Political landmines await Iraq’s new prime minister

Analysis: Last-minute deals avoided political embarrassment, but Mustafa Al Kadhimi is taking on country-wide rescue that may prove impossible

epa08406396 A handout picture released by Iraqi Parliament Media Office shows the speaker of Iraq's parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi (C-R) welcoming Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi (C-L) upon his arrival at the Iraqi parliament headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq on 06 May 2020. The Iraqi parliament is holding a vote on the new government on 06 May.  EPA/IRAQI PARLIAMENT MEDIA OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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The view from Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s new office in central Baghdad overlooks the capital's mostly disused central train station, an edifice from a bygone era of grandeur in 1950s Iraq.

The colonial-style station opened shortly before a military coup in 1958 massacred the royal family and ushered in Nasserist-style rule, which was supplanted by a Baathist takeover and the ruling Tikriti clan of Saddam Hussein.

George W Bush hoped the US-led invasion would yield democratic change across the Middle East but the Shiite political ascendency kept and even expanded many of the abuses under Saddam.

The ensuing corruption surpassed the heights it reached under the late dictator’s son Uday, whose influence was replaced by a more fragmented system of spoils.

King Faisal I of Iraq, centre, the grandfather of King Faisal II at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris. Behind him to the right is Lawrence of Arabia. Faisal II was killed in a 1958 coup that toppled the Hashemite monarchy and ushered a history of perpetual bloodshed. Getty

Mr Al Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief who was confirmed prime minister on Wednesday, has vowed to bring prosperity and non-violence back to politics, something Iraqis have not seen since the decade the central train station opened.

An ally of the United States, he will need to gather domestic support to start disarming militias who do not answer to the government and to curb the endemic corruption that has made Iraq a shell of a state.

The presence of militias backed by Iran leaves the borders with Iran and Syria outside the control of the central government.

But he is the first prime minister in the post-Saddam era who has not been a member of Parliament and does not have core backing from any political bloc.

Parliament voted to give Mr Al Kadhimi confidence overnight, but not before Shiite groups connected with the militias, who hold sway in the legislature, denied the new prime minister his choice for the crucial oil ministry.

The position will remain vacant until a compromise is reached.

The ministerial setup could undergo changes in the coming weeks as Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite groups continue their political bargaining.

They had agreed on Mr Al Kadhimi, then undermined him by going against a significant proportion of his ministers.

Political allies and those who made a pragmatic decision not to block him will be breathing down his neck with contradictory demands.

The same dynamics have contributed to dragging the country towards failure since Iraq’s first democratic elections in the post-Saddam era, in 2005.

Over the past two months, a dispute has reignited between the Kurds and Baghdad over oil production and the Kurdish region’s share of the budget.

With oil prices plummeting since March, the World Bank expects Iraq’s public debt to increase from 58.5 per cent of GDP last year to 66.9 per cent this year.

Corruption in the country is as much a pandemic as the coronavirus, for which the infrastructure is woefully unprepared.

There has been a pause in militia attacks on US troops in Iraq in recent weeks but no guarantee that they will stop entirely.

Three of Mr Al Kadhimi's friends told The National they believed he could become a punching bag between Washington and Tehran, with each accusing him of failing to stand up to the other.

Since he accepted the nomination on April 9, he has been forced to abandon his goal of bypassing a quota system that makes the Shiite parties and the militia lords the ultimate arbiters in the system.

Several of the militias played a major role, together with security forces, in cracking down on a grass-roots protest movement that started in October.

But Mr Al Kadhimi’s Iraqi National Intelligence Service was not seen as being involved in the deaths of demonstrators, or the abduction and killing of civil figures.

University of Baghdad, commissioned during Iraq's Hashemite monarchy. AP

Mr Al Kadhimi, who was a human rights advocate in the 1990s and 2000s, made it clear in his manifesto that his priority was to disarm the militias and restores what he terms a more tolerant Iraqi culture.

His primary ally in the Cabinet will be Finance Minister Ali Allawi, nephew of the late Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, a mentor of Mr Al Kadhimi.

Mr Allawi, 73, an academic and former banker, is one of few politicians left in Iraq who is a product of a gentler country. He took on several government portfolios after the 2003 invasion and authored a book on the toppling of Saddam, then "losing the peace".

Mr Al Kadhimi was born in an era of bloodshed in 1967. But the two men, perhaps more than most in the system, reject the logic of violence.