After months of protests and a series of failed attempts to form a government, Iraq has a new prime minister: Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Kadhimi’s supporters hope he can unite Iraq’s many factions, but he faces a host of challenges, including navigating thorny relationships with the United States and Iran, dealing with corruption and ongoing militia violence, and managing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
How did Kadhimi come to power?
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A massive anti-government protest movement took off in October 2019, condemning an authoritarian government, corruption, poor public services, and perceived sectarian policies of the previous prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Turmoil reigned after Madhi resigned in late 2019, as the first two replacements named by President Barham Salih both failed to form a coalition government. Salih then appointed Kadhimi, who took office in May 2020.
Kadhimi spurred a burst of optimism by managing to form a coalition government that brought together groups from across the political spectrum: Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite parties, including the large bloc led by popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Who is he?
Born in 1967, Kadhimi spent decades working as a journalist and activist documenting human rights abuses under the Saddam Hussein regime. Starting in 2016, he led the country’s intelligence service during the government’s battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In that role, he forged relationships with many of the foreign powers that have long vied for influence over Baghdad, including the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
His government won support in parliament, as well as relatively high public approval, based on his reputation as a pragmatist who can balance competing forces at home and abroad. However, Kadhimi—unlike many of his predecessors—does not belong to a political party or control his own militia, which observers say leaves him vulnerable. “He wants to bring all Iraqis together, but he doesn’t have a political base of his own,” says Robert Ford, the U.S. deputy ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010. “He will always be dependent on these other political parties.”
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What major challenges does he face?
Several critical issues on the domestic front could undermine Kadhimi’s government.
Rampant corruption. Kadhimi promised protesters that he would disband the deeply unpopular muhasasa [PDF], the ethnoreligious quota system that defines Iraqi politics. Under this informal arrangement, the president comes from the Kurdish minority, the speaker of the parliament from the Sunni Arab minority, and the prime minister from the Shiite majority. Influential ministry posts are divided among the country’s religious groups. Experts say the system contributes to entrenched corruption in Iraq, which ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But after the Iran-backed Fatah bloc threatened to veto his candidacy, Kadhimi mostly backed down on this reform. As a result, corruption continues to siphon off government funds and delay infrastructure projects, limiting widespread access to essential services such as electricity and clean water.
COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of lockdown measures, Iraq suffered a spike in cases of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in late June, increasing stress on its precarious health-care system and exacerbating youth unemployment, which surpassed 25 percent in 2019. The pandemic has also caused a sharp decline in the price of oil, which accounts for more than 90 percent of Iraq’s government revenue. This further undermines the fledgling government’s legitimacy, as militias have stepped in to supply medical and humanitarian services.
Powerful militias. Even as the Islamic State threat has receded, Iraq remains home to an array of armed militias with different allegiances, including the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and various tribal groups. Kadhimi has taken steps to rein them in, including a June raid against the Shiite militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the government accuses of several rocket attacks against U.S. forces. But the assassination of Kadhimi advisor Hisham al-Hashimi in July, also attributed to Kata’ib Hezbollah, suggests that the militias are unafraid to hit back at assertions of government authority.
How could U.S.-Iran tensions impact Kadhimi’s tenure?
Escalating U.S.-Iran tensions under President Donald J. Trump have caused concern in Baghdad that conflict could spill into Iraq. Both the January 2020 assassination of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, and retaliatory attacks by Iran against a U.S. military base took place on Iraqi soil.
Kadhimi is under pressure by both sides. The United States, which maintains several thousand troops in Iraq to support and train the country’s army, currently pursues two main interests there: containing the remnant of the Islamic State and reducing Iran’s influence. Trump has put pressure on Baghdad to decrease economic ties with Iran, such as by reducing its natural gas imports. However, Iraq relies on that energy for its electricity. At the same time, Tehran has pressured Kadhimi not to boost economic ties with Iran’s rivals among the Gulf states. Iranian influence runs through majority-Shiite Iraq, largely by way of Tehran’s support for political parties and militias. It remains to be seen if Kadhimi can strike a balance between the competing demands of the two powers.