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August 19, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1528

In His First 100 Days In Office, Al-Kadhimi Faces Reality Ahead Of Tougher Challenges To Iraq's National Recovery

August 19, 2020 | By S. Ali
Iran, Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1528

Emerging as an independent leader from the Iraqi political scene, which is heavily dominated by an Iran-backed political elite, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi's appointment on May 6, 2020 as prime minister of Iraq has reignited optimism that he could bring a systematic change to restore Iraq's sovereignty and end more than a decade of Iranian hegemony over Iraq.[1]

Al-Kadhimi put forth a reform program for his government, which inherited years of corruption and will last for only two years if it fails to hold early elections, a key priority in his program. Other priorities include: addressing protesters' demands for better living standards and greater government transparency and accountability; restricting weapons to state and military institutions; addressing the economic and COVID-19 crises; protecting Iraq's sovereignty; fighting terrorism; and providing a national vision on the future of U.S. forces in Iraq while establishing balanced regional relations.

On July 31, Al-Kadhimi gave a televised speech highlighting his government's efforts during recent months in responding to these challenges, acknowledging that his government is facing many obstacles because of "organized corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, and the absence of planning" by previous Iraqi governments. Talking about U.S.-Iranian tension and its implications for Iraq, he pointed out that "internal, regional, and international conflicts are threatening once again the security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Iraq." [2]

 
Iraqi PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi during his July 31 televised speech (Source: YouTube).

The following report will review some of the major events of of Al-Kadhimi's first 100 days in office, the obstacles he faced, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Addressing The Economic Crisis And Corruption

The recent downturn in oil prices has brought into focus the fragility of Iraq's financial situation, which is exacerbated by the "empty coffers" that the previous government, led by then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, handed to Al-Kadhimi's.[3]

To make up for the collapse in state income as a result of falling oil prices, Al-Kadhimi's government announced a set of measures including slashing high-level public servants' cash bonuses by around half, and those of low-level employees by around a third, suspending new hiring and promotions, reducing military spending, halting maintenance for government buildings, and restricting the monthly payments paid to political refugees exiled under Saddam's regime to the heads of household only.[4]

While these measures will help to make some cash available to the government, the budget deficit is projected by the World Bank to surge to a staggering 19% by the end of 2020, and thus the impact of these measures, even if fully implemented, would be limited.[5] Al-Kadhimi's government has already slowed down on some of these measures after they sparked public outrage.[6]

In July, Al-Kadhimi launched a military campaign to stop cross-border corruption and recover "hundreds of millions" of Iraqi dinars in import tax revenue lost to bribery in Diyala province, which has one of Iraq's 21 official border crossings. On August 16, the Iraqi military confirmed that all border outlets in the country were under the control of the army.[7] However, the possible involvement of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in this campaign raises doubts over the effectiveness of state control of these border outlets.

Enforcing State-Dominance Over Iran-backed Militias

In his government program, Al-Kahdimi stressed the need to enforce "the exclusive right of the state to bear arms and to make sure that Iraqi territory is not used to settle accounts or attack others."

In his May 16 visit to PMU headquarters, Al-Kadhimi outlined his vision on how to contain these Iran-backed factions by explicitly limiting their role to fulfilling the national goal of defeating ISIS. He emphasized that he will put into effect the law passed by Iraqi parliament in December 2016 to incorporate the PMU into the country's armed forces, provided that they would abide by state authority.[8]

Since then, Al-Kadhimi has done little to put into effect that law, other than leaking to the media a circular letter on June 4 that he exchanged with the chairman of the PMU, Falih Al-Fayyadh, who instructed the PMU to take a set of administrative actions as part of the 2016 PMU law. However, two months later the letter remains ink on paper.[9]

Al-Kadhimi's efforts to crack down on the Iran-backed militias were demonstrated in two incidents. In his first week in office, Al-Kadhimi ordered the arrest of militiamen affiliated with Thaer Allah ("Vengeance of Allah"), a small Iran-backed militia based in Basra, after they opened fire on protesters. The detainees were later released after the group issued a statement pledging to abide by the authority and laws of the state.[10]

Al-Kadhimi's true test in confronting these militias was on June 26, when he ordered the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (ICTS) to raid a Kata'ib Hezbollah base in south Baghdad. The bold move led to the detention of 11 militiamen involved in launching rocket attacks on Iraqi institutions hosting U.S.-led coalition forces and diplomats. Ten of them were released a few days later for "lack of evidence."[11]

Using extremely condescending language against Al-Kadhimi, Kata'ib Hezbollah's senior commander Abu Ali Al-Askai stated after the raid that his group will not hand over weapons to the state.[12]

 
Abu Ali Al-Askari's tweet (source: Telegram, June 26, 2020).

The raid appears to have provoked the Iran-backed militias to carry out more attacks. The month of July alone witnessed nine separate rocket attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops and diplomatic sites.[13] Iraqi security forces seized rockets that had been prepared to be fired on U.S. targets and confiscated a drone attached to explosives in Al-Jaderia district in Baghdad.[14]

In the past 100 days there has also been a wave of assassinations and abductions of foreign and Iraqi activists, demonstrating a weakness in Iraq's security intelligence. On July 20, Hella Mewis, a German activist living in Baghdad was abducted by gunmen and freed four days later by Iraqi security forces. While her release was hailed in the press as a victory for the Iraqi security forces, the results of the investigations remain in the dark.

Mewis's abduction came only a few days after the assassination of prominent Iraqi security analyst Husham Al-Hashimi near his house in northeast Baghdad, an area that is heavily controlled by the Iran-backed Kata'ib Hizbullah faction (KH).[15] Al-Kadhimi pledged to bring the killers to justice but the investigation is still ongoing.[16]

On August 14, Tahseen Osama, a civil activist and vocal critic of the Iran-backed militias, was shot dead in Basra probably by, according to local media, "militia" gunmen.[17] Before his assassination, Osama wrote on Facebook: "We will all be slaughtered in the Islamic way one day," sharing a photo of a gun and its silencer.[18]

Addressing Protesters' Demands And Holding Their Attackers Accountable

In October 2019, Iraqi security forces used excessive force against protesters in Baghdad and major cities in southern Iraq, killing hundreds. Upon assuming office, Al-Kadhimi promised to hold the killers accountable. On May 9, he ordered the judicial and security authorities to release all protesters arrested by the outgoing government and to open a full investigation into the killing of many of them.[19]

Iraq's judicial council announced on May 13 that there are "no protesters held in government detention," stressing that they were all released.[20] However, many are still missing and are likely held in the militias' secret jails. Al-Kadhimi is so far unable to secure their release.

Despite the long-lasting investigation to reveal the perpetrators, the government has been able to present nothing apart from stating on July 30 that "the tally of all martyrs since the outbreak of the protests in October is 560 civilians and military personnel.[21] The authorities in charge of the investigation have so far refrained from incriminating the militias, which are accused of committing the killings.

 
Al-Kadhimi visited Baghdad Central Detention Center on July 30, 2020, to ensure no protesters were held in custody (source: Facebook.com).

Al-Kadhimi's governance and transparency were tested on July 26 when two protesters were killed in clashes with the Iraqi police in Baghdad. On July 30, Interior Minister Othman Al-Ghanimi released the findings of an investigation, saying that three members of the security forces had been arrested after witnesses and forensic reports indicated that they used their personal hunting rifles, which suggests that they were loyal to PMU militias, to fire on the protesters.[22]

Al-Ghanimi said that these three members of the security forces had violated Al-Kadhimi's orders not to fire on protesters. The arrest of the three men was highly welcomed by the Iraqi public, who viewed it as a positive step that for the first time an Iraqi government had held the security forces accountable.

On August 1, a graphic video surfaced on social media showing members of the Iraqi Law Enforcement Forces sexually assaulting a naked teenager and threatening to rape his mother. The incident may have taken place before Al-Kadhimi took office,[23] but the ministry of interior issued a statement saying that Al-Kadhimi had ordered the commander of the Law Enforcement Forces, formed under the outgoing government, to be confined to his headquarters and the whole force to be "re-examined as an institution."[24]

Preparing For Early Elections

On July 31, Al-Kadhimi announced in a televised speech that his government had scheduled early elections for June 6, 2021 and urged parliament to send the Election Law to the Iraqi president for ratification.[25] However, many obstacles stand in the way of this goal.[26]

Within the next 10 months, the parliament has to secure three basic requirements before holding elections: the ratification of the Election Law legislation; the completion of the required quorum of the Federal Supreme Court, which is responsible for ratifying the election results; and the restructuring of the Independent High Electoral Commission, which monitors the elections. Except for the latter, very little progress has been made to complete the three requirements.

Late last year, Iraqi parliament approved an amendment to the Election Law, but it was not passed to the Iraqi president for ratification due to differences between parliamentary blocs over the nature and number of electoral districts.[27] Also, the parliament has not approved yet the amended Political Parties Law, which is aimed at regulating the participation of parties in the elections.

Countering Iran's Hegemony Over Iraq

Al-Kadhimi started his term with some bold statements regarding the need to keep Iraq's sovereignty intact and balance Iraq's relationship with its neighbors. However, every time he took a step in this direction, his attempt was foiled by Iran's forceful action to reinforce its prominence over other regional competitors within Iraq. For instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Baghdad on July 19 as Al-Kadhimi was preparing for a trip to Saudi Arabia and later to Iran, likely to ensure Al-Kadhimi met with the Iranians before meeting with the Saudis.

Al-Kadhimi landed in Tehran on July 21 as his first trip aboard. [28] In a joint press conference with Al-Kadhimi, Iranian President Rouhani stated Iran's readiness to support Iraq's stability and security. He announced that the two countries are willing to increase the trade between them to $20 billion.[29] On his part, Al-Kadhimi extended his appreciation for Iran's support in helping Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIS), but the rest of his speech included tactful messages to Tehran regarding its meddling in Iraq, implying that Iraq's economic support will be conditional on Iran's cooperation regarding other aspects.

Al-Kadhimi said: "In return [for Iran's support against ISIS], Iraq stood with the Islamic Republic [of Iran] to overcome its economic crisis and became a market for Iranian products like the rest of the region... The two countries must work together to avoid regional conflicts, ease tensions, and overcome economic hardships... Our people are dependent on us and serving them will not take place without a comprehensive cooperation between Iraq and Iran."[30]

Al-Kadhimi stressed that Iraq wants good relations with Iran based on the principle of mutual non-interference in the internal affairs of the two countries, pledging that "Iraq will not allow any aggression or challenge to Iran from its territory," referring to the January 2020 U.S. airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani near Bagdad International Airport.

 
Al-Kadhimi during his meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on July 22, 2020 (Source: Alalamtv.net).

Al-Kadhimi's meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was quite rough, with Khamenei emphasizing Iraq's involvement in the killing of Soleimani and demanding firm action from Al-Kadhimi, saying: "They killed your guest in your home and admitted this crime openly, and this is not a simple matter."[31]

Khamenei reminded Al-Kadhimi that he is the choice of the Iran-backed Shi'ite parties, saying: "America is an enemy... and it will never accept a strong and independent Iraq with a majority-backed government... The Americans are seeking to form a government similar to the government of the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, at the beginning of the period following Saddam's fall."

Addressing The U.S. Military Presence In Iraq

On June 11, Iraqi and U.S. officials held their first round of talks, virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions, to discuss military, trade, and economic bilateral cooperation. In a joint statement, both sides reaffirmed the Strategic Framework Agreement signed in 2008, adding that "over the coming months, the U.S. would continue reducing forces in Iraq.[32]

Discussing Iraq's relations with the U.S in his July 31 televised speech, Al-Kadhimi said that his government was keen from the first minute to complete the first stage of the strategic dialogue with the U.S provided that the criterion is protecting the sovereignty of Iraq and its territorial integrity while maintaining cooperation with Iran.

Speaking about the Iran-backed militias' threat to U.S. forces and diplomats, Al-Kadhimi said that "preserving the lives and safety of diplomatic missions and those who supported Iraq in the war against ISIS is the task of the government and falls within its international sovereign obligations."

On August 17, the eve of Al-Kadhimi's departure to Washington to take part in the second round of the U.S-Iraqi strategic dialogue, IRGC Al-Qods Force Commander Ismael Qaani landed in Baghdad in a surprise visit, meeting with Al-Kadhimi and separately with the leaders of the Iran-backed militias.[33]

On the next day, August 18, Al-Kadhimi said in an interview with the Associated Press that "Iraq needs cooperation and assistance [from the U.S.] at levels that might not require direct and military support on the ground," adding that "the levels of help will depend on the changing nature of the threat." Asked if he is carrying a message from Tehran to Washington," he replied: "Iraq is not a postman to relay messages."[34]

 
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 19, 2020 (Source: Twitter.com).

On August 19, the second round of talks were launched in Washington. Referring to the Iran-backed militias, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the armed groups that are outside the Iraqi prime minister's control "impede progress" in Iraq, and that the U.S. will help Iraq in replacing these armed groups with local police as soon as possible. Politically, Pompeo emphasized that the U.S. will help Iraq to reinforce the rule of law, hold early elections, curb militias that "intimidate Iraqis," and ensure a safer Iraq with the help of NATO forces.

Asked if there is a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Pompeo said that the U.S. has no announcement to make in this regard and is more focused now on bilateral cooperation. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein described the talks as "good and important," saying that the "U.S. is strong ally of Iraq, and Iraq will continue to protect that alliance, deepen it, and expand it." Regarding Iraq's relations with Iran, he said that Iran is a neighboring country with which Iraq seeks to maintain positive relations, provided that "the others will not interfere in Iraq's affairs and Iraqi decisions, including Iraq's alliance and relationship with the U.S."[35]

Conclusions

The first 100 days of any new government are a poor indicator for its future, and Al-Kadhimi has been in power for a short period. On the one hand, he is a man who unselfishly and courageously took upon himself a Herculean mission: to save Iraq and steer it away from the Iranian hegemony and towards the path of national recovery. On the other hand, like Hercules' fifth task, the Iraqi Augean stables have not been cleaned for many years, inside and outside. At this moment it seems that he can hardly succeed in carrying out his all-important mission.

The economic challenge in this period is immense. The intensity of corruption on all levels renders governance in Iraq very inefficient and has been draining its budget. However, the main difficulty facing Iraq is Iran's hegemony over it.

For years, revolutionary Iran, attempting to realize what its expansionist leadership calls "the second stage of the revolution," stretching their control from Bab-El-Mandeb to the Mediterranean, viewed Iraq as its threshing floor, which is too important to let go.

The Iran-backed militias are deeply entrenched, and the task of taming them has proven be more difficult than Al-Kadhimi initially estimated, and so he has been forced to maneuver carefully. In his speeches, he has often stressed that foreign players must not intervene in Iraq's internal matters, but to a large extent Iran's proxies still dominate Iraq's politics.

Al-Kadhimi has been saying the right things and his speeches are impressive. He has presented a clear vision for an independent and prosperous Iraq. But until now he has not demonstrated a tangible political success. The militias have been challenging him constantly by continuing their attacks on American forces, and in his single attempt to directly confront them, he failed to demonstrate that the new government prevails.

Public support for Al-Kadhimi has been shown by renewed protests but is not yet enough to politically cash in on, and it should be remembered that he does not really muster a majority in the parliament. This casts doubt on his ability to realize mid-term elections as he plans, under new rules that would diminish the force of pro-Iranian factions.

Al-Kadhimi's visit to Washington these days may clarify the U.S. position on Iraq. The U.S. stated plan to help Iraq diminish Iran's influence may be proven useful, but their overriding goal seems to be military disengagement. Pressed between a rock and a hard place, Al-Kadhimi does not have many options and apart from his courage, he needs extraordinary political skills in order to find a hopeful path for his country's future.

S. Ali is an Iraqi-American research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1511 Iraq On The Path Of National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony, May 12, 2020.

[3] Shafaaq.com, June 18, 2020.

[4] Alquds.co.uk, June 3, 2020.

[5] Worldbank.org, May 1, 2020.

[6] Almasalah.com, August 6, 2020.

[7] Nasnews.com, August 16, 2020.

[10] Nasnews.com, May 28, 2020.

[13] See MEMRI JTTM report, Iran-Backed Militias Escalate Rocket, IED Attacks On Iraqi Military Base Hosting U.S. Troops Ahead Of U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Dialogue, August 17, 2020.

[14] See MEMRI JTTM report, Iran-Backed Militias Escalate Rocket, IED Attacks On Iraqi Military Base Hosting U.S. Troops Ahead Of U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Dialogue, August 17, 2020.

[16] Youtube.com/watch?v=mhsZJKU30-g, August 2, 2020.

[17] Twitter.com/basratoday__1, August 14, 2020.

[18] Facebook/Tahseen.alhurria, July 6, 2020.

[19] Azzaman.com, May 10, 2020.

[20] HJC.iq, May 13, 2020.

[21] Youtube.com/watch?v=rE-TWfZy4TU, July 30, 2020.

[22] Nasnews.com, July 31, 2020.

[23] Alaraby.co.uk. August 2, 2020.

[24] Albawba.com, August 4, 2020

[26] Rudaw.net/, August 4, 2020.

[27] Independentarabia.com, July 6, 2020.

[28] Al-Kadhimi's visit to Saudi Arabia was later postponed by Saudis due to the Saudi king's sudden illness.

[29] Ar.farsnews.ir, July 21, 2020.

[30] Youtube.com/watch?v=TVNcVBOHWII, July 21, 2020.

[31] Twitter.com/khamenei_ir, July 21, 2020.

[32] State.gov, June 11, 2020.

[33] Al-akhbar.com, August 18, 2020.

[34] Wtop.com, August 17, 2020.

[35] Alalamtv.net, August 19, 2020.

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