Fakhri Karim: My Complaint to Sistani on Corruption Spurred Suggestion of Saddam-Era Minister

Fakhri Karim, senior adviser to late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim, senior adviser to late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: My Complaint to Sistani on Corruption Spurred Suggestion of Saddam-Era Minister

Fakhri Karim, senior adviser to late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim, senior adviser to late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the prime minister's office gained significant power. It became customary for the prime minister to be Shiite, the president Kurdish, and the speaker of Parliament Sunni.

This power-sharing arrangement, focusing on sectarian representation over institutional structure, has remained strong.

Attempts to break this norm have failed, including when former US President Barack Obama and his Vice President Joe Biden tried to support Ayad Allawi, a Shiite politician, for the presidency. The aim was to keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power with support from both Washington and Tehran.

Despite Allawi’s parliamentary majority win, he didn’t become president.

Arab states were slow to react to changes in Iraq, allowing Iran to step in. Iran supported the US-created Iraqi Governing Council and sought to bring together Shiite factions to join the political process.

Its influence grew due to its backing of groups that opposed Saddam Hussein. Iran gained a key role in Iraq, effectively having veto power over decisions and a say in forming governments, while also expecting an eventual US military withdrawal.

Fakhri Karim, senior adviser to late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said Iran stepped in to fill a vacuum in Iraq, solidifying its role and protecting its interests.

This made Iran’s Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani a key figure in Iraq, shaping everything from the reduction of US military presence to the formation of governments.

A foreign power’s influence in a neighboring country grows only if locals accept its role.

Soleimani and deputy leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a US strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim noted that Soleimani “was dedicated to serving his country’s interests, and the other side should have defended its own role and interests.”

He recalled Soleimani as being “skilled, effective, and able to earn trust, shifting from flexibility to rigidity when needed.”

This was clear in a letter Soleimani sent to Talabani when he considered supporting a no-confidence motion against Maliki’s government.

Karim also mentioned that al-Muhandis was deeply trusted by the Iranian general.

Talabani assigned his senior adviser various missions in Iran, focusing on forming Iraqi governments and relations with Kurdistan.

During a visit to Tehran, Adil Abdul Mahdi, who would later become prime minister, informed Talabani and Karim that “Soleimani’s claim that Iran supports Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister is false.”

“I was told that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports me,” argued Abdul Mahdi at the time.

Talabani felt awkward despite being close to Abdul Mahdi. He asked Karim to visit Tehran, where he met Soleimani and al-Muhandis. Soleimani denied Abdul Mahdi’s claims, saying he could take Karim to the Supreme Leader to hear the truth.

For his part, Karim said the Supreme Council didn’t support al-Maliki and that influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s stance was hardening. Soleimani assured that the Iranians were in contact with al-Sadr and would handle the issue of the Supreme Council.

When Karim returned, he informed Talabani and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani that the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri, had left the Supreme Council to join Maliki, shifting the balance and allowing the formation of a government without the Council’s interference.

Karim remembered that Iran initially supported Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister (2005-2006). However, Jaafari quickly became a burden on the political process and Shiite leaders then signaled the need for change.

The US Ambassador advised Jaafari to resign, threatening him if he didn't comply.

Maliki’s name wasn’t initially considered; Ali al-Adib from the “Dawa” party, of which Maliki was a member, was the favored choice. But Maliki didn’t support Adib, so after deliberations, the party settled on Maliki instead.

Breakfast with Soleimani

Karim remembers a breakfast meeting with Soleimani and al-Muhandis. He brought up Maliki’s performance during his second term and the widespread corruption in Iraq.

Soleimani suggested discussing it further, but Karim insisted the issue was urgent.

He questioned why, if all major Shiite forces agreed, change couldn’t happen. Soleimani indicated that decisions within the Shiite alliance were made by those who remained in it, prompting Karim to ask if Soleimani was implying it was him. Soleimani then replied : “Think what you wish.”

Sadr’s misstep

In the post-Saddam Hussein era, Sadr emerged as a major political force in Iraq. He led a large popular and armed movement.

Dealing with Sadr was challenging for political factions, especially among Shiites. Some disputes even culminated in armed conflicts. Managing Sadr’s influence was difficult both internally and for external interests, especially given his unpredictability.

When asked about Sadr’s decision to quit politics in 2022, Karim called it a major mistake.

He believed Iraq suffered greatly from this move, as it left parliament without any influential Shiite force capable of standing up against decisions not aligned with common goals.

Karim highlighted that filling seats with losing candidates seemed odd and turned the minority into the majority, undermining the constitutional process. He also noted the Shiite community’s fragmentation, with many Shiites not participating in recent elections due to their disenchantment with the political parties.

Karim warned against underestimating the potential for renewed protests and uprisings among the marginalized against the government and ruling powers.

Sistani’s unexpected proposal

When discussing top Shiite Religious Authority in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, Karim highlighted his political astuteness, surpassing the majority of other Shiite leaders. Sistani’s Friday sermons, delivered by his representatives, reflect this forward-thinking approach.

Karim noted a key observation about Sistani’s mindset. Despite corruption concerns, Sistani surprised Karim by suggesting bringing back the former Minister of Trade for his effectiveness in managing the ration card distribution.

He even proposed considering a Christian minister if they were honest and prioritized the people’s interests.

Furthermore, Sistani emphasized the importance of inclusivity in the new Iraq, advocating for the rights of Sunni and Kurdish components. He rejected marginalization and insisted on their participation and rights.

Sistani’s fatwa and the PMF

Karim believes that Sistani issued a fatwa on “jihad” to rally people against the significant threat posed by ISIS in 2014. He didn’t specifically mention the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or any other organization but referred to volunteers.

“Many responded to Sistani’s call and made significant sacrifices alongside the armed forces and Peshmerga. Volunteers participated in liberating areas once occupied by the terror group,” said Karim.

Karim further noted that there was a belief that those who made sacrifices had the right to be part of the armed forces and receive state support.

“The idea of integrating militias or military entities into the armed forces is not new,” explained Karim.

“US diplomat Paul Bremer [the first post-invasion governor of Iraq] proposed something similar to factions and organizations under the banner of integration into the army, and steps were taken in this direction,” he added.

“The goal was to eliminate the threat of ISIS, not to create a parallel army or establish another institution.”

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.