Since he took office in May, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has been invoking Iraq’s fractured national sovereignty as a major impediment to the country’s recovery and progress towards peace and prosperity.
Al-Kadhimi’s vision for sovereignty seems to mean something precise: without restoring the state’s authority it will be impossible to end the quagmire into which the country’s human and other resources are being constantly poured.
The issue of Iraq’s sovereignty, or rather lack of it, has been debated since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it has become starker and more urgent over recent years in view of the country’s internal and external challenges.
The combination of foreign interventions, cross-border terrorism, rising Iran-sponsored militias and transnational corruption offers sophisticated and well-reasoned arguments why Iraq has been in such disarray.
Across a range of other issues, Iraq has been mired in conflicts whose roots lie in interrupted sovereignty and its government’s inability to exercise its authority on a number of fronts, including politics, security, the bureaucracy and the economy.
Upon taking office, Al-Kadhimi promised renewed reforms and a fight to restore the state’s authority. His vision to achieve his ambitions has been spelled out by his spokesman Ahmed Mullah Talal and includes maintaining sovereignty, defending national interests and putting mutual benefits and non-interference in domestic affairs first on the foreign-policy agenda.
Al-Kadhimi is not the first Iraqi prime minister to have promised reforms, but he is the first to have prioritised the country’s sovereignty in achieving stability and shaping up its governance.
One key factor behind Al-Kadhimi’s drive has been the need to change the country’s stagnant and dysfunctional political system, which has been taken hostage by external and internal actors with self-serving agendas.
Another factor has been the escalation of tensions between neighbouring Iran and the United States, which has turned Iraq into a battleground for a fierce struggle over geopolitical interests and regional influence.
The push has also been prompted by the anti-sectarian and anti-corruption popular uprising in Iraq that forced Al-Kadhimi’s predecessor Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign in November last year and brought him to power.
The nationwide uprising, which started last October in protest against government dysfunction, rampant corruption, and political cronyism, is widely seen as having stirred up patriotism and put the countering of Iran’s influence on the national agenda.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has transitioned through government dysfunction, economic ruin, political chaos, sectarian conflict and foreign meddling.
The disastrous course of Iraq’s rebuilding to date has been almost entirely the result of a lack of sovereignty, manifested in systemic pressures emanating from actors inside and outside in shaping the nation-state model.
The question now is whether Al-Kadhimi can reset the clock on his terms and transform a symbolic stance into meaningful change by dismantling the influence of foreign and non-state actors in Iraq.
The first clues came from Al-Kadhimi’s visit to Tehran late last month, when he sought to recast Iraq’s ties with the Islamic Republic as being based on sovereignty and mutual respect.
Iran has gone a long way towards cementing its influence in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, due largely to flawed policies in Iraq in the post-occupation era.
Through its allied Shia politicians and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Iran has emerged as the dominant force in the country, expanding its influence and its role beyond political and security efforts to commercial, business and cultural ties.
The connections between the two countries, which share a 1,400 km border, have become so intertwined that it is now virtually impossible to fully separate Iraq and Iran.
In his talks in Tehran, Al-Kadhimi tried to make clear that Iraq wants to have “balanced” ties with Iran based on mutual interests. He emphasised his government’s intentions of stopping Iraq becoming a battleground between the US and Iran.
Al-Kadhimi may also have tried to cut back Iran’s proxies and allies in Iraq, these being the backbone of Tehran’s influence and the guardians of its interests in the beleaguered country.
Last month, Al-Kadhimi ordered a raid on a camp in southern Baghdad used by the Kataib Hizbullah militia suspected of launching rocket attacks on US interests and detained dozens of its members.
The raid was the most significant action by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed militia group in years and a first sign that Al-Kadhimi intends to make good on pledges to bring the militias to heel.
Another key challenge to Al-Kadhimi in re-establishing state sovereignty comes from Iraq’s porous borders and crossing points controlled by armed groups and political factions mostly allied to Iran.
In a bold step to recover billions of dollars in tax revenues lost to bribery, Al-Kadhimi sent counter-terrorism troops and Iraqi security forces to supervise the work of the border points, which are widely seen as providing kickbacks and embezzlement opportunities for officials linked to armed groups.
The campaign stems from a key function of a sovereign state, which is to assert its control over natural and other resources and is embodied in the right of governments to dispose freely of their revenues.
Al-Kadhimi has also made some key changes in government and security forces positions, indicating that the reshuffles are aimed at reasserting the state’s sovereignty and authority.
Among the changes he has made is naming a new head for the country’s National Security Agency and a new national security adviser to replace Faleh Al-Fayadh, head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) and one of Iran’s most influential allies in Iraq.
However, Al-Kadhimi seems to have had little success thus far in his efforts to restore the state’s “prestige,” another goal of his government.
The response of his foes thus far has underscored how challenging it has been for Al-Kadhimi to carry out the bold reforms needed to resurrect the country and defend its sovereignty.
Iran’s leaders have been adamant in their desire to stifle Al-Kadhimi’s bid to wrest back sovereignty from Iran and limit the Islamic regime’s influence in Iraq.
They used Al-Kadhimi’s recent visit to Tehran to underscore their concerns at how his policy could affect Tehran’s efforts to undercut the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
In a blatant attempt to torpedo the Iraqi-US strategic dialogue, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei told Al-Kadhimi that Iran expected the Iraqi “government, nation and parliament to expel” the US troops from Iraq “because the US presence causes insecurity.”
Khamenei also pressed Al-Kadhimi to take action against the United States for assassinating Qassem Al-Suleimani, Iran’s former point-man in Iraq, with some hardline Iranians insisting that Al-Kadhimi played a part in the developments that led to his killing.
Other Iranian officials were more subtle in emphasising their agenda in Iraq, pressing Al-Kadhimi to expand bilateral economic, political and cultural ties, euphemisms for the Iranian influence in the country.
Meanwhile, Al-Kadhimi’s bid to rein in the Iran-backed militias in Iraq has hit a snag as some of these groups have resisted giving up their autonomy and continue to defy the government.
They have repeatedly launched rocket attacks on military and diplomatic locations housing US personnel, prompting frustration at Al-Kadhimi’s failure to stem the groups which are aided and abetted by Iraq’s ruling political class.
Al-Kadhimi has also made little progress in controlling the border crossings and stopping the loss of billions of dollars in import duties that are widely believed to be syphoned off by political groups and militias unofficially allocated the lucrative business of taking kickbacks at the crossings.
Al-Kadhimi’s record in establishing his government’s authority and restoring the state’s respect has thus far been far from distinguished, underlining the obstacles to the reform efforts.
The fundamental factors that could lead to Al-Kadhimi’s failure to back-peddle Iraqi-Iranian relations and curb the militias’ power have been consistent.
In the first instance, Iran is entrenched in Iraq to the extent that decoupling the two countries will need delicate surgery and will require finding a way out of the conditions that have led them to becoming so intertwined.
Secondly, the response of the powerful militias to Al-Kadhimi’s attempts to limit their role underscores how challenging it will be for the prime minister to recast the relationship between Iraq’s government and the armed groups without a significant showdown.
Thirdly, Al-Kadhimi lacks sufficient political support from the Iraqi ruling class, which is afraid that his reforms will pull the rug out from under their feet. Realising that Al-Kadhimi has no parliamentary bloc in his support, the country’s powerful elites will do everything they can to keep Al-Kadhimi walking through a political minefield.
Lastly, a key challenge to Al-Kadhimi’s bid to re-establish state sovereignty in Iraq will be badly needed to help stop Iraq’s economy collapsing under the double blow of sinking global oil prices and the coronavirus lockdowns.
Rich states in the Arabian Gulf have so far been reluctant to provide help, including on a US-proposed project to connect Iraq’s electricity grid to their networks to help wean the country off power from Iran.
By challenging powerful foes that have rarely been confronted, Al-Kadhimi may be taking a considerable gamble, but should he fail Iraq’s problems will continue to be unresolved and the country will remain on edge.
Al-Kadhimi may be Iraq’s last opportunity to stop the country from descending further into a black hole, with no telling how much damage this could cause to its people, the region and the world at large.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly