Iraqi Prime Minister must move fast or risk public resentment, experts say

Mustafa Al Kadhimi has little time to live up to his promise of reform and curbing corruption

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi talks to prisoners during his visit in the central investigation prison in Al-Muthana airport in Baghdad, Iraq July 30, 2020. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, will struggle to build popularity as public resentment reignites against corruption, poor services and unemployment amid the summer heat, experts say.

Anti-government protests renewed last week leading to violent clashes that killed at least 3 protesters and injured 26 others.

The government said that security forces used hunting rifles against the protesters.

It was the first deadly incident in months at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which became a symbol of anti-government protests during months of mass unrest last year.

"It's very hard to build popularity when every aspect of the country is creating popular resentment, it is not the prime minister's doing, but he is the one right now who is governing," Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told The National.

“People will direct their complaints against him,” Mr Kadhim said.

The public is refusing to listen or understand the argument that lack of basic services and depilated infrastructure is an accumulation of mismanagement by past administrations, he said.

The Prime Minister addressed the public on Friday night, promising early elections in June 2021 and rejecting the use of Iraq as a battleground by other countries.

The prime minister also pledged to address the repercussions of the economic crisis by rationalising spending and negotiating to restore Iraq’s share of oil exports.

Mr Al Kadhimi won't be able to sway the public with words, it started well but is now running out of time and he needs to deliver, Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based analyst told The National.

Since assuming office, he said his cabinet would be a "solution-based, not a crisis government".

But the pressure is on the prime minister to deliver.

“He will have to deliver something, he can’t relax, there will be pressure on services, fighting corruption and issues of internal security,” Mr Jiyad said.

Under Mr Al Kadhimi’s watch, unknown gunmen killed his close adviser and security expert, Husham Al Hashimi earlier this month.

The motive behind his assassination is so far unclear, but similar targeted killings were frequent during the height of Iraq's sectarian war.

German researcher Hella Mewis was kidnapped in Baghdad several weeks after Mr Al Hashimi’s killing. She was released three days later and was known to be an ardent supporter of the anti-government protests.

If Mr Al Kadhimi can deliver results from the investigations of Mr Al Hashimi's assassination or the recent killings of protesters in Tahrir square, he will gain a degree of patience, said Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq.

"It is not in the interest of the street to see this government fail as any replacement would be less sympathetic to their demands," Ms Higel told The National.

But with increasing harassment by Iran-backed paramilitary groups, and calls by the public to rein them in, Mr Al Kadhimi may eventually be forced into a confrontation that is hard to win, and likely to jeopardise his political survival, she said.

The Prime Minister’s recent visit to Iran also drew in wide public criticism.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with Mr Al Kadhimi, praised the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iraqi state-controlled institution that is an umbrella grouping of militias, many backed by Iran.

He faces a tough balancing act between Tehran and Washington, which have come close to open conflict in the region, particularly on Iraqi soil, over the past year.

Pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups in Baghdad has also increased on Mr Al Kadhimi.

They perceive him as siding with the United States after he indicated he wanted to curb the powers of militias and Iranian-backed political groups in Iraq.