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A slippery slope

After months of chaos, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has finally stepped forward as the Prime Minister of Iraq but a slew of political landmines threaten his already fragile regime

A slippery slope
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Capping months of factional wrangling, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq's intelligence chief and a former journalist, has taken over as the Prime Minister at a time when the fractured country reels from years of internal conflict, terrorism and economic crisis that has got further aggravated due to a fall in oil prices as well as the Coronavirus pandemic.

Iraq has virtually been without a government since last November when the incumbent Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned in the wake of mass protests against government corruption and the country's ethno-sectarian based political system. He continued to lead a caretaker government.

The man initially elected to succeed him, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi could not form a government. Then came Adnan al Zurfi who was also unable to muster enough support to form a government.

While Allawi failed to have his cabinet approved by Sunni, Kurdish and some Shia parties, al Zurfi, who was tasked with forming a government on March 17, did not reach the stage of naming his cabinet.

Shia blocs close to Iran had strongly rejected al Zurfi as they perceived him too close to the US. Recent reports suggest Iran's shrinking influence over an increasingly fractured Hashd, Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which includes several armed groups that critics believe are Iranian proxies in Iraq.

53-year old Kadhimi, was given the mantle of Iraq by President Barham Salih before the gathering of the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni political blocs, signalling that he enjoys their support in the country which reels from internal conflict and terrorism in the post-US invasion years.

Over the years, political parties reflecting the country's ethnic and sectarian divides have a tacit understanding that the crises represent a risk to their collective interest. Despite severe differences, these stakeholders

have together faced civil war, insurgency and multiple protests in the post-2003 political system.

However, notwithstanding the understanding, the two Prime Minister designates failed to form a government before Kadhimi, revealing tensions in the country's political system. This is mainly because of their failure to declare governing parliamentary bloc after 2018 elections. One of the reasons for this is attributed to the newcomers into the political system (two-thirds of the MPS are serving their first term). They are increasingly making their own demands and are less willing to follow the party lines.

One of the reasons for support to Kadhimi appears to be his inclination towards maintaining the political system in Iraq, introduced after the US invasion in 2003 under which power is apportioned along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Kadhimi had fled Iraq in 1985 to Iran before moving to Germany and the UK, which he later became a citizen of. He holds a bachelor's degree in law but is better known his work as a journalist. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he returned to Iraq and co-founded the Iraqi Media Network. In 2016, he took over as the Director of Iraqi National Intelligence Service in light of the intensification of the conflict against ISIL, also known as ISIS. He had supported the US invasion.

His appointment as Prime Minister, analysts believe, reflects his seeming ability to balance Iraq's relations with the US and Iran, which appears to be backing him to continue its influence over Iraq.

In January this year, the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the US in Baghdad further escalated the tension between Washington and Teheran with Iraq stuck in the middle and becoming the home for virtually regular tit for tat attacks. Former deputy leader of Hashd, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed along with Soleimani.

This escalation has left Iraq further struggling to balance its own relations with both US and Iran. Iraq has been grappling with the political crisis since October last year when the government started using brutal force against large scale mass protests in Baghdad and much of the largely Shia south, killing more than 600 and injuring tens of thousands of protestors.

They have been demanding an overhaul of the system, citing corruption, favouritism and its failure to provide jobs and basic amenities to the people. The outbreak of the Coronavirus has quelled the protest for the time being.

Kadhimi's challenges are immense. Taking advantage of the crisis faced by Iraq, the Islamic State — never completely defeated; escalated its attacks in disputed territories. The ISIL group has stepped up attacks on government troops from hideouts in remote areas of northern Iraq.

Iraq is yet to recover from decades of violence that has left its infrastructure in tatters. Initial reports suggest that Kadhimi's going does not appear to be smooth. This is borne from the fact that his candidates for cabinet posts including interior, defence, finance and electricity have been endorsed by the majority of the legislators present in parliament. However, voting on the key oil and foreign ministries was delayed as the parties failed to agree on candidates and have rejected Kadhimi's choices for justice, agriculture and trade. Some parties that did not secure ministries boycotted the vote.

His opposition has also come from armed groups such as Fateh, Ahl al Haq and al Nujaba Brigades which openly accused him of being a US agent and complicit in the killing of the top Soleimani and Muhandis. His main task will be to regain his country's sovereignty, to restore its ties with its Arab neighbours and keep Iraq out of the US-Iran conflict. Strengthening ties with Arab powers can be a stabilising factor for the region and an opportunity for Iraq to restore balance against Iranian influence. Many Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan have extended their support to the new Prime Minister.

Furthermore, Iraq's battered healthcare system is grappling with the Coronavirus pandemic — causing adverse impact on the country's economy. The situation has been further aggravated because of the crash in oil prices, Iraq's principal source of revenue, due to lack of demand in view of the world-wide lockdown.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI. Views expressed are personal

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