Washington has not yet come to terms with the political hot potato it has inherited in Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has been in power for just over a year, is ruling over a battlefield, both actual and political. The two main contestants are Iran and the US, but the main combatants are an Iran-backed range of militant groups, and the government’s defense forces, boosted by the depleted and depleting US military presence. Turkey is taking advantage of the chaos to attack a refugee camp in the Kurdish northern region, reputedly using drones. Three people were killed in a suspected Turkish airstrike near Makhmour camp on June 5.
Even before his appointment as prime minister in May 2020, Kadhimi walked a tightrope.
Back in October 2019 thousands of Iraqis had taken to the streets, accusing the political class of incompetence and corruption. The government’s heavy-handed attempts to quash the riots with the help of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, led to the death of hundreds of protesters, and finally to the resignation of then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
What followed was a long search by Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, for a prime minister that would be acceptable domestically and also to the two major external states most involved in shaping Iraq’s future – the US and Iran. Two of his nominees failed to secure sufficient support, and it was six months before Salih’s eye fell on Kadhimi, Iraq’s intelligence chief, but with a long career as journalist and peace activist behind him.
It was an inspired choice. No professional politician, Kadhimi was not tarred in the public mind with the brush of incompetence and corruption. Unallied to any political party, he had made few enemies among the political class. Having spent many years as an exile in the West, he was well-known and liked in Washington and London. And his four years embedded in Iraq’s security service while Iran strengthened its grip on the country’s governance, made his appointment acceptable to the Iranian regime.
Kadhimi can look back on a series of positive achievements during his year in office, but in one specific area he has been less than wholly successful – gaining the upper hand against the highly organized pro-Iranian militias that exercise inordinate power in the country.
He tried hard to curb their influence. He improved the government’s control over Iraq’s multiple border crossings, diverting the millions of dollars collected by the armed groups and criminal bodies that had previously controlled them into the government’s coffers. He also replaced pro-Iran commanders in the most sensitive security posts, but he failed time and again when attempting to arrest individuals or groups affiliated with units of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias formed in 2014. Every time an arrest was attempted, Kadhimi found himself forced to release his prisoners or face uncontrollable armed resistance.
Now he has tried once again. On May 26, 2021 Qasim Muslih, the PMF’s head of operations in Anbar province, was arrested, accused of involvement in the killing of activists, including Ihab al-Wazni, whose murder in April had led to popular riots. Just hours after Muslih’s arrest, convoys of PMF fighters poured onto the streets of Baghdad and took over one of the entrances to the Green Zone in a display of defiance. Kadhimi tried to stand firm, and Muslih remained in custody for a full two weeks. On June 9 IRGC’s Quds Force head, Esmail Ghaani, was reported to have arrived in Baghdad, and the same day Muslih was released.
Political considerations may be behind Kadhimi’s stance. He has scheduled parliamentary elections for October 2021 and, with a popular movement clamoring for an end to Iranian influence in Iraq, arresting a powerful PMF figure will doubtless enhance his popular appeal. Kadhimi has said that he will continue to stand above the political fray and not himself contest the election, but that does not rule out the possibility – perhaps the likelihood – that he will be invited to serve a second term as prime minister.
Kadhimi came into office facing a plethora of demands from the public. High among them was economic reform – the country was facing a financial crisis and high unemployment. Another priority was political reform, namely fair elections and a power-sharing system. There were also public demands for improvements in basic services like electricity, and punishment for those involved in using lethal force against demonstrators.
Kadhimi promised to meet as many of the demands as possible. His government made a start with a “White Paper for Economic Reform”. Its proposals make sense, but they cannot be implemented instantly. They would need to be adopted as government policy and be carried forward into legislation.
As regards the political situation, during Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq in March 2021 there was much positive rhetoric about Iraq and its diversity, and Kadhimi has managed to improve relations with the Kurdistan region. Recently he said: “Unprecedented security coordination between Baghdad and Erbil is under way. It will help end terrorist attacks in the disputed areas and the regions witnessing security vacuum.”
However in Iraq proper the same parties continue to have access to state resources and maintain their armed groups, while law enforcement agencies are still hampered by corruption, a lack of resources and intimidation.
As the new US administration came into office, Kadhimi’s efforts to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq slowed. President Joe Biden’s declared intention of re-entering the Iranian nuclear deal strengthened Iran’s standing and the resolve of its proxies.
The Iraqi public are well aware of the challenges that face the country on the social, economic and political fronts. The continued presence of US troops – even though reduced to some 2,500 mainly non-combatants – is an irritant to some. There is much wider resentment at the huge influence that Iran exercises over Iraq’s political process and legislature, and at the Iran-backed militias that roam the country, holding the law enforcement agencies in contempt.
Iraq has a long road to travel. Kadhimi has made a start. Perhaps the October elections will point the way forward.