OPN 200421 Mustafa al-Kadhimi-1587462540577

The formation of a new government in Iraq has dragged on for nearly five months now. After two candidates failed to do the job — Mohammad Tawfik Allawi (former communications minister) and Adnan Al Zurfi (ex-Najaf governor), Iraqis seem optimistic that a third candidate, Mustapha Al Kadhimi, will finally succeed.

For starters, Kadhimi, a former director of Iraqi National Security, has managed to receive backing of all major parliamentary blocs, running across Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian spectrum.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani thinks fondly of him and so does President Barham Salih. The Kurds like him for his long-time opposition to Saddam Hussein.

Iran and the United States have expressed support for his nomination. Both countries had previously worked with Kadhimi on counterterrorism during his four-year stint at Iraqi intelligence.

He currently stands at arms-length from both Iran and the US, neither a stooge nor an opponent, making him favourable to both countries and suitable to play the go-between


Unlike former premiers Adel Abdul Mehdi, Haidar Abadi, and Nouri Al Maliki, Kadhimi has never lived in Tehran nor has he been on Iranian payroll, making him favourable to Iraqi Sunnis as well.

Learning from others’ mistakes

His first predecessor, Mohammad Tawfik Allawi, had failed to form a government because he tried to sideline major political parties, saying that he wanted ministers chosen for their professional merit, rather than political affiliation. That works in a country like Switzerland — but not in Iraq.

Then came Adnan Al Zurfi who failed because political parties could not agree on seats in his government. Previously, Adel Abdul Mehdi had fallen from grace because he allowed his security services to fire at the unarmed street demonstrators, coming across as too pro-Iranian.

Haidar Abadi was ejected from office because he lost Iranian backing after saying that he would abide by renewed US sanctions on Iranian banks. Both were destroyed because of Iran and Kadhimi knows that only too well, since he was Abadi’s intelligence chief.

Kadhimi is a smart man who will try to avoid the mistakes of all his predecessors. He intends to create a cabinet of politicians, rather than technocrats, which promises to satisfy all local, regional, and international players.

He currently stands at arms-length from both Iran and the US, neither a stooge nor an opponent, making him favourable to both countries and suitable to play the go-between.

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Like Mohammad Allawi, however, Kadhimi is a relative newcomer to Iraqi politics, which is not a good thing. Prior to his appointment as intelligence director in 2016, he had never held a government position in his life.

The Iraqi bureaucracy is no easy thing; those who are not accustomed to it often drown in its complexities.

Kadhimi’s curriculum vitae includes three forms of life experiences that are all of little value for his new job; executive experience at the London-based Iraqi Memory Foundation, analytical at Al Monitor website, and journalist at Al Usbu’iya newspaper (owned by President Salih).

The only experience that matters is his service at Iraqi security since 2016.

Additionally, Kadhimi hails from none of the hereditary Shiite political families like the Sadrs and Hakims, although he is married to the daughter of Mehdi Allak, a ranking figure in the Al Dawa Party.

He does not belong to Al Dawa or to any political party, meaning that he would have to walk an extra mile to satisfy their demands.

Watching and waiting are very powerful groups like the Sadrists, the Badr Organisation, the Popular Mobilisation Units and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Perceived political weakness

All signed off his nomination, thinking that they can milk him, precisely because of his perceived political weakness.

At least two powerful Iran-backed militias have already vetoed his nomination — Asa’ib Alal Al Haq and Iraqi Hezbollah. During his tenure at Iraqi intelligence, Kadhimi had tried to disarm their militias.

And even if he does succeed in forming a government, Kadhimi will face two monumental challenges. One is appeasing the angry street, which erupted in revolt last October. Hundreds of young men have been shot by the security services and expect justice from Kadhimi.

It is an open secret that in Iraq those who opened fire belong to the very same militia leaders who need to approve Kadhimi’s nomination in parliament. Can he or will he put them in jail?

Additionally, Iraqi youth have also been demanding a non-sectarian system, higher wages, and better government services, which will be impossible with the worldwide reduction in oil prices.

Also, just like many of its neighbours, Iraq is waging an invisible war against Covid-19, which has claimed the lives of many. Unlike Iran, however, most of its well-trained doctors have left the country while the hospitals are overcrowded, understaffed, and lack enough ICU beds with ventilators.

But Covid-19 can also be an opportunity for the Prime Minister-designate. Mustapha Al Kadhimi might just succeed in forming a government, because the entire neighbourhood is simply too busy with its own health issues to stand in his way.

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.