For Iraq’s headless government, is 3rd time the charm?

By BOBBY GHOSH | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: April 15, 2020

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Who can begrudge Barham Salih for his Bill Murray-esque world-weariness? If the Baghdad version of “Groundhog Day” is exhausting for observers, it must be soul-sapping for Iraq’s much put-upon president. For the third time since Punxsutawney Phil failed to find his shadow on Feb. 2, Salih is hoping Iraqi parliamentarians can find their sanity and a new prime minister they can support.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, his latest nominee for the job, is now trying to assemble a coalition that will allow the formation of a government. The two previous attempts, by Mohammed Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi, were defeated, primarily by acrimony within the dominant sectarian group in parliament, the Shiites. Both men were deemed insufficiently servile toward Iran by the Fatah faction, which takes its orders from Tehran.

In the paranoid worldview of the Islamic Republic and its Iraqi marionettes, anybody who doesn’t ask, “How high?” when ordered in Persian to jump is automatically deemed an American stooge. Apparently, Allawi failed to pass Iran’s loyalty test. Al-Zurfi was doomed from the start: He had dual American and Iraqi nationality.

Al-Kadhimi looks to have better luck: Tehran and Washington have signaled support for his candidature. In part, this is because, as the head of the Iraqi intelligence service since 2016, he cultivated good relations with both Iran and the U.S.

The Sunni and Kurdish blocks in parliament have also indicated support for al-Kadhimi. In this, he is the beneficiary of a growing fear within the Iraqi political elite that the country — beset by economic, social and security crises before the coronavirus pandemic arrived — may be near collapse. If the squabbling Shiite factions refused to recognize the danger, a visit to Baghdad by Esmail Ghaani, the successor to the assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, may have papered over some differences.

Not all, though. Al-Kadhimi’s role as head of security services makes him anathema to some of Tehran’s proxy militias in Iraq. Indeed, some accused him of complicity in the American drone strike that killed Soleimani and his principal Iraqi puppet, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Members of the Kataeb Hezbollah, for instance, the militia founded by al-Muhandis, believe the spy chief provided the U.S. with the targeting information.

Sure enough, Kataeb Hezbollah has declared al-Kadhimi’s candidature as a “declaration of war” on the Iraqi people. Iran could order the militia to back the candidate, but the regime in Tehran might want to keep its attack dogs snapping at his heels as a reminder of its power.

Al-Kadhimi knows what Iran expects of him: important Cabinet positions, security roles and government jobs for its creatures and free rein for the militias. Tehran also wants increased pressure on the U.S. to withdraw all troops from the country.

The new prime minister will also be required to protect Iranian leverage over Iraq’s economy, which has become more important as the coronavirus crisis hammers Iran. Iraq is an important conduit for sanctions-busting trade, and supplies of foreign currency, much coveted by Tehran.

The U.S., in turn, will want al-Kadhimi to allow American troops to remain, and to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq.

Finding a balance between these demands would be hard enough at the best of times, but al-Kadhimi must also deal with a restive population, especially young Iraqis, who want to end all foreign interference in their country.

The protest movement that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi last November — which set off the sequence of failed attempts at government formation — is on hiatus because of the pandemic. The sight of Iraq’s political class stitching up a new government of old faces, however, will not make it happy. When the lockdown is lifted, the Iraqi public square will once again fill with young people demanding jobs, dignity and clean government. And possibly, al-Kadhimi’s resignation.

That assumes, of course, that al-Kadhimi can form a government — and perhaps finally bring President Salih’s Groundhog Day to an end.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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