Mustafa Al Kadhimi completes one year since being named Iraq’s prime minister this week, a week in which he is also embarking on a strategic dialogue with the US. He has just completed an historic visit to the UAE, after earlier visits to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
He is a man in a hurry, as Iraq faces daunting challenges but also abundant opportunities, and by October there will be elections that could upend the current government.
In an exclusive interview with The National during his visit to Abu Dhabi, Mr Al Kadhimi stressed the importance of holding early elections, despite calls to delay them. The government has worked closely with the Iraqi High Commission for Elections and oversaw reforms.
“The main mission for my government is to hold early, fair and secure elections that are conducted with integrity, he said.
He insisted that elections will take place on October 10 and “we must all make sure it succeeds”, but he will not be contesting the poll.
“The government will provide a balancing act between those contesting the elections and I will not be a competitor in it. That way we can give the elections more credibility,” he said.
Mr Al Kadhimi said that, in addition to preparing the country for elections, “we have pursued priorities like stabilising the economic situation during an economic crisis that targeted the world, and facing the Covid-19 pandemic and protecting Iraq from sliding into an open war between other countries, in addition to enacting a reform agenda that includes the government’s White Paper on Reform”.
He has faced strong opposition from armed militias who see his reform programme as a direct attack on their interests.
When asked about how he plans to tackle the proliferation of armed groups, he said: “From day one, I have been speaking about the crisis of the proliferation of arms outside of state control, this is a challenge to the entire state.
“This is a just battle that Iraqis are waging to protect their state and the stability of their societies.”
When referring to “armed groups”, Mr Al Kadhimi differs from his predecessors in that he refers to them as “outlaws” and “organised crime groups”, even though he doesn’t name them directly, saying some of them are linked to drug dealing, smuggling and even some tribal elements who are seeking to enforce their own laws.
The prime minister said that “armed tribes” have largely been tackled by the government and that “dozens of members from armed groups and drug dealers are not detained in prison”.
There are “dozens of detainees who have wanted to target our security”, he said, without divulging identities or affiliations.
One recent development in Iraq, and particularly over the past year, has been the emergence of armed groups with new names. However, many of their members are affiliated with some of the more established groups.
“Some of those outlawed groups come up with new names thinking they can act with impunity,” he said, “but this is evidence of the strength of the state and the rule of law, as those who make up new names are trying to escape the law, but we are aware of them”.
The prime minister agreed that there are challenges to the state and its strength, but he insisted “the state is able to enforce its stature in every part of Iraq and on every level and there is renewed confidence in the national armed forces”.
“This is a gradual rebuilding that has been taking place over the past few months, but requires years,” he said.
Mr Al Kadhimi is banking on “the majority of Iraqis” who he believes want “a strong state emerging victorious”, and believes that there is “collective rejection of uncontrolled arms under any slogan.”
“This is the popular position and that is our source of confidence, that the state and the rule of law and rejection of intimidation and blackmail is the only way forward”.
Mr Al Kadhimi came to office after months of popular protests that began in October 2019 to demand an end to corruption and militia rule.
More than 700 protestors and activists were killed during that period and Mr Al Kadhimi took high office promising to curb corruption and protect the protestors, but also to hold those responsible for the killing to account.
Weeks after Mr Al Kadhimi formed his government, Hisham Al Hashimi, a well-known analyst who was a civic activist and in close contact with a number of officials, including Mr Al Kadhimi, was killed outside his home.
Mr Al Kadhimi promised to find and prosecute the perpetrators. However, since the killing in July 2020, no one has been arrested or even named as a suspect.
Asked about the delay, Mr Al Kadhimi said: “The martyr Hisham Al Hashimi is a victim of political assassination and we have many facts about the assassination attempt.
“We have promised to punish the perpetrators and we will, and we also said that choosing the time to announce more details depend on legal and technical issues”.
Mr Al Kadhimi responded to criticism about the delay by pointing to the government’s ability to apprehend the killers of another activist, Ahmed Abdul Samad in Basra, and others.
“The blood of Al Hashimi and other martyrs is our cause. This government is acting with seriousness against every person responsible for the spilling of Iraqi blood”.
A key driver of protests and a key problem facing Iraq is corruption.
Mr Al Kadhimi concurs that there have been false promises in the past in dealing with corruption, but insists that his government is different.
He has tackled some of the most vulnerable areas susceptible to corruption, including custom controls, but much remains to be done.
One major challenge Iraq has faced since 2003 is that of energy and the dependence of gas imports from Iran, despite Iraq being one of the richest countries in hydrocarbons.
Mr Al Kadhimi said: “The issue of energy and expanding its production and diversification, in addition to securing electricity sources, have been a focal point for this government since its inception.”
He referred to years of negligence, giving as an example the Iraq building gas-fired electricity stations since 2003, despite the fact it does not produce gas.
“On the contrary, Iraq wastes gas,” he said, in reference to gas flaring. Mr Al Kadhimi said the government is working with leading international companies to invest in Iraqi gas and to prevent financial and environmental damage from flaring.
However, he said these investments will “take years”, meaning that Iraq will have to continue importing gas – primarily from Iran – or face a major electricity shortage.
Iraq has sought waivers from the US to continue importing gas from Iran and it seems it will continue to do so for the near future. Mr Al Kadhimi, however, is also focused on the need to invest in renewable and clean energy sources: “We have issued a number of licences for alternative energy sources, particularly solar energy.”
Speaking about his visit to the UAE, Mr Al Kadhimi said: “This is a very important visit for Iraq, and helps in returning the country to its Arab fold.
“We are building our relations and partnership with the UAE across a number of areas, including economic ties and the future of the region.”
“The UAE investment fund of $3 billion will change a lot of Iraq’s economic reality and especially when it comes to UAE companies that are known as international companies with important experience.”
The UAE has also provided important support for Iraq through a $50 million fund to help restore the historic Al Nouri Mosque and Al Tahera and Al Saa’a churches.
Mr Kadhimi said: “I thank the UAE for its humanitarian positions of solidarity with Iraq, it is an extension of [Founding Father] Sheikh Zayed who always stood by Arabs and the current leadership does the same.
“Reconstructing Al Nouri Mosque is an important historical moment, it is part of the conscience of Iraqi Muslims and part of human civilisation and the UAE is playing an instrument role.”
As for the reconstruction of Mosul, the prime minister promised “a campaign” to reconstruct the city that was destroyed by ISIS and the military campaign to liberate it.
Since liberation in 2017, reconstruction has been slow. Mr Al Kadhimi is now leading a committee with a number of ministers and the governor of Mosul Najim Al Jubouri to oversee reconstruction.
He said the UAE and France will play a significant role in this rebuilding.
“The people of Mosul and the city of Mosul deserve support’ it is a microcosm of all of Iraq,” he said.
Mr Al Kadhimi’s visit to the UAE comes as he tries to improve ties across the Arab world.
“I believe that the future of the people of this region and the world must be based on the language of co-operation and interdependence,” he said.
“A lack of common investments between the countries of this region has been an impediment to that co-operation, therefore the trilateral co-operation between Iraq, Jordan and Egypt is an important early step in a journey to improving co-operation and resolving the crises of the area.”
“We must work at ending crises rather than trying to taking advantage of them,” he said. Iraq “has exemplary relations with our brothers in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, in addition to our neighbours in Iran and Turkey”.
Mr Al Kadhimi reflected on his trip to Saudi Arabia. “In the near future we will see a tangible translation of the deep relationship with our brothers there across all sectors particularly economic and investments,” he said.
Speaking on the eve of the Iraq-US strategic dialogue, set to take place on Wednesday, Mr Al Kadhimi said the dialogue "will solidify and organise relations between the two countries".
He will be focused on economic, political and technological co-operation between the two, in addition to the strategic military co-operation.
The prime minister clarified: “Our security and military co-operation is essentially tied to Iraq’s war against ISIS and our request for help from the international coalition lead by the US in 2014.”
He added that the next phase is linked to “training, equipping and providing intelligence support for the Iraqi forces. We believe the Iraqi forces are ready for this transition”.
He said there are currently fewer than 2,500 US soldiers in Iraq and the next round of the strategic dialogue will focus on the procedures and timings for the Iraqi forces to take on all military missions.
Mr Al Kadhimi concluded the interview by speaking about what he considers the greatest challenge facing Iraq.
“The economic challenge was and continues to be the greatest challenge,” he said. “This matter is not only related to oil and the rise and fall of oil prices, rather the over dependence of Iraq’s economy on oil and thus we have issued our white paper to reduce Iraq’s reliance on oil by 20 per cent as a first step and then moving to 50 per cent by improving other sectors like agriculture, industry and trade”.
Iraq passed its first budget in two years last week, with a number of issues rising, including the inequitable distribution of resources among Iraq’s provinces.
Mr Al Kadhimi said: “I have a number of observations about the amendments to the budget, and yet we welcomed Parliament’s passing of our budget because without a budget we would face a dangerous impediment to Iraq’s economic stability and security, especially as it failed to pass for the past two years.”
His emphasis on the economy stems from his belief that “societal realities, human development, and state effectiveness, in addition to Iraq’s external relations are all impacted by our economic outlook”.
He added that in the next five years, Iraq must provide job opportunities for young people and improve its investment climate but that will mean “some difficulties and challenges until we get to our target”.
However, he sounded an upbeat tone: “Iraq is heading for a major and speedy economic revival,” he said, stressing that it that won’t happen without “our friends and neighbours”.