Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in danger of failing Iraqis and the US
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s Iraqi government is two months old and his Cabinet is still incomplete, there is an Iran problem, a militia problem, a Daesh problem, a financial crisis, an epidemic, and there is a revolution at Baghdad’s gates. Al-Kadhimi has high expectations from the US and even higher ones from the Iraqi people — so far, he is failing both.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed those concerns to the new prime minister back in May and pledged to support him to “deliver on his bold agenda for the sake of the Iraqi people.” Al-Kadhimi will visit the US this month to continue the strategic dialogue between the two countries. He needs Washington to continue to support Iraq financially and continue to provide training and equipment to the compromised Iraqi security forces, in which militias tied to Iran have primacy and control over Iraq.
Iraq’s protesters have great expectations and they are skeptical that Al-Kadhimi’s interim government can change things. The real power lies with the Council of Representatives, where parties tied to Tehran make up the majority and will decide on whether to hold new elections. These are the very same parties whose militias are killing protesters and attacking the US’ Baghdad mission to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh.
Qais Khazali, who heads an Iranian-backed terror militia group, warned the PM to stay in his lane just days after counterterrorism forces last month conducted a raid against a Kata’ib Hezbollah cell. Khazali reminded Al-Kadhimi that he is only an interim prime minister and that he should focus on holding new elections — elections that Khazali will not allow to happen.
If the parties tied to Tehran do decide to hold new elections, they will lose power. They are not likely to do that; instead they are focused on killing the protest movement, attacking Americans, and threatening Al-Kadhimi to push the US out or else. While these militias flex their muscles, Daesh is taking advantage of their distraction.
Attempts by Iran’s proxies to crush the peaceful, unarmed protest movement have failed. After more than 600 were killed and tens of thousands injured, it became clear the uprising was pressing forward, insisting on radical reforms and chanting “Iran barra, Iraq hurra” (Iran out, Iraq free).
Al-Kadhimi is Iraq’s interim prime minister because the parties and militias tied to Iran accepted him. He “succeeded” in forming a government with the support of Qassem Soleimani’s replacement, Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. That means something: Iran has its compromise candidate that is constrained by a Council of Representatives dominated by parties that favor the Islamic Republic over Iraq and Iraqis.
Al-Kadhimi was a face acceptable to the West. The PM must be accepted by the West in order for Iraq to get financial relief and allow its current trade with Iran to continue. The truth is that Iran needs Iraq to have a financial relationship with the US that it can exploit. Iran’s proxies have primacy over Iraq’s political, security and economic sectors. But the US can make this painful for Baghdad and Iran. In order to save Iraq, the US needs to disfavor Baghdad.
The new PM has an opportunity to break out of Iran’s control, but only if he is given solid support by the US.
The June strategic dialogue was a mere effort to secure talks in July. This month’s talks should be a warning to Baghdad that, if it continues choosing Iran over its people, the US will end its relationship with a corrupt and Iran-aligned Baghdad and look to support the people of Iraq. The new PM has an opportunity to break out of Iran’s control, but only if he is given solid support by the US.
Washington is losing patience with Iraq. The Trump administration is looking for options ahead of the July strategic framework talks. The US should not continue the previous status quo relationship with Baghdad, which continues to incubate existential threats and leave US forces to deal with threats Baghdad chooses to ignore or even grow.
Daesh is exploiting the current situation, where an unpopular government — beholden to Tehran — is focused on putting down a Shiite youth movement. Its security forces are unwilling to take on the militias that are killing protesters and moving rockets and missiles on Iran’s behalf into Syria to threaten the Levant and Israel.
The US is wondering whether or not it has a partner to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh and that is a bulwark against Iran. At the moment, the White House does not have a partner and last month’s raid against a Kata’ib Hezbollah cell in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood was an example of this. All terrorist detainees were released within 48 hours of their arrest.
The US will need to assess the extent to which the new Iraqi government is constrained and dominated by political parties, leaders and militias tied to Iran. If there is a genuine move away from that domination, it should be supported and encouraged. Otherwise, it should reassess continued US support to a corrupt system that operates as a bypass for American funds and Iraqi resources that get into the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The protesters’ chants give the US and the wider international community an opportunity to get this right. Voters’ remorse and a motivated electorate can change Iraq forever. The majority of Iraqis are under the age of 30, and now a majority of them are fed up with the lie they have been fed from political parties tied to Tehran; and, yes, disgusted by continued US support to an oppressive government that happens to be in violation of its own laws, namely the Leahy Law and Global Magnitsky Act.
The US should support the people’s calls for early elections based on a new election law that is not rigged in favor of the parties and militias tied to Iran. Washington should make demands of Baghdad to disqualify leaders and political parties complicit in the killing of Iraqi protesters and those who have allowed Iran’s militias to kill Iraqis and attack US and Iraqi forces.
The turnout in the 2018 election was about 25 percent, maybe lower. If there were new elections, there would be a greater than 65 percent turnout and the corrupt parties tied to Tehran would come in way behind a party that represents the youth movement across Iraq. These people represent all the Iraqis wanting a better relationship with the US and the international community, and wanting Iran’s grip on Iraq broken.
If the US continues to support the status quo in Baghdad, we will once again have found a way to betray the Iraqi people.
- Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.