Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who survived an assassination attempt on Sunday, is a former spy chief and skilled negotiator facing an unclear future.
Pro-militia groups have staged protests in the Iraqi capital against the results of the legislative elections held last month. Supporters of parties that lost seats have been threatening him for weeks.
Once the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, Mr Al Kadhimi took the reins in May last year after Iraq’s Parliament granted his Cabinet a vote of confidence, ending weeks of disagreement over ministerial positions.
Born in Baghdad in 1967, he studied law in Iraq but left for Europe to escape the former dictator, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and became an opposition journalist.
After the US-led invasion in 2003, Mr Al Kadhimi returned to help launch the Iraqi Media Network, archive crimes of the former regime at the Iraqi Memory Foundation and work as a human rights advocate.
But he made an unusual career jump in 2016 when the prime minister at the time, Haider Al Abadi, hand-picked him to head the INIS at the height of the war against ISIS.
“He’s got a pragmatic mindset, relationships with all the key players on the Iraqi scene and good ties with the Americans, and he was recently able to put his ties to the Iranians back on track,” a political source and friend told AFP.
Mr Al Kadhimi also has close ties with Riyadh.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be seen embracing the Iraqi prime minister in footage from a visit to the kingdom after his appointment.
Mr Al Kadhimi was first floated as prime minister in 2018 but political blocs opted for Adel Abdul Mahdi, the caretaker PM who resigned in December 2019 after months of protests.
The intelligence chief’s name began circulating a few months later as President Barham Salih’s preferred candidate, but a political adviser close to the talks told AFP he had hesitated to take the risk.
“He did not want to agree unless it was going to be a sure thing,” the adviser said, having seen two candidates — politician Adnan Zurfi and ex-minister Mohammed Allawi — fail before him.
Mr Allawi could not pull together a Cabinet by his 30-day deadline and Mr Zurfi dropped his bid.
In January 2020, those same factions had accused Mr Al Kadhimi of being involved in the US drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in Baghdad.
But Mr Al Kadhimi worked through the caretaker PM’s influential chief of staff Mohammad Al Hashemi to repair ties with Iran and its allies in Iraq, the adviser and a diplomat based in Baghdad told AFP.
With pro-Tehran factions on board, the adviser said, Mr Al Kadhimi scored “an unprecedented Shiite-wide consensus”.
That set Mr Al Kadhimi up with better chances than the two prior candidates, but he has faced a host of challenges, from the country’s ailing economy to the coronavirus.
He brought forward elections, originally scheduled for 2022, in response to the anti-government protests over endemic corruption, unemployment and failing public services.
But the results of those elections now mean he is facing an uncertain future, with coalition wrangling and accusations of fraud.
Observers say a figure like Mr Al Kadhimi could have the right connections to steer Iraq through these crises.
“Al Kadhimi is a superb negotiator and an incredibly astute player,” said Prof Toby Dodge, head of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.
But, he cautioned: “Iraq is on borrowed time. The stakes have gone up much higher.”