Mustafa al-Kadhimi managed to form the new Iraqi government after a seven-month political crisis that broke out after the outbreak of the protests against the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi who resigned under street pressure. Al-Kadhimi faces a number of difficult political, economic and security challenges and, most importantly, managing the crisis of US-Iranian tension in the country. So, will the Kadhimi government succeed in facing those challenges?
A new political dynamism
Al-Kadhimi’s success in forming the government constitutes a remarkable development on the Iraqi political scene. The non-partisan Kadhimi, who used to run the intelligence service, has been imposed by the political and social developments of the last seven months. These started with the outbreak of public protests in the nine Shiite cities in addition to the capital Baghdad and rendered the Iraqi street a major player on the scene for the first time after 2003.
Al-Kadjimi was preceded by two designates, both of which failed to form a government, namely Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi who gained Shiite support but was rejected by the Sunnis and Kurds, and Adnan al-Zurfi who gained the support of the Kurds and Sunnis and a part of the Shiite powers but whose designation was met with strong reservations by the pro-Iranian Shiite powers. They unwillingly accepted Kadhimi for fear of the success of pro-US Zurfi and because they lost the chance of manoeuvrability with more time and designates to impose them for the premiership.
President Barham Salih contributed to preventing the designation of three pro-Iran nominees to form the government, namely Asaad al-Eidani, Qusai al-Suhail and Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani. He even threatened to resign in a serious political manoeuvre that he might pay for later on due to the outrage he caused among pro-Iran Shiite parties, not just because he rejected their three nominees, but also because he designated Zurfi without their consent. Those powers later had to accept Kadhimi who is considered the President’s candidate from the beginning immediately after the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi in late November 2019.
Meanwhile, the tense political atmosphere revealed the crisis of the Iranian influence in the country and the features of the reduction of that influence. Qasem Suleimani’s successor, the new commander of the Iranian Quds Force Esmail Qaani, visited Baghdad to manage the crisis but he failed in his task. That is why, Iran’s acceptance of Kadhimi came as a surprise. Until a few days before he won the vote of confidence, Kadhimi was in the eyes of Iran and its Iraqi allies a pro-US name who was involved in the killing incident of Qasem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the US in the beginning of January 2020. Even after Kadhimi won Parliament’s confidence, the Hezbollah Brigades, Iran’s strongest arm in Iraq, continued to attack him and make this accusation repeatedly against him.
Forming the government: what went on behind the scenes
Al-Kadhimi competently ran the negotiations to form his government. He managed to get the approval for 15 ministers (out of 22 ministries), including those for the ministries of defence and the interior which mostly used to be delayed for months after voting for the government. The Shiites got nine ministries, the Sunnis four, and the Kurds one, pending the decision on the vacant seven, namely, foreign affairs, oil, trade, agriculture, culture, justice and migration. According to the settlements, the Shiites will get 11 ministries in all, the Sunnis six, and the Kurds three.
Al-Kadhimi managed to overcome the insurmountable differences between the political blocs on the one hand, and within every political bloc on the other. The two major Shiite wings, Sairoun and Fatah, have been seeking a significant presence in the government to assert their political power on the scene which has come to light after the legislative elections in May 2018 when both won an almost equal number of seats. Kadhimi also overcame the Sunni divide obstacle that reached its peak between the teams of the Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and Khamis al-Khanjar, in addition to convincing the unrelenting Kurdistan Democratic Party about its government share to vote for his government.
He also managed to force the political powers to nominate independent names to run some portfolios, mainly the ministries of the interior and defence for which he designated Othman al-Ghanmi, the non-partisan Chief of Staff, and Juma Inad, the former Commander of the Ground Forces, although they were designated by the Shiite and Sunni blocs, in addition to the Finance Minister Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi and the Youth and Sports Minister Adnan Dirjal.
The most prominent opponent of the Kadhimi government was Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of the State of Law Coalition (which only has 25 seats in Parliament), due to Kadhimi’s close relationship with Abadi, Maliki’s rival. However, the Iraqi scene that was dominated by support amidst the existing challenges prevented any influence by Maliki, although he continues to mobilize politically against the government.
The US-Iranian balance of power
In a rare moment that takes place for the first time after 2003, the Iraqi three presidencies (Republic, Cabinet and Parliament) are now run by names that are both unreliable and unwelcome for Iran. President Barham Salih prevented the advent of Iran’s designates to form the government, as head of the intelligence service, Kadhimi is accused by Iran of being involved in the murder of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Qasem Suleimani and deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Committee (al-Hashed al-Shaabi) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, who turned against the alliances that brought him to office with Iranian support, now stands against them and has contributed, because of his position, to preventing the US withdrawal from the country, contrary to the endeavours of the pro-Iran Iraqi Shiite powers.
The circumstances of forming the Kadhimi government constitute the weakest period of Iranian influence in Iraq. Until a few months ago, pro-Iran Shiite parties and factions would not take seriously the designation of Kadhimi as prime minister. However, a number of internal and external developments have contributed to reversing the situation against Iran and its allies, mainly:
1. The October 2019 protests played an important role in changing the political equation, and gave the Iraqi National Trend a new impetus in the political scene after the Trend’s role receded in forming the government in 2018, following the disintegration of the Reform (Islah) Alliance, comprising Muqtada al-Sadr, Haider al-Abadi, Ammar al-Hakim and Ayad Allawi, and its loss of the premiership under severe Iranian pressure that prevented the designation of Abadi or any other candidate with similar orientation for the post. The protests, an important part of which was against the Iranian intervention in the country, contributed to weakening the pro-Iran powers, namely the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition at the political level and the armed factions at the security level, that opposed the protests. Things got worse for Iran after its allied armed factions got involved in killing hundreds of protesters. In contrast, President Barham Salih, Muqtada al-Sadr, Haider al-Abadi and Ammar al-Hakim supported the protests from the moment they were launched.
2. The abject failure of Abdul-Mahdi’s government was targeted at Iran that contributed to his assumption of power and supported him till the end after his government got involved in killing the protesters while the international support for Iraq receded significantly during Abdul-Mahdi’s tenure. Iran also failed to have another of its candidates designated, despite putting forward several names that were rejected in light of the pressure of the protests, the absence of Shiite consensus and the lack of response from the President who has the constitutional power to designate the Prime Minister and who knew that public outrage will escalate. This forced the pro-Iran Shiite powers to make significant concessions and accept Kadhimi unwillingly.
3. The “maximum pressure” policy implemented by the US against Iran played an important role in weakening Iran’s role in Iraq. Iran has faced a severe economic crisis that escalated with the spread of the coronavirus in its territory. While Iraq is considered an important economic lung for Iran, the US was about to cancel the exemption granted to Iraq to deal with Iran despite the sanctions imposed on it. Washington contracted the exemption periods, reaching one month prior to Kadhimi’s designation. Had he not succeeded in forming the government, the country would have faced a serious economic crisis in addition to the crisis of oil price collapse. The killing of Qasem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the US also largely contributed to weakening the Iranian role in Iraq. This was obvious in Iran’s failure to choose alternatives to the two men. Suleimani’s new successor Brigadier General Qaani failed in his task during his visit to Iraq on the eve of the government formation, while divisions within the al-Hashed al-Shaabi increased after the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In addition, the withdrawal of the factions loyal to the leading Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani from al-Hashed al-Shaabi constituted a knockout punch for the pro-Iran factions dominating the Committee. Some Iraqi leaders leaked a strict and straightforward US message to the political blocs indicating that Washington will dissociate itself from Iraq in case a new government is not formed that is both independent in its decisions and free from Iranian influence. Interestingly, after Kadhimi won Parliament’s confidence on 7 May 2020, he received a call from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which Pompeo informed Kadhimi of the extension of the exemption granted to Iraq from the scope of the sanctions imposed on Iran for four months in support of his government.
A successful start
The first ten days of the new government’s work have shown strong signs of the enhancement of Iraqi decision and the exit from the circle of the Iranian influence. A set of corrective decisions by the government came as a clear statement of the path that will be followed by Kadhimi. Among those decisions were the reinstatement of Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as head this time, not deputy head, of the Counter-Terrorism Service after he was removed from office by Abdul-Mahdi, the daring storming by the security services of the headquarters of the Thar Allah (God’s Revenge) militia in Basra after it was involved in opening fire on protesters last week, and, most importantly, the announcement by Kadhimi of supporting the protesters and banning opening fire on them, releasing protesters under arrest, and involving them in the political decision through influential names in the protests.
On the other hand, Kadhimi’s government faces many political, economic and security challenges that were summarized by Kadhimi in an article that was published in Iraqi newspapers on 19 May 2020. These could make the task onerous and full of risks. The implications of the coronavirus continue to hit the country with the recording of a large number of infections that were the highest over the last two weeks compared to the one-month curfew period that was imposed by the authorities in March 2020.
With the overcrowding in hospitals and the government’s resort to provincial quarantine, the health sector’s distress began to come to light with the scarce financial allocations. The same problem extended to public sectors in the country due to the considerable collapse in oil prices. In January and February 2020, the oil revenue was nearly 6 billion dollars per month. In April and May, it fell by 80 percent to reach 1.5 billion dollars per month.
In a rentier country that depends on oil and is characterized by the absence of other productive sectors and weak investment, the government is no longer capable of paying the salaries of civil servants and pensioners. It may even tend to cut the salaries of civil servants and resort to mandatory saving which might cause outrage in the Iraqi street.
Meanwhile, security threats are on the increase. ISIS’s activity increased on a large scale, and its attacks have become almost daily in adjacent governorates, from Diyala in the north, to Saladin, Kirkuk and Mosul, and eventually to Al-Anbar and its vast desert in the west. On the other hand, Iraq will be holding important negotiations with the US in June 2020 to determine the destiny of US military presence in the country and the political and security consequences that this would have.
Al-Kadhimi anticipated those scenarios by expressly announcing that the country is heading towards a crisis. He severely criticized the political blocs for their insistence on maintaining their performance to obtain gains without recognizing the serious challenges that will eventually reflect negatively on those blocs and on the country.
Potential scenarios for the future of Kadhimi’s government
First scenario: success of the Kadhimi government in its task despite major challenges: the experience of the 2014 Abadi government is very much like that of the current government. This scenario assumes that the political and social developments experienced by Iraq during the last seven months after the outbreak of the public protests will contribute to changing the political dynamism that has been existing in the country since 2003. The rules of the political game have been changed, sectarian alliances are no longer influential, and the arrival of independent and non-partisan Kadhimi as Prime Minister constitutes a development in the Iraqi landscape.
Furthermore, the assumption of power by Kadhimi in light of a shy acceptance by Iran, in addition to the presence of Barham Salih as President and Mohammed al-Halbousi, the ambitious Parliament Speaker, constitute a rare moment of weak Iranian influence in the higher decision-making sources in the country. Therefore, both the US and the international community will greatly support the Kadhimi government to establish the reduced Iranian influence, especially that in view of the serious decline in Iraqi oil revenue, the country will face the scenario of borrowing and international support. This would not be plausible without US and European support, as was the case in 2014 when the country’s Treasury went bankrupt in parallel with the fall of three Iraqi cities in the hands of ISIS and the collapse of the army but the significant international support of the Abadi government contributed to reversing the equation.
At the political level, in one sense, the Kadhimi government represents the Iraqi National Trend and the protesters. With the continued protests and the refusal by protesters to remove their tents from the streets, the popular force will back any attempt by the pro-Iran political side to topple the government or force it to take decisions that agree with that side’s interests. For all the above, this scenario is the most likely as of now.
Second scenario: failure of the Kadhimi government in its task: this scenario assumes that Iran, which has lost much of its political influence, will attempt to regain its hold of Iraq. While it has accepted the pro-western liberal Kadhimi as Prime Minister, it may strive to obstruct his work and hold him responsible for the crises of coronavirus and the scarcity of the country’s resources in case his government fails to counter the health crisis and pay the salaries of civil servants. Kadhimi would then have two options: either to be responsive to Iranian pressures as was the case with his predecessor Adel Abdul-Mahdi, or to be subject to attempts to weaken him and mobilize against him so that the government would remain weak, which is what is currently desired by Iran.
In this respect, pro-Iran Shiite parties and factions may over the coming months launch a major lobbying campaign against Kadhimi by holding his government accountable for the economic crisis and manipulating the protests by deploying its followers indirectly among protesters to provoke the street against him, as was the case during his negotiations to form the government. They may also drive their political allies in Parliament, namely the Fatah and State of Law blocs, to adopt opposing positions to Kadhimi with respect to the US withdrawal from the country and prevent him from implementing reformist measures in the country’s institutions, especially at the level of security and the al-Hashed al-Shaabi Committee.
EPC | 17 Feb 2021
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