PMF chairman Falih al-Fayyadh with Iraq’s PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi at a meeting at PMF headquarters in Baghdad on May 16, 2020. (Facebook)

By Track Persia

May 18, 2020

After more than five months with a caretaker government headed by Adel Abdul Mahdi and two failed nominations for the premiership, Iraq has finally settled on a new prime minister. The assignment of the relatively unknown figure who previously headed the national intelligence service Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is hotly debated among his proponents and opponents, in particular over his stance towards Tehran.

The arrival of al-Kadhimin was welcomed by many anti-Tehran’s policy in  Iraq and outside Iraq including the US, hailing him as a leader outside of Iran’s grip on Iraq. They also see him as a competent civil servant with a good insight into popular grievances in Iraqi society and he just needs space to tackle the numerous challenges currently facing Iraq, from the collapse of oil export revenues to the health crisis posed by COVID-19 and the ongoing threat of the extremist groups the Islamic State (IS).

This optimistic assumption on the assignment of al-Kadhimi based on the package of first decisions Kadhimi made upon his appointment such as the immediate release of protesters in detention since Oct. 1, 2019, including those who have already been convicted with light sentences, a move that enamoured him to civil society broadly. He also ordered an immediate review of the electoral law to begin the process of constructing a new electoral framework. Finally, he reinstated the popular army general, Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi — revered by the Iraqi public for his role in the war against the extremist organisation the Islamic State (IS) — back into active service, appointing him commander of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. Saadi’s removal in September 2019 was one of a number of triggers that sparked the protests that grew into the “October Revolution.”

However, Khadhimi’s critics see these decisions as just a window dressing intended to divert public resentment away from the extent of the corrupt political hierarchy which is dominated by pro-Iran paramilitary groups. This is reflected in the denial of the Iraqi justice authorities that there have any detained protesters whose families accuse the militias linked to Iran of kidnapping them during the protests which erupted on 1 October. These Iran-backed groups are widely known for their brutal response to the anti-government widespread protests and many Iraqis hold them responsible of killing more than 700 protesters and wounding and kidnapping more than 25 thousands of them so far.

Kadhimi also surprised observers, when he ordered the raid of the headquarters of the Iran-sponsored militia Thar Allah in Basra. The raid came after the militia on the night of May 10 shot protestors who were gathering outside the building killing one protester and wounding several others.  Thar Allah’s leader Youssef Al Musawi, was arrested in the raid, according to Kadhimi’s media office.  The prime minister later tweeted that the raid had been executed on his personal orders and that “those who spill Iraqi blood will not rest.”

Iraqis saw the raid as a promising step toward re-establishing the rule of law and reining in powerful Iran-backed militias within Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), however, this could be wishful thinking, given this group is not as powerful as other Shi’i militias backed by Iran. Thar Allah has been cut off from political support from Iran for a few years according to some reports and this could be the reason why Kadhimi’s government targeted its members. If it was as powerful as other militias Khadhmi would not dare to have targeted it., simply because he could not afford to anger Tehran.

Indeed, Khadhimi is keen to appease the Iranians, who endorsed the nominations of  Iraq’s previous premiers since 2005, have welcomed Kadhimi’s arrival, depicting him as a technocrat who will break with past backroom deals by political leaders in Baghdad, when sectarian and ethnic calculations prevailed over the national wellbeing.

In late February, six weeks after Iran’s Quds chief general Qassem Suleimani was killed by a US drone near Baghdad International Airport along with the high-ranking militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Kadhimi who at the time was a candidate for Iraq’s premiership, was reported to have visited Beirut to meet up with Iran’s staunch ally and leader of Hezbollah the Lebanese Shiite organisation Hassan Nasrullah.

Iran seems to have decided to assign Nasrullah as a temporary replacement of general Suleimani who had drawn Tehran’s regional projects which faltered with his death. Nasrullah’s new task came as Suleiman’s successor Esmail Ghaani, who no matter how much efforts he exerted, was not able to fill the vacuum his predecessor left. Suleimani was the director of Iraq’s power base and proxy networks which he had assembled over the 17 years of chaos that followed the US invasion in 2003. Ghaani is struggling to assert his authority because among many challenges he is facing is the fact he does not speak Arabic, the language spoken by the majority population in Iraq, nor does he know Iraq’s culture and history,  also he does not have any work experience in the region since his previous work was based in Afghanistan.

Kadhimi ran foul of one of Iraq’s most powerful militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah, which before his designation had accused him of facilitating the US operation that killed Suleimani, and their leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in the US drone strike in the early hours of 3 January.

In a statement issued in early this month, the group said: “During the sensitive times we are going through, the brothers in politics who brought Mustafa al-Kadhimi to be prime minister-designate should know before it’s too late that the man is not up to the responsibility that has been given to him and is still accused of a crime of which he hasn’t been acquitted.”

Kadhimi had tried to exonerate himself from these accusations and to assure Keta’ib Hezbollah leadership that he had played no role in the deaths of their senior bosses Suleimani and al-Muhadis. He sought to meet them under the auspices of Iraq’s president, Barham Sale,  but things left open to the possibility that an official in the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which was under Khadhimi’s leadership and still is, might have had contact with CIA.

According to a circulated report, there has been an informal agreement between Kadhimi and Kata’b Hezbollah that the latter would not stop him from getting the job, but they would continue to talk out against him.

However, Khadhimi’s visit to the headquarters of PMF in Baghdad on Saturday to meet its leadership has raised many eyebrows among many eyebrows. During the visit, Kadhimi reaffirmed his government’s support for the leaders of this network of predominantly Shiite paramilitaries.

“Hashd (PMF) is a force of the homeland who paid sacrifices [during the war against IS] and whose martyrs will remain in the memory of Iraqis,” reads a statement by Kadhimi after being received by PMF chairman Falih al-Fayyadh.

It was a striking move from Kadhimi, given among those who met were senior pro-Iran officials accused of ordering the killing and wounding of thousands of protestors including Abu Fadak the de facto leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah which accused Kadhimi of betraying Suleimani and Muhandis.

The new prime minister has not only angered majority Iraqis for contradicting himself on his stance towards Iran and his support for the powerful Iran-backed Shi’i militias, but he also raised many eyebrows among anti-Iran policy in the US.

Commenting on Kadhimi’s visit to PMF headquarters, Michael Pregent the former CIA officer said: “Khadhimi won US support based on what he said to the Americans behind closed doors,” I am against Iran” this is easy to say. Kadhimi will not say those words in public. Iran only cares what Kadhimi says and does in public – this is required. This trumps what’s said to American diplomats.”

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.