Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Iraq's defence minister hits back at Sweden over 'smears'

It comes as Sweden is due to discuss its deployment in Iraq

Iraqi demonstrators grapple with a tear gas canister during clashes with security forces in the capital Baghdad's al-Rasheed street near al-Ahrar bridge, during ongoing anti-government demonstrations. AFP / Ahmad AL-RUBAYE
Iraqi demonstrators grapple with a tear gas canister during clashes with security forces in the capital Baghdad's al-Rasheed street near al-Ahrar bridge, during ongoing anti-government demonstrations. AFP / Ahmad AL-RUBAYE

A row between Iraq’s defence minister and Sweden could now see the EU nation’s joint deployment with NATO in a training operation near Baghdad facing the threat of a pull out.

Allegations directed against the Iraqi defence minister sparked controversy as Sweden is due to discuss on Thursday whether it will extend its deployment in Iraq where its forces have been helping the NATO Mission Iraq to train troops.

Swedish politicians have called for defence and foreign affairs ministers to deliver an ultimatum on its participation.

Najah Al Shammari, a major general who served under former dictator Saddam Hussein, claims he is a victim of a smear campaign over allegations that he falsely claimed welfare benefits in Sweden while living and working in Iraq and that he was responsible for shooting protesters.

Mr Al Shammari has been working as Iraq’s Minster of Defence since June but has previously lived in Sweden.

Swedish newspapers have claimed he was reported to the police for fraud after it was revealed he was still registered as living in Sweden under the name Najah Al Adeli.

He has also been named in newspaper reports as the Iraqi minister being investigated by the Swedish Prosecution Authority over alleged crimes against humanity.

In a post on the Ministry of Defence’s Facebook page it said the allegations were “a cheap attempt to damage his reputation”.

The police have not commented on the case, however, Sweden’s social security minister Ardalan Shekarabi, is understood to have been called to attend a separate hearing next week to address questions on the issue.

Moderate group leader Tobias Billström told Sweden’s Expressen newspaper that urgent questions needed to be addressed before a decision was made to extend the nation’s military work with Iraq.

"It is the question of the fraud and the question of citizenship of an individual who is in a high position in the Iraqi government and finally the question of the Swedish military mission and the Swedish cooperation with Iraqi forces where the defence minister in Iraq is most responsible," he said.

“We are about to extend the effort, it requires a parliamentary decision and we need information. Did the government have information about the defence minister's Swedish connections when they were updated by the Iraqi media this spring?

“What is the assessment of the government of our military cooperation with a state where the Minister of Defence is the subject of a discussion on grant fraud? Will Sweden's confidence in the ability to cooperate be affected?”

He became a Swedish citizen in 2015, however senior Iraqi government ministers are not permitted to have dual citizenship.

Local media say the welfare payments relate to him allegedly being unable to work due to memory issues.

The controversy comes as the death toll against anti-government protesters in Iraq continues to rise, with 13 people killed on Sunday and more than 150 injured.

In a statement Mr Al Shammari has accused a “third party” of being responsible for the recent killings which now sees the number of people killed standing at over 350 since violence began last month.

"The Iraqi national security forces are not the ones who are killing the protesters,” he said.

“There is a third party killing the protesters to push protesters to clash with security forces to spread instability in Iraq.”

A post on the Ministry of Defence’s Facebook added: “Mr Al Shammari clearly stands with protesters and their legitimate demands and their constitutional rights to protest.

“Media platforms have made false news to damage his person and professional career.”

It added that he has only given instructions to “help and support” demonstrators and not to harm them.

Since October 1, protests have been staged over corruption, lack of jobs and poor services. The rallies have intensified into calls for an overhaul of the ruling system.

The activists accuse the political elite of awarding public sector jobs based on bribes, nepotism or sectarianism, while ignoring a youth unemployment rate of 25 per cent.

Top leaders have publicly acknowledged protesters' demands as legitimate and promised measures to appease them, including hiring, electoral reform and a Cabinet reshuffle.

But the rallies have continued to grow as unrest continues.

Updated: November 26, 2019 10:19 PM

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