Iraq’s prime minister renews vow to reform system amid setbacks

Mustafa Al Kadhimi moves to pre-empt political players denying him the room of manoeuvre he seeks

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi waits for delegations at the prime minister's office in Baghdad, Iraq May 14, 2020. Picture taken May 14, 2020.  Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi sought to brush aside early setbacks a mere two weeks into his job on Tuesday, vowing to pursue reforms despite a lack of embedded support from the legislature.

In a letter to the public, Mr Al Kadhimi said he is having to deal with a “heavy inheritance,” as political groups who said they would not impede the new premier continue to deny him his choice of two key ministers.

Mr Al Kadhimi said he is facing a contradiction between “public promises that affirmed my prerogative to choose the cabinet and what is going on behind the scenes”.

“I say to those who cautioned me that I do not have a political party that I will continue to move forward to serve my people,” he said.

Parliament confirmed Mr Al Kadhimi’s government on May 5, leaving the oil and foreign minister positions vacant. The new prime minister is a former intelligence chief supported by the United States.

In the letter, Mr Al Kadhimi renewed his call to put “weapons and fire power in the hands of the state,” to hold early elections, and to meet the demands of the country’s protest movement to “erase the detested legacy of the spoils system”.

Months of demonstrations began in October, demanding an end to corruption and the formulation of a new political system. They have now mostly halted due to a government crackdown backed by pro-Iranian militias and measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

One of Mr Kadhimi’s first orders was the release of demonstrators, but it remains unclear whether the order has been met amid the fragmentation of the administration he took over.

Iraq has myriad security organisations. Various militias killed and disappeared hundreds of civilians in response to the civil uprising.

Mr Al Kadhimi’s confirmation came as a result of messy compromises that have been the hallmark of Iraqi politics since the first democratic election in the post-Saddam Hussein era consolidated the political ascendency of the country’s Shiite majority.

Kurdish parties that were early enthusiastic supporters of Mr Kadhimi were largely left out of his cabinet. Shiite groups in parliament, who are kingmakers in the system, largely because of their association with militias supported by Iran, got control of the interior ministry.

The jockeying for power and the dominance of the Shiite groups left Mr Kadhimi with only one ally in a key position, the Finance Minister Ali Allawi.

Mr Al Kadhimi said he found state coffers “nearly empty,” adding that public security is being threatened “not just by the continuation of ISIS and its sleeper cells, but also from the weapons running loose outside the control of the state.”

Mr Al Kadhimi met militia chiefs this week as part of a charm offensive to placate them. But one day after followers of one of the most lethal militias supported by Iran overran the Saudi Arabia-owned MBC channel in Baghdad.

The channel had aired a show that was critical of Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, killed in a US strike earlier this year near Baghdad’s airport. He is the de facto leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella body of all of Iraq’s mostly Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

The storming of MBC undermined overtures by Mr Al Kadhimi to the Arabian Gulf.

Interest in the region in Iraq reignited after Mr Al Kadhimi became prime minister, partly because he is seen as not tainted by ideology.

Mr Al Kadhimi said the government needed PMF support to keep ISIS from re-surging. But he emphasised in his letter that no one should be above the law, indicating that the militias should disarm.

“No party, no matter how important or what the source of its power is, or its allegiance, should be above the will of the state, the constitution, or the law,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.