Iraq’s new prime minister: What lies ahead (Part 1)

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has, in his first weeks, appointed an impressive cabinet, taken charge of a tenuous security situation, and set his sights on jump-starting the economy. But he faces a difficult road ahead, with angry public protests and fractious militia politics.  

Protestors in Baghdad hold a defaced picture of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi during an April, 2020 demonstration
Widespread protests in Iraq against corruption and poor governance, ongoing since last October, have helped give Mustafa Al-Kadhimi plenty to deal with during his first month in office. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has made clear priorities as Iraq’s new PM
  • Iran’s weakness enabled his rise, although it is still a threat
  • Domestic protests and strife among militias are already posing challenges

This report is the first in a two-part series on Iraq’s new prime minister from GIS Expert Professor Dr. Amatzia Baram. The second part, due to publish tomorrow, will focus on his economic policies, the challenges ahead and his chances for success.

On May 6, late at night and after almost eight months without a government, the Iraqi parliament elected Mustafa Abdul-Latif Mishatat Al-Kadhimi as prime minister. 

Within days of his confirmation, the parliament approved 15 out of his 22 chosen cabinet ministers, and soon after confirmed the prime minister’s replacement candidates too. Mr. Al-Kadhimi immediately made several other significant decisions and declarations of intent. Now, just over one month later, it has become clear that he will face tremendous difficulties in carrying out his agenda on domestic politics, security and jump-starting the Iraqi economy. 

The rise of Al-Kadhimi

Mr. Al-Kadhimi was born in Baghdad in 1967 to a middle-class Shia family. After law school in Baghdad, he left the country in the late 1980s and eventually settled in London, becoming a British citizen. He returned after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and led the Iraq Memory Foundation, which documented the crimes under Saddam Hussein – an education in how not to use intelligence services. Later, he was a journalist at the U.S.-based Al-Monitor publication.

In June 2016, when Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh) was at the zenith of its power, Mr. Al-Kadhimi was appointed by the pro-American prime minister Haidar al-Abadi as director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. During his tenure, he had good relations with most Iraqi politicians, including both Sunnis and Kurds. He was moderate and restrained toward the demonstrators who have been protesting since last October against government corruption and Iranian intervention in Iraq. As chief of intelligence, he also developed good relations with states that participated in the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIS. In terms of relations with Arab countries, he was especially close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This did not win him popularity in Tehran, but he carefully avoided any confrontations with the Iranians and their supporting Iraqi militias. 

The assassination of Mr. Soleimani left Iran’s influence in Iraq shakier than it has been in years.

Last April, Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian militia, accused Mr. Al-Kadhimi of helping the U.S. in the assassination of its leader, Abu Madhi al-Muhandis and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. They could not prove it, and the accusation did not derail his candidacy for prime minister. In fact, Iran consented to his candidacy and, therefore, the strongest pro-Iranian parliamentary block – the Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri – eventually supported him, too. 

Iran was motivated by the danger to Iraq’s stability, a crisis in the militias and Iran’s own temporary weakness. It feared that the combination of the demonstrations, the crippling effect of the pandemic, the collapse of oil prices and sales, and a long political stalemate would lead to chaos in Iraq, which serves as Iran’s cash cow and as its shield.

Iran has its own problems: corruption and economic decline, resulting in periodic anti-regime demonstrations, high inflation and unemployment, and a precipitous decline in oil revenues. Also, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s pride and joy, has become both more brutal and more despised following its recent spectacular failures, including the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane (and the ensuing cover-up), an IRGC sea-to-sea missile crashing into an Iranian war vessel, and its attempts to hide the coronavirus disaster. Worst of all, Iran lost General Soleimani, its champion and the most impressive mastermind behind its military activities in Iraq and other countries.

It is very difficult to imagine Mr. Al-Kadhimi becoming prime minister if General Soleimani and Mr. al-Muhandis were still active. In 2018, installing the pro-Iranian Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was agreed upon, in Beirut of all places, by Iran’s Mr. Soleimani, the Lebanese Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and the Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. At that point, Iran was strong and secure; today, less so.

Even if momentarily, the assassination of Mr. Soleimani left Iran’s influence in Iraq almost as shaky as it was in 2014, when ISIS conquered more than a third of Iraq from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (Iran’s favorite) and his corrupt and cowardly army. In 2014, Iran reluctantly agreed to a pro-American prime minister. Now it has happened again. 

A scene from the funeral of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and Iraq's Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Tehran, Iran, on January 6, 2020,
Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s rise to power would be hard to imagine without the recent U.S. assassination of Iranian IRGC General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Madhi al-Muhandis (pictured on the posters), which has compounded several challenges facing the Islamic Republic. © dpa

Mr. Soleimani’s replacement, General Esmail Ghaani, has so far been a failure. His visit to Iraq after he was appointed, lacking his predecessor’s finesse and aura, only angered the Iraqi Shia public. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani refused his request for a meeting, and even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to have lessened his expectations of him. 

During the spring of 2020, the Iranian navy and political leaders adopted what looked like an aggressive posture, but their present challenges led them to concede to Mr. Al-Kadhimi’s premiership. Perhaps the most remarkable evidence of Iran’s passive-aggressive posture was Supreme Leader Khamenei’s speech soon after the new Iraqi prime minister’s election. Usually, Shia activists (and Iran’s Islamic Revolution) have deified the historic Imam Ali for his heroism in battle and Imam Hussein for his total sacrifice. Instead, this time, Mr. Khamenei extolled Imam Hassan, who in the 7th century accepted Umayyad gold in exchange for his right to the caliphate. Through his selfless policy, Mr. Khamenei explained, the Imam saved Islam by preserving its unity. 

Policies and commitments

The core of the Al-Kadhimi government consists of professionals, mostly with impressive credentials in their respective fields. For example, Minister of Finance Ali Allawi is a former World Bank official, a well-known historian of the country, and was a government minister post-2003. The new Minister of Health is Dr. Husam Muhammad, a former hospital director. Ihsan Ismail, former director general of the large Basra Oil Company (BOC), has been appointed as minister of oil. And the new foreign minister is the Kurdish politician Fuad Hussein, who is close to the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and who is participating in the Iraq-U.S. dialogue on the presence of American troops in Iraq, which began last week. None of these officials are perceived by the public as corrupt. 

Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s most important appointments, however, are in the security field. He has retained his own position as chief of intelligence, and appointed as minister of the interior – the man in charge of police and security in large towns – the Shia General Othman Ghanimi, the former chief of the General Staff. General Ghanimi has strong tribal support in the south. As minister of defense, the new prime minister appointed the Sunni General Juma Inad, the former commander of the Iraqi ground forces.

The most important nomination outside government was the reinstatement of three-star General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. He had been removed from his position as commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Force (SATF) in September of 2019, by former prime minister Adel Adbul Mahdi, upon the instruction of General Soleimani. The SATF is the main force that liberated Mosul from ISIS occupation and is the only military division in the Iraqi army capable of real fighting.

Mr. Al-Kadhimi’s most important commitment was to not allow interference in Iraqi affairs by foreign powers.

The Iranians were unhappy that a pro-American general was commanding the only professional military division in Iraq. The general was extremely popular both among his soldiers and the civilians of Mosul, most of them Sunnis and Christians. He was likewise the most popular commander in the eyes of most Iraqi Shias. General al-Saadi’s arbitrary removal sparked the first anti-government demonstration that has been raging in Iraq since October 1, 2019. When Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi reinstated him, he promoted him to four-star general, the highest rank in the Iraqi military. (Saddam Hussein promoted himself to a five-star general upon becoming president in 1979, but since 2003 there have been no five-star generals in Iraq.)

Through his security appointments, the prime minister guaranteed his control over the state army and over all aspects of domestic security, including the police and a few other forces answerable to the minister of the interior. By retaining the intelligence service under his command, he made it very difficult (though not impossible) for the Iranians and their agents to assassinate him. By keeping the state military tightly under his control, he created an option that may or may not materialize: to actually fight the militias if worse comes to worst. And by appointing mostly professionals to his cabinet – people who are known to be uncorrupt and qualified in their fields – he created the basis for an effective government that will jump-start the paralyzed Iraqi economy.

Centralizing power

Mr. Al-Kadhimi also declared a few political intentions, some of which will be very difficult to implement. The most important principle by far was his commitment not to allow interference in Iraqi affairs by foreign powers. He demanded as much in his meetings with the Iranian and American ambassadors. On a few occasions, he has made it clear that he would not accept Iraq becoming a battleground between the U.S. and Iran. As long as the Iraqi government agrees to keep the 5,200 U.S. soldiers in Iraq to help with the war against ISIS, this would mean that the prime minister cannot tolerate militia attacks against them.

The second-most important position was a call for the militias to become a full-fledged part of the state military. Currently, the militias are answerable to the Quds Force of the IRGC. Constitutionally speaking, the Iraqi prime minister is the commander in chief of all armed forces, and Mr. Al-Kadhimi is clearly bent on turning this principle into a reality. 

In a loaded meeting with the leaders of the most important pro-Iranian militias, he made his intention very clear – both politely and controversially. For example, he congratulated the militias on their bravery during the battles against ISIS, but implied that this fight should be their only priority. He called them heroes of the anti-ISIS war, but compared that heroism to that of Gilgamesh, the heathen hero of Sumeria, Akkadia, and Babylonia. He wanted to emphasize the deep Iraqi-Mesopotamian roots of all Iraqis.

The prime minister has been clear that he will not let Iraq become a battleground between the U.S. and Iran.

Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with radical pro-Persian Shia Islamists, who protested. They insisted that they would have nothing to do with Gilgamesh and that they were rather followers of Imams Ali and Hussein. To his right in the seating arrangement at the meeting, Mr. Al-Kadhimi had a long row of pro-Iranian commanders, and to his left an equal row of commanders of four militia brigades, belonging to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. All four of the latter had recently announced their total obedience to the prime minister, indicating this way that all other militias must do the same. Together with the commanders of the Najaf-Karbala militias he also made sure that two senior clerics from the holy cities would be there, representing Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In addition to military obedience, he also demanded obedience to a religious authority, or a “source of emulation,” in Iraq and nowhere else. This meant following Mr. al-Sistani, rather than Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, or the Iran-based Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammad Kadhim al-Khairi, who is followed by a few radical militias. Neither of the Iranian-based clerics were mentioned by name, but the prime minister was clear that they may no longer serve as sources of emulation for the Iraqi militias.

Militiamen and demonstrators

To demonstrate his support for the recent protestors and his reservations about the militias that killed and kidnapped so many of them, Mr. Al-Kadhimi has made several other moves. He arrested Yousuf al-Sanawi, the leader of Thar Allah (God’s Revenge), a small pro-Iranian militia in Basra, for having recently killed a demonstrator. He arrested a few other members and confiscated their headquarters, although he later released them all. 

Further, he ordered the release of all detained demonstrators who had not committed a grievous crime. He began a thorough search for the militias’ secret private prisons where they detained and tortured demonstrators, and promised financial compensation to families of demonstrators who were killed. Finally, he retired a few army and police officers who suppressed the demonstrations with lethal force. Mr. Al-Kadhimi also promised to reform the electoral law (although he offered few details), and to appoint a committee to prepare for new elections. These are two of the main demands of the demonstrators, intended to eliminate official corruption.

The pro-Iranian militias’ wrath notwithstanding, they are going through a spring and summer of discontent.

The militias did not like this whatsoever, and their initial response came three days after the meeting – via two Katyusha rockets lobbed into the Green Zone. Later, the two militias, Al-Nujaba and Kataib Hezbollah, trashed the offices of the Saudi-owned MBC television station. (The station had called their deceased chief, Mr. al-Muhandis, who had been assassinated by the Americans along with Mr. Soleimani, a “terrorist.”) Less aggressive but symbolically important was the militias’ monopolization of Baghdad’s Palestine Street on Jerusalem Day, this year falling on May 22. Portraits of Shia martyrs and one living Iranian leader, Mr. Khamenei, were hung over the street. American and Israeli flags were painted on the asphalt, so that cars would drive on them. Disappointingly, most drivers carefully avoided the flags so as not to denigrate them. 

The pro-Iranian militias’ wrath notwithstanding, they are now going through a spring and summer of discontent. Last February, to replace the “martyr” al-Muhandis as their new leader, they selected Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammadawi, who chose “Abu Fadak” as his nom de guerreThis is a strongly Shia and anti-Sunni name, but he has proved weak and ineffective. His only contribution to the prestige of the militias has been his recent promise to strike Saudi targets. 

The militias that supported the corruption of the previous governments under Iranian guidance cannot be expected to uproot corruption in their own midst. In addition to inter-militia rivalries there are also bitter complaints from militiamen of being neglected by their commanders, including for discontinuing salaries and family-support payments. Many militiamen sympathize with the anti-regime protesters, but, at the same time, the whole coalition of the militias (the Hashd Shabi, or Popular Mobilization) is fiercely hated by the demonstrators, of whom they killed around 600, and wounded or abducted no less than 20,000.

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