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The Iraq Report: Mustafa al-Kadhimi takes the helm in stormy political waters Open in fullscreen

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The Iraq Report: Mustafa al-Kadhimi takes the helm in stormy political waters

Iraq's new premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi will face significant challenges that may be insurmountable. [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 May, 2020

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Kadhimi will have to steer Iraq out of the coronavirus crisis, resuscitate an all-but-dead economy, and restore the faith of Iraqis in a political system plagued by corruption and sectarianism.
After months of political turmoil and wrangling, the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the country's unicameral legislature, has granted a vote of confidence to the newly incumbent Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the sixth premier to take office since elections were first held in 2004.

Kadhimi will face significant challenges that may be insurmountable for the former journalist and intelligence chief.

He will not only have to find a way to steer Iraq out of the coronavirus crisis, but he will also have to find a way to restore security to Iraq's cities, resuscitate an all-but-dead economy, and to restore the faith of Iraqis in a political system long plagued by corruption, sectarianism, and easily influenced by foreign agendas.

Who is Mustafa al-Kadhimi?

Born Mustafa Abd ul-Latif Mshatat in 1967 in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, he fled Iraq in 1985, more than halfway into its eight-year war with neighbouring Iran. He later settled in the United Kingdom where he eventually attained citizenship, a status he continues to enjoy.

He adopted the name "Kadhimi" after he began working as a journalist and was attached to the Iraq Memory Foundation, an organisation that was intended to document alleged crimes perpetrated by the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

He returned to Iraq along with other anti-Baathist dissidents after the US-led invasion and occupation of the country in 2003.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi will face significant challenges that may be insurmountable for the former journalist and intelligence chief

While not affiliated with any direct party membership, Kadhimi has a history of enjoying close ties with various Shia Islamist groups linked to Iran, coordinating with many of them during their time in exile.

He has also demonstrated a Shia Islamist slant himself through his publications, including books on Shia imams and an Islamic outlook on how to address Iraq's political issues. 

Continuing his work as a journalist, Kadhimi then began working for US-based Middle East news analysis website Al-Monitor, where he worked as a columnist and the editor of its Iraq Pulse pages between 2013 and 2016.

As a columnist, some of his articles included the need to depoliticise – but not demobilise – the Shia Islamist-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who were accused of perpetrating sectarian massacres against Iraq's Sunni population.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Can new PM-designate Kadhimi unite
Iraq's fractured political scene?

He also wrote articles acknowledging how powerful foreign interference was in Iraqi politics, penning an article in 2014 questioning whether Iraq's elections will even be decided in Iraq or whether they will be decided in foreign capitals including Tehran and Washington.

Such articles demonstrate that Kadhimi possesses a nuanced understanding of the problems plaguing the country he now leads, although it remains to be seen how he intends on tackling them.

Kadhimi was then tapped to become Iraq's National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief in 2016. Kadhimi was thought to be a wise choice for national spymaster because he was not overtly linked to any political party and also enjoyed a good reputation in the West and in Iran where he first lived after fleeing Iraq.

This was seen as beneficial as he would have to coordinate with a plethora of Western intelligence agencies as well as with the Iranians, sometimes a delicate job.

Kadhimi oversaw Iraq's intelligence efforts against the Islamic State (IS) militant group, expanding the NIS' remit to include counterterrorism missions, and coordinated efforts to pinpoint IS cells in areas reconquered by the Iraqi military and the PMF. However, he did little to curb the excesses of Iraqi military units who used the war on IS as an excuse to lash out against the Sunni Arabs.

His time as spymaster allowed him to expand his already extensive network of contacts formed when he was a journalist, putting him in good stead to be offered as a candidate who could walk the tight rope between pleasing both the United States and Iran.

Iraq's new premier possesses a nuanced understanding of the problems plaguing the country he now leads, although it remains to be seen how he intends on tackling them

Every Iraqi prime minister since the country was invaded has needed acceptance from both Washington and Tehran before he could take office, and Kadhimi is no different.

Significant challenges face new Iraqi government

But getting Iran's and the United States' approval is the least of Kadhimi's concerns, as he will now have to face the challenge of steering Iraq out of a multitude of crises that will be adding to the public's already explosive anger toward the government.

Despite American overtures stating they would support abandoning the sectarian quota system, or muhasasa, that the US installed in 2003, Kadhimi cut a deal with the pro-Iran Fatah and Binaa parliamentary blocs pledging he would not do so, therefore preserving their interests and gaining their confidence votes.

One of the demonstrators' key demands has been to abolish this system, which has created a succession of weak Iraqi administrations and allowed for sectarian rather than national interests to prevail, as well as encouraging a culture of corruption and political patronage.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Iraq still in chaos 17 years after US invasion

Although Kadhimi has promised to pave the way for early elections, his refusal to move against the muhasasa system will infuriate Iraqi demonstrators who have been out on the streets since October last year. This will likely lead to an intensification of the protest movement.

Further exacerbating his political woes would be the continuing problem of armed groups who work in tandem with political blocs.

The previously mentioned Fatah and Binaa blocs are closely tied to not only the PMF, which is Iran-backed but Iraq-sanctioned, but they are also intimately tied to militant groups who often operate under the sole direction of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

These IRGC-linked Shia groups have been a constant thorn in the side of any attempt at forging a national consensus basis for the nation's governance. They are also embedded within the military and law enforcement, making excision of such groups a deadly game that could end in extreme violence.

Kadhimi has promised to pave the way for early elections, but his refusal to move against the muhasasa system will infuriate Iraqi demonstrators who have been out on the streets since October last year

Militias have already been linked to the murder of protesters, with Iran-backed groups actively deploying snipers on rooftops to shoot at demonstrators, while other groups have operated their own secret and unofficial prisons where activists have been disappeared, never to be seen again.

International human rights organisations have repeatedly condemned the violence used by government forces and Shia militias who have vested interests in Iraq's severely undermined and perforated political system.

The protests will also be fuelled by Iraq's dire economic performance.

Battling a twin assault of massively deflated oil prices and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank has predicted Iraq's economy will contract by 9.7 percent this year which will outstrip the economic damage caused by the three-year war against IS.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Islamic State grows in power amid
coronavirus outbreak

The World Bank also said poverty rates were set to double in a country beset by a lack of economic opportunity that is heavily reliant on its oil exports and its large and unwieldy public sector.

Iraqi oil revenues were a paltry $1.4 billion in April, which is less than a third of the $4.5 billion the state needs to pay its employees each month.

The economic slump experienced by Iraq will also hamper any desire – if there was any to begin with – to reconstruct Iraqi cities that have been left in ruins since they were recaptured from IS jihadists between 2014 and 2017.

Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and Tikrit are still in ruins while towns like Jurf al-Sakhr and other villages across the Iraqi-Iranian border have been depopulated from their Sunni inhabitants.

Previously, Kadhimi has acknowledged how Sunni buy-in was required for Iraq to stabilise. However, he faces an uphill struggle to accomplish this given how Iraqi coffers are severely depleted and parliamentary interest groups, particularly among the pro-Iran blocs, are opposed to any sort of reconciliation with the Sunnis.

If Kadhimi manages to overcome all these hurdles, he will undoubtedly go down in Iraqi history as a model statesman and as a standard for emulation for decades to come.

However, he will be unlikely to do so if he cannot begin to create a programme of national reconciliation and a common vision granting rights and prosperity to all Iraqis irrespective of their ethno-religious background.

The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab.

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