Iraq’s New Leadership: Hopes and Expectations

Hassan Abbas, NESA Center

After a prolonged political deadlock, Iraq finally has a new prime minister: former Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an independent candidate. The task before him is gigantic, with challenges ranging from economic crisis due to coronavirus and collapsing oil revenues, to deteriorating relations with the U.S. and a worsening domestic security situation. ISIS attacks in areas bordering Syria have witnessed an uptick in recent weeks.

The 53-year-old Mustafa al-Kadhimi has an interesting background. He began his career as a journalist known for his scathing criticism of President Saddam Hussein, forcing him to move to exile in Iran, Germany, and then the UK. He returned to Iraq after Saddam’s brutal regime collapsed. He is the author of many books, including Humanitarian Concerns, which in 2000 was selected by the EU as the best book written by a political refugee. He continued his advocacy work after returning to Iraq, but remained politically non-aligned and above sectarian politics. He was a surprise pick as head of the National Intelligence Council of Iraq in 2016 and made a name for himself for his efforts against ISIS and was recently in the spotlight for his role in the elimination of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

In the prevailing Iraqi political scenario, his strength lies in being seen as an acceptable figure for all sides, including regional players and the U.S. Given his good working relationship with the Western-led anti-ISIS campaign, he is deemed trustworthy in Western capitals. Iran is uncomfortable with this choice but he has open lines of communication with them as well. Insightfully, Iranian-supported Kataib Hezbollah, a militant outfit, issued a stern statement criticizing its allies in the Iraqi Parliament for their failure to stop the rise of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new Iraqi Prime Minister.

Al-Kadhimi is expected to instill discipline in the country’s security forces and he would not allow the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the militias that had emerged after Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani’s anti-ISIS Fatwa, to follow a path independent of Iraq’s government policy. Even after officially being merged into Iraq’s defense forces, many elements of PMF are still pursuing their own agendas. Within a couple of days of assuming his office, the new prime minister promoted Lt. General Abdulwahhab al-Saidi and appointed him as Commander of Counterterrorism Forces. The previous government had moved him out of counterrorism operations despite his achievements against ISIS probably wary of with his rising popularity and good rapport with the US security services operating in the region.

Dealing with corruption, however, will be a critical challenge for the new government. The political realities of Iraq have not changed yet in any discernible way and powerful political blocks continue to operate in an unaccountable fashion. Yet, Iraqi political elites know that they need a leader who is adept at diplomacy both at regional and global stage and can run Baghdad efficiently.

The Iraqi protests in recent months had shown that the people of Iraq are fed up with incompetence in governance and outside interference. The government reacted through repression and violence and the previous prime minister lost his job as a result. Protesters were finally forced off the streets because of the coronavirus crisis. They will likely give the new government a few months (maybe a year) to show that they are different and are dedicated to public welfare. With low oil revenues and a poor industrial base, Baghdad lacks financial resources to make any significant dent in rising inflation and unemployment.

Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi will likely focus first on governance reforms and repairing relations with Western allies to strengthen his government. He will deal with Iran carefully but will surely push back to follow an independent regional policy. His real test nonetheless will be in the economic arena. He will need international support and that will be hard to come by at a time when resourceful states are under stress dealing with the severe impact of coronavirus.

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