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Iraq’s Patient Prime Minister

Iraq’s Patient Prime Minister

Thursday, 10 June, 2021 - 06:45
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

The job of prime minister in Iraq is perhaps the most difficult in the region and Mustafa Kadhemi’s biggest challenge is imposing control over all the armed in Iraq. There was some hope that the arrest May 26 of militia commander Qasim Moslih indicated progress on the part of Kadhemi. Instead, it appears that after Hashd Shaabi militias storming the Green Zone that the government and the Hashd reached an agreement that would ensure Moslih’s eventual release. Leaders of the militias are celebrating Moslih’s release now, but their long-term position in Iraq is not so good either.

First, and most important, the militias loyal to Iran have damaged Kadhemi’s credibility, but they are losing their political credibility too. Their campaign in January 2020 to win a parliament vote demanding the American forces withdraw from Iraq gained only 170 votes in the parliament of 328 members. Many political figures and blocs boycotted the parliament session instead of voting in favor of the militias’ resolution. Meanwhile, for much of the past three years Baghdad and cities south of the capital have witnessed large street protests denouncing the militias’ corruption and repression. The protesters also blamed Iran for supporting corrupt officials. Who could have imagined ten years ago that by 2018 Iraqis would attack Iranian consulates in the cities of Najaf and Karbala as well as Basra? The militias and their allies in the police have succeeded in intimidating the street protest movement to an extent. However, the protests that erupted in Karbala after the murder of activist Ihab Wazni last month, and the immediate attack by protesters against the Iranian consulate in Karbala after the murder of Wazni, show that the anger is still there.

It is also interesting that the Najaf marja’iyah publicly support the protesters, and the office of Ayatollah Sistani has consistently urged that the government control all armed groups in Iraq. Qasim Moslih started his activities with a militia formed under the auspices of Sistani but later he joined a pro-Iranian militia. It is no surprise that the marja’iyah did not criticize Moslih’s arrest. The problem of legitimacy is why the pro-Iranian militias emphasize their resistance against the remaining 2,500 American troops in Iraq and why they have even criticized the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq. They have no other claim to legitimacy. Unfortunately for them, the Iraqi public is more interested in electricity and clean water, problems the corrupt militias and their political friends can’t solve.

It is fair to ask why Kadhemi doesn’t take stronger action against the militias if this action would enjoy support from the Iraqi public and the marja’iya. The defense minister Juma Inad Saadoun, a former general in the army, told Iraqi reporters on May 29 that fighting between the army and the Hashd Shaabi would start a civil war, and that Iraq now can’t bear more martyrs. The minister added, however, that Kadhemi’s government hopes the May 27 storming of the Green Zone was the last security breach. He warned that the government would pay any cost to stop another such breach. The minister perhaps was bluffing. However, it is worth mentioning that Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr militia and president of the militia political bloc in the parliament, told al-Seyaq television program that Moslih’s arrest was a mistake on the part of the government and the storming of the Green Zone was a mistake on the part of the Hashd Shaabi. I met Amiri many times during the American occupation. He is a tough man who does not conceal his close relations to Tehran. He understands the use of force and politics. He also understands the balance of power, and his comment recognized a kind of government strength with which the militias must coexist.

Kadhemi cannot imprison militia leaders like Qasim Moslih, but the militias and their allies cannot remove their enemies inside Kadhemi’s security apparatus. Their calls after Qasim Moslih’s arrest May 26 to remove General Ahmed Taha Hashim (Abu Ragheef) at the Interior Ministry and to punish the defense minister for his remarks were unsuccessful. In addition, General Abdel Wahab Saadi who commands the counter-terrorism service executed the arrest warrant for Moslih readily. Faced with this security apparatus, the militias resort to assassinations, such as the murder of an intelligence colonel last weekend near Baghdad, to warn the government. For now, Kadhemi is retreating a few steps while he reassures Iran in his media interviews. His government cooperates with Iran economically to the advantage of both. At the same time, the international coalition training mission for the Iraqi army and counter-terrorism service continues. Kadhemi’s government is appointing more loyalists inside the security apparatus. Government oil revenues are rising. Which side does time favor?

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