Can Iraq’s new Prime Minister Disentangle His Country from Iran’s Embrace?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Reports of the capture by the Iraqi forces of the alleged leader of ISIS have come at a very important time for new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi. Mr. Al-Kadhimi has made the fight against the remnants of ISIS in Iraq one of his government’s main priorities. And yet, considering the looming challenges ahead, the capture of Abdulnasser al-Qirdash may pale in comparison to more long-term concerns including dealing with the influence of Iran in Iraq and overcoming Iraq’s domestic political disfunction.

According to Press TV reports, the newly appointed Iraqi prime minister has wasted little time going after ISIS remnants in a show of force and intending to shore up his credentials amidst a fractious political landscape: “Iraq’s Armed Forces have launched a new military operation against the Daesh terrorist group covering the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin to the Syrian border. Iraq’s Security Media Cell announced the beginning of the counter-terrorism campaign, dubbed Operation Al Jazeera Lions, on Sunday…. Iraq declared victory over Daesh in December 2017 after a three-year counter-terrorism military campaign, which also had the support of neighboring Iran. Recently, however, Daesh has launched a string of terrorist attacks targeting civilians and Iraqi forces, among them Hashd al-Sha’abi fighters.”

The National’s Khaled Oweis points out that the military operation followed a meeting between PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi and pro-Iranian militias, where the Iraqi prime minister tried to assure officials from the Popular Mobilization Forces that they would continue to play an important role in ensuring the security of the country: “Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi has said the military will soon begin a major offensive against ISIS and that militias backed by Iran will be part of the operation. In an attempt to placate the pro-Iranian militias, Mr Al Kadhimi made the announcement during a visit to the Baghdad headquarters of the Popular Mobilisation Forces [also known as the Hashed Al Shaabi] on Saturday…. Mr Al Kadhimi said the military operation against ISIS would be widespread and aimed at preventing a resurgence of the group, ‘with a big role and with a fundamental participation of the Hashed’.”

The visit may have also been an important gesture on the part of Mr. Al-Kadhimi since, as The Baghdad Post’s Baria Alamuddin writes in a recent op-ed, the pro-Iranian militias may have already been rattled by “The fact that a raid against the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia was one of the first moves taken by new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, [which] could be interpreted as a significant gesture of intent. Al-Kadhimi declared that ‘those who spill Iraqi blood will not rest’. He also liberated large numbers of Iraqis detained during the protests…. The prime minister has won praise for his speed in putting a Cabinet together and the technocratic flavor of his appointments…. Al-Kadhimi’s tenure represents a window of opportunity for the Arab world and the West to re-engage with Iraq and empower moderate elements that could squeeze out the sectarian, Iran-allied factions in forthcoming elections. Only Iraqis can win their country back.”

Sensing a possible reorientation of Iraqi strategic priorities, the Iranians have been keen to reach out to the Iraqi government. During a recent exchange between the two countries’ defense ministers, as reported by the Tehran Times, “Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said on Sunday that Tehran and Baghdad should become ‘strategic partners’…. Hatami attached great importance to expanding defense cooperation to help establish regional security and stability. He also invited the Iraqi defense minister to visit Iran…. Mostafa Moradian, the Iranian military attaché to Baghdad, also met with the Iraqi defense minister and called for expanding military cooperation, ISNA reported on Sunday. In the meeting, the Iraqi defense chief praised Iran’s support for Iraq in fight against Daesh. In a phone conversation with new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on May 11, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran will stand beside the Iraqi government and people.”

However, many in the region, including Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, have urged the Iraqi prime minister to disentangle Iraq from Iran’s firm embrace and chart an independent course: “Al-Kadhimi’s most difficult tasks will be to save Iraq from Tehran, which wants to control its neighbor, and to steer his country away from the dangers of the US-Iran conflict…. The new prime minister needs to build public confidence in the government and secure the cooperation of parliament to meet the demands of demonstrators. He will also have to quickly control the militias and ‘restore prestige to the military and security institutions’, as he himself said.”

There are doubts however about Mr. Al-Kadhimi’s ability to govern Iraq given the country’s political and security challenges, leading Albawaba’s Diyari Salih to conclude that “there are many who doubt that the political parties will understand such necessary conditions that are needed to allow Al-Kadhimi to save the Iraqi state…. The Iraqi political experience has proved we need a new generation to lead the state. Traditional parties have lost their ability to manage the change people are dreaming of. These political forces are obliged to change their policies and to work with others to find a way out of this impasse. This is what Iraqi people want from them. Otherwise, they will be responsible for failing Al-Kadhimi’s government, that is now being restricted by many political interests, which will restrain the effectiveness of its action in the upcoming period.”

Writing for Arab News, former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis is sympathetic to the challenges faced by the new Iraqi prime minister, adding that the task is made harder by the fact that Mr. Al-Kadhimi “does not have his own power base, so he has to rely on the support that the sectarian and ethnic groups will extend to him. The tendency in Baghdad to reduce the prerogatives of the US military has become more acute since Qassem Soleimani’s assassination in January. After this deliberate act of violence, the Iraqi parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution to expel US forces from the country altogether… Al-Kadhimi’s government program provides for the preservation of Iraq’s sovereignty. This must be a diplomatic way to tell foreign countries, especially the US and Turkey — and perhaps even Iran — to withdraw their forces from Iraqi territory.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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