Amatzia Baram, emeritus professor of history and director of the Centre for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, spoke to participants in a May 15 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the promising future of Iraq's new prime minister.
"I am a bearer of good news," Baram declared at the outset, explaining that on May 7 the Iraqi parliament elected Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new prime minister, a man who is simultaneously "best for Iraq ... for America ... [and] for peace in the Middle East." Kadhimi previously served as head of the Iraq Memory Foundation, which documented the crimes of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; as a journalist for the U.S.-based publication Al-Monitor; and most recently as head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, the "equivalent of the American FBI," where he earned widespread respect from all quarters in Iraq.
During his first eight days in office, Kadhimi took a series of actions, "all of which are ... almost unbelievable" in their boldness, said Baram, and "good news" for the U.S.
First, Kadhimi declared unambiguously that Iraq would no longer be a "playground for foreign powers" and communicated this to both the Iranian and American ambassadors.
Second, he pledged to root out and prosecute corruption. To show he means business, he instructed the Supreme Court to withdraw the immunity of 20 parliament members facing serious accusations of corruption. "This is a revolution," said Baram, as "no corrupt official, in the last three years, was tried in Iraq."
Third, Kadhimi declared that all militias in Iraq must answer directly to himself in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces. "Until now, that was not the case. ... They never, never abided by any order coming from the Prime Minister or the Minister of Defense, never. Now they do, or at least he says they will." Four militias immediately declared their intention to do just that.
Fourth, Kadhimi retained his position as head of Iraq's internal security and intelligence apparatus and appointed two senior generals with like-minded distaste for Iranian-backed militias as Minister of Defense and the Minister of the Interior.
Fifth, Kadhimi reinstated three-star General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Force (SATF), the one unit in the Iraqi Army "that can really fight," according to Baram. Saadi, a popular figure who strongly opposes Iranian interference in Iraq, had been fired in September 2019 by Kadhimi's pro-Iranian predecessor, Adel Adbul Mahdi, an ouster that helped sparked the series of mass anti-government demonstrations that began shaking Iraq the following month.
Sixth, Kadhimi ordered the release of all protestors who had been arrested during the crackdown on demonstrations and remained in jail – "a couple of thousand" according to Baram.
Seventh, the new prime minister introduced compensation for the families of the six or seven hundred protestors who were murdered and arrested a number of officers responsible for the murders. "He's trying to show the demonstrators, 'guys, I'm for you. I'm helping you'."
The political and economic challenges facing the new prime minister are "horrendous," but this is the "first time I see a real hope" for Iraq since 2003, said Baram.
Asked about Kadhimi's position toward Israel, Baram replied that the prime minister is "not a friend of Israel" and "not an enemy of Israel," predicting that he will "abide by the Arab League" on issues concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But Israel and the United States have two "practical" expectations of Kadhimi: "Don't allow any Iranian missiles to enter Iraq" and "don't allow the Iranians to ship weapons and ... units through Iraqi territory, into Syria." The previous prime minister, Abu Mahdi, freely allowed both. "Apart from that, we have no real expectations."
Asked about the coronavirus situation in Iraq, Baram said the country is "suffering tremendously" because the government has been unable to close the border with Iran, which has the largest outbreak in the Middle East, and because its healthcare system is in "terrible shape" due to neglect and corruption.
Iran will eventually "try to topple him," but Kadhimi "has a good fighting chance."
In response to a question about what the U.S. can do to help Kadhimi combat Iranian influence in Iraq, Baram said that Washington should encourage the prime minister's burgeoning relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. In addition, the U.S. can help the Iraqi government secure loans necessary for improving the country's failing infrastructure, noting that government revenue has fallen by 50% due to a drop in the price of oil. "America can help a lot."
Asked how long Kadhimi will last in his position, Baram warned that Iran will eventually "try to topple him," but that he "has a good fighting chance" of at least serving long enough to preside over free elections if he delivers on his anti-corruption promises and boosts the economy. "I hope that he can last in his job as long as he wants."