Thursday 9 April marked the 17th anniversary of the fall of the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a result of the US-led invasion of the country.
The invasion unleashed chaos that has shattered the country and left it paralysed by decades of military occupation, terrorism, sectarian struggle and political crisis.
This year the anniversary saw the nomination of a third prime minister-designate in just over a month as Iraq grapples with its worst political crisis since Saddam’s ousting.
Iraq is woefully afflicted by a raft of other problems caused by falling energy revenues, the coronavirus epidemic, anti-establishment protests and deteriorating security.
In the midst of all these calamities, the key question is not if Iraq can have a new government five months after the resignation of outgoing prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, but whether it will ever stumble out of them.
Iraq’s President Barham Salih has named Intelligence Chief Mostafa Al-Kadhimi to form a new cabinet as the country struggles to replace Abdul- Mahdi’s government that fell in November after months of deadly protests.
Al-Kadhimi is the latest candidate tasked with forming a government after Adnan Al-Zurfi quit his bid following his failure to obtain support among Iraq’s political parties.
Al-Zurfi, an MP and former governor of the city of Najaf, cited “internal and external reasons” behind his withdrawal. He reportedly faced opposition from Shia factions with close ties to Iran.
Before Al-Zurfi’s botched nomination, Mohamed Tawfik Allawi found himself in a similarly impossible situation in trying to form a government when political factions rebelled against his choice of ministers that did not conform to Iraq’s quota system of power-sharing.
In view of Iraq’s long-running political deadlock, however, the choice of Al-Kadhimi, who has no political affiliation or record of statesmanship, risks another failure in forming a government, which could push Iraq into a renewed period of crisis and uncertainty.
Upon his nomination Al-Kadhimi promised that his government would focus on providing services to the public, fighting corruption, controlling the country’s unruly militias and halting foreign influence in Iraq. He also pledged to address the two pressing challenges of the coronavirus epidemic and Iraq’s ailing economy.
But for many Iraqis, these pledges seem to be taken from the empty promises book that each and every one of their government leaders has used since regime change in 2003 in their bids to gain power.
Of course, whether Al-Kadhimi will be different from his predecessors remains to be seen, but one key factor should be remembered: he is a member of the same corrupt and greedy elite that was empowered by the US Occupation Authority which is responsible for the disastrous policies that have paralysed the country for 17 years.
Until his nomination Al-Kadhimi had led the Iraqi National Intelligence Service since 2016, working under former prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi and his successor Abdul-Mahdi.
Al-Kadhimi has not published an official biography or resume, but a footnote accompanying articles he used to send to the US-based Monitor newsletter described him as specialising in “the defence of democracy and human rights.”
Information shared on social media, however, shows that Iraq’s PM-designate was born in 1967 in Baghdad to a Shia family that had migrated from southern Iraq.
He adopted Al-Kadhimi as a pseudonym while in the United Kingdom where he sought refuge after fleeing Saddam’s ruthless rule in 1985, though Iraqi dissidents recall that he was not active in the anti-Saddam opposition.
After the US-led invasion, Al-Kadhimi returned to Iraq to join the Iraqi Memory Foundation established by the Occupation Authority to document the Saddam regime’s inner workings and atrocities.
It is not clear why Al-Abadi chose Al-Kadhimi for the key post of Iraq’s intelligence chief even though he had no background in political, public service, security or academic affairs, though family connections were widely mentioned.
Al-Kadhimi’s nomination as prime minister has come as Iraq’s ruling class has walked into a cul-de-sac, with their mismanagement and rampant corruption sparking extended protests and sit-ins by citizens since October.
The Covid-19 epidemic has come just in time to save the ruling elite from collapse under Iraq’s unprecedentedly massive protests, increasing instability, and increasing economic difficulties.
Al-Kadhimi, therefore, was not a candidate of choice but rather of necessity after Abdul-Mahdi’s forced resignation and the failure of Allawi and Al-Zurfi before him in forming a government.
As such, the critical question now is not whether Al-Kadhimi will succeed in assembling a cabinet, but rather if the ruling cliques will let him act as a true leader in his own right.
The fact that many Iraqi politicians and factional leaders were present at his nomination ceremony does not necessarily suggest that Al-Kadhimi’s candidacy has a greater chance of success than the two previous appointees.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Iraq’s political process, the sleazy nature of Iraqi politicians, and the power struggle between rival sectarian and political groups, Al-Kadhimi is unlikely to speed on his way without hurdles.
Soon after Al-Kadhimi’s nomination, Iraqi political groups reverted to the art they seem to have perfected of teetering on a knife-edge where anything can happen, even nothing at all.
Key political blocs that hold sway inside Iraq’s parliament immediately engaged in back-door bargaining over allocations of seats and sharing benefits in the new government.
Meanwhile, pro-Iran factions that exercise enormous influence outside parliament have their own agendas and were quick to raise doubts about Al-Kadhimi’s intentions.
The Kataib Hizbullah faction even went as far as to blast Al-Kadhimi’s nomination as an act of treason. The shadowy Iranian-backed militia had earlier accused Al-Kadhimi of being an American agent and called his choice for the job as a “declaration of war.”
Remnants of the protesters who have remained in Baghdad’s Tahrir’s Square, the epicentre of the anti-government demonstrations, also rejected Al-Kadhimi for being part of the establishment.
Iran and the United States, the two foreign powers which compete for influence in Iraq, are expected to keep a close watch on Al-Kadhimi and his government before showing him any sign of acceptance.
Against such a complex background it is hard to imagine that Al-Kadhimi will succeed in meeting the protesters’ demands to end their country’s deadlock or even preserve his job.
Analysts, therefore, would do better to focus on the broader question of the post-Saddam leadership’s failure, which is responsible for Iraq’s dysfunctional governance and its political and economic incompetence.
Since the US-led invasion, the political leadership has been one of the most daunting challenges for resource-rich Iraq and its inability to develop and expand as rapidly and efficiently as it should.
While the US-led invasion is largely to blame for the country’s current stalemate, Iraq’s own political leaders bear a huge responsibility for the nation’s failure to chart a sustainable course for recovery and development.
Iraq sits on the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves, and it is the second-largest producer of crude oil in OPEC. It also has some 111.52 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas. Other natural resources include two large rivers and millions of hectares of fertile land.
Iraq boasts all kinds of the human resources needed to make it compete favourably with its global counterparts. Once known for having the most highly educated population in the Middle East, Iraq has the potential of becoming a political, economic and technological regional powerhouse.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the enormous resources in Iraq cannot be judiciously exploited because of the inability of its leaders to unleash the country’s potential.
The situation in Iraq is compounded by the corruption and avarice of these leaders who spend more time acquiring wealth than serving their people. For months, Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest against the rampant corruption, government mismanagement and lack of public services in their country.
Yet, nothing has ranked higher on the protesters’ long list of grievances than their disgust and loathing for their greedy and self-serving political class.
As the hectic endeavours to find a new prime minister over the last five months have shown, this ruling oligarchy has progressively succeeded in paralysing the country and draining it of its skilled and talented people in order to impose its hegemony over public space.
Under the rule of this political class that has been running to stay in power for as long as possible, Iraq has become a barren political landscape that cannot attract good and talented people into the political leadership.
It will likely not be too long before people realise that the choice of Al-Kadhimi for the premiership is a repeat of the “game of the thrones” episodes that have been going on in Iraq for the last 17 years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly