Mission (Almost) Impossible for Iraq’s New Prime Minister

By Mohammed Shiaa and Sylvain Mercadier
This article is a translation from the French original, which can be accessed at OrientXXI.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new Prime Minister

While satisfying most of Iraq’s political class, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has managed to form a government in less than a month. His independent background may be a source of hope for many, but his team is composed of politicians affiliated with heavyweight segments of the parliamentthe very same ones whom demonstrators swore to expel from power. Regardless, his first decision to liberate all demonstrators imprisoned since last October is seen as a positive sign.

As the country enters its eighth month of popular protests, political elites have finally agreed on a share of power and of ministries. Unusually, Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s new government includes many independents and technocrats as well as scholars, such as Ali Allawi who inherited the Ministry of Finance. Nevertheless, this pragmatic momentum should not hide the fact that the main political players’ interests have also been considered in the process.

A consensus for survival

« Regarding the share of ministries between parties, Mustafa al-Kadhimi repeated the same mistakes his predecessors had made: several independents and technocrats he named are controlled by political parties », analyzed MP Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Future coalition in Baghdad’s Parliament, in an interview with us. « Basically, this government is shared between Sadrists, the clan of head of parliament Mohammed al-Halbussi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Nonetheless, Ministries of Interior, Defense and Finance were handed over to competent actors », he continued.

It should come as no surprise that the political class may have negotiated its survival in this process. If it had not had the feeling that its interest were being represented, it would have been easy for it to obstruct the ministries’ nominations. A consensus was thus obtained in order to solve the political crisis and get some respite as the power struggle between Iran and the United States on Iraqi soil is far from being resolved. But these negotiations only included major parties and coalitions of the government: « I boycotted the government formation session in Baghdad because al-Kadhimi had pre-session meetings with all the political heavyweights without taking into account the other actors of the Parliament. We suspect that some informal deals were concluded between them which explains how easy it was to form this government », explained Ahmad al-Hajjn, a member of the Iraqi Parliament representing the Komal party.

A Herculean task to accomplish

Despite this agreement, the challenge ahead remains huge for this transitional government in a country crumbling under threats: the rise of ISIS attacks, coronavirus pandemic, economic stagnation, US/Iran rivalry, as well as the resumption of demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities to pressure the government. Just after his nomination, Mustafa al-Kadhimi reminded Iraqis that his top priorities will be bringing justice to the victims of the previous months’ protests, and to put the economy back on track despite the collapse in oil prices that represent about 90% of Iraq’s income.

Meanwhile, demonstrators still insist on the formation of a government free of all the traditional political elite. But al-Kadhimi’s profile should still give them hope. As the head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), al-Kadhimi distinguished himself by minimizing the repression of protests as much as possible.[1] One of the Prime minister’s first decisions was to order the release of all protestors incarcerated since people first took to the streets last October. He also ordered Abd al-Wahab to be reinstated as head of the NIS. The removal of this key figure of the war against ISIS was one of the reasons that initially triggered the demonstrations across Iraq.

But al-Kadhimi’s independence could also backfire and become a weakness. Indeed, harmony within his government in Baghdad during his mandate is far from a given. Achieving it will depend on whether influential political actors remain satisfied by receiving sufficient leeway enabling them to protect their interests in Iraq’s government: « the [main political] actors quickly understood the trick which consisted in placing a weak Prime Minister in power in order to forestall his constitutional powers such as his ability to bypass ministerial decrees », explains Erwin van Veen, a Clingendael Institute researcher specializing in Middle Eastern conflicts. « This is how the previous Prime minister Nuri al Maliki was able to perpetuate his grip on the government through a network resembling a “deep state” during his successor Haider al-Abadi’s mandate. In this context, if they feel they won’t be able to curb a candidate’s policy, they resort to obstructing him. »

Internal tensions, external pressure

The arduous task awaiting the Prime Minister is also set within a particularly tense context. Apart from the protest movement that has solidly entrenched itself in several cities of the country, the rivalry between Iran and the United States is still creating turmoil in Iraq. On Jan. 3rd 2020, the murder of Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Al-Qods brigade, the external branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps of Iran) and of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (vice-president of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) and  head of the Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah) almost plunged the country into a bloody proxy war once again.

Since then, the turmoil deriving from this rivalry has stoked fears of an escalation of violence – one which could come at any time – while both powers are in a phase of reconfiguration of their influence in Iraq. « Today, Iran is much more present than the United States in Iraq. Although the latter has recovered some of its military influence during the fight against ISIS, they have since then gradually diminished their military numbers that are concentrated in just a few military bases. On their side, Iranians have infiltrated almost all levels of the political and economic matrix in Iraq and rely on devoted powerful militias around the country », said analyst Erwin van Veen, while also pointing out that the constant pressure imposed on the Islamic Republic makes it less and less predictable. « Iran is capable of provoking a major conflict in Iraq if it feels it could be profitable in the long term », he concluded.

The Shia militias, Iran’s most iconic symbol of power in Iraq, are more active than ever and continue to play a negative role including by targeting the protestors who still hope to topple the current political order. Recently, militias affiliated with the Shia clergy (the Abbas and Imam Ali divisions as well as the Ali Al-Akbar and Ansar Al-Marja’iyya brigades) all withdrew from the PMU; now only elements more clearly affiliated with Iran are left. By doing this – eliminating from the PMU most of the militias not serving Iran’s interest – Iraqi Aayatollah Ali al-Sistani has hoped to strengthen Iraq’s sovereignty. These groups will now answer only to the Prime Minister’s orders, as do the famous Golden Division led by Abd al-Wahab al Saadi. The split is getting more and more obvious between the advocates of a national unity and the bloc serving Iran’s interest. « The Shia clergy has definitively retreated from the PMU with other militias in order to ensure and respect Iraq’s sovereignty. For a long time, al-Muhandis had tried to take control of the entire PMUs to serve his cause or Iran’s, which the Ayatollah could not accept », explained Nancy Ezzeddine, also a researcher at the Clingendael institute specializing in Middle Eastern conflicts. Even within the pro-Iranian axis, different strategies can be noticed in the last months. Some actors like the Badr organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have evolved to become key political actors thanks to their parliamentary coalition, al-Fatah, while others like Kataeb Hezbollah, are determined to keep consolidating their military power. 

This also explains why Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq were more keen to negotiate in forming a government while Kataeb Hezbollah’s leadership insists on accusing the Prime Minister of having collaborated with the Americans in the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis: « Kataeb Hezbollah is much more extremist regarding the U.S.A. and those who might have collaborated with them. The organization even established a military camp in front of the parliament’s guesthouse in order to put pressure on the members of the government and remind them not to cross the red lines they wish to impose. In the meantime, federal forces are trying to prevent them from expanding their site », added Nancy Ezzeddine.

Chaos at all levels

While this fragile balance of power is constantly challenged, the Iraqi people sink further into misery while enduring a double economic and sanitary crisis. Although the coronavirus hasn’t affected Iraq as deeply as Europe and the United States – the government only reported 3000 cases and 115 deaths on May 14th – the numbers do not reflect the reality on the ground where thorough testing is not being carried out.

Ironically, the preventive measures against the coronavirus pandemic seem to have had a much more negative impact than expected. The underground economy that allows millions of workers to survive is on hold because of the confinement measures imposed on the country. While the most impoverished can’t even obtain the bare minimum to survive, the plummeting of oil prices and of world energy consumption is having the same effects on the government’s budget.

Previous Prime minister nominee Adnan al-Zurfi had already announced that the State would not be able to pay half of the public sectors’ salaries in May. Iraq depends on revenues from oil exports for up to 90% of its budget. The World Bank predicted last month that the country will see its GDP drop by 5% by next year while public debt will reach 66.9% of its GDP. The environmental crisis is also looming and might soon reach a point of no return. But it probably won’t be in the government’s top priority, despite the fact that millions of people’s health and livelihood depend on it.

The only good news came just after the new government was announced as the United States agreed to give Iraq a four-month moratorium to find a substitute to Iranian electricity and gas imports amid the embargo they are enforcing on the Islamic Republic. This extension, although short, is welcome and indicates Washington’s desire to collaborate with al-Kadhimi’s government. The Prime Minister also reaffirmed his will to collaborate with NATO to fight terrorism in Iraq.

But this apparent indulgence is not the only negotiation tool in Washington’s kit: « The recent attacks by the Islamic State against the PMU and the Iraqi army were made possible thanks to a drastic decrease in air surveillance by the coalition. The message of the Americans to Baghdad is clear: without a U.S. presence, ISIS will come back as strong as ever » analyzed the MP Ahmad Al-Hajj.

The dice have been cast in Baghdad. The independent Prime Minister seems capable of handling the subtle balance of power in order to lead his country ahead toward the next elections in 2021. « Al-Kadhimi deserves to be given a chance. His two most urgent cases are the current economic crisis and the Iran-United States rivalry. I think he will have more success with the latter », says MP Sarkawt Shams. The fact that the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States was maintained, and scheduled to take place next month, is an indicator that despite Tehran’s grip on Iraq, Baghdad is determined to keep up with its collaboration with Washington. But in the meantime, the pro-Iran axis will  remember that this government is only transitory, and that a new political battle will take place next year in order to take control of key positions in the government. 

[1] A source within the National Intelligence Service who spoke under guise of anonymity pointed out that al-Kadhimi, while he was Director of NIS,  was a silent supporter of the demonstrators. He apparently thwarted many assassination attempts targeting demonstrators and activists by militiamen and contributed to the liberation of dozens of demonstrators during the events that shook the country since last October.


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