To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Iraq today is a disaster, wrapped in a catastrophe, inside a tragedy.
For two years, Iraq’s government has been paralyzed, caught in a stalemate between Iraqi nationalists and allies of Iran. Since 2014, the latter have been trying to build the Hashd ash-Shaabi militias into an Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, reporting to Tehran. The political and bureaucratic system has been rotted out by corruption.
In October of last year, the problems became so onerous they triggered massive popular protests that shut down what little remained of Iraq’s political activity and pushed Prime Minister Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi to resign.
Then in January, the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Tehran’s pro-consul for Iraq. The strike also killed Soleimani’s principal Iraqi cat’s paw, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, the head of the most pro-Iranian of the Hashd militias. The strikes threw Iraqi politics into an uproar and sparked demands that American troops withdraw from the country.
In recent weeks, Iraq has been swamped by two new disasters: COVID-19 and the collapse in global oil prices. Iraq remains wholly dependent on oil revenues to sustain its bloated federal budget, which is the source of most jobs in the country. Although Iraq has not yet experienced widespread coronavirus contagion, it is next door to Iran, one of the global epicenters of infection, and there is a high risk that it too will succumb. Iraq’s healthcare system is even less capable than Iran’s, and it has proven difficult to overcome cultural practices that spread the virus.
A ferocious political battle is raging in Baghdad over the selection of a new prime minister. Two excellent candidates have already been defeated. Iraq’s courageous President, Barham Salih, recently called on the best candidate of all — Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the chief of Iraq’s most professional intelligence service — to try to form a new government.
It is important to understand how Kadhimi got the nod. After Abd al-Mahdi’s resignation, President Salih first chose Muhammad Allawi, a moderate Islamist Shiite with strong ties to the West but no history of opposition to Iran. Yet Iran and its allies blocked him.
Then Salih chose Adnan Zurfi, an ardent Iraqi nationalist with American citizenship, who had done a superb job as the “law & order” governor of Najaf. Because he was an even stronger opponent of Iran’s, Tehran and its allies blocked him too.
Now Salih has gone one step further and chose, Kadhimi, who had always been his first choice for the job.
Kadhimi is highly intelligent, practical, insightful, and careful. He has proven himself to be an exceptionally effective intelligence chief, in which post he has fought corruption, incompetence, and national security threats with equal vigor and success. That’s a rare thing to say about any politician; in an Iraqi leader, it qualifies him for sainthood.
Kadhimi is an Iraqi nationalist who believes that a strong Iraq requires a strong relationship with the United States. He has worked hard to maintain good ties to the U.S. intelligence community. However, as a Shiite, he knows that Iran has too much to lose and too much influence in Iraq to be ignored. And as a one-time journalist, Kadhimi understands the Iraqi people, what they want, what they need, and why they feel so deeply betrayed by their leadership.
For all those reasons — and because Iraq’s intertwined catastrophes are making even Iran’s allies fearful that the whole state might collapse — Kadhimi has so far garnered support across the Iraqi political spectrum.
Whether Iran will ultimately support or fight his candidacy remains unclear. Kadhimi’s work with the United States as Iraqi intelligence chief made some Iranian hardliners suspicious of him. Worse for them, he has shown a desire to address Iraq’s rampant corruption and the competence to succeed. That is a huge problem for Tehran which needs corrupt Iraqi political and economic systems to endure U.S. sanctions through graft, hard-currency manipulation, and smuggling.
Should Kadhimi get a nod from Tehran, he will have to address Iraq’s myriad crises. He will desperately need a more active and supportive American policy to address Iraq’s problems and stop Iraqis from deciding that the system is unsalvageable, and the only solution is a revolution.
If there were ever a moment to build a strong, independent Iraq — one capable of someday standing up to Iran — this is it.
There are small but important steps Washington could take to demonstrate its support for Kadhimi at little or no cost. Announcing that the U.S. will consult with the Iraqi government before striking targets on Iraqi soil would be a start. Easier still, Washington could grant Baghdad a six-month waiver to buy Iranian natural gas, rather than the 30-day waivers it has been issuing recently.
Mustafa Kadhimi may be the last, best hope to begin moving Iraq in a better direction — the direction we’ve wanted it to move in for years. Shouldn’t we help him help us?
Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute and a former Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the NSC. The views expressed are the author's own.