, torturing and murdering members of their minority sect, charges they denied.
Zebari’s criticism of the government he is part of reflects the differences of opinion among officials that has made it harder to take decisions about tackling Islamic State. There has been a recent effort to narrow political differences.
Ties between the Shi’ite-led government and the administration of the Kurdish region in the north have been strained.
The Kurds criticize the Baghdad government for not paying the salaries of employees of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The central government is angry over Kurdish oil exports.
Zebari said both sides are trying to work out a compromise whereby the government would start paying salaries and negotiations would open on the Kurds sending oil export revenues to the national budget.
Zebari said the spending on militias was depriving Iraq of the chance to rebuild after many years of war, most recently the U.S.-led campaign against Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda, as well as battles against Shi’ite militias during the occupation.
The Iraqi leader most closely associated with the militias is former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, one of the most divisive figures to emerge from the U.S. occupation.
Critics say Maliki, a Shi’ite, created the conditions that allowed Islamic State to flourish because his blatant sectarian policies alienated minority Sunnis who welcomed the militants in their towns and villages, and joined their side.
Maliki denies the allegations.
Pressure from the United States, regional power broker Iran and Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Ali al-Sistani forced Maliki to give up his fight to stay in office.
They pinned their hopes on Haider al-Abadi, seen as conciliatory figure with a chance of winning over tribesmen in Sunni heartland Anbar province who once helped U.S. Marines defeat al Qaeda and could be persuaded to take on Islamic State.
Zebari has his doubts, especially after the bloodshed last week when Islamic State executed over 300 members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe because they had resisted its territorial advances.
“He is trying to reach out to the Sunni tribes. But what people expect from him is action not words. He should move faster,” said Zebari.
“This is the view as we saw what happened recently with Albu Nimr for instance there is an urgency to move faster on this.”
Islamic State rounded up large numbers of tribesmen at will, executed them and dumped them in mass graves while there was no sense of urgency from the Baghdad government.
“The government could not properly supply them or reach them because the government actually had serious difficulties. They tried to provide some air support but it was limited, it wasn’t a big deal. Lines of communications were lost,” said Zebari.
“Many of the bridges had been blown up (by Islamic State).”
The former foreign minister said finding a way to create an alliance between the government and the Sunni tribesmen should be the top priority in the fight against Islamic State.
American air support is not enough, said Zebari.
“Air strikes alone cannot solve the problem. There needs to be local forces on the ground. Only the Sunni tribes are the ones who can deliver with government support,” said Zebari, who is a Kurd.
Zebari seemed more optimistic about Baghdad, which would be the biggest prize for Islamic State militants who have threatened to march on the capital.
He said Islamic State is no longer a threat to the capital but he acknowledged the group had many sleeper cells and supporters there and a steady supply of mostly foreign suicide bombers.
The battle against Islamic State is expected to drag on, draining the budget over the long term even though Iraq is an OPEC oil producer. The government was not able to present a 2014 budget to parliament but has promised to detail spending at a later date.
“We promise that for 2015 we must present a proper budget for the country,” said Zebari.
The bottom line, Zebari said, is Iraq can’t move forward until Islamic State is defeated.
“Islamic State has a clear plan of action. It wants to establish, reinforce its caliphate. The country cannot function while Islamic State is in control of several provinces.”
Editing by Anna Willard