Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ascended to the premiership after months of political instability. Starting in October 2019, mass anti-government protests rocked the country and unseated his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Kadhimi’s rise came after two other prime-minister-designates failed to form a government. It has been six months since Kadhimi took office, an event that many hoped would usher in positive change for Iraq. But has it done so?
Maintaining a balancing act as commander-in-chief is critical, particularly when Iraq faces multiple international and domestic challenges. In his program, Kadhimi laid out nine priorities for his government which include, among others: early elections and electoral reform, combatting COVID-19, maintaining state control over arms, and addressing violence against protesters. While some of these goals can be accomplished through the premier’s authority — such as security and foreign affairs — others require the cooperation of the Council of Representatives, such as on electoral and financial reform. Given these goals and restrictions, how has Kadhimi performed?
In response to protesters’ demands, Kadhimi’s first promise was to hold early elections and to reform the electoral law. In August, he proposed an election date of June 6, 2021. Proposing a date, however, does not ensure that early elections will occur, since it has to be ratified by the Council of Representatives. Early elections require financing, and Kadhimi’s cabinet has not proposed a federal budget for 2021, despite it being on his list of priorities. Proposing a budget that includes electoral financing would pressure the Council of Representatives to agree to this date. An already difficult task, as it requires parliamentarians to vote themselves out of a job.
More importantly than setting an election date is ensuring that the early elections, whenever they may occur, are free and fair. Protesters and civil society activists have long called for electoral reform, and specifically for smaller electoral districts in order to ensure better representation. Currently, Iraq’s electoral districts are drawn largely on the governorate level, which gives an advantage to larger and well-resourced parties. Late last month, the Council of Representatives voted on smaller electoral districts, although their system of allocation remains crippled by the fact that Iraq’s last credible census was in 1957; since then, the country has seen massive demographic change.
The government’s second priority is to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, although fears of public backlash have directed their response. At first, the previous government imposed strict restrictions on the population, but by late April they were eased and infections shot up as a result. When Kadhimi’s government took office, it continued easing restrictions, despite the escalating infection rate. Today, Iraq has the second-highest total number of infections and COVID-19-related deaths in the region, just behind Iran and ahead of Turkey, both of which have twice the population of Iraq. Globally, Iraq has the 19th- highest infection rate — a number that is probably itself an undercount because of Iraq’s low testing capacity, which has barely improved under Kadhimi.
Two of Kadhimi’s priorities are concerned with limiting violence, be it through seeking justice for killed protesters or constraining less cooperative paramilitaries. Kadhimi has repeatedly promised to seek justice for the hundreds of protesters who lost their lives in the past year, but has yet to do so. It was not until October that Kadhimi formed an official committee to investigate those crimes. In a televised interview, he explained that it was a time-consuming and difficult task, which required patience. In private interviews, activists expressed skepticism at his ability to implement early reforms and to seek justice for the killed protesters. They also expressed concern at his inability to stop the assassinations and kidnappings of civil society activists in Iraq today, which continue to take place under Kadhimi’s watch, such as the killing of security researcher Dr. Husham Al-Hashimi and the Basra-based activist Dr. Riham Yaqoob.
As one of his first acts in office, Kadhimi tried to confront paramilitaries, directing the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) to investigate rocket attacks against the International Zone, which houses many government ministries and foreign missions, including the U.S. Embassy. In the process, the CTS was asked to arrest Kataib Hezbollah fighters, only for all but one to be released later. Moreover, sources close to Kadhimi have revealed that the prime minister, in apologizing to Kataib Hezbollah, laid the blame on the CTS rather than taking ownership of his decision. By asking the CTS to do the work of Federal Police, Kadhimi has both mismanaged state resources and has chipped away at the reputation of the CTS, one of Iraq’s most credible institutions.
Similarly, the CTS were asked to confront armed tribal actors in Nasriya in search of a kidnapped civil activist, and then, once more, to apologize, in order to avoid the ire of powerful tribes. The commander-in-chief has every right to go after armed groups, but he needs to do it strategically and with determination. Constantly retreating on orders and apologizing to the targeted groups only weakens the CTS, the commander-in-chief, and the Iraqi state. Although some may argue that his hands are tied as an interim prime minister, he is an interim prime minister when it comes to time in office, not in executive power. Therefore, he can afford the political costs of taking on and exposing powerful actors, more so than a premier with long-term career ambitions.
While many consider the job of Iraqi prime minister to be one of the hardest in the world, Kadhimi has set out an ambitious and heavily publicized program for his truncated premiership. The task of an interim prime minister is to stabilize Iraq’s financial, security, and public health sectors while restoring public trust in the state until a new government is elected under free and fair elections in 2021 or 2022. Six months ago, Kadhimi’s government was lauded for presenting the right intentions for reform, but today, his inactions speak louder.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”