Mustapha Kadhimi knows that he became prime minister at a critical time. He knows that the world is approaching a bleak and very difficult stage. We are not saying this out of skepticism, but out of acknowledging facts and figures.
It is a depressing phase because we keep hearing more and more calls to coexist with the pandemic, which will inevitably claim more and more lives. The wait for good news to emerge over finding a cure or vaccine is painful. As the wait goes on, more funerals will be held and the world will grow more aware of how fragile it is. It is truly a terrible thing for a mysterious virus to remind the arsenals, spaceships and robots of the world of just how weak they are. It is terrible that an unknown monster could transform the world into a vast prison and trap.
It is a difficult phase because the people coming up with the figures are speaking of an unprecedented depression and a series of catastrophes: the emergence of droves of unemployed people, a massive wave of bankruptcies and concern over the rise in poverty rates and hunger.
Hope could have been pinned on aid from wealthy countries, but the pandemic has also struck them, diminishing the hopes of poor countries in the generosity of others. The pandemic has also reopened old wounds in international relations, specifically between the United States and China. It has also exposed Europe’s weaknesses. If the upcoming phase will be difficult to even the countries with modern and stable institutions that can adapt and seek accountability, then what will it be like for countries that do not?
Kadhimi does not need to be reminded of the horrors of the Saddam Hussein regime. He could not tolerate living with it, so he left the country and tallied the regime’s violations. He returned after the regime’s collapse and set about documenting its crimes. He carried out his mission as a citizen who dreamed of a new Iraq and as a journalist who is entitled to document that phase. However, talk about the crimes of the Saddam era now seem outdated. Kadhimi realizes that there are more pressing and dangerous issues at hand. He knows what happened after the Saddam regime was overthrown and reports pouring into his office doubled when he served as chief of intelligence four years ago.
Indeed, the most dangerous file on the new prime minister’s table is Iraq’s clear failure in the post-Saddam era. It failed in building solid constitutional institutions that preserve both the rights of the people and integrity of the state, despite the various elections that have been held. The elections and arduous efforts to form successive governments have exposed the extent of the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis that led to bloody clashes. It was through these conflicts that ISIS and al-Qaeda were able to rear their heads in Iraq. The truth is that the majority of political forces did not join the battle to build a state, preferring instead to wage the battle to divide it and loot its resources.
Kadhimi realizes that the “legitimacy” obtained by the militias through their participation in the fight against ISIS has become a lethal burden because of their insistence on prioritizing the mentality of factions and threatening to use force instead of resorting to the state of law. It is also no secret that Iraq is victim to an unprecedented looting of resources that has turned a country swimming in oil on the verge of being unable to pay pensions.
The reality is that corruption has been the greatest political player in Iraq in the post-Saddam era. Such player transcends sectarian and racial borders.
Kadhimi knows that the post-Saddam era is witnessing blows traded between the US and Iran on Iraqi soil. This came to the fore after the withdrawal of American troops. Those who have closely monitored developments in Baghdad in recent years know very well that Iran has claimed for itself what appears as the right to manage Iraqi affairs, taking American reservations into account. Those who know the story of the birth of Iraqi governments know that they always had Qassem Soleimani’s touch after another bout of Iranian-American tensions.
Soleimani almost played the role of guide in the post-Saddam era. This role sometimes came close to the lines drawn by the top Shiite religious authority, Ali al-Sisitani, who avoided a direct and open clash with Iran. It also clashed with Washington’s attempts to prevent Iraq from completely slipping into Iran’s clutches.
Last year’s Iraqi intifada came as a sort of scream of protest over the failure of successive governments in tackling corruption and mending relations with the country’s various components. The intifada also showed that the Iraqis are tired of their country being used for tests of strength between the US and Iran, especially after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. The killing of protesters, which have gone unpunished, underlines that the mentality of factions still overpowers the mentality of the state.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in December was another example of just how dire the political, economic and social situation is in Iraq. It was also new evidence of the growing tensions between the US and Iran, which came to a head when Trump took the decision avoided by his predecessors in killing Quds Force commander Soleimani, one of Ali Khamenei’s closest men.
The Iraqi parliament granted Kadhimi’s government confidence as the world grapples with the coronavirus. He faces an arduous and complicated mission. He must listen to the protesters and tackle, if possible, the issue of those who took liberties in assassinating them. He must tackle the economic crisis and put an end to the looting of state resources. He must also mend relations with the Kurdistan Region and work tirelessly in preventing ISIS’ resurgence in the country.
The most difficult task, however, will be how to no longer allow Iraq to be used as an open arena for the US and Iran to trade blows and exchange messages. This probably explains why Kadhimi chose to begin his tenure in office by holding talks with each of the American and Iranian ambassadors. He said that Iraq will not accept to be used as an arena to settle scores or as a platform to attack a neighboring or friendly state. It is not easy being a prime minister in the land of two rivers and a land of two ambassadors.
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper*