The Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi's initiative for national dialogue, which he launched on 8 March 2021, came as an attempt to benefit from the positive atmosphere left in the country by the visit of the Pope of the Vatican, and to pave the ground for the general elections scheduled for October 2021. However, the initiative raised a clear difference in the reactions of the various Iraqi actors.

This paper sheds light on the content of the initiative, its chances of success, and its impact on the general situation in the country, and the early elections in particular.

The content of the initiative

In a televised address on the occasion of the conclusion of the visit by the Pope of the Vatican to Iraq, Kadhimi stated that the National Dialogue Initiative concerns "the various antagonists, namely the political actors, the popular and youth activists, protesters and opponents of the government", and called on them to sit at the "table of responsible dialogue before the people and history". According to the initiative, the aim of the dialogue is “to give priority to the homeland’s interests, disavow the language of convulsive rhetoric and political defamation, prepare for the success of the early elections, and give the people the opportunity to hope and have confidence in the state and the democratic system”. Kadhimi also indicated that “the idea of ​​a national dialogue could also contribute to solving all crises between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)”.

According to sources close to Kadhimi, the most important files that will be discussed at the dialogue table are the following:

  • Discussing the mechanisms and means of restricting the possession of weapons to the state, halting missile attacks on foreign forces, and paving the way for the government to carry out its security duties without interference by the armed militias, especially in the areas liberated from Daesh (ISIS).
  • Discussing the foreign military presence in the country and the dialogue with the US side to fix the withdrawal schedule according to the need and development of the Iraqi forces, and seeking to resolve the problem of the Kurdistan Workers Party’ (PKK) to prevent Turkish interventions in northern Iraq.
  • Attempting to agree on broad lines for the country's foreign policy, and developing it with the countries of the world and the region.
  • The election issue and the necessary political consensus in relation to the date of dissolving Parliament, the agreement to divide the electoral districts, and the United Nations (UN) supervision of the polling process.
  • Examining the repercussions of the economic crisis and the steps of the financial and regulatory reforms put forward by the government.
  • The outstanding problems between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region, and the possibility of finding final solutions to them.

The government has not yet determined the dates and number of the dialogue sessions and the method of participating therein. Apparently, it has put the idea forward for public discussion in the media and social media to monitor popular and official reactions so that the issues put forward for discussion would later be formally identified, given that it may disqualify the actors that attacked the initiative and questioned the government’s intentions.

The positions of the Iraqi actors

  • The leader of the Hikmah (Wisdom) Movement Ammar al-Hakim was the first to support Kadhimi’s call. He said in a tweet on Twitter: "We affirm that the opportunity is ripe and the atmosphere is favourable to proceed with this dialogue. We renew the call on all the political, social and academic actors to engage in a dialogue that accommodates all constructive visions and ideas to address the failures and rectify the shortcomings".
  • Muqtada al-Sadr supported the idea of ​​dialogue between the political protagonists in the country, but he stipulated that it be under UN supervision. He said in a statement that "everyone is required to activate reformist dialogue between all the protagonists, including the protesting youth generation".
  • The President of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani also welcomed the dialogue initiative, and affirmed that the Kurds are fully prepared to reach final agreements on the political differences between Erbil and Baghdad.
  • The Secretary-General of the Arab Project Movement Khamis al-Khanjar called for the dialogue called for by Kadhimi "to be courageous and far from the logic of vengeance and retaliation". He said in a tweet: "We support the national dialogue called for by Kadhimi, and we stand in solidarity with all efforts that try to save Iraq from the difficult situation".
  • On the other hand, the Shiite political blocs close to Iran expressed their reservations about Kadhimi's call for a national dialogue, and set preconditions, including the removal of foreign forces from the country first, as indicated in a statement by the Fatah (Conquest) Coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri. Some of the Coalition Members of Parliament (MPs), including the MP Mukhtar al-Mousawi, also considered it unlkely that Kadhimi would be able to organise that dialogue because of "the difficulty of making the major concessions that the political blocs should make", as he put it.
  • The State of Law Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, questioned the feasibility of Kadhimi’s initiative. The MP for the Coalition Hussein al-Maliki said that “all the calls of previous prime ministers for reconciliation were welcomed by the political blocs, but the question is: will this step by Kadhimi succeed? That is why we believe that the condition for success is for the political actors to join forces to make the initiative successful, and to stand behind the Prime Minister.
  • Of course, the positions of the October actors that represent the popular protests varied vis-à-vis the initiative, between those who categorically rejected it and those who set conditions for participation therein, including that it be devoted to discussing the early elections, providing the appropriate security environment for their conduct, and ensuring their integrity.

The desired objectives of the initiative

Based on his recent statements, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to lay general foundations for building the state, because he believes that there is a structural defect in the political system since 2003 which has led to the weakness of the state's apparatus and institutions and their failure to achieve economic, political and security development. Since Kadhimi believes that his government bears the aspirations of the October Movement, he seeks to achieve that change by possible means, including the comprehensive dialogue, even with the actors that were the reason behind the demonstrations and protests, given that they are large and influential political actors that will not easily disappear from the political scene even after the elections. Thus, he wants the dialogue to be an opportunity that may be the last one to review the mistakes of the past and agree on new formulas for political action in the light of the great changes taking place in the region.

Kadhimi, or indeed the other figures who decided to participate in the dialogue, does not set a high ceiling for the expected results of the initiative. However, participating in the national dialogue amounts to the implicit recognition of the country’s need for a new political contract, which the political actors may not be able to achieve through the rigid constitutional amendment mechanisms. Nevertheless, they are capable of agreeing on general foundations that would constitute the basis for another dialogue after the elections, including the agreement to take difficult decisions to improve the Iraqi economy, some of which appeared in the "white paper" that was put forward by Kadhimi in October 2020 to reform the economy, and the agreement to restrict the possession of weapons to the state, give up denominations such as “resistance” and “Jihad”, control the weapons of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC, al-Hashd al-Shaabi), stop incitement campaigns and disavow the rhetoric of violence and hatred, declare true neutrality in the ongoing conflict between Washington and Tehran, reject any practices of this conflict inside Iraqi territories, and finally, officially recognise the October Movement as an influential political and social actor, and hold a dialogue with it and get it involved in the dialogues.

Potential obstacles to the initiative

  • The preconditions set by the various actors, especially those loyal to Iran, which may exert great pressure on Kadhimi to postpone or cancel the national dialogue initiative.
  • The boycott by some political actors of the national dialogue sessions, such as the extremist Shiite actors and the October actors, and the transformation of the dialogue into meetings of pro-government actors, such as the Sadrist Movement, the Ammar al-Hakim bloc, and the Nasr (Victory) Coalition led by Haider al-Abadi.
  • Shortage of time, given that the presumed date for the early elections is October 2021 and that the issues put forward for discussion need a long time before consensus is reached thereon. Besides, some Iraqi actors are demanding that many other issues be raised that the interlocutors may fail to discuss.
  • Popular discontent with the ruling class, given that most of the popular reactions, especially on the social media, had been denouncing the dialogue between the traditional actors, and most of the comments on the dialogue initiative were desperate and did not expect any positive results from it for the benefit of the country.
  • Absence of guarantees, given that all conferences and dialogues that took place since 2006 and were devoted to reconciliation or "national" agreements failed to commit the participating parties to the terms of the pledges and the statements that they signed, which affected the credibility of the conferences organised by the government or any other political actor.

Conclusion

The extremist Shiite actors will try to obstruct the National Dialogue Initiative or empty it of its content so that it is not counted as electoral propaganda in favour of Kadhimi, especially that it will be immediately prior to the early elections. On the other hand, Kadhimi will try to provide political support to his government, given that he does not have any parliamentary bloc. Therefore, he needs political support to implement his policies, especially in the areas of security, economy and foreign policy, which is the essence of the Initiative or the most important unspoken reason for it.

The actors supporting the government, led by the Sadr and Wisdom Movements and the Victory Coalition will most likely actively participate in the dialogue, in addition to some actors of the popular protests. These are the same actors that are likely to form an alliance among themselves after the elections to form the largest parliamentary bloc with the Marhala (Stage) Movement which will indirectly represent Kadhimi.

The dialogue may create a new division within the October Movement, between hard-liners who demand a boycott of everything official and governmental and refuse to sit with those whom they believe are the leaders of the "corruption and devastation" in the country, and those who see the need for active participation in order to achieve the required change and obtain assurances for the organisation of elections that are characterised by a great deal of fairness and transparency.

The Kurdish actors would not bless the outcomes of the national dialogue unless it achieves their objectives in resolving the outstanding problems with Baghdad, especially the restoration of control by the KRG over some parts of the Kirkuk Governorate, and ensuring stable financial shares of the budget. As usual, their approval of some of the terms of the agreements or statements that will emerge from the national dialogue will be the subject of bargaining and negotiation in order to obtain material and immediate gains for the Kurdish Region.

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