Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is taking credit for bringing Pope Francis to his beleaguered nation this week in the first-ever papal trip to Iraq, taking a moment to bask in warm glow of an event trumpeted by the Iraqi media as a historic trip to the cradle of civilisation.
The Pope’s four-day visit has raised questions as to why the 84-year old head of the Catholic Church is choosing to make the trip now, given the multitude of threats in the country including rocket attacks fired by unruly militias, Islamic State (IS) terrorism and mounting coronavirus cases.
While there is no doubt that the trip was rich in symbolism with regard to bearing a message of peace, reconciliation and tolerance to Iraq, it was Al-Kadhimi and other incumbent political leaders who sought to benefit from the papal trip to outshine the country’s tragic daily news reports.
Fully aware of the global limelight that the Pope, who leads the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, brings with him, Iraq’s government has overcome all obstacles to ensure that the momentous even should have an impact on the nation’s recovery.
When the Pope arrived at Baghdad Airport, Al-Kadhimi was waiting on the tarmac to provide him with a lavish welcome with members of the presidential guard flanking him while making his way along a red carpet.
Inside a VIP lounge, cheering bands wearing folkloric dress chanted songs welcoming the pontiff. Along the road to the city centre, the pope was driven in a motorcade passing through crowds of faithful waving Iraqi and Vatican flags behind a metal fence on the side of the highway.
The visit to the largely Muslim country, which ended on Monday, was celebrated as delivering a powerful message of inter-religious coexistence and a moral boost for Iraq’s long beleaguered Christian minority which today is believed to account for fewer than one third of their number before the US invasion in 2003.
But whether Al-Kadhimi has won the PR show of the papal trip remains to be seen. The Iraqi leader will certainly remain under the radar as Iraq’s political landscape is expected to remain in disarray in the months or years ahead.
Al-Kadhimi has had a tricky time as prime minister, building great expectations by Iraqis that he would be the answer to their nation’s multiple problems. World leaders welcomed his nomination with praise and offers of help.
When he came to power in May after the previous prime minister resigned in 2019 amid anti-government protests, Al-Kadhimi made broad promises to reform Iraq’s dysfunctional government to make it responsive to its citizens’ needs.
Upon assuming the post, Al-Kadhimi promised to fight rampant corruption, tackle incompetence in the country’s huge bureaucracy and restructure an economy that had plummeted due to mismanagement, the decline of oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
Al-Kadhimi also pledged to bring to justice those responsible for the death of nearly 600 protesters and activists since October 2019, and to address other grievances associated with the crackdown on the popular uprising – a promise he has yet to fulfill.
A key task for Al-Kadhimi was to hold early balloting, one of the main demands of the anti-establishment protesters who have been pressing for a new electoral law and free-and-fair voting that could bring hope to a country in need.
His big promise, however, was to restore state sovereignty through measures that included restructuring Iraq’s security forces and reining in rogue militias in order to prevent the country from becoming a battleground for clashes between the US and Iran.
Yet, over the last ten months, Al-Kadhimi has stumbled while tackling all those problems, as well as stabilising the country and ensuring a better outcome for his government’s performance.
Lately Al-Kadhimi has faced criticism that he mishandled the national response to the rising power of the pro-Iran Iraqi militias and their campaign against the international coalition force which is increasingly pushing the country into an escalated proxy war between Iran and the US.
Part of Al-Kadhimi’s struggle stems from his political brand, his only previous experience in government being his short tenure as intelligence chief. Former prime minister Haider Al-Abbadi, who appointed him to the job in 2016, said he chose him because he thought Al-Kadhimi was not a troublemaker.
In 2019, he became a prime minister as a matter of necessity rather than choice after the ruling Shia oligarchs failed twice to agree on a candidate and sought a person who could be the figurehead of an interim government they could run themselves.
Unlike all five Iraqi prime ministers who have held power since the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 Al-Kadhimi has no political affiliation or a parliamentary bloc that would give him support.
That has given him a tough time trying to project himself to the public as a strong politician. Since he assumed office in May, Al-Kadhimi has been unable to downsize the country’s entrenched political class who controls the government and security forces.
His most notable failure has been his inability to rein in the Iran-backed militias that continue to defy the government’s efforts to establish state authority. Some of these militias are believed to be behind the rocket attacks on US interests and military bases which host American forces.
The attacks often prompt the US to launch retaliatory air strikes against pro-Iranian militia groups. The latest militia assault was on 3 March which left one American contactor dead of a heart attack; US defence officials said they still had the option to strike back.
In the latest sign of defiance, the militias vowed to continue their attacks on US forces which Al-Kadhimi says are still needed to train the Iraqi security forces fighting the remnants of IS.
In a statement by the so-called Coordination Committee of the Iraqi Resistance Movements last week, the speakers vowed to “pursue all the occupation forces and their bases all over Iraq regardless of the sacrifices until Iraq is liberated”. They also warned that Iraqis who stand in their way would be seen as traitors.
Above all, the credibility of Al-Kadhimi is now at stake; it has come to be viewed as the key factor in efforts to rebuild Iraq. Attempting to pivot towards a strongman brand, Al-Kadhimi has repeatedly said he will restore Iraq to normality.
While Pope Francis’s visit counts as a symbolic gesture for Iraq’s image, the horrific scenes in the background of his trip to Mosul, a city which was destroyed in the war against IS and is still largely in ruins, served as a powerful reminder of the tremendous efforts Iraq still needs for reconstruction and reconciliation.
Al-Kadhimi may have enjoyed basking in the glow of the papal visit but it would be difficult to ignore the Pope’s repeated messages while in Iraq that the country not only needs to end violence but also to restore the dignity of all Iraqis, providing them with jobs and public services.
“I join these voices of goodwill that to build a society it is not enough to rebuild, it is important to be good at rebuilding,” the Pope said in a speech to Iraq’s political leaders. “Politicians should confront the scourge of corruption and misrule,” he said.
Al-Kadhimi’s future will be determined by what he does now to heed to such voices of goodwill and deliver on his pledges, but his window of opportunity is closing fast.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly