Even before Iraq was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, party squabbling and mass protests had paralyzed the country’s political establishment. Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was forced to resign last November and, since then, two candidates have tried, and failed, to win parliament’s support to form a new government. The country is deeply divided and US-Iran tensions have cast a shadow over attempts to turn the page and end the longest political stalemate since the American invasion of 2003.
President Barham Salih had nominated Mohammed Tawfik Alawi, a former communications minister, for the top job in February, but he was seen as too close to Tehran and his bid was foiled by the street and Sunni and Kurdish parties. Then Salih picked Adnan Al-Zurfi, the governor of Najaf, but Shiite parties accused him of being pro-US and he was forced to withdraw last week.
Now there is hope that a consensus has been reached after Salih nominated the head of the National Intelligence Service, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, to form the next government. Al-Kadhimi, a former journalist and a fierce opponent of Saddam Hussein, has never joined a political party or been accused of corruption. On selecting him, Salih described Al-Kadhimi as a “patriot and cultural figure… well known for his integrity, moderation (and) giving consideration for all Iraqis regarding their general rights.”
As he was handed his mandate by the president, Iraq’s political elites were in attendance, indicating that, for now, there is general support for his nomination by both Sunni and Shiite parties and figures. Perhaps more importantly, Al-Kadhimi, whose previous position enabled him to deal with the US and Iran without being seen as an ally of either, has been given the initial nod of approval by both Washington and Tehran.
“If Al-Kadhimi is an Iraqi nationalist, if he is dedicated to pursuing a sovereign Iraq, if he is committed to fighting corruption, this would be great for Iraq, and I think it would be great for our bilateral relationship,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker was quoted as saying last week. Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry described Al-Kadhimi’s designation as “a step in the right direction.”
Following his nomination, the 53-year-old pledged to form a government that makes the aspirations and demands of Iraqis the top priority. He has 30 days to present his Cabinet to parliament for approval. The road ahead will be fraught with challenges. Even though he has the support of the major political players, he is yet to put together a Cabinet that meets the demands of the people, while striking a balance that serves the sectarian reality on the ground.
Al-Kadhimi pledged to form a service-oriented government, but the real test will be in dealing with the sectarian quota system that has been denounced by the protesters as a main reason for the endemic corruption that has brought Iraq to its knees.
His job will not be easy. Aside from overcoming the coronavirus challenge — there have been more than 1,300 cases in Iraq and over 70 deaths — the next government will have to deal with worsening economic conditions in light of plummeting oil prices. The dire living conditions that triggered mass protests last year have not improved and the pressure will be on to come up with immediate solutions. With most of Iraq under lockdown because of the virus, protests have receded, but it is only a matter of time before people take to the streets once more as living conditions worsen, especially for those who were already suffering before the shutdown.
Meanwhile, Iraq will remain at the center of US-Iran tensions. Pro-Iranian militias will continue to threaten the US military presence in Iraq as Tehran feels the impact of economic sanctions and the spread of the coronavirus. One of the militias that rejected Al-Kadhimi’s nomination was Kata’ib Hezbollah, which accused the chief of Iraqi intelligence of involvement in January’s US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Interestingly, Al-Kadhimi is supported by the Fatah coalition, which is headed by militia leader and Iran loyalist Hadi Al-Amiri, the State of Law coalition of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and the Hikma movement headed by cleric Ammar Al-Hakim.
The real test will be in dealing with the sectarian quota system that has been denounced by the protesters.
Last week, the US offered a $10 million reward for information on Sheikh Mohammed Al-Kawtharani, one of the military leaders of Kata’ib Hezbollah. The US accuses Al-Kawtharani, who was an associate of Soleimani, of coordinating with pro-Iran militias that it accuses of carrying out attacks against coalition military bases and Western embassies in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
For Al-Kadhimi to succeed in his mission, both the US and Iran must stop using Iraq as their own backyard in order to settle scores and allow the Iraqi people to emerge from years of sectarian feuds and political corruption. That is easier said than done and Al-Kadhimi will soon find that he will be walking a tightrope as he tries to balance his country’s interests against those of Tehran and Washington.