Mustafa al-Kadhimi who became Iraq’s new prime minister on May 7 after winning parliamentary approval is an enigma. He is a secularist in a deeply religious society. Before being tapped for the prime ministerial post, he was Iraq’s intelligence chief (June 2016-April 2020). It was under his watch that Iran’s Quds Force commander, General Qassem Solaimani, accompanied by the deputy head of Iraq’s al Hashd al Shabi militia, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis were martyred by the US at Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020. Al-Kadhimi is also a British citizen and Baghdad airport security was under British control when the two commanders were martyred.
Add to this long list of ‘credentials’ and ‘achievements’, “Al-Kadhimi also served as editor-in-chief of Iraq’s Newsweek magazine for three years from 2010. He is also an opinions writer as well as the editor of the Iraq section of the US-based Al-Monitor website,” according to Al Jazeera. With such close connections to the US, he still received backing from the Fateh Coalition, the second largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament that is made up of Shi‘i political parties with close ties to Iran.
So, what’s going on? Let us take a closer look.
While the Iraqi parliament approved a new government on May 6, only 15 of the 22 designated ministers were approved. Several crucial ministries including oil, foreign affairs and justice, were left vacant. This meant horse-trading was still underway in the murky world of Iraqi politics.
Another revealing move was the re-appointment of General Abd al Wahab al-Sa‘adi as deputy commander of Counter-terrorism operations. He had been reassigned to a new post in the defence ministry last year but he publicly opposed it. Then prime minister Adel Abd al Mahdi was angered by such insubordination and said that “officers frequenting embassies is unacceptable and impossible; the military cannot be left to personal interests.” He was referring to al-Sa‘adi’s frequent visits to the US embassy in Baghdad.
Two days after formation of the new government and the day he held his first cabinet meeting on May 9, al-Kadhimi’s government was rocked by protests in Southern Iraq. The protests were centered around the cities of Kut and Basra, home to some of the poorest people in the country.
They were protesting against ongoing “corruption and theft”, according to Iraq’s Arabic-language al-Sumaria TV network, as reported by Iran’s Press TV. The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the economic crisis that has ravaged people’s lives for decades.
The US invasion of March 2003 that ousted the long-entrenched dictator Saddam Husain from power also destroyed the country’s infrastructure. And it gave rise to the worst kind of sectarianism, fueled by the US to keep people divided so that it could control the country and plunder its oil resources to enrich American corporations. “They have our oil under their soil,” in the infamous words of former US Vice President Dick Cheney before Iraq was invaded—for the second time—by the US in 2003 (the first time was in January 1991).
Before parliament voted on the new cabinet on May 6, al-Kadhimi pledged that his government would be a “solution-based, not a crisis government”, referring to the protests that had periodically paralyzed Iraq since October 2019. Two previous contenders for the prime minister’s post—Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi—were unable to garner support in the fractious Iraqi parliament. But as the Kut-Basra protests show, it is easy to make promises, much more difficult to fulfill them.
Despite the horrific crimes that Saddam’s regime perpetrated against Islamic Iran, once he was ousted from power, Tehran chose the high moral ground and extended a helping hand to its westerly neighbor. Even while subjected to illegal US sanctions that have severely stymied Iran’s economy, it has provided much-needed material, political and security support to Iraq. As soon as al-Kadhimi was confirmed as prime minister, the US announced it would provide a 120-day waiver to Iraq to import Iranian gas and electricity instead of the previous 30-day period.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State also immediately called al-Kadhimi and pledged ‘continued US support’. In a balancing act, al-Kadhimi appointed General Othman Ali Farhood Musheer al-Ghanimi as Interior Minister. General al-Ghanimi was the chief of staff of the Iraqi army and provided protection to Iraqi and Iranian pilgrims during the Araba‘een marches that were constantly threatened by ISIS terrorists attacks. He is close to Iran.
The key post of Finance Minister went to Ali Allawi, a pro-western figure with close ties to Washington. He is the nephew of the late Ahmed Chalabi. (Chalabi was instrumental in helping the Bush regime with the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ propaganda to invade Iraq in 2003. No WMDs were found!) Allawi has also served at the World Bank.
The other important post, that of Defence Minister, went to Juma Emad Saadoun Khattab. He is from Saddam Husain’s home governorate of Saladin and is one of the few Sunni officers in Iraq’s predominantly Shi‘i military. This is in keeping with al-Kadhimi’s pledge to be fair in the distribution of portfolios among various ethno-religious communities. If he can maintain that balance, it will serve Iraq well since all important constituencies in the country must be represented and should not be made to feel alienated.
Al-Kadhimi, born in 1967 as Mustafa Abdellatif Mshatat in Baghdad, adopted the name Mustafa al-Kadhimi when he opted for journalism in England. He had obtained a law degree from Futath University in Iraq. As an opponent of Saddam’s regime, he had to flee Iraq, first to Iran and from there to Germany. He finally settled in Britain where many Iraqi opposition figures were based. He acquired British citizenship during his stay which enabled him to move easily between Britain and the US, cultivating links with the American establishment, especially the CIA.
The Americans were on the lookout for anti-Saddam figures, preferably secularists, but they did not mind cultivating religious figures either. This was evident from how Iraqi religious figures and groups in Dearborn (MI) and Los Angeles (CA) easily fell into the eager embrace of the American establishment.
Al-Kadhimi’s close links with the US were confirmed by the New York Times when it reported that he is close to the Washington establishment. Upon assuming office, al-Kadhimi immediately set up a committee to examine all facets of Iraq’s strategic relations with the US. He also met the US ambassador in Baghdad to assure him of continued close ties. He did the same with Iran’s ambassador, assuring him that Iraq would not be used as a transit route for terrorists to undermine the Islamic Republic.
The other aspect of his life is that as Iraq’s spy chief, he cultivated close links with the spy agencies of many countries, especially the CIA, Britain’s MI6 and the Saudis. Al-Kadhimi enjoys close personal relations with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has invited him to visit Riyadh. This has led to speculation that al-Kadhimi would use this link to get financial support from the Saudis. Given the kingdom’s own financial woes, this wish may not be realized.
When he returned to Iraq after Saddam’s ouster, al-Kadhimi used his journalistic skills acquired in Britain to cofound the Iraqi Media Network. No doubt, the Americans provided generous financial support. He also continued to work as executive director (2003-2010) of the UK-based Iraq Memory Foundation. With offices worldwide, the organization was founded for the purpose of documenting the crimes committed by Saddam’s Ba‘athist regime. It is not difficult to figure out where the funding came from.
In his new assignment, al-Kadhimi’s challenges include addressing people’s grievances about corruption, restoring Iraq’s share of the oil market (a major hurdle in these times) and balancing the interests of both internal and external players. None of these will be easy to achieve.