Iraq’s new PM faces Uphill task to stabilise country

Less than one week into the job, Iraq’s intelligence chief turned prime minister has already bagged his first bad guys. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was appointed last week, said on Monday that he had detained those responsible for assaults on protesters in Basra the night before, after crowds had gathered in the streets to continue long-running anti-government demonstrations. The arrests were an attempt from Mr Kadhimi to show that his pledge to end the cycle of violence against Iraq’s protesters was more than just tough talk. “I promised that those who have spilled Iraqi blood will not be allowed to rest,” he tweeted.

After managing to form a government last week, breaking nearly six months of political stalemate, he has a daunting task: stabilising a country facing its toughest challenge since the Isis jihadist insurgency began in 2014. Millions of Iraqis are jobless and frustrated. International Crisis Group estimates that government revenue, which stood at over $6bn a month in January, was just $1.4bn in April after the collapse in oil prices — less than half of the amount needed to cover public sector salaries. At $30 per barrel of oil, the IMF expects Iraq’s fiscal deficit to rise to 19 per cent of gross domestic product this year. Meanwhile, an escalating series of altercations between Iran-backed Iraqi militias and American forces stationed in Iraq, has threatened to stoke further conflict and fuelled demands from Baghdad for Washington’s withdrawal.

That messy geopolitical backdrop will make it extremely difficult for Mr Kadhimi to address people’s domestic grievances, said Maria Fantappie, special adviser for the Middle East at the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. “We have seen as long as this US-Iran competition is happening in Iraq there is no advancement on any other file inside the country.” But it also means that he must find a way to reduce the impact on Iraq of the US-Iranian proxy war and his intelligence experience could help, Ms Fantappie said. As Iraq’s intelligence chief since 2016, he has worked with both American and Iranian officials and “could be a mediator who can be trusted by both sides”. A test looms in June, when Baghdad and Washington will open talks to renegotiate their strategic relationship. Washington has signalled its approval of Mr Kadhimi by extending a much-needed sanctions waiver for the import of Iranian gas and electricity for 120 days, four times as long as the last extension.

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Tehran also appears content with Mr Kadhimi’s ascent, who was the third man tapped to form a government this year, after the previous prime minister was forced out by the protests in November. “The decision in Iran is that the mess in Iraq will affect their security and their economic situation,” said Mohammed Radhi, a political-science professor at Nahrain University, “so they want to end this mess”. Domestically, Mr Kadhimi’s attempts to appease the protest movement could buy him some time.

He has ordered all protesters detained since October to be released and launched an investigation into the crackdowns, which have killed hundreds and wounded tens of thousands in the past eight months. He has also acknowledged protesters’ demands for fresh elections, without setting a timeline, and promoted popular general Abdul Wahab Saadi to lead Iraq’s powerful counter-terrorism services. Mr Saadi’s dismissal as second-in-command in late September was one factor in protests against foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. But Sunday’s demonstration showed it will not be easy and with so many immediate obstacles to navigate, expectations are low that the consensus prime minister can introduce the reforms Iraq needs.

At best, he can try to steady the ship. “He’s understood he can’t beat the political parties,” said Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based analyst, alluding to the reluctance of the political class since 2003 to slim down the public payroll and reorganise the security apparatus. “He’s there to stabilise the country.”