Why the United States should reconsider its support for Mustafa Kadhimi
The gap between Washington’s view of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and reality is growing every day. Kadhimi is remembered by many in the State Department as the human rights expert who chronicled the abuses of late dictator Saddam Hussein or the journalist who covered Iraqi politics for Al-Monitor, often as a liberal point of view. Members of the Central Intelligence Agency still regard Kadhimi as the capable bureaucrat who took over as head of Iraq’s intelligence service at the height of the fight against the Islamic State and worked closely with the United States (and the Iran) to end its self-proclaimed emirate. .
The US foreign policy establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief as Kadhimi emerged as caretaker prime minister from the melee that followed the eruption of nationwide protests and the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul. -Mahdi.
Kadhimi had a limited mandate: to oversee electoral reform and act as a watchdog until new elections. The Iraqis hoped that he too could seize the moment. Almost half of the Iraqi population was born after 2003. They were no longer willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Iraqi political power brokers. They wanted fundamental reform and someone willing to expose corruption. Kadhimi’s weakness—that he was not from a political party and therefore had no party machine to support him—could also have been his strength. He might argue that the Iraqi political class needs to take its bitter medicine or face a revolution it would bring them all down.
In the end, Kadhimi has disappointed. His the skin is thin. Iraqis across the political spectrum note that corruption is worse now than under Abdul-Mahdi, though they disagree on Kadhimi’s complicity. Kadhimi’s administration was also that of Iraq worse for press freedom. Tehran has become increasingly comfortable with Kadhimi as the Iranian regime realizes its ambition will lead it to give them everything they need without the scrutiny that Maliki or Abdul-Mahdi would bring. Economically, it boasts of achievements but does not produce the data to back them up. High oil prices will not last forever.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with Kadhimi is ambition. He could have been a great leader if he had prioritized substance over tenure. But his desire to join and perpetuate the system rather than disrupt it led him to allow the most intolerant of Iraqi power brokers – Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Sadrists to ignore reform.
Kadhimi would certainly deny such accusations. Whether pro-Iranian activist Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq attacks the international zone or supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr invade parliament, Kadhimi says he fears precipitating civil war.
Americans have a tremendous capacity for wishful thinking. Eighteen years ago, there was a heated debate in the White House over whether US forces should target and kill Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the youngest and least accomplished son of Martyr Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, had encouraged a mob of thugs to stab Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, the son of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al- Khoei, who had returned to Iraq shortly after US forces invaded the country and had far greater religious credentials and political skills than Sadr.
Sadr’s forces were part of the mafia, mob and terrorized society as Sadr sought to use any means necessary to accumulate wealth. Khoei was among the first he killed, but dozens would follow him. During the US occupation, Sadr aligned himself firmly with Iran. In time, even the Iranians recognized that he was more of a liability than an asset and set their sights more firmly on Hadi Amiri of the Badr Corps, Qais Khazali of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq or Ahmad al-Hamidawi of Kata’ib Hezbollah.
With greed and the desire to be in the limelight both outweighing piety, Sadr eventually transformed himself into a defender of Iraqi nationalism against Iran’s ambitions. Too many diplomats and journalists are ready to believe it. The thought goes: Sadr could be mercurial. He might also refuse to meet the Americans directly, but at least he’s anti-Iranian. This is a mistake, however. The United States should never support a figure who storms Parliament and uses violence to get what he can’t get at the ballot box.
This is why Kadhimi’s reaction to Sadr’s antics is so disturbing. On August 3, 2022, before Friday prayers at Saddam’s former parade ground, an Iraqi special division lieutenant colonel responding to Kadhimi toured the place at the head of Saraya Salam, al-Sadr’s militia. Sadr himself called on parliament to dissolve and hold new elections. As Iraqi political analysts have underline, this reflected a proposal from a senior Kadhimi official. This would effectively keep Kadhimi in power for another year.
Such extensions have a real cost. Iraqi faith in the system is on life support. Voter turnout would hemorrhage in a new election. This would allow the more intolerant forces – Barzani and Sadr – to dominate. Kadhimi can hope in such a scenario that at worst he will get another year when at best he could be a compromise candidate for another four.
Some in Washington can accept such a bargain. Sadr, Barzani and Kadhimi may present themselves as anti-Iranians, but they would be fatal to the hopes and aspirations of Iraqis. Iraqis wanted reforms and a standard of living commensurate with the immense wealth of their country. To accept Barzani and Sadr as the forces behind the curtain would, in the American context, be to put John Gotti, Jr. in charge of the Small Business Administration and Bernie Madoff in charge of the Office of Management and Budget.
Within the walls of the US Embassy compound, diplomats and US officials imagine the worst of Iraq. Yes, Iran is entering the country, but the Iraqis are far more resilient and nationalistic than the United States often thinks. This does not mean that the United States should turn its back on the fight against corrupt officials like Nouri al-Maliki and Amiri. Their loyalties lie outside of Iraq. Saving Iraq from them only to deliver Iraqis to Barzani and Sadr is like rescuing a drowning man in a river and then throwing him into the ocean with cement shoes.
Kadhimi is a patriot, but he allows this dynamic for the wrong reasons. He is at the palace to promote a new Iraq. If he believes himself to be indispensable and seeks to impose a choice between himself and reform, it is essential that the United States be on the side of reform. The reverberation of a candidate whose motivation is to delay democracy rather than encourage it could very well push Iraq beyond the breaking point.
Now a contributing editor in 1945, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies and Shia politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Hiring Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).