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Iraq’s New Prime Minister Is Taking Things Slow

After nearly 20 years of political chaos in Baghdad, Mustafa al-Kadhimi is trying incremental reform.

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi makes a speech before the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad on May 6.
Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi makes a speech before the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad on May 6. Anadolu Agency via Getty Image

After months of horse-trading and two failed attempts, Iraq finally has a new prime minister. Former head of intelligence Mustafa al-Kadhimi is set to lead the country through an economic crisis stemming from a collapse in the oil price, a health crisis caused by an inadequate coronavirus response, and a potential security crisis due to a resurgent Islamic State.

But the root of all these crises is political. Over the past few years, Iraq’s ruling elite has become less able to respond to the needs of its citizens. As protesters in the squares of Baghdad and the country’s south continue to call for revolution, the political elites are engulfed in infighting, vying for control of ministries and what’s left in the state coffers.

Despite this dire context, the new prime minister is neither a revolutionary who will overhaul the system nor a strongman who will centralize power. Instead, he is seeking incremental reform, working within the existing system. His vision is to navigate the impasse between citizens and elites—and the political fragmentation between elites themselves—by striking a new balance between reform and the status quo.

Kadhimi is not the first new prime minister to come in promising sweeping reform. His initial days as prime minister offer glimpses into the challenges he will face—and his chances of overcoming them.

He will work closely with President Barham Salih to pursue this strategy. Salih has been key to  stopping certain previous prime minister candidates. The governor of Basra, Asad al-Eidani, was nominated by the Fateh bloc, which is linked to the powerful Shia-sectarian Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). He was widely hated by protesters. Salih rejected the nomination, momentarily stepping out of the ceremonial nature of the presidency’s mandate. From the beginning, Salih privately wanted Kadhimi to get the job. The two reform-minded liberals—Kadhimi and Salih—now sit in the two most senior formal positions of Iraqi politics.

An initial strategy for the prime minister has been to convince protesters that he represents their voice. In the past few years, Iraq’s government lost much of its legitimacy: Having lost the credibility to speak on behalf of their constituents or the ability to hand out economic rewards like public jobs it instead resorted to violence to repress demonstrations. More than 600 protesters were killed and tens of thousands wounded since protests began in October 2019.

In a symbolic gesture, Kadhimi swiftly promoted Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, whose dismissal from the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) in late September 2019 helped spark the mass protests. When armed groups killed a protester in Basra in his first week of office, Kadhimi issued a statement demanding an investigation into all killings and imprisonments of protesters and said he would create a committee to investigate the deaths of protesters.

But can Kadhimi transform these symbolic gestures into meaningful change? The first clues come from his attempt to form his cabinet. Kadhimi was poised to play hardball and push through a full cabinet of allies. He wanted his government to reflect popular protests and the general population rather than political parties. Iraq’s politics are based on patronage, with political parties relying on their control over ministries to ensure economic rewards and power.

Rather than wait for parties to submit their preferred candidates, as they usually do, Kadhimi sent his picks for ministers to the parties, which they could then agree to or veto.

Although he chose the candidates, he nonetheless tasked them with striking a deal with the party that controls the respective ministry. Party bosses only agreed to candidates who promised them similar staffing arrangements in the ministry and favorable contracts in the future, so it was business as usual in those cases. In reality, Kadhimi was removing himself from the backroom corruption but not removing corruption from the system.

Kadhimi initially secured only 15 of 22 ministers, losing many of the close allies he had initially wanted in his cabinet. Parties waited until the last minute to force the concessions.

Despite this, Kadhimi keenly ensured that the two security ministries—defense and interior—were headed by competent generals known for their discipline and who were not involved in political infighting. The Interior Ministry is no longer headed by a minister from the Badr Organization—a group linked to the PMF. Instead, it is under an experienced military general, Othman al-Ghanimi, who still had to give Badr certain assurances to get the post. Ghanami will be tasked with overseeing the investigation of groups within the ministry that attacked protesters, which will test his commitment to comprehensive justice.

Kadhimi does not have friends in his cabinet. He will try to develop allies in his attempt for incremental change, but he has also had to play by the rules by offering parties a share in the spoils.

For the past few years, Iraqi governments have been defined by independent technocrats. In reaction to protests in 2015 and 2016, Prime Ministers Haider al-Abadi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi attempted to win back public trust by appointing nonpolitical and technocratic ministers, similarly offering the illusion of change. Losing their ability to control the ministers, the political parties allowed for weak independent ministers at the top of each ministry and in exchange focused on flooding the ministries with their appointees at the lower levels. In the technocratic era, the second tier of officials at the ministries—directors-general and deputy ministers—became more powerful than the top tier, often forcing the ministers into policy decisions.

Kadhimi’s government is based instead on varying profiles: from independent technocrats who have broad implicit “understandings” with parties or who made explicit deals with them, to former civil servants who have years of service as proxies within the system for ruling parties. To varying extents, ministers have already reached understandings or agreements with the parties that they represent to ensure that their patterns of nepotism and corruption are maintained. Although Kadhimi is against the corruption associated with this system of politics, it is the game he is willing to play to become prime minister and pursue his reform strategy.

That strategy will be his key to winning back public trust. To do so, his team is preparing to focus on electoral reform, political party law reform, and early elections. While the electoral law is a parliamentary issue, and thus might be the very party whose stranglehold over the political system Kadhimi is trying to weaken, his team hopes to establish a committee to guide the process that will include prominent civil society activists.

However, the timeframe of incremental reform does not add up to the timeframe that protesters are willing to offer the new prime minister. Instead of more promises, they want action. Instead, of calls for early elections, they want a committed election date.

Kadhimi’s primary battle will be over the prime minister’s office (PMO). The PMO is a powerful institution that houses the National Security Council, the CTS, the PMF commission, and the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. His predecessor, Abdul-Mahdi, gave away much of the control over this office to the political parties, particularly to the Sadrists and Fateh. Abdul-Mahdi even lost control over his inner circle of advisors who became proxies for the political parties. Kadhimi will also engage in a strategic dialogue with the United States, especially over security issues, to win back trust following the failures of the Abdul-Mahdi government.

The last time I saw Kadhimi was in his office in Baghdad in February. We chatted about many of the crises facing Iraq, particularly challenges faced by the protesters. He told me of his admiration of the protesters for their bravery in risking death to try to reform the political system. However, as the head of Iraqi intelligence, Kadhimi in his day job had to put personal beliefs aside and remained part of the system of repression. Throughout his years as intelligence chief, he worked within the system, opening space for civil society activism and independent journalism, but was also in office during the killing of protesters in Basra in 2018 and Baghdad and southern Iraq in 2019.

Later in the conversation, Kadhimi pointed to a picture in his office of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who is credited with transforming Singapore in one generation from a developing to a developed country. That admiration will need to be matched with tough choices, however, to execute a similar plan in Iraq.

Renad Mansour is Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

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