BAGHDAD – Iraq's security forces continue to gear up for a long-awaited operation to retake the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. But they will be doing so without the minister of defense who has presided over most of the military's recent successes against IS.
Khaled al-Obeidi was abruptly dismissed by a parliamentary no-confidence vote Thursday after weeks of political wrangling over dueling allegations of corruption with the parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri. The allegations of corruption were quickly exploited by a handful of Iraq's powerful political blocs looking to weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi by removing one of his key Sunni allies.
Neither al-Jabouri's nor al-Obeidi's allegations of corruption have been publicly proven.
Al-Obeidi's removal came just over a month after the minister of interior's resignation was accepted, leaving Iraq without two key security officials as the country prepares for what is expected to be the most complicated fight yet in the anti-IS campaign. Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban submitted his resignation in early July amid mounting anger following a massive truck bombing claimed by IS in central Baghdad that killed more than 300 people.
So far al-Abadi has kept largely quiet on al-Obeidi's dismissal. His office told The Associated Press that it will not affect ongoing military campaigns.
On the ground, operations in advance of an assault on Mosul have continued uninterrupted by the political shake up, according to Ministry of Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool and a senior Ministry of Defense official. Rasool said logistics, command and control are not reliant on the defense minister, but rather controlled by the Joint Special Operations command.
"The sacking the defense minister is a political issue and not a military one," he said.
Just moments before the no-confidence vote Thursday, al-Abadi announced that a town south of Mosul neighboring a key air base had been "liberated," by Iraqi ground forces backed by coalition airstrikes. Al-Abadi said the retaking of Qaraya marked an "important step" on the road to Mosul. While progress south of Mosul has been slow, Iraqi forces have not suffered any significant territorial setbacks in recent months.
Late Saturday night, al-Abadi announced another victory against IS. In a statement he said Iraqi forces had completely retaken the Khaldiya area in Anbar province between Ramadi and Fallujah, a pocket of desert territory used by the militant group to move supplies, weapons and fighters through Anbar.
Al-Obeidi's dismissal also concentrates a significant amount of power in the hands of the prime minister. Al-Abadi's predecessor Nouri al-Maliki left the defense and interior portfolios vacant and ran those ministries himself.
"Al-Abadi came in (to office) promising not to do what Maliki had done ... but he's ended up doing just that," said Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political risk newsletter. Rabkin explained that the move does not appear to be an intentional power grab by al-Abadi like that of al-Maliki.
A senior official in the Ministry of Defense maintained that al-Obeidi's departure would have no effect on the day-to-day workings of the ministry. "The minister is a formality and has no real impact on operations," he said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the press.
Al-Obeidi, a Mosul native, was the most senior Sunni official in al-Abadi's defense establishment. His original appointment in October of 2014 was praised by members of the then newly formed U.S.-led anti-IS coalition as a move toward creating a more inclusive government that would address Sunni marginalization and some of the rampant corruption issues that allowed IS to embarrass the Iraqi military in 2014.
The defense minister's dismissal "gives clear evidence that the subject of reconciliation has received a mercy killing," said Zuhair al-Jabouri, a senior member of the provincial council in Nineveh province, which contains Mosul. "There can no longer be national reconciliation," he said.
On the newly formed frontline some 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Mosul, Rasool, the Defense Ministry spokesman said "the fighters and officers are frustrated that the defense minister was sacked in this way."
Using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, he added, "despite the frustration we will continue to fight and expel Daesh."
Associated Press writer Susannah George contributed to this report.