Analysis |

Iraq's New Prime Minister Is Washington’s Latest Test in the Middle East

Al-Kadhimi brings the promise of a democratic Iraq, but he must maintain the fragile balance of relations with both Iran and the United States to keep the country stable

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An Iraqi demonstrator looks at a poster depicting the Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Baghdad, May 7, 2020
An Iraqi demonstrator looks at a poster depicting the Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Baghdad, May 7, 2020Credit: Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iraq’s Mustafa al-Kadhimi launched his premiership with a series of steps intended to increase confidence in the government. He ordered courts to release jailed protesters, even those who were already convicted. He also ordered compensation for the families of the 550 civilians killed in the 2019 wave of protests, and that the deaths be investigated. The right to protest is codified in Iraq’s constitution, reasoned the spokesperson of the Justice Ministry, provided that it does not harm the state’s institutions.

Al-Kadhimi has also appointed Gen. Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi as the head of Iraq’s counter-terrorism service, following public uproar at his demotion by former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Al-Saadi spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State in Mosul and retrieved the government’s control of the city.

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A former journalist, Al-Kadhimi was director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service when the protests broke out. He stood alongside demonstrators and opposed the brutal suppression of protests by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.

As prime minister, al-Kadhimi brings the promise of a democratic Iraq. This optimistic new beginning may be a sign of his potential for success after three former candidates in just five months failed to lead the country.

Interestingly, al-Kadhimi is supported by both the United States and Iran. Some have speculated that this is because both these countries have been deeply affected by the coronavirus health and economic crisis, and both have grown tired of Iraqi micro-politics. Al-Khadimi swiftly secured the parliaments’ support for 15 out of 20 proposed ministers, although he has yet to nominate candidates for two of the most important portfolios: Oil and foreign affairs.

Leaders of the Shi’ite militias also support al-Kadhimi. The head of the Shi’ite Fatah Alliance, Mohammed al-Ghabban, did not call for U.S. troops to be pulled out of Iraq as he usually does, but instead said he is anticipating that the U.S. will aid Iraq and refrain from assuming a political stance.

The unanimous support for Al-Kadhimi will soon be put to the test, however, as he is faced with several diplomatic and internal challenges. In June, he will hold a series of talks with American officials on the future of U.S. troops in Iraq, after the Iraqi parliament gave them the boot earlier this year. They are expected to discuss the cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi forces, the renewal of training the Iraqi military — suspended due to the coronavirus — and monetary aid requested by Iraq from international institutions.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker has said that Washington is “enormously disappointed with the performance of the government of Iraq in fulfilling its obligations to protect coalition forces.” This indicates that the White House intends to make practical demands rather than stop at condemnations.

But taking military action against the Shi’ite militias is expected to sow discord with some Shi’ite political parties, as well as with Iran, which uses these armed groups to execute its policy in Iraq.

Al-Kadhimi, like his predecessors, is facing a difficult dilemma, and will likely be torn between the United States and Iran. On the one hand, he will need to acquiesce to American intervention in order to guarantee the international financial assistance he desperately needs to cover state expenses and fight the threat of the coronavirus. On the other hand, the country benefits from $12 billion in bilateral trade with Iran, relying on the country for a continued supply of electricity, water and political peace with the Shi’ite factions in its parliament.

Al-Kadhimi declared that he aspires to greater economic cooperation with Iran and will not allow Iraqi territory to be used as a launching pad for attacks against Iran. He also does not want Iraq to be the battleground for tensions between the United States and Iran, and cannot afford to lose the only source of financial relief from the country’s economic crisis.

Iraq's new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi meets with predecessor Adel Abdel Mahdi in Baghdad, May 7, 2020. Credit: Iraqi Parliament Media Office/ Reuters

Iraqi economists estimate that Iraq is in need of some $40 billion in financing. Fitch Ratings estimated that in 2020 Iraq’s deficit and national debt may reach 30 percent and 80 percent of its GDP respectively. Iran cannot offer Iraq this kind of assistance. Without international help, green-lighted by the United States, al-Kadhimi may find himself the target of another wave of popular protests.

This is not just a dilemma for the Iraqi prime minister, it’s also a dilemma for the United States and Iran. These two countries, despite their combative rhetoric, need Iraq to be a stable, functional state; one that is capable of suppressing the rise of new militias or a resurfacing of the Islamic State. Iran (which has begun withdrawing some of its troops from Syria) and the United States (which aims to reduce its presence in the Middle East) need to find a form of coexistence in Iraq in order to preserve at least partial influence there.

This fragile arrangement is not inseparable from al-Kadhimi’s politically treacherous objective of promoting legislation for early and free elections. He wants to guarantee proper representation for the women and youth who demanded a voice in the street protests, and dismantle the political monopolies (and their militias) that are squeezing the treasury. The drafting of new legislation is likely to stir a variety of political and sectarian interest groups to rise against him. Doing nothing, however, is likely to stir people to the streets.

If all of this is not enough for al-Kadhimi, he is also facing a confrontation with Kurdistan, which wants him to implement a prior agreement that would transfer 14 percent of Iraq’s total revenues to Kurdistan in exchange for parts of the region’s oil production.

Baghdad promises to be an exciting place in the coming months.

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