Though it is facing a major economic crisis, Iraq has lost its finance minister. On September 21, 158 members of parliament approved a no-confidence motion to impeach Hoshyar Zebari—who could muster only 77 votes in his favor (14 abstained). Zebari has been accused of corruption. This includes renting houses without authorization, appointing 450 bodyguards, and pocketing money from real estate transactions. Many Iraqis point to his mansion in Baghdad as proof of the wealth that Zebari has amassed as minister. 

The desire to stamp out corruption in Iraq is both necessary and welcome. Many Iraqis who struggle to get through their daily lives are entitled to hold their political class accountable and ensure that no one is above the law. Hanan Fatlawi, a parliamentarian who played a leading role in removing Zebari, admitted not long ago, “We have all benefitted,” when describing how Iraqi politicians had engaged in corrupt practices. 

However, with so many other politicians having avoided legal retribution thus far, why was Zebari targeted? It appears to be the continuation of an anti-corruption drive against senior longstanding members of the political class, which began with parliament’s withdrawal of confidence in defense minister Khaled al-Obaidi last August, also on corruption charges. If one person knows more about it, it is likely the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose allies played a major role in the both accusations. Zebari’s corruption notwithstanding, his removal appeared to be a Maliki gambit amid an ongoing political struggle for influence over the Iraqi state.

A Kurdish Mr. Popularity

For many, Zebari’s fate came as a surprise. He is a popular figure both among Kurds and Arabs. His political rise was facilitated by the fact that he is the uncle of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and president of the Kurdistan Region. A senior member of the KDP himself, Zebari has long been involved in Kurdish politics. He is one of the few figures who has strong relations with both major Kurdish movements—the KDP and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This derives from the fact that he was once the head of the European branch of the Kurdistan Student Union. During that time he was exposed to different Kurdish political actors, carving out a niche for himself in the nationalist movement. 

Zebari also has been very involved in Arab politics in Iraq, a phenomenon rare among Kurdish officials. He speaks Arabic fluently, unlike many of his KDP counterparts. He was also a major figure in Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and worked to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and early 2000s. He, therefore, has strong ties with many Arab parties.

On the international scene, Zebari is equally well-liked. His eight years as foreign minister (making him the longest-serving minister in post-2003 Iraq) provided him with a large number of international contacts. These include four different U.S. secretaries of state with whom he has dealt—Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry. Other international diplomats have also praised Zebari. For instance, according to a U.S. cable, in 2005 Antoine Sivan, the then assistant director for the Middle East at the French Foreign Ministry, praised “Zebari’s effectiveness and shrewdness as an interlocutor, which he viewed as an exception among ITG [Iraqi Transitional Government] ministers.” 

Even as minister of finance, Zebari continued to employ his diplomatic skills to conclude financial and economic agreements benefiting Iraq. An International Monetary Fund official told the author that if it wasn’t for Zebari, a $5.35 billion loan agreement with Iraq would have been much more difficult to conclude. Zebari also used his relations with the World Bank to sign a similar deal worth $1.2 billion. 

Our Man in Baghdad

For Iraqi Kurds, having one of their own as foreign minister was crucial after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. The Kurdistan Region’s leadership viewed foreign policy as its channel to the outside world—something important for a landlocked substate entity in a region replete with historically antagonistic neighbors. Moreover, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was eager for international recognition. Zebari played a key role in Kurdish efforts to increase the Kurdistan Region’s autonomy, in part by using his contacts as leverage in dealings with untrustworthy regional states, but also by allowing the establishment of KRG representative missions abroad, which went against the Iraqi constitution. Another foreign minister would have taken issue with such moves.

Indeed, Zebari became very good at pushing the KDP and KRG lines while at the Foreign Ministry. For instance on the dispute between Arabs and Kurds over Kirkuk, he argued in favor of holding a referendum there that could potentially lead to Kirkuk’s incorporation into the Kurdistan Region.  

The fact that Iraq did not have a unified foreign policy helped Zebari in his endeavors. For instance, he claimed in 2013 that Iraq was “committed to a neutral stance regarding the Syrian crisis. It is not taking sides with anyone—be it Iran, the [Syrian] regime, Hezbollah, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Turkey.” However, while Zebari was saying this, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was working with Iran to send Iraqi militia fighters into Syria to protect Damascus and the Assad regime. Though Zebari was undermined in this instance, the Kurdish agenda only gained from foreign policy dissonance.  

Our Man Out of Baghdad

Tensions between the KDP and Maliki have risen over time, not least because of disagreement over the Kurdish drive for autonomy. A sign of this came months ago, when Maliki visited Suleimaniyya, the stronghold of Talabani’s PUK, but not Erbil, where the KDP holds sway. Amid this ongoing friction, Maliki has used his allies, such as parliamentarian Haitham al-Jabouri, who heads parliament’s corruption committee, to attack potential opponents. He has stated that he had no objection to returning as prime minister, and his aim could be to weaken Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government with that in mind. It appears that Zebari was a victim of this political game of thrones in Baghdad.

Zebari’s impeachment, which he intends to appeal, reveals a reality in post-Islamic State Iraq. It shows the strength of Maliki and his allies among the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces, who, in their efforts to play a dominant role in the state, will use their proxies to bring down political adversaries. That explains why Zebari was toppled while others who have been accused of more widespread corruption, such as Maliki himself, will likely remain untouched.