The Iraq Report: Can new PM-designate break political deadlock?
A new prime minister-designate was tasked with forming a new cabinet on Thursday after the previous two candidates were both side-lined by pro-Iran parties.
Since the departure of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in December last year on the back of the government's violent mishandling of a still-live protest movement, two other candidates have seen their rise and fall occur within the space of weeks.
This is now the third candidate in about as many months, only this time it appears he may succeed in forming yet another in a long succession of weak Iraqi governments.
Meanwhile, as the novel coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic continues to plague the global population, Baghdad has come under renewed fire after reports were published alleging that the government had intentionally misreported the number of coronavirus casualties sustained.
The authorities stand accused of having lied about the true number of deaths and infected to make their response to the public health crisis appear to be better than it was in reality.
The dual political and health crises – as well as Iraq's continued economic woes – have continued to provide fuel for Iraqi protesters who have taken to providing public services on a grassroots level rather than relying on the federal and provincial governments.
|President Salih asked spymaster Mustafa al-Kadhimi to take on the unenviable task of bringing together Iraq's fractured political scene, granting him 30 days to form a new government|
If Iraqis continue to lose faith in their government to provide basic services to them in an environment where the public purse continues to be squeezed by both low oil prices and the response to the pandemic, then it could result in a complete breakdown of the Iraqi government as we know it.
President appoints new PM to form cabinet
President Barham Salih has, for the third time in as many months, appointed on Thursday a new prime minister-designate to form a cabinet.
President Salih asked spymaster Mustafa al-Kadhimi to take on the unenviable task of bringing together Iraq's fractured political scene, granting him 30 days to form a new government and to bring his cabinet to a consensus vote in parliament.
Salih presented Kadhimi at a formal ceremony that was attended by several senior high-ranking politicians and public figures. This is being interpreted as a sign that Kadhimi will likely find success at forming a government, although it is unlikely that the cabinet he forms will be any more coordinated than its predecessors due to Iraq's fractious and divided political system.
|Read more: The Iraq Report: Political paralysis slows fight
against coronavirus amid economic woes
Kadhimi's appointment comes following the departure also on Thursday of the former governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurfi, who cited "domestic and foreign" pressures in his inability to form a government that would be acceptable to a majority of Iraqi lawmakers.
Zurfi was appointed in the role after his predecessor Mohammed Allawi stated that he had given up on forming a government following stiff opposition from Shia Islamist parliamentarians who are seen as being close to neighbouring Iran.
Both previous candidates were accused of being "too close" to the United States, with Zurfi actually being an American citizen. This led to staunchly pro-Iran Shia blocs to resist both candidates and to declare they would topple them in any vote.
Due to the fractured nature of the Iraqi legislature, no one party commands a majority and it is split between competing factions of predominantly Shia Islamists, many of whom have close ties to Tehran and who also have armed wings who answer directly to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Read more: Saudi Arabia's oil war could spell disaster for Iraq
This was demonstrated by several meetings attended recently by IRGC Quds Force chief Esmail Ghaani in Iraq, the first of their kind since his predecessor Major General Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in January.
One of these gatherings attended by Ghaani last week was said to have been a meeting to determine if Kadhimi would be an acceptable candidate to the Iranian regime.
Kadhimi was previously the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (NIS) and took on the role of spymaster in 2016 where he built a close relationship with both American and Iranian security and political officials. He also worked as a columnist and editor for Al-Monitor where a number of his articles remain published.
|Due to the fractured nature of the Iraqi legislature, no one party commands a majority and it is split between competing factions of predominantly Shia Islamists|
If Kadhimi successfully forms a government, he will be the third prime minister who was appointed by the agreement of lawmakers rather than gaining his legitimacy through a popular vote.
The last prime minister to lead a political bloc to electoral victory was Nouri al-Maliki, the divisive Shia Islamist politician who was ousted and replaced by Haidar al-Abadi in 2014 after he spectacularly mishandled the breakout of the Islamic State group who captured a third of Iraq.
Iraqi authorities 'covered up' extent of coronavirus
A damning report has accused the Iraqi authorities of covering up the real extent of the country's struggle with the coronavirus, leading Baghdad to ban the Reuters news agency and demanding it pay a fine.
In a special report, Reuters interviewed three Iraqi doctors on condition of anonymity as they had been ordered not to speak to the media by Iraq's health ministry. The doctors all confirmed that Iraqi coronavirus cases were between 3,000 to 9,000 cases – far higher than the 772 cited by Iraqi authorities.
Read more: Who is Mustafa al-Kadhimi - Iraq's next prime minister-designate?
A health ministry official told the news agency that there were 2,000 cases in eastern Baghdad alone, not counting the number in other areas and governorates.
However, Iraq's health ministry said that the report was inaccurate and the number of cases was far lower than reported.
"It's incorrect information," said Saif al-Badr, spokesman for the health ministry, adding that the number according to his ministry was 772 confirmed cases with only 54 deaths.
|Read more: Still recovering from Islamic State rule, Mosul's women lead the fight against coronavirus|
As a result of their reporting, Reuters was banned for 90 days and fined, and they are now being asked to pay 25,000,000 Iraqi dinars (£17,180) or they could risk not being allowed to operate in Iraq at all.
If accurate, the official Iraqi numbers would prove to be world leading. While advanced economies and health systems such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and major European powers have all seen thousands of deaths, Iraq's relatively miniscule numbers suggest that the rate of attrition against the population has been adequately contained.
However, this certainly cannot be the case.
Iraq has faced several public health crises in the past, including contaminated water poisoning citizens and dignitaries in Basra for years.
The Iraqi health system proved itself to be uniquely ill-equipped and incapable of dealing with thousands of cases of water poisoning in a single city, and it is therefore unlikely that it would be robust enough to handle a worldwide pandemic.
|The more Iraqis are compelled to rely on themselves rather than their government, the more they will lose faith in the system they are being asked to trust|
The Iraqi authorities also could have motive to suppress the true number of casualties as they face unprecedented economic instability caused by an ongoing oil price war between energy giants Saudi Arabia and Russia which has depressed prices and caused significant cash shortages in Iraqi coffers.
They are also facing continued fury from the Iraqi street which erupted in a powerful display of continued anger last October that has not abated. Popular protests have rocked the establishment which has scrambled to contain them, only to be met by the coronavirus pandemic further straining their ability to force protesters home despite killing 700 of them.
Iraqis have even taken to providing their own health and other public services in the absence of an effective government.
|Read more: The Iraq Report: Iraq still in chaos 17 years after US invasion|
Iraqi volunteers have mobilised at the grassroots level to help needy families stricken by the pandemic, while medical professionals have taken to social media and provided their phone numbers to assist Iraqis who are in urgent need of medical care and attention.
Meanwhile, the almost total absence in Sunni Arab-dominated Mosul, once ruled by IS, has led to its women banding together to organise a local fightback against the viral outbreak. Women like Aseel Subhi have spent eight hours a day sewing disposable face masks and surgical gowns to supply medical professionals in pharmacies and clinics, while others have distributed medical supplies.
Like other cities in Iraq, Mosul's health infrastructure has been ravaged by war and conflict. Only five cases have been reported in the northern city which had a population of more than 1.5 million before the war with IS.
Such figures do not mean that the virus has been effectively tackled, but rather suggest that reporting mechanisms are inadequate due to a lack of access to healthcare facilities. This is equally applicable across Iraq, though to a much lesser degree than Mosul and cities like Ramadi that were almost entirely levelled between 2014 and 2017.
The more Iraqis are compelled to rely on themselves rather than their government, the more they will lose faith in the system they are being asked to trust. Should they lose faith entirely, they will begin to question what the purpose is of their government in the first place.