Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands

Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands
The assurance of support from the international community that Iraqi PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi evidently enjoys is something that eluded his predecessors. (AFP)
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Updated 15 September 2021

Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands

Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands
  • The PM seems determined to chart a pragmatic course for his country despite challenges
  • Recently held Baghdad conference has cemented Iraq’s links with regional and Western powers

IRBIL: When explosive-laden drones targeted a US military base inside Irbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan late on Saturday, the story got buried by reports about the memorials commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But to observers of Iraq, the incident in Irbil was the latest shot fired across the bows of a prime minister who is determined not to play into the hands of political adversaries and malign actors as he charts a course that differs significantly from those of his predecessors.

Take the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership hosted by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on August 28. It was attended by high-level delegations from France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE in addition to the general secretaries of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

That the Iraqi PM managed to bring so many heads of governments and organizations under one roof, even if for only one day, was undoubtedly a major diplomatic achievement.




Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi listens as US President Joe Biden speaks during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on July 26, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

The assurance of support from the international community that Al-Kadhimi evidently enjoys is something that eluded his predecessors — Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Haider Abadi and Nouri Al-Maliki — and will probably continue to be his strong suit going forward.

Few things are more daunting than having to steer the ship of state in a part of the Middle East riven by sectarian and political conflict. But being seen as a rare safe pair of hands means that true friends of Iraq, mindful of the competing interests that Al-Kadhimi has to juggle, are willing to cut him some slack, particularly in how he deals with the challenge posed by militias. 

As usual, no group claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 night Irbil attack, but it was at least the sixth time that drones or rockets had targeted the heavily fortified site in the past year. The US blames the assaults on the Shiite-majority Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), paramilitary groups that strongly oppose the presence of American troops in Iraq.

In addition to harassing the Biden administration, analysts say, elements within the PMF are intent on influencing the outcome of the Iraqi general election next month, and undermining a carefully constructed ceasefire arranged by the government in Baghdad.

“This attack is a message from the militias directed at the United States, which is to withdraw from Iraq, and quickly,” said Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Noting that the attack was not particularly destructive, he added that it signaled “that the US should expect more of these strikes until it leaves Iraq. It presents an unwelcome complication to US policy on Iraq and Syria at a time when the Biden team is trying to manage the political rancor over the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

There are at least 2,500 US troops in Iraq, most notably in the capital, Baghdad, and at the Ain Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province. The base in Irbil is an important logistical hub, supporting the military presence and anti-terrorism operations in neighboring Syria.

In July, President Joe Biden and Al-Kadhimi agreed to end the US combat mission in the country by the end of this year. The remaining troops will continue to assist Iraqi and Kurdish military forces in an advisory role.

The drone assault on Saturday was the latest in a series of often ineffective, sometimes lethal, politically motivated strikes. The first attack on Irbil airport took place on Sept. 30 last year, when six rockets were fired at it.

They did not cause any casualties or damage but they clearly demonstrated that American troops could be targeted in Iraqi Kurdistan, a largely stable autonomous region controlled by the pro-Western Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

On Feb. 15 this year another barrage targeted the airport, this time using 14 rockets, many of which landed in nearby residential areas. A civilian contractor and a Kurdish civilian were killed and eight people were injured.

On April 14, drones packed with explosives were used in an attack in the region for the first time, but there were no casualties. On June 26, a drone attack damaged a house on the outskirts of Irbil, a stone’s throw from the site where a new US consulate is being built. On July 6 another drone attack targeted American troops at the airport, but again there were no reports of casualties or damage.

Analysts have suggested the recent attacks might be deliberately designed to avoid causing US fatalities so that militia factions can be seen to be actively resisting the US military presence without provoking any large-scale retaliation.

Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, believes the intention of the most recent attack in Irbil was to undermine a ceasefire agreement arranged by Iraqi National Security Adviser Qasim Al-Araji. He announced on Friday that the government had reached a two-stage truce with the militia factions that have been targeting US troops.

The first stage envisions the cessation of hostilities until after the parliamentary elections on Oct. 10, so that Iraqis can vote in a secure and stable environment. The second stage is supposed to run until the end of the year, when the US combat mission in the country is due to formally end.

Al-Araji had “just announced he had (arranged) a ceasefire with these factions and then one group carried out this attack to thumb its nose at him,” Wing said.

He added that the central government in Baghdad and the Irbil-based KRG are trying to stop the attacks. They have increased security and intelligence efforts in the unstable, disputed territories from which the militias carry out many of their strikes. Despite this growing cooperation, however, countering drone and missile strikes is difficult.

“The security forces have found some rockets before they have been launched, but there is no real protection from drones because they can be launched from anywhere within the device’s range,” Wing said.

Al-Kadhimi has adopted a cautious yet pragmatic approach to government efforts to reduce the power of the PMF factions, while seeking to avoid a showdown that could lead to a violent conflict. He has, for example, earned praise from powerful Shiite parties by sealing the deal to end the US combat mission.




Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, right, receives Dubai’s Ruler and UAE Vice President Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum on his arrival for the Baghdad regional summit. (Prime Minister’s Media Office/AFP)

Substantive or stylistic, these policy adjustments have differentiated Al-Kadhimi from his predecessors, who were widely viewed as failures when it came to navigating the region’s treacherous political waters.

At the same time, Iraq’s nascent reputation as a mediator capable of bringing together regional rivals around the same table is expected to have a positive influence on Al-Kadhimi’s standing in domestic politics despite the sharp divides.

This is not to say that the going has been easy for Al-Kadhimi. In June last year Kataib Hezbollah, one of the militias under the PMF umbrella, tried to intimidate him inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, the center of Iraq’s political life, even mounting a show of force outside the prime minister’s residence. This was intended to put pressure on the government to release Kataib members arrested for plotting a rocket attack on the US embassy.

In May this year, another group of PMF fighters staged a show of strength in the Green Zone and succeeded in forcing the country’s elected leaders to release a militia commander who had been arrested in Anbar.

Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish-affairs analyst, said that Saturday’s strike differed from previous incidents in that it came after the US and Iraq had agreed to end the combat mission, and after the militias said they would cease their attacks. He also pointed out that on this occasion the militias did not launch attacks on US interests elsewhere in Iraq.

“The message appears to be different from the other attacks — this is more Kurdistan-specific,” he told Arab News. “This one might have been a warning to the KRG that these factions will not accept the US staying in Kurdistan if there is any such attempt through US-KRG dialogue or through backchannels.”

Could the militias behind the attacks also be looking to appeal to their supporters ahead of next month’s vote?

“Anti-KRG rhetoric is popular in the south, but this alone is unlikely to tip the balance in favor of the militias, especially given that people nowadays care more about basic services and the economy and less about sectarian politics,” Hawez said.

No matter what the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 Irbil attack intended, it is unlikely to have gone down well with Iraqis who are focused less on politics and more on the basic necessities of life.


US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says

US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says
Updated 40 sec ago

US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says

US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says

WASHINGTON: US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman will travel to Sudan next week to reaffirm American support for the country after an attempted coup, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Friday.
In a phone call with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Sullivan "underscored that any attempt by military actors to undermine the spirit and agreed benchmarks of Sudan’s constitutional declaration would have significant consequences for the US-Sudan bilateral relationship and planned assistance," the National Security Council said in a statement.


UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 57 min 19 sec ago

UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • OHCHR included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021

GENEVA: The war in Syria has killed 350,209 fully identified individuals, according to a new count published Friday by the United Nations, which warned the real total of deaths would be far higher.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021.

“We assess this figure of 350,209 as statistically sound, based as it is on rigorous work,” High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council.

“It is not — and should not be seen as — a complete number of conflict-related killings in Syria during this period.

“It indicates a minimum verifiable number, and is certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the benchmark for counting victims of the conflict, published a report on June 1 raising the death toll to 494,438 since the start of the violent crackdown on anti-regime protests in 2011.

The Observatory revised up by 105,000 its previous death toll from March 2021, following months of investigation based on documents and sources on the ground.

UN rights chief Bachelet said more than one in 13 victims on the OHCHR count was a woman — 27,727 — while almost one in every 13 was a child — 27,126.

She said the greatest number of documented fatalities was in the Aleppo governorate, with 51,731 named individuals killed.

Other locations with heavy death tolls were Rural Damascus (47,483), Homs (40,986), Idlib (33,271), Hama (31,993) and Tartus (31,369).

Bachelet said OHCHR had received records with partial information which could not go into the analysis but nonetheless indicated a wider number of killings that were not yet fully documented.

“Tragically, there are also many other victims who left behind no witnesses or documentation,” she said.

OHCHR has begun processing information on those alleged to have caused a number of deaths, together with the civilian and non-civilian status of victims, and the cause of death by types of weaponry.

“Documenting the identity of and circumstances in which people have died is key to the effective realisation of a range of fundamental human rights — to know the truth, to seek accountability, and to pursue effective remedies,” said Bachelet.

The former Chilean president said the Syrian people's daily lives "remain scarred by unimaginable suffering... and there is still no end to the violence they endure.”

Bachelet said the count would ensure those killed were not forgotten.

“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights,” she said.


Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon
Updated 37 min 18 sec ago

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon
  • President calls for financial support for country as it tries to “claw its way back to recovery”
  • Praises recent agreement between rival factions to form new government

NEW YORK: Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Friday hailed a new phase for his country that he hopes will lead it to recovery from an unprecedented economic crisis.

In a pre-recorded speech to the UN General Assembly, he urged the international community to financially support Lebanon as it tries to “claw its way back to recovery.”

He praised the recent agreement between rival Lebanese political factions to form a new government, and said corruption and financial mismanagement have contributed to the country’s economic crisis.

Aoun pledged that the embattled central bank would be audited, and called for the international community’s support to help Lebanon recover funds smuggled abroad.

Billions of dollars are believed to have been smuggled into overseas accounts by Lebanese bankers.

Aoun said he rejects the integration of Syrian refugees into Lebanese society, and urged the international community to help resettle them in their country.

Syrian refugees who have returned have faced arrest and torture by the regime of President Bashar Assad. 

More than a year since the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, Aoun said a confidential investigation into the origins of the explosive material and how it entered the port continues.


Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms
Updated 24 September 2021

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms
  • Reforms should include improving public finances, reducing corruption, improving public finances: Macron
  • Mikati vowed to respect the country’s political timetable and hold general elections next year

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday urged the new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to undertake “urgent” reforms to help his crisis-wracked country, as the two men met for the first time in Paris.
After repeating previous criticism of Lebanon’s political class, Macron told Mikati it was “urgent to implement measures and essential reforms” and that Lebanon “could count on” former colonial power France for support.
The reforms should include tackling power and other infrastructure problems, improving public finances, reducing corruption, and stabilising the banking system, he said.
Mikati said he had come to the French capital to reassure Macron that he and his new government, approved by the Lebanese parliament on Monday, were committed to reforming.
“I expressed my determination to implement ... the necessary reforms as soon as possible in order to restore confidence, to give hope and reduce the suffering of the Lebanese population,” he said.
He also vowed to respect the country’s political timetable and hold general elections next year.
The billionaire’s nomination has brought an end to 13 months of political deadlock since an August 2020 blast that killed at least 214 people and devastated swathes of the capital Beirut.
An economic meltdown since then has depleted central bank reserves, devalued the currency by more than 90 percent and plunged three out of four citizens below the poverty line, while those who can are emigrating by the thousands.
France has led the international response to the tragedy, organizing three international conferences devoted to Lebanon and delivering aid in exchange for promises of political reform and accountability.
Macron traveled to Lebanon two days after the blast, and returned for a second trip.
The 43-year-old French leader has repeatedly expressed exasperation over the failure of Lebanon’s leaders to end the political crisis and tackle the economic emergency.
“It’s a secret for nobody that the negotations took too long while the living conditions of Lebanese people were getting worse,” Macron said on Friday.
Speaking next to Mikati on the steps of the Elysee Palace, he said that the Lebanese population had “a right to know the truth” about the August 2020 blast in Beirut.
One of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, the explosion was caused by a vast stock of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had sat for years in a port warehouse, a stone’s throw from residential districts.


Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date
Updated 24 September 2021

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date
  • Senior US official this week made clear Washington's frustration with Tehran over the absence of any "positive indication" it is prepared to return to the talks
  • European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran

NEW YORK: Iran will return to negotiations on resuming compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal "very soon," Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told reporters on Friday.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will return to the table of negotiations. We are reviewing the Vienna negotiations files currently and, very soon, Iran’s negotiations with the 'four plus one' countries will recommence," Amirabdollahian said.
He was referring to talks that began in April between Iran and the five other nations still in the 2015 deal - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran, which has refused to negotiate directly with US officials.
Under the deal Iran curbed its uranium enrichment program, a possible pathway to nuclear arms, in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Then-US President Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, crippling Iran's economy and prompting Iran to take steps to violate its nuclear limits.