Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s race against time to save Iraq and himself
Almost 100 days after he was sworn in as prime minister of Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi last week took his most important decision yet by calling for early legislative elections next June. His surprise move, seen as fulfilling a major promise to the country’s protesters, has rattled Iraq’s entrenched political establishment. Al-Kadhimi, who is not part of this establishment, is viewed as an outsider — a fact that helped him secure his position as a compromise choice following the outbreak of mass anti-government protests last October, which led to the resignation of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The former journalist and head of Iraq’s intelligence body soon found himself bogged down by a number of challenges; chief among them the reluctance of pro-Iran Shiite militias to disarm and join the national army. The January killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi leader of the Popular Mobilization Units at Baghdad airport by a US strike inflamed the pro-Iran militias, forcing parliament to call for the early withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. Since then, these militias, led by Kata’ib Hezbollah, have claimed responsibility for shelling military bases and the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Al-Kadhimi’s attempts to disarm the militias have been challenged by Kata’ib Hezbollah, which has made threats to his life. The prime minister wants to neutralize Iraq in any US-Iran showdown and curtail Tehran’s interference in its internal politics.
Moreover, Al-Kadhimi wants to purge corrupt and disloyal military and security officials. This week, he fired a senior police officer following the release of a video showing the torture of a young protester by security forces. Since last October, more than 550 protesters have been killed and an unknown number have disappeared. Last month, unknown assailants killed prominent Iraqi political analyst and critic of the pro-Iranian militias Hisham Al-Hashemi in front of his home. No one claimed responsibility but Al-Hashemi had told friends he had received death threats from pro-Iran militias.
Al-Kadhimi’s mission to bring law and order back to Iraq is fraught with danger. The political establishment has benefited from the state of lawlessness and social chaos. The prime minister’s only choice was to take the side of the protesters and call for early elections. But he has to navigate through a field of landmines if his goal of changing the rules of the political game is to succeed.
Political parties could only welcome his decision, even though many will see the elections as a threat to their position. Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi called on Al-Kadhimi to choose an earlier date as the country faces dire economic, social and political threats. But Al-Kadhimi needs time to resolve a number of issues before elections are held. He needs parliament to approve a new election law that would redraw the map of electoral districts, dilute sectarian influence and ensure transparency. He also needs to reform the Federal Court, the body that would ratify the results of the elections, as well as the Higher Commission for Elections, which would oversee the process.
His endeavor to achieve all this will not be easy. The pro-Iran militias will continue to do their best to derail any genuine political process aimed at fighting corruption, undercutting Iran’s interference in Iraq’s affairs and disbanding unlawful militias. There is also the controversial issue of investigating those responsible for killing and abducting protesters — a matter that Al-Kadhimi promised to resolve as early as possible.
The question is will he be allowed to fulfill his agenda? The fear is that he will be stepping on too many toes and that Iran and its minions will seek to undermine him, even perhaps going as far as liquidating him. Al-Kadhimi will be fighting on many fronts and, in the process, he will be creating many enemies. But there is no other choice. Iraq is on the brink of collapse, citizens face daily hardships, and the government appears unable to overcome mounting economic hurdles while also containing the spread of the coronavirus.
The other pressing question is will Al-Kadhimi be able to survive in office until June of next year and prepare the ground for fair and credible elections that would result in injecting fresh blood into the legislature? Al-Halbousi believes that the elections should be held sooner rather than later to deny the traditional political players the time to prepare themselves.
He wants to neutralize Iraq in any US-Iran showdown and curtail Tehran’s interference in its internal politics.
The problem for Al-Kadhimi, other than the threat of armed groups, is that he needs parliament to approve a new election law that would be a game changer, while making sure that the legislature will eventually vote to dissolve itself. One pro-Iran parliamentary bloc made it clear that it would not support Al-Kadhimi if he runs for a second term.
The prime minister finds himself in an invidious position as he challenges the political establishment, which has long benefited from the status quo. For the next 10 months, he will have to ensure his own survival as he seeks to implement this most difficult of agendas. His failure would be catastrophic for Iraq and could push the country toward unrestrained chaos.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.