By Joshua Yaphe and Jaafar Altaie
Published in partnership with the King Faisal Center on Research and Islamic Studies.
The views and opinions presented here are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the United States Government, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, or the King Faisal Center on Research and Islamic Studies.
Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi faces the same challenges that brought down his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi – street protests, a flagging economy, and entrenched political elites. Most of his predecessors were willing to sacrifice one of these three goals for the sake of the other two, as long as the opposition remained divided and external support was forthcoming. Numerous commentators are ready to write off Kadhimi. And there are good reasons to think his failure is inevitable, with Iraq doomed to a prolonged future of either political chaos or authoritarian rule. In either instance, there is also the near certainty of continued intervention by regional and international powers, contributing to insecurity and instability. The accumulation of almost two decades of grievances since the 2003 invasion, the repeated failures to keep pace with job creation and service provision, and the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic are challenges that will certainly not be overcome in the next ten months. And there will undoubtedly be an extended period of political malaise in Baghdad as factions prove unable to compromise on an alternative to Kadhimi. However, Kadhimi has a real chance to win the elections now set for June 6, 2021, and even come out with a mandate for real reform. It would be wrong to write him off yet.
Popular Anger and Political Stagnation
On November 30, 2019, following weeks of protests in which government forces opened fire on the crowds, Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned as Prime Minister, opening up five months of wrangling over his successor. In that time, former Minister of Communications Mohammed Tawfik al-Allawi tried and failed to form a cabinet, Abdul Mahdi returned to office briefly, and Intelligence Chief Mustapha al-Kadhimi finally assumed the position on May 7. It would be another two months before he could finally appoint some of the most important ministerial portfolios, including Oil, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture and Trade. This was not a government formation process backed with confidence by a consensus or even a majority of political factions. Rather, it was multiple rounds of entrenched political elites trying to gain the upper hand on one another, only to realize that no single party has a crucial advantage over the others and none of the foreign powers have sufficient influence to sway the rest. Kadhimi was a compromise candidate among compromise candidates.
That is not to say that he is not skilled enough or qualified for the post. In many ways, he is more capable and experienced than many of his predecessors, if only by virtue of his steady management of the intelligence services. Most notably, though, he has proven himself capable of assuaging the concerns of Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia. He was able to gain Iran’s acceptance of his appointment, even after taking the lead in Iraq’s outreach to Saudi Arabia over the past two years. That’s a remarkable feat of pragmatism. His political weakness does not come from any personal traits but rather from structural constraints that are much bigger than a single person. The system itself in Iraq is broken and cannot be fixed.
Kadhimi was a compromise candidate among compromise candidates.
In turn, Kadhimi has focused on the challenges and put forward an ambitious and coherent plan for reform. Immediately after taking office, Kadhimi announced that he would launch an investigation into the killing of protesters last fall and promised to release demonstrators held in prison since then, which provoked a sharp backlash from the Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoun. At the same time, Kadhimi finalized a deal to take four Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, hashid al-sha’abi) units previously under the spiritual guidance of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and move them under the direct control of the Prime Minister’s Office. The effort was one of increasing state control over the militias, as Kadhimi went on to say: “no group or force has the right to be outside of the framework of the state.” He has promised an end to civil servants receiving multiple salaries for overlapping duties, and in June a spokesman revealed that, “there is a specialized committee that will work to find and detect double salaries in all government organizations.”