When Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi came to power in May, he made broad promises to reform his country’s dysfunctional political system and to improve the government’s performance so it could respond to the needs of its citizens.
The changes were also seen as necessary to strengthen Al-Kadhimi’s hand in the face of the powerful ruling oligarchs and Iran-backed militias that have been eroding the state’s power and resisting change.
Al-Kadhimi has since been engaged in all sorts of reforms that are now moving from a dire base. But that does not mean he has yet been able to turn the corner.
To many of his critics, Al-Kadhimi seems powerless to enforce his reform programme, widely seen as Iraq’s last chance to change a status quo laden with long running crises and distorted by the influence of the country’s ruling oligarchs.
Upon taking office, Al-Kadhimi promised to fight widespread corruption, tackle bureaucratic incompetence and restructure an economy that had plummeted due to mismanagement, the decline of oil prices and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Al-Kadhimi also vowed to bring those responsible for the deaths of nearly 600 protesters and activists since last October to justice and to address other grievances associated with the crackdown on the popular protests.
The measures also included restructuring Iraq’s security forces, reining in rogue militias under a broad-banner policy of restoring state sovereignty, and preventing the country from becoming a battleground for clashes between the US and Iran.
One of Al-Kadhimi’s main tasks was to hold early elections, a key demand of the anti-establishment protesters who have been pressing for a new election law and free-and-fair voting that could bring hope to a country in need.
However, over the course of the last six months Al-Kadhimi has stumbled in tackling all these problems, as well as stabilising the country and ensuring his own long-term political survival.
Among his notable shortcomings has been his failure to downsize the country’s entrenched political class and to rein in the Iran-backed militias that continue to defy the government’s efforts to subjugate them to the state.
This has left Al-Kadhimi floundering and has prompted renewed protests from within to pressure him to fulfill his pledges and from without to push him to curb the unruly militias and bring lasting stability to the country.
At home, his critics are worried that reports of government reforms, fighting corruption, prosecuting the killers of the protesters, improving public services, fixing the economy and dealing with the coronavirus crisis amount to nothing but empty rhetoric.
What has further fed into an overall feeling of anger and frustration is the failure of Al-Kadhimi’s government thus far to push the country’s parliament to pass a new law that will clear the way for early and credible elections.
The pressure from abroad has come from many countries and the United Nations but primarily from the United States, which has threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad if Al-Kadhimi fails to prevent Iranian-backed militias from firing rockets at the Green Zone in the capital that hosts the American and other foreign missions.
The warning has apparently come from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has issued an ultimatum to Al-Kadhimi’s government that all US personnel will leave Iraq unless it puts a stop to the rash of attacks against them.
Such a move could jeopardise Baghdad’s crucial relationship with Washington and lead to further pullouts by the embassies of other Western nations that have been offering essential support to Iraq, including help training its security forces.
Furthermore, any additional US drawdown would threaten to airbrush Al-Kadhimi out of the picture and damage his government’s ability to access badly needed international aid to face spiralling economic challenges including a looming budget crisis.
Increasing foreign frustration at Al-Kadhimi’s failure to end the deadlock in Iraq will undermine his standing on shaky ground abroad, and popular discontent at home will likely lead to further social distress and possibly political upheaval.
Al-Kadhimi’s lack of action has also once again put Iraq’s political leadership during the post-US invasion period under the microscope. Its leaders have proved again and again that they are ill-equipped to deal with the transitional period and to work to rebuild Iraq into a stable and democratic state.
Governance and leadership under the five Iraqi prime ministers who have held power since the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 have been replete with tales of failure when considered within the ambit of state and nation-building.
Al-Kadhimi is no exception. The way he has been conducting his duties has shown that his leadership is missing executive capacities, and he has showed himself to be incapable of taking bold and innovative measures to tackle such woes.
Six months after he assumed office, Al-Kadhimi is still surrounding himself with corrupt and inefficient cronies and greedy elites empowered by the US occupation authorities.
Although Al-Kadhimi has made minor reshuffles in the security forces, ordered an investigation into the killings of protesters, and created a committee to investigate corruption, critics are worried that the measures amount only to lip service and fall short of strengthening Al-Kadhimi’s position.
Militias supported by Iran continue to fire rockets targeting American sites in Iraq. In one such incident on 28 September, rockets targeting American troops killed seven civilians near Baghdad International Airport.
Two days later, several rockets fell in the vicinity of Erbil Airport in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Region, also a base used by the US-led International Coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
It is true that the volume and scope of Iraq’s chronic crises in the post-Saddam era pose extraordinary challenges for any leader in managing the country’s grim and brewing conflicts.
Yet, it is not easy to understand how and why Al-Kadhimi has missed so many opportunities for decisive action to make changes and fulfill his reform promises.
To understand him fully, one would need to know his background, his level of education, his public-service expertise, his political commitments and the period in which he entered the political arena.
Nothing in that background testifies to the fact that Al-Kadhimi is a strong and a visionary national leader guided in his actions by an urgent need to transform the way the country has been run by a handful of sectarian oligarchs.
Such leadership traits are considered to be indispensable if Al-Kadhimi is to free himself more effectively from the yoke of the country’s kleptocracy and form a national consensus that will form the foundations of a true nation.
A good place to start in understanding Al-Kadhimi is from the fact that he was a junior member of the Shia anti-Saddam opposition in the Iraqi diaspora that has been handling the management of political power since 2003.
This kleptocracy has paralised the country and imposed its hegemony on the government, the security forces, the economy and the public space in order to run the country as fiefdoms and plunder its resources.
Al-Kadhimi, whose only previous experience in government was his short tenure as intelligence chief, is not an elected politician, and he lacks a political bloc. He was nominated by the ruling Shia oligarchs to be the figurehead of an interim government run by them.
He has so far failed to offer any alternative platform that can be used to rally the Iraqis around a national project, apart from the vague slogan of “respecting state sovereignty and prestige,” which does not amount to a functional strategy.
After more than 18 years of decline, the state in Iraq is now the problem and not the solution, which means Al-Kadhimi needs to fix a long list of wrongs committed by successive governments if he wants to generate applause rather than disdain.
In the absence of transforming empty rhetoric into meaningful change, Al-Kadhimi will not be able to inject the strength and confidence that the leadership needs, and Iraq will remain blocked with regard to its future.
What the country’s ruling Shia elites are doing now is to try to outmanoeuvre Al-Kadhimi until the end of his term in office or until he calls off his reform efforts. The real objective behind the militia rocket attacks is not the US interests in Iraq as much as Al-Kadhimi himself.
If Al-Kadhimi wants to make it his goal to fix the problems of the past 18 years, he will need to make the oligarchs work for him rather than vice versa, if not overhauling the whole system altogether.
Perhaps Al-Kadhimi is simply biding his time as he waits for his shot at the next elections, but this will nevertheless be the only way he can restore order and prestige to the battered Iraqi state.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly