Amatzia Baram, Middle East Forum writing fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Haifa, spoke to a March 15 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the achievements and failures of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, as well as his policy recommendations.
According to Baram, the assassination of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 opened the door for a prime minister with a more "neutral" and "balanced" approach to relations with America and Iran, in contrast to Iraq's prior "staunchly" pro-Iranian and anti-American prime ministers. As a consequence of Soleimani's absence, the powerful pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are less organized, and thereby less effective.
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi ascended to the prime ministry in May 2020 with the endorsement of Barhim Salah, the Kurdish moderate who is president of Iraq, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential Iraqi Shia cleric highly regarded as a "spiritual guide" by Shia throughout the world, which accounts for the pro-Iranian Iraqi parliament's acceptance of Kadhimi.
Baram listed Kadhimi's achievements as follows:
- The Iraqi army is "behind him, by and large," with "almost all the generals" and most of the middle-level officer corps supporting the prime minister.
- Iraq is on track to hold new elections in October with a new electoral law that promises to limit voter intimidation.
- An anti-corruption campaign has "begun the march" against widespread governmental corruption, with half a dozen former senior officials sentenced to prison terms and several others currently awaiting trial.
- Iraqi state police and military forces have taken control over roughly 25% of Iraq's border crossings, especially in the north, where Kurdish and American forces have been cooperative.
- Kadhimi's government has drafted a "reasonable" draft budget.
- The government has issued a White Paper on resuscitating the Iraqi economy. "It's just a declaration of intent ... but even that is important in itself."
- There has been "limited development of local electricity production" in three southern provinces.
- There has been "far less violence against protesters" on Kadhimi's watch.
- There have been some "very limited successes" against remaining ISIS forces in Iraq, and modest gains in rebuilding Mosul, which was largely destroyed under ISIS occupation. But Baram stressed the need for Kadhimi to encourage Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom are now refugees in Europe, to return to rebuild their communities.
According to Baram, the following are the main failures that still hamper progress in Iraq under Kadhimi:
As the former head of domestic security, Kadhimi is adept at securing his personal safety, but overall the domestic security in Iraq is still a pressing issue as the prime minister struggles to control militias. Despite the military's support for Kadhimi, it is not powerful enough to take on the militias.
A large percentage of Iraq's energy is supplied by Iran, as Iraq's large gas reserves and electricity infrastructure are mismanaged by Iraqi officials. Although Iraq signed an agreement in 2019 to link its electrical grid to the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, "Iran doesn't like it" and has worked to "sabotage" implementation of the agreement. "For Iran, Iraq is a milking cow, and so why should Iran support Iraqi energy independence?"
The Private Sector
The private sector is frozen due to Iran's "dumping policy" of flooding the country with cheap goods, which is particularly devastating to Iraq's agriculture and light industry. Private sector development is bogged down by red tape, corrupt officials, and the plethora of militias who shakedown businesses for "protection" money. Some 60% of Iraqi jobs are paid for by the government, causing a severe budgetary drain.
Iraq is "very rich," but "all this money is ... sinking into the sand."
The lack of private sector jobs is a formidable challenge for Kadhimi as he needs to provide employment for the Iraqi youth and the lower and working classes who supported him "The government budget is crumbling under the huge pressure of paying government salaries ... and pensions," Baram said, a strain which can only be alleviated if the private sector is revitalized. This frustratingly vicious cycle of interconnected failures hampers Iraq's ability to progress. The tragedy is that Iraq "is a very rich oil-producing country but this all goes ... nowhere. All this money is ... sinking into the sand, disappearing forever."
Baram offered specific prescriptions for U.S. policy in Iraq:
- Support Iraq in holding free and fair elections this year so that Iraq's parliament will be controlled by pro-reform voices accountable to the Iraqi people and supportive of Kadhimi's agenda. Most current members of parliament are "not pro-Kadhimi," said Baram. "They voted for him [to become prime minister] because they had no choice, the alternative was total chaos, but they don't support him really, they are pro-Iranian." The U.N. should supervise a democratic voting process.
- "Push the Emirates and Saudi Arabia as hard as you can to overcome Iranian counter pressures," namely by providing electricity and increasing trade and commerce with Iraq.
- Assist Iraq in developing its natural gas capabilities to become energy independent.
- Take a hard stand against the militias. The U.S. can set an example by retaliating against any and all militia attacks on its forces in Iraq.
- Provide economic support to and facilitate investment in Iraq to "turn around the economy and give a huge boost to private entrepreneurs. ... [T]hat's what Iraq needs now more than anything else."
Baram said Kadhimi has been accused by his detractors of keeping Iraq in "stasis" because he hasn't crushed the militias or restored the private sector. However, he believes Kadhimi has shown his commitment to Iraq's success and now is the time for the international community to do its part. "If he is helped by the Arab Gulf states, by America, by Europe in the right places ... there is hope" for Iraq.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.