|Prime Minsiter Mustafa al-Kadhimi|
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.
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|Youth supporters of Thawrat Tishreen protesting in Baghdad's Liberation Square|
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|
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|
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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|
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).
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|Iraqi youth join their Lebanese counterparts in opposing Iran|
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 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.
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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.
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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|
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.