More than five months of political impasse — marred by public protests, which at times turned bloody — and party squabbling Iraq appears to have turned a crucial corner and not a minute too soon. Recently parliament approved the cabinet of designated Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who was nominated last month by President Barham Salih and was embraced by most Shia parties as well as the Kurds and the Sunnis.
Kadhimi, a former journalist and a fierce opponent of Saddam Hussein, has never joined a political party and until his nomination held the important job of head of the National Intelligence Service. Most importantly his nomination was backed by both Washington and Tehran; paving the way for breaking of the stalemate that derailed the nomination of two ideologically opposed predecessors; Mohammed Tawfik Alawi, a former communications minister, and Adnan Al-Zurfi, the governor of Najaf. The former was accused of being too close to Iran while the latter was labelled as pro-American.
But while Kadhimi was able to navigate his way through a divided parliament — he picked mostly independents and technocrats as ministers although he followed the same ethno-sectarian quota system shunned by protesters — lawmakers had delayed approval of seven key portfolios, including foreign affairs and oil. This could turn to be his Achilles heel.
In his first address Kadhimi promised the Iraqi people to oversee early elections, contain the spread of the coronavirus, pass an “exceptional” budget law, stem out corruption, bringing armed groups under the control of the state, and repatriate the displaced. He might have added to his list the containment of Daesh, which has recently resurged in the western parts of the country.
Public protests, which had brought down the government of Adel Abdel Mahdi last November, have subsided for now. But a small protest in Basra last Saturday, where one protester was killed by pro-Iran radical militia, represented the first real test for Kadhimi. His response was extraordinary. He ordered the security forces to arrest those responsible, which they did, and then closed the offices of the militia. This was a major indication that Kadhimi meant business and that he was about to take a calculated risk by siding with the people even if that meant confronting pro-Iran militias.
That move was followed by an order to release all those arrested during the public protests and to bring those responsible for killing more than 500 protesters to justice regardless of their position. Kadhimi is well aware that his campaign to fight corruption will not endear him to influential players and that by doing so he will create enemies.
This is a risk he must take if he is to succeed in salvaging Iraq’s crumbling economy. The timing presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Oil prices have plummeted affecting the government’s main source of revenue and that represents a major challenge. On the other hand, Iran’s sway over Iraq has never been weaker; the killing of Qassem Suliemani had interrupted Tehran’s regional agenda while biting US sanctions meant that Iran’s financial support of militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen is no more. Kadhimi has one winning card at his disposal: The cautious backing of the Iraqi people regardless of their ethnicity and sectarian affiliations.
It is worth noting that anti-Iranian sentiments are at a spike in central and southern Iraq; regions with a Shia majority. Iran had cultivated corrupt officials in these areas and it is no surprise that citizens there are among the most underprivileged in Iraq; lacking basic services and suffering from high unemployment.
But Kadhimi’s most immediate goals are difficult at best. His predecessors have failed to integrate the controversial Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) into the regular Iraqi army. Iran will resist such attempts but as its grip hold weakens the new premier must push hard to neutralise Shia militants.
President Donald Trump, in a call to Kadhimi this week, promised to provide Iraq with economic assistance ahead of crucial bilateral talks between the two countries slated for next month. These talks will centre of the nature of military and economic relations while deciding the future of US military presence in Iraq. For Kadihmi to succeed in his endeavours he must find a way to take Iraq away from the US-Iran showdown.
That is easier said than done. The US must be careful not to drag Iraq into its squabble with Iran. The Iraqi people have suffered enough under various sectarian governments — not to mention Daesh — since the fall of the Saddam regime. The road to national reconciliation in Iraq is rough and tricky and there will be setbacks, but Kadhimi can lay out a road map; one that he can begin to implement if he is given enough space to act.
For now the Iraqi people are watching closely, having lost trust in previous governments and a dysfunctional system, but they are giving Kadhimi a chance to carry out his pledges. The alternative to failure will be total disarray but Kadhimi is now in a position to steer the country slowly away from the grip of religious parties that have dominated the scene for decades.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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