The Mideast story with the most potential to change the region for the better is getting insufficient attention.
I’m not referring to the U.S.-brokered deals between Israel and two Gulf states, but rather to current developments inside Iraq, where a highly unusual Iraqi prime minister (a longtime human-rights activist) is fighting to normalize his country.
The odds facing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi are stiff, with Iranian-backed militias challenging his efforts, his followers, and his life. Yet there is real hope for positive change in Iraq, in large part because of Kadhimi’s courage.
“For those who care about stabilizing the Middle East, Iraq is really central,” says Michael Knights, an expert on Iraq and Gulf security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iraq going right could be the black swan that could change everything.” With its central geography abutting Turkey, Iran, the Gulf, and Jordan, Iraq could provide an anchor in an increasingly chaotic region, and a hedge against renewed terrorism from any quarter (including Iran).
So who is this new Iraqi leader and what does he want?
When Kadhimi met President Donald Trump at the White House last month, the news focused on the announcement that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will drop from 5,200 to 3,000 by September. In a small meeting with journalists, which I attended, Kadhimi stressed that Iraq doesn’t want combat troops, but rather “training and security cooperation,” plus cooperation on the economy, education, and health.
In other words, Iraq wants to be an ally like Poland or Kuwait, where a limited number of U.S. troops stays on in the interest of both countries. A relationship where Iraq is not a “forever war” anymore.
But all this depends on whether Kadhimi succeeds in bringing lawless sectarian militias under government control, and combating deep-seated corruption.
His surprise ascendancy to prime minister, in May, came after months of demands by young Iraqi protesters – Iraq’s version of the Arab Spring – demanding an end to sectarian government and violence. Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them poor Shiites, were assassinated by snipers, presumably by Iran-backed forces. (Demonstrators want all U.S. and Iranian forces gone, but were more fervent about Iran.)
Kadhimi came to office promising justice for the dead youths - and reform of a government in which sectarian political parties divide the spoils. He also promised early elections sometime next year.
His bona fides include years of human-rights work in exile and as director of the Iraq Memory Foundation upon his return to Baghdad in 2003. In a previous surprise appointment as director of Iraq’s national intelligence agency, he professionalized the body, which contributed greatly to the defeat of ISIS.
“He wants to hold people accountable for the 700 targeted killings [of demonstrators] and to dismantle the militias, and have only the state bear arms,” says Kanan Makiya, founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation, author and professor emeritus at Brandeis University. “He really wants to be the person who normalizes the country and makes it work.”
Kadhimi has several things going for him. He has an equally committed Iraqi president, Barham Salih, by his side. Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has backed his call to impose rule of law on armed militias. The protesters and the public support him. And Tehran has been weakened by COVID-19, government stumbles, and by the U.S. killing of Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani.
But the challenge is huge. The militias have struck back, assassinating a close aide, as well as a well-known young female activist, Reham Yacoub, while the Iraqi leader was in Washington.
I asked Kadhimi whether he could bring the killers to justice as promised. He grew emotional, thanking me for the question. “I first need to strengthen the tools of the Iraqi state, the rule of law and making Iraqis accountable,” he said.
Kadhimi has established a commission to identify the dead and compensate families, and flew directly from Washington to Basra after Yacoub’s murder to visit her family. And in an unprecedented move toward downgrading sectarianism in Iraq, he has ordered state institutions to stop classifying Iraqis by religious sect.
But the Iraqi leader recognizes he must build up law and order step by step, not challenging the militias before he has the tools (and not confronting neighboring Iran directly, given its long border with Iraq and deep historic ties).
“My situation is, I have a paper sword. I have to turn it into a wooden sword and eventually metal. I can’t afford internal competition when my tools are insufficient. I compare the situation to Columbia when drug cartels were in charge.
"We are entering a new phase to restore trust in the security forces.”
This is a unique moment for U.S.-Iraq relations, which neither Trump nor a President Joe Biden should squander. There is always the danger Trump will pull a Syria, and suddenly try to withdraw all U.S. forces (he has already contradicted the Pentagon by saying troop levels in Iraq will soon drop to 2,000).
No matter who wins in November, this Kadhimi moment is too important to waste.