MOSUL: Would the real Mosul governor please stand up? Two men are claiming to rule Iraq’s northern province, gripped by a head-spinning drama against the backdrop of anti-government protests elsewhere in the country.
Sunni-majority Mosul has been insulated from mass protests demanding regime change that have rocked Iraq’s capital and Shiite-majority south since October 1.
But it is dealing with its own political showdown, with two men on Sunday holding back-to-back press conferences to claim they were the city’s rightful governor.
In one corner is Mansur al-Marid — the 54-year-old incumbent governor seen as close to both the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force and influential neighbour Iran.
“I’m the legitimate governor,” he told AFP, denying the authenticity of a resignation letter circulated to journalists.
And in the other corner is Najm al-Juburi, 63, a recently-retired general who is considered close to Washington, archfoe of Tehran.
Juburi, who claims to have been elected by the provincial council on Sunday, has pledged to bring “justice and equality” to Mosul.
There’s just one hitch: that council was officially dissolved by the parliament in Baghdad in October, as a step to appease protesters angered by corruption.
– Mosul’s game of thrones –
In the Iraqi system, provincial councils answer to federal lawmakers, but are elected by popular vote.
The councils, in turn, elect the governors, who are meant to administer the day-to-day running of their regions.
The Nineveh provincial council elected Marid in May and last week its members said they had accepted his hand-written resignation letter.
But sources within the council told AFP it wasn’t submitted by him, and Marid pointed out it carries neither the proper provincial letterhead nor a date.
The council had acted quickly, however, and within days, 23 of its 39 members selected Juburi as the new governor.
Juburi received military training in the United States, battled the Islamic State group in Mosul and is known to be backed by the Kurdish regional government, whose capital Arbil lies less than an hour from Mosul.
Mosul was devastated by three years of IS occupation and the nine month battle to oust the jihadists.
Swathes of it still lie in ruins, with entire neighbourhoods flattened and thousands of families unable to return to homes littered with unexploded ordnance.
The council manages an annual budget of $800 million for the broader province of Nineveh, which is also supposed to receive millions in international aid for reconstruction.
In the 12th most corrupt country in the world, according to anti-graft watchdog Transparency International, that’s an appealing sum.
Across Iraq, government jobs, contracts and even administrative approvals are often awarded based on bribes, nepotism or political affiliation.
Over the past 16 years, fake contracts, embezzlement and ghost employees cost the state $450 billion, according to a government probe.
That amounts to twice the yearly GDP for Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest crude producer.
– ‘We’re already in limbo’ –
The provincial councils have long been accused of being satellites in an extensive network of state graft.
Marid’s predecessor, Nawfal Akoub, fled Mosul in March after he and officials close to him were accused of stealing more than $60 million in public funds, based on an investigation by the government’s Integrity Commission.
He is also accused of involvement in neglect blamed for a ferry sinking in Mosul on Mother’s Day that left 150 people dead.
Akoub, sanctioned by the US earlier this year for the corruption charges, remains on the run.
“The provincial councils are an extra link in the chain — they’re yet another place for corruption and for politicians to tamper with state money,” said political analyst Hamed al-Sheikh.
“Parliament was right to dissolve them,” he told AFP.
Mosul isn’t the only city where competition over governing posts has turned almost farcical.
In January, three men claimed to be governor of Iraq’s eastern Wasit province: one, who was fired but refused to surrender his post, his deputy, who sought to prolong his own term indefinitely, and a third, who claimed to be elected by the council.
The provincial councils were among the first on the chopping block when the central government put forward measures to appease protesters.
Iraq’s political elite have resisted the deep-rooted change demanded in the rallies, instead offering measures such as hiring drives, electoral reform and the dissolution of the provincial councils.
Sunni-majority areas, including Mosul, have not joined the movement, fearing that speaking out against the central government would earn them the labels of “terrorists” or supporters of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
But they share their compatriots’ disdain for the political class.
“Politicians are squabbling over power just so they can divvy up the spoils,” said Iham Ibrahim, a 40-year-old Mosul resident.
That pilfering is especially painful for a city with no visible progress in reconstruction.
“We’re already in limbo,” said fellow Mosul local 32-year-old Ahmed Abdulrahman.
“We can’t afford this kind of conflict.”