Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to power a year ago today after a protest movement toppled the previous government and successive attempts to establish a new one failed. Inheriting a country deep in the midst of political and economic crises, Kadhimi has spent the last year trying to put Iraq back on the path toward stability all while navigating U.S.-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Sarhang Hamasaeed look at what Kadhimi has done to attempt to placate protesters, the importance of Iraq’s October national elections and how the prime minister has dealt with U.S.-Iran tensions.
Has Kadhimi’s government been able to meet protesters’ demands? How has the economy faired under his stewardship?
Abouaoun: As a leaderless, cluster-like movement, protest groups have actually asked — over time — for a lot of things, most of which would require a long-term, multi-layered approach and extensive resources. The wide array of protester demands could be categorized as falling under political reform (e.g., a power-sharing system and fair elections), economic reform (to address economic and financial crises and create more job opportunities), improving access to basic services (e.g., electricity), curbing corruption and last, but certainly not least, holding accountable those involved in using lethal force against demonstrators.
Although Kadhimi promised he would meet many of the protesters’ demands, the prime minister has not achieved many concrete results, despite putting in a laudable effort. However, given the nature of the demands, it’s unrealistic to expect any government to meet them in just a year or two. On the political end, elections are scheduled for October 2021 but there is an overwhelming skepticism about the extent to which free and transparent elections are possible. Reasons for this include that the same political parties continue to have access to state resources and maintain their armed groups; law enforcement agencies are hampered by corruption, a lack of resources and intimidation from armed groups, among other things; and last year’s political assassinations remain unpunished, opening the door for further intimidation.
On the economic front, Kadhimi’s government attempted to introduce significant reforms through the “White Paper for Economic Reform,” which includes solid ideas but will require several years to implement — not to mention the unrealized political will and social buy-in needed to engage in painful structural reforms. The inability to kick-start economic reform obviously impedes the creation of employment opportunities and the improvement of basic services such as electricity.
Last but not least, despite the government’s attempts to prioritize the investigation into the shooting incidents that killed hundreds and injured thousands of protesters since October 2019, no serious action was taken to identify, arrest or prosecute perpetrators.
Having said this, attributing this failure to the government alone is unfair. For such an investigation to lead to concrete results, it is essential to have a functioning and transparent judiciary as well as efficient and mission-driven security agencies. While Kadhimi provided the political will, other essential institutions did not deliver.
How has Kadhimi handled the divisive political environment in Iraq?
Hamasaeed: It really depends on whose perspective you take. From a glass half-full view, one can say Kadhimi has handled the political situation as well as he could given the circumstances. However, the views of the Iraqi public and political actors vary, and for many depend on the day you are asking that question. For example, during the Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq, there was much positive rhetoric about Iraq and its diversity. Yet, on a different day, if protesters are killed or there is an attack by an armed group, negative perspectives tend to come to the fore.
A highly complicated and divisive political environment existed before the Kadhimi government took office and has continued since. Key players remain the same, but with ebbs and flows of calm and tension on some issues among certain actors (e.g., Kadhimi versus groups that perpetrate or condone attacks against foreign diplomatic facilities and military personnel, Erbil versus Baghdad on budget issues, as but a few examples). Kadhimi was able to form a government a year ago, which put a badly needed end to the failure of successive efforts to form a government after the previous prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, resigned in November 2019. Not coming from a political party of his own helped Kadhimi stay unshackled by party politics, but also undermined him as he did not have a strong parliamentary bloc of support. Despite his assurances that he will not run in the upcoming elections, political parties have always viewed him with suspicion as a potential political threat.
While the opposition has been steady, it has not been able to totally stymie his agenda. On issues such as better control of border crossings, coordinating with the Kurdistan Regional Government on some issues, restructuring and replacing leadership in security agencies, devaluating the Iraqi dinar and passing a budget, Kadhimi’s government has been able to overcome the opposition. However, the term and mandate of Kadhimi’s government is very limited, even if his aspirations may not be. The best he could do is lay some of the groundwork for reforms and strengthening the state with the hopes that the next government, whether he is at the helm or not, will build upon them. Ultimately, the trajectory of Iraq’s political divisions rests not just with internal actors, but also external ones, including the United States and Iran.
Kadhimi has prioritized elections, originally announcing parliamentary elections for June before postponing them at the behest of the election commission. What has been the response to the delay, and what does Iraq need to ensure the polls are free and fair?
Hamasaeed: A key mandate for the Kadhimi government is to facilitate holding early national parliamentary elections. Despite delays, the vote is now set for October 10, 2021. Key building blocks have been put in place to hold the elections: electoral commission judges have been appointed, an election law passed, a budget allocated, and the supreme federal court law amended and members confirmed. The mechanics of the electoral process — building coalitions and updating voting registration, among other things — are underway. Despite these steps, there are those who suspect that another delay is still possible, given the deficit of public trust in political elites. Others think the elections should be delayed until armed groups are brought under state control.
Iraq deals with a great public deficit of trust in the electoral process and political elites. To hold free and fair elections, the country needs proper institutional building blocks to be in place and work properly, with sufficient Iraqi and international monitoring throughout the entire electoral architecture and process. The Iraqi government has formally requested technical support from the United Nations, which may do some observation, but likely not the level of monitoring needed to engender Iraqis’ trust in the process and results. There is a need for improved security for candidates so they are willing and able to run, for people to go out and vote freely, for polling stations and ballots to not be tampered with, and for winners to be safe and able to deliver for the people. Yet, even if the elections are free and fair, translating that into effective governance is a tall order.
When Kadhimi came into office, U.S.-Iran tensions were at a boiling point, with both jockeying for influence in Iraq. How has Kadhimi navigated these tensions, and where do they stand now?
Abouaoun: No one would envy Kadhimi for being at the helm of Iraq during these troubled times in the region. Despite strong U.S support in some sectors, he knew that U.S. backing would remain limited to certain areas and, most importantly, that Washington would avoid an all-out war with Iran. With this in mind, Kadhimi used the opportunity provided by the previous administration’s approach to Iran and tried to curb the influence of pro-Iran armed groups in Iraq. He improved the government’s control over Iraq’s multiple border crossings, generating an additional 60 million U.S. dollars just from the port of Um Qasr in 2020. This move deprived access to millions of dollars for armed groups and other criminal rings that had controlled these crossings.
Furthermore, Kadhimi appointed new commanders to some of the most sensitive security positions, sidelining the ones considered as pro-Iran. He engaged in intense outreach to Arab countries, improving relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and worked on bilateral and multilateral agreements with Jordan, Egypt and others. While these gains are not negligible, Kadhimi’s efforts to reduce Iran’s influence hit a wall when he tried, on more than one occasion, to arrest elements affiliated with some Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units known to be close to Iran. Ultimately, in these cases, Kadhimi either had to release these PMF actors days later or drop the mission altogether.
The momentum for downsizing Iran’s influence in Iraq slowed in early 2021 as the new administration took over in Washington. At a time when Tehran was preparing to resume indirect talks with Washington over the Iran nuclear deal, its leadership and allies in Iraq (and other countries as well) displayed a high level of confidence that the scope of these talks would remain exclusive to the conditions of the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — meaning Iran’s regional activities and proxies could resume their mode of operation as before 2018, when the Trump administration withdrew from the deal.
Kadhimi would have benefited greatly from a more intense and better focused “soft power” approach from the international community. But support remained sporadic and not proportionate with Iran’s non-military investment in Iraq, which ranges across social, educational, economic and cultural sectors. Kadhimi or his successor will only be able to restrain Iran in Iraq if the international community — including the United States — reestablishes deterrence and exerts intense pressure until Iran agrees to discuss and reconsider the nature and the scale of its regional activities. Without such an effort, it is very likely that Iran will use some of the billions of dollars made available from lifting or easing sanctions to shore-up its support to allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere.