It was back in September 2019 that anti-government protests began sweeping across Iraq. Eventually many of the nation’s cities were almost in lockdown. The demonstrations were an expression of genuine popular dissatisfaction with the corruption, inefficiency and failure of Iraq’s politicians and ruling class. Popular sentiment was well aware of the stranglehold that Iran had gained over Iraq’s political class. For months, in unprecedented displays of anti-Iran sentiment, demonstrators in the capital had been chanting “Out, out, Iran! Baghdad will stay free!”
The vast majority of demonstrators were young, and their lot was bleak. Despite Iraq’s petroleum wealth, young Iraqis have a one-in-five chance of living below the poverty line. One in four young people is unemployed.
The rallies quickly turned violent as the government – largely by way of Iran-backed groups under the overall command of Qassem Soleimani – responded with attempted assassinations, kidnappings of prominent activists and a ruthless crackdown on protesters. The security forces, or Iran-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), killed over 500 protesters, most of them unarmed civilians. Well over 27,000 were wounded.
A late-comer to Iraq’s chaotic scene was the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of Sairoon, the largest coalition bloc in parliament. He seized the opportunity provided by the public reaction to the US assassination of Soleimani on Iraqi soil on 3 January 2020.
On 5 January, the Iraqi parliament backed a resolution that all foreign troops – including 5,200 US soldiers – leave the country. Al-Sadr called on the nation to participate in a million-man march. People responded, but certainly not to the extent that he had urged.
Al-Sadr’s efforts to rouse the nation received something of a setback on January 22 when Iraqi President Barham Saleh met US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Much to the dismay of the pro-Sadr protesters, the two leaders agreed on the need to keep US forces in Iraq.
The chaos and the demonstrations continued, and finally prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned.
Months of stalemate ensued. Two nominated prime ministers failed, one after another, to form a government. The leadership vacuum was only exacerbating the country’s severe economic problems and the crisis of the coronavirus epidemic as it hit Iraq.
Finally on 9 April President Saleh tasked Iraq’s head of Intelligence, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, with becoming head of the government and leading the country forward.
Unusually, and surprisingly, Kadhimi’s appointment was welcomed across the political spectrum, from the UN to Iran and even by the Kurdish political parties. His name had been floated as possible prime minister back in December, but at that time pro-Iranian groups opposed him. Now influential Shia cleric al-Sadr was welcoming, portraying him as a positive and potentially unifying choice. Generally hailed as he has been, a certain amount of speculation persists as to whether Kadhimi is close to Iran, more of an Iraqi nationalist, or something else, not quite specified. Perhaps he is content to leave his exact stance somewhat equivocal. In any event, he now has 30 days to submit his cabinet line-up to the 329-member parliament for a vote of confidence.
Mustafa al-Khadhimi was born in 1967 in Khadhimiya in northern Baghdad. He began studying law in Baghdad, but in 1985 fled the country and settled in Britain. Over the next twenty years or so he built a career as a journalist. He moved over to the US for a spell, working at the Iraq Memory Foundation in Washington DC , and then came back to the UK.
Finally Khadimi returned to Iraq, where he completed a law degree in 2012. He then worked as a journalist and editor for the website Al Monitor, before being appointed in 2016 by then prime minister Haider al-Abadi as head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). His tenure was marked by his success in turning around an institution mired in corruption when he took it over.
Khadimi’s greatest strength is, perhaps, that he is not, and never has been, a politician – the class reviled in the public mind for graft, venality and inefficiency, and for being largely puppets of Iran. As a result he has garnered more support from protesters than his predecessors, actual and designated, ever could.
Of course his non-partisan situation has both pluses and minuses. He comes with fewer strings attached and threatens no group, but were he to become prime minister he would lack a loyal power base. That all Shi’ite political parties have agreed on a prime minister-designate is hopeful. It is the first time they have come to a consensus on a candidate who is non-Islamist and believes in freedom and in rooting out corruption.
Khadimi certainly faces formidable challenges. The internal civil and political problems that had led to the mass protests of the past six months or more remain unresolved. The collapse of world oil prices is exacerbating the already massive economic problems faced by the country, and there is the coronavirus crisis to manage. Iraq is on the upward curve of new cases and deaths, and there is a popular demand for both to be tackled effectively. The question of the hour is whether prime minister-designate Khadimi will be able to get a government approved in the next 30 days.