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Who is Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s third attempt at a PM?

Hopes are high in Baghdad that the third time will be the charm, and that new Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi will succeed where others have failed in forming a government.

Iraq has not had a fully-functioning government since December, when mass protests forced then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign, after just a year in office. Since then, Shiite political parties have wrangled over who should replace him and form the next Iraqi cabinet.

In his first televized address to the nation, Kadhimi said the cabinet he appoints will be one “of service – relying not on words, but on action.” It is an all-too-familiar reassurance that Iraqis weary of chronic government dysfunction are desperate to see materialize.

Appointments to the PM-designate role have twice been unsuccessful. Both candidates – former communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, then three-term Najaf governor and Nasr parliamentary bloc leader Adnan al-Zurfi – met with fierce opposition from some political blocs, and lukewarm reluctance by others. Both were rejected by Iraq’s young protesters as members of the same tired establishment they hope to overthrow.

But for the first time since December 2019, the impossible seems to have happened – all of Iraq’s Shiite political parties have agreed on a candidate.

The journalist who would be prime minister

Tracing Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s trajectory reveals he is no career politician – something that has seen him garner more support from protesters than his predecessors ever could.

Fleeing Baghdad as a freshman law student in 1985, he settled in the UK. He worked as a journalist in the 1990s and 2000s, then at the Iraq Memory Foundation in the US, a Washington, DC archive run by author and veteran Saddam-era critic Kinan Makiya. He returned to the UK to work for the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, run by Hussain al-Sadr, a member of the prominent family of Shiite clerics.

Kadhimi came back to Iraq, where he completed a law degree in 2012. He then worked as a journalist and editor for the website Al Monitor, before being appointed head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in 2016 by then-prime minister Haider al-Abadi, turning around an institution beleaguered by corruption.

“He confronted a corrupt, toxic NIS with patience and turned it around reasonably well,“ Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad said in a tweet.

While Kadhimi’s lack of a political base means he comes with fewer strings attached, it also means he could lack a loyal constituency were he to become prime minister, says Jiyad.

Kadhimi’s non-partisan background renders him “non-threatening” – minimizing the likelihood he will encounter obstructionist partisanship in the month-long window he has to form a cabinet and an agenda that a divided parliament will approve.

The agreement by all Shiite political parties on a PM-designate marks an important moment, Iraqi security analyst Husham al-Hashimi told Rudaw English on Thursday.

“This is the first time the entirety of Shiite political parties in Iraq agreed on a candidate who is non-Islamist and believes in freedom, even though he might be a threatening candidate on the interests of Iranian-backed Shiite political parties, including Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitias in Iraq,” Hashimi said.

A consensus candidate

Just as Zurfi was announcing his resignation to the press on Thursday morning, Iraq’s political elite were gathered at the al-Salam presidential palace in Baghdad to await Kadhimi’s official appointment.

Fatih bloc leader Hadi al-Ameri, a key opponent to the appointments of both Allawi and Zurfi, attended the ceremony – as did former PM Abadi, in a sign of acquiescence from the Nasr alliance’s original push for Zurfi to be granted time to prove himself.

President Barham Salih hailed the appointment of a candidate who had the support of “all the main political and social parties.”

“Today, thanks to all the efforts, all the main political parties and social parties agreed and reached an agreement to nominate Kadhimi to form the next Iraqi cabinet,” Salih said on Thursday.

“We all are here at al-Salam to push for the formation of a strong and nationalist government that takes decisions for the interests of Iraq,” he added.

Kadhimi’s appointment comes at a moment when political unity is desperately needed, not only among Iraq’s squabbling political parties, but internationally as well.

The United States and Iran continue to be the main drivers of Iraq’s policy, both foreign and domestic, and no candidate can be successful without the tacit accord of these two powers.

Iraq has borne the brunt of the US-Iran confrontation. Military bases hosting US personnel have been repeatedly rocketed by Iran-backed militia groups, while the US has retaliated with airstrikes.

As both countries vie for geopolitical influence in the wider Middle East, agreement between Tehran and Washington has been the most distant of possibilities.

“Mustafa al-Kadhimi is a candidate of an agreement between West and East [US and Iran], with approval from Baghdad,” MP Aliya Nsaif told Rudaw English in a phone call on Thursday.

The two countries appear to have stepped back from the brink of all-out war just a few months ago. A deadly rocket attack on the K-1 base in Kirkuk last December led to an escalation in US-Iran hostilities, culminating in the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad on January 3.

Tehran retaliated on January 8 with a barrage of missiles targeting Iraqi bases hosting US troops.

Despite the key US role in combating the ongoing Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency, opposition to the American military presence has long been festering. As mounting hostilities made the American presence more of a hindrance, it catalyzed enough momentum for the pro-Iran factions in parliament to expel US forces from the country.

Even if parliament’s resolutions are more bark than bite, the message was clear that Tehran’s backers in Baghdad can move with a political clout to rival Washington’s military might.

The road ahead

Although Iran holds considerable sway in Iraq’s domestic politics, local dynamics also have their own nuances. Iran-backed Shiite militias have accused Kadhimi of having a hand in the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis in his capacity as intelligence chief, alleging the intelligence services helped the Americans pinpoint Soleimani’s whereabouts – accusations the NIS vehemently denies.

“Tehran knows that Kadhimi had no role in the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis,” Hashimi told Rudaw English.

Although Kadhimi is not inspiring fervent Iranian support, his appointment doesn’t aggravate them either, which is a success in its own right.

Tehran’s acceptance of a candidate who may not perform its bidding is a pragmatic one, according to Iraq-Iran relations expert Mohammed Bakhtiyar. Tehran has let go of the premiership because it controls parliament, calculating it will prove to be the mainframe of Iraqi politics.

“Iran has reached a point where they’ve realized that fighting over the prime minister position in Iraq is useless, as they have already occupied the Iraqi parliament and they can change and modify laws and orders in whichever way serves their interests,” Bakhtiyar told Rudaw English on Thursday.

“Mustafa al-Kadhimi is not a favored candidate for Tehran – but he is better for them than Zurfi.”

Kadhimi has his work cut out for him, inheriting a pandemic, an oil crisis, a protest movement, ahead of a summer shaping up to be full of tumult. But time has shown that sound and fury usually precedes consensus in Iraq’s political landscape, and that once a candidate receives the blessing of the political factions, they can go about getting the job done.

Jiyad believes Kadhimi’s diplomatic experience will make him measured, non-confrontational, and open to solving disputes, “with emphasis on face-to-face dialogue and relationships.”

Where Zurfi was seen by most Shiite political parties as seeking aggressive, militarist solutions, Kadhimi’s diplomacy and negotiation skills may be the required antidote to the animosity in Baghdad. If not, the country is in for another hot summer. Source