Sunday, May 31, 2020

Can Mustafa al-Kadhimi Save Iraq?هل يستطيع مصطفى الكاظمي إنقاذ العراق؟

Prime Minsiter Mustafa al-Kadhimi
What does it mean to pose the question: can Mustafa al-Kadhimi save Iraq?  Iraq has yet to meet the expectations its citizens have held since the toppling of Saddam and his Ba'th Party regime in 2003.  Saving Iraq thus means meeting those expectations by conceiving and implementing policies which can allow them to become a reality. Democracy is what Iraqis want. However, democracy needs to be more than just the right to vote and personal freedoms. 

In Iraq, meaningful democracy not only requires the rule of law, transparent and accountable governance, but also jobs and social services, such as healthcare, housing and education. Saving Iraq presents any Iraqi leader with a huge challenge.  Is Mustafa al-Kadhimi up to the task?

Background to Mustafa al-Kadhimi taking power
Iraq has had several prime ministers since national elections were first held in January 2005. None have inspired the Iraqi people and none have implemented the type of democratic change, improvement in social services and the growth of jobs that Iraqis desire.  Perhaps Haydar al-Abadi, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Manchester, was the only candidate to raise hopes due to the time he spent in the UK, his technical skills and a background devoid of corruption.
Poster criticizing the corruption in 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi's government 
Iraq’s youth uprising – the October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) – forced the resignation of Prime Minster 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi through widespread and peaceful protests in late November 2019.  Not since the 1948 Wathba had popular protests forced an Iraqi leader - in that instance, Iraq’s first Shi'i prime minister, Salih Jabr - from office.
Youth supporters of Thawrat Tishreen protesting in Baghdad's Liberation Square
From this past November until this May, Iraq has had a caretaker government.  Efforts by two candidates proposed by Iraqi president, Barham Salih - Muhammad Tawfiq 'Allawi and 'Adnan al-Zurfi - to form governments failed. 'Allawi was unable to obtain the parliamentary votes for his ministry due to his focus on appointing technocrats as ministers who were not officials of political parties.  Iranian opposition to al-Zurfi, who had lived in the US, doomed his chances as well.  Despite Iran’s displeasure, Iraq’s intelligence chief, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was able to form a government on May 7th, 2020.

The new prime minister has an atypical political pedigree.  Although he was Iraq’s Director of Intelligence prior to becoming head of the Iraqi government, he was also a journalist associated with the highly respected and independent news website, al-Monitor, and a human rights activist.  Iran, the pro-Iranian militias in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs/al-Hashad al-Sha'bi), and the Green Zone political elite’s corrupt parliamentarians all opposed al-Kadhimi.  They saw him as too independent of their control, inclined to cooperate with the United States and seeking to impose technocrats as ministers who would threaten their financial interests.

However, a number of factors ultimately worked in al-Kadhimi’s favor. The failure of the previous two candidates, which involved extensive in-fighting, exhausted Iraq’s political bosses and parliament.  Meanwhile, al-Mahdi’s caretaker government was doing nothing to address a wide range of pressing problems. These problems involved how the government should deal with the growing youth-led “October Revolution” (Thawrat Tishreen), problems with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over the Iraqi budget and the division of revenues from the sale of Iraqi oil and an effort by the Da'ish terrorist to reestablish themselves in north central Iraq.

These problems were exacerbated once the coronavirus began to spread rapidly in neighboring Iran and posing the possibility it might overwhelm Iraq as well.  As the pandemic spread, oil prices collapsed and the Iraqi government faced the possibility of not being able to pay government employees' salaries this spring, which many feared would produce economic chaos.

Meanwhile, Iran’s economic woes multiplied, as the result of a lethal trifecta of ever harsher US sanctions, the worsening Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of global oil prices.  Iran found itself unable to continue funding Hizballah, its Lebanese ally, and forced to begin withdrawing some of its Revolutionary Guard troops from Syria.  Meanwhile, reports surfaced that the US and Iran had cut a deal: Iran wouldn’t oppose al-Kadhimi’s nomination to become prime minister if the US quietly relaxed some of its sanctions and allowed the transfer of funds from Luxembourg which the US had blocked.The secret US-Iran Deal which installed al-Kadhimi in Baghdad

Even before the full force of the coronavirus and the collapse it caused in oil prices, Iran faced serious economic problems.  Coming in the wake of the killing of Qasem Suleimani, its tottering economy has forced Tehran to seek better relations with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states.  In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani moved this past April to undermine those Popular Mobilization Units which serve as Iranian proxies, leading to a split in the moment between militias loyal to him and those loyal to Tehran.

Further, Iran sent emissaries to Iraq informing its allies that they should not block al-Kadhimi’s nomination. Thus, al-Kadhimi's candidacy came at an opportune time, despite the extreme hostility to him by some Iranian clients such as Kata’ib Hizballah, the most powerful of the militias.  Hizballah  accused al-Kadhimi of being involved in Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ deaths in his role at the time as Iraq's intelligence chief. Iran is retreating from the Iraqi political scene

Kata’ib Hizballah, whose leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also overall PMU commander, saw its candidate, 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Muhammadawi, also known as Abu Fadak, rejected to replace al-Muhandis as chief of the militia movement. The position instead went to Abu Muntazir al-Husseini, a former leader of the Badr Organization. Thus, al-Kadhimi took power during a period in which Iran has been forced to curtail its regional adventurism.
Former IRGC commander, Qasem Suleimani, and PMU chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis
Ten challenges confronting Mustafa al-Kadhimi
Iraq’s new prime minister faces huge challenges. First and foremost, he needs to deal with the coronavirus in the context of an outdated, underfunded and inefficient health care system.  While it seemed as if Iraq might be spared the extensive spread of the disease in Iran, especially after it sealed its almost 1000 mile border with its neighbor, it is now experiencing an uptick in the number of reported cases, especially in Baghdad.

To date, Iraq has only devoted 2.5% of its budget to healthcare.  Further, the Ministry of Health, especially when it was under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, has been notorious for its corruption, which deprived hospitals of medicines, supplies and improvements.  When the previous Minister of Health asked for $5 million this past winter to address the corona virus pandemic, 'Abd al-Mahdi’s caretaker government informed him the funds weren’t available.  With funds even more limited now with oil revenues in sharp decline, al-Kadhimi risks being blamed for the Iraqi government's inability to effectively treat the ongoing pandemic.
Workers disinfecting streets in Baghdad
Taking a page from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal Works Progress Administration, (WPA) al-Kadhimi could hire hundreds of unemployed Iraqi youth to serve as contact tracers, especially in urban centers such as Baghdad.  These youth could work in their neighborhoods, where they're known and trusted, to learn how those who contracted the coronavirus did so and thus assist the Ministry of Health in its efforts to contain the pandemic in Iraq.
Pres. Franklin Roosevelt greets workers who were trained for new jobs by the US government
Second, Iraq faces the same economic pressures as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states with the collapse of oil prices. Responsible for over 90% of its foreign revenues, oil must remain above $60/bbl to enable Iraq to enact a budget which meets the country’s basic needs.  However, projections are that oil prices will remain much lower for at least the next 2 years as the global economy adjusts to the coronavirus and its aftermath.  And no one knows when a vaccine for the virus will be discovered and the global economy will return to some level of normality.

The first person to call al-Kadhimi after he was approved as prime minister by Iraq’s parliament was Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Clearly, Salman wants to wean Iraq away from Iran and was calling to see who the Saudis and the Gulf Arab states would now be dealing with.

Before the coronavirus and oil crises, efforts had begun to develop funds whereby youth could receive investment funds to develop entrepreneurial start-ups.  Belatedly, the Iraqi government has begun to turn its attention to diversifying its economy. Already the Baghdad incubator, The Station (al-Mahatta) has been supported by a coalition of private banks and provided funds for youth entrepreneurs.
al-Mahatta (The Station) incubator, Baghdad
As long as there is no problematic quid pro quo, al-Kadhimi could turn to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait for funds which could be used to put more Iraqi youth to work. Maintaining close ties to the US and the European Union also makes sense because they too might help the new prime minister develop a fund of seed money to promote the development of Iraq’s private sector, both for prospective youth entrepreneurs but also for already successful entrepreneurs to expand and improve their businesses.

Third, al-Kadhimi must walk a fine line between retaining close ties with the United States and, at the same time  not alienating Iran which has extensive economic interests in Iraq and many political allies.  If he is perceived as doing the United States’ bidding in Iraq, that will inflame public attitudes which are already sensitive to the US having killed Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, this past January 3rd without informing the Iraqi government.

On the other hand, Iraqis have developed widespread anger with Iran for the thousands of deaths and injuries that Iran’s proxy militias have caused to peaceful youth protestors in support of the October Revolution.  They also resent the extent to which Iraq’s Green Zone political elite is subservient to Iranian political and economic demands.  One of the youth uprising's most popular slogans is "Iran out of Iraq (Irhal Iran).
'Adil' Abd al-Mahdi: "Get out you corrupt agent of Iran"

Iraqi youth join their Lebanese counterparts in opposing Iran
Fourth, there have been persistent calls for early elections, especially among the supporters of the October Revolution. If al-Kadhimi tries to enact significant reforms, it would be much easier if he could work with a parliament in which the number of members who are engaged in corrupt and nepotistic activities were removed from office and replaced by those who supported his efforts.

Because we have seen large turnovers in parliament members in prior elections, and because members of the current parliament realize the low level of esteem they have among the Iraqi voting public, organizing early elections won’t be easy.  In this instance, the prime minister will need to use his skills at mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on parliament to assure that early elections do take place.  Given the skills he has shown already, such a move might indeed be successful.

Fifth, al-Kadhimi must act on his promise to investigate the attacks on peaceful Iraqi youth demonstrators who organized the protests which began the October Revolution in late 2019.  Of course, this means a confrontation with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. When he was nominated, Iranian allied militias – Kata’ib Hizballah, 'Asa’ib 'Ahl al-Haqq, al-Nujaba’, al Khurasani Brigade, the Imam 'Ali Brigade and the Sayyid al-Shuhada’ - all vehemently opposed al-Kadhimi’s nomination.
Iraqi youth protestor killed by tear gas grenade in the southern city of Basra
The prime minister has already taken action which indicates that he is not intimidated by the PMUs.  First, he sent forces to stop an al-Basra based militia Thar Allah (The Revenge of God) from attacking youth protestors.  Although militia members have since returned to their headquarters in al-Basra, al-Kadhimi followed his actions with an emphatic statement that, “I will never order the security forces to attack peaceful protestors.” Thus, he has sent a message early in his tenure as prime minister that he will oppose attacks on peaceful protestors and extra-legal violence by militias.  He has also informed the Iranian government that all political and military information must be exchanged through official, not private, channels.

Sixth, al-Kadhimi must confront the extensive corruption which has led Transparency International to rank Iraq in 2019 as 164 of 180 most corrupt political systems in the world.  Reports of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s son, Ahmad, purchasing the most expensive property in the world, a French chateau for $301 million and former prime minster 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi’s estimated personal fortune at $64 billion, while speaker of parliament, Muhammad al-Halbusi, was caught spending large amounts of money at Monaco’s gambling casino are just some of the more prominent indicators of the extent of the problem. Iraq's ranking on Transparency International Perception of Corruption list

The problem of corruption is not just a legal-ethical one for the new prime minister but one which, if not confronted, could contribute to Iraq becoming a failed state.  The example of Lebanon’s economic collapse due to extensive corruption, built on an official state-run Ponzi scheme, is an example what can happen when. financial chicanery continues unchecked.  Why protestors in Lebanon firebomb banks

Further, al-Kadhimi excluded the Iranian-backed militias from the consultations Iraq is holding with the US on bi-lateral relations, first in Baghdad and then in Washington, DC.  Not only are the militias excluded but so are the “usual cast of characters,” namely the sectarian entrepreneurs who lead the Green Zone elite’s corrupt political parties.  Instead, al-Kadhimi has assembled a professional team of military officials, intelligence specialists, members of the Judicial Council, and technocrats from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Trade, Oil and Justice.
Iraq's national hero - Lt. General 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa'adi
In the military sector, al-Kadhimi made th excellent decision to reappoint Lt. General 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa'adi, to his post in Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Services (CTS). Considered a national hero for his role in defeating Islamic State forces in Mosul and north central Iraq,  and for his declaration that he had "zero tolerance" for sectarianism among his forces, al-Sa'adi's dismissal from his post by former prime minister 'Abd al-Mahdi, which was one of the key factors igniting the outbreak of the October Revolution.  Appointing the "best and the brightest" leaders in all sectors of Iraqi society sets the stage for important reforms by the al-Kadhimi government.

Seventh, al-Kadhimi must develop new policies to reduce the high levels of unemployment among Iraqis, especially youth. One of the most important ways to address this issue is to use the oil crisis to promote diversification of the Iraqi economy. One of the positive outcomes of the corona virus has been a shot in the arm for the Iraqi businesses and producers. With the Iranian border closed, as well as the border crossings with Turkey and Kuwait, foreign imports have declined dramatically, including those from China.  Iraqi goods have begun to fill the vacuum of imports.

Because prices of foreign goods were often less than those of equivalent domestic products, Iraqi businesses have faced difficulty competing with imported goods.  However, even before the current health and financial crises began, Iraqi were beginning to boycott Iranian products due to anger over the large number of peaceful youth protestors supporting the October Revolution who had been killed and wounded, in addition to others who were kidnapped and tortured, by Iran’s proxy militias.  Now Iraqis are proud they are selling products marked “made in Iraq.”  This nationalist economic trend is one that al-Kadhimi’s government can build on.
Basra's fishermen say their business is better now that they have less foreign competition
Eighth, al-Kadhimi must find a formula that will allow the Federal Government in Baghdad to finally reach an agreement with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil over the allocation of oil revenues and what percentage of the national budget should be given to the Kurds.  Success in strengthening Iraq’s federal structure is critical, not just for economic reasons but because Iraq’s Army and Kurdish Pesh Merga forces need to remain unified in their fight against the resurgent Da'ish terrorist organization in north central Iraq.

Ninth, al-Kadhimi’s government must grapple with the rebuilding of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which was devastated in the war to oust the Islamic State from Iraq in 2017, and other provinces of north central Iraq which also experienced substantial destruction and displacement of the population.  If jobs, education and housing cannot be found for the 4.5 million Iraqis who were displaced by the war, then a new generation of terrorist may be in the offing.

Tenth and finally, the promotion of Iraq’s transition to a true democracy, which garners widespread support of the Iraqi people, is ultimately the most important challenge faced by al-Kadhimi.  If Iraqis feel marginalized and excluded from the political process, democracy will lose its legitimacy as a system of governance and open the door to more violence and instability in contemporary Iraq. Thus, al-Kadhimi’s most important legacy will be the degree to which he can promote trust in government, thereby bringing the Iraqi people together and overcoming sectarian and regional divisions.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi's impact on the future of Iraq
No one person can "save" Iraq.  However, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has become prime minister during one of the most challenging periods in modern Iraqi history.  The coronavirus pandemic is spreading throughout Iraq, global oil prices have collapsed, a powerful youth uprising continues to gain strength, and the Iraqi people had reached the end of their patience with the corruption and nepotism of a rapacious political elite which is only interested in using political office for financial gain.  Crises create hardships but they often provide unique opportunities for change.

Iraqi democracy hangs by a thread.  Only through a sincere and skilled use of communications networks - television, social media and visits to constituencies throughout the country, including the the citizens of the KRG - can al-Kadhimi hope to bring Iraq's democracy back from the brink of destruction by mobilizing the necessary national coalition required to enact meaningful political and economic reforms.

If he plays his cards right, the new prime minister can mobilize large segments of Iraqi society who are profoundly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and thus will welcome his efforts to bring about true democratic change.  Reform-minded politicians, skilled technocrats, Iraq's professional classes, loyal military and intelligence personnel, members of the private sector, forward looking clerics and tribal leaders and, perhaps most importantly, Iraq's youth who constitute 70% of the population under age 30 - almost 28 million of Iraq's 40 million population - al. crave fundamental change in their society.

One of the most effective way for al-Kadhimi to reach out to the Iraqi people would be to use a "national town hall" (majlis watani). where he meets with Iraqis on a periodic basis - via television and/or social media - to discuss the problems they face in their daily lives.  If he were to also give the Iraqi people the opportunity to aks him questions, and he responded to them during the town hall, he would demonstrate his commitment to serve them, not the interests of a narrow political elite.

A critical part of any reform agenda must be confronting gender inequality in Iraqi society. While many institutions of higher education have a 70% enrollment of female students, Iraqi women still constitue just 25% of the national workforce.  Women need not only to have access to employment but they must be placed in positions of authority, such as the mayor of Baghdad, Dr. Zekra Alwash.  And eliminating once and for all the scourge of the so-called "honor crime" ("jarimat al-sharaf") must be a top priority of al-Kadhimi's government.
Iraqi women supporters of Thawrat Tishreen who are fighting for gender equality and social justice
 Iraq's Kurdish, Turkmen and minority groups must be made to feel that they are citizens who are equal to Iraq's  Shi'i Arab and Sunni Arab populations. Iraq has always been a diverse mosaic of religious, ethnic and regional communities. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of Saddam and the Ba'th was to divide these communities.  If Mustafa al-Kadhimi can reach out to these communities, such as having youth from all Iraqi groups spend time together getting to know each other in summer camps in the cool mountains of the KRG, then this policy could serve as a beginning to rebuild trust among the constituent elements of Iraqi society.

If Mustafa al-Kadhimi can mobilize public opinion behind his democratic reform efforts, seriously reduce corruption in Iraq's government, and professionalize the military by ending the PMUs' autonomy, he will have achieved what no post-2003 Iraqi leader has been able to accomplish. Not only would such accomplishments create a lasting political legacy, but they would act to sweep Iraq's rapacious Green Zone political elite into the dustbin of history.