Iraq PM-designate: from shy writer to the political peak

Mustafa Al Kadhimi was mentored in exile by the top minds of Iraq's diaspora, but no one predicted the bloodstained politics of the post-Saddam Hussein era

Iraq's President Barham Salih instrcuts newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, Iraq April 9, 2020. The Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Among a suspicion-ridden community of Iraqi exiles in London in the early 2000s, Mustafa Al Kadhimi cut a shy figure, writing on the abuses of Saddam Hussein and keeping away from feuds the opposition’s Western backers helped contain.

Trauma shaped even the younger generation of exiles to whom Mr Kadhimi had belonged. But the most emotion he would show was longing to go back to his home district of Kadhimiya in Baghdad and take tea on the Tigris River.

Mr Al Kadhimi, head of Iraqi intelligence since mid-2016, was appointed prime minister designate on Thursday after two appointees before him failed to form cabinets. Despite his secular leanings and solid links with the United States, Iranian-backed power centres signalled little objection.

His calm, methodical demeanour is partly a reflection of having been a protege of Ahmad Chalabi, the late Iraqi politician and mathematician whose driving ambition was to remove Saddam Hussein and destroy the Iraqi Baath Party.

Mr Chalabi was crucial in organising the dissidents and cultivating ties with US decision-makers in the executive and Congress, and recruiting skilled Iraqis to join the opposition.

Mustafa Al Kadhimi has been head of Iraqi intelligence since mid-2016. Wikicommons 

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Mr Kadhimi returned to Baghdad and ran the Iraq Memory Foundation, set up by Iraqi professor Kanan Makiya as a truth and reconciliation initiative. Mr Makiya authored the Republic of Fear in the 1980s from exile in Britain, and was shunned by many Arab academics for denouncing the brutality of Saddam.

The appointment of the soft spoken Mr Kadhimi in 2016 as Iraq’s intelligence chief surprised even his closest friends. The Iraqi government was in need of US support against ISIS and saw in its interest to have an a figure friendly to Washington in a top security position.

He survived the brutal school of Iraqi politics, although at least one local militia said he gave information to Washington revealing that Iranian General Qassem Suleimani would be at Baghdad airport on January 3, the day he was assassinated in a US drone strike.

Mr Kadhimi is not tainted by corruption, and the Iraqi National Intelligence Service he operates was not accused of being party to the killing of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in a government crackdown supported by Iran that crushed the Iraqi uprising.

Although Mr Kadhimi is secular, he is on good terms with Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq. He supported the Kurdish cause when he was in exile and has a personal friendship with President Barham Saleh, who is a Kurd.

But Mr Kadhimi does not have a political group behind him. His predecessor as prime minister-designate, Adnan Al Zurfi, is a member of parliament and belongs to a sizeable bloc.

Mr Zurfi was also governor of Najaf, the Shiite stronghold, giving him a public profile Mr Al Kadhimi lacks.

The Shiite political blocs that brought down Mr Al Zurfi resented his strong personality and may view Mr Al Kadhimi as a more manageable entity.

Mr Kadhimi was a huge admirer of Jalal Talbani, the late Kurdish political stalwart and Iraqi president who brought moral authority to the largely ceremonial presidency. But both referred to Mr Chalabi for political guidance.

When Mr Chalabi died of a heart attack in Baghdad in November 2015, Mr Kadhimi hired several members of his security team, enlisting them to be his new protection unit as a highly trained, nonsectarian and incorruptible force, something that’s hugely lacking in the state he could be set to run.