Crown Center for Middle East Studies

Iraq’s New Prime Minister and the Challenge of Change

A Conversation with Kanan Makiya

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel, Associate Director for Research

August 12, 2020

The largest and most sustained demonstrations in Iraq’s post-Ba‘th era began in early October 2019, which led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. After five months without a government and two failed attempts by other nominees to form one, journalist and intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi became Iraq’s new premier in May 2020. In this Crown Conversation, as Kadhimi approaches 100 days in office, we discuss the forces that brought the new prime minister to power, his mandate, and the challenges he faces with Kanan Makiya, senior fellow at the Crown Center and professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University. Makiya has written several books, including Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (University of California Press, 1989); The Rope: A Novel (Pantheon, 2016); and, most recently, On Cruelty (in Arabic, Dar Al Jamal, Beirut, 2020). In 2003, Makiya founded the Iraq Memory Foundation, an NGO dedicated to issues of remembrance, violence, and identity formation in Iraq; Kadhimi directed that foundation from 2003 to 2010, and Makiya dedicated The Rope to him.

Although Mustafa al-Kadhimi—unlike the past four prime ministers since 2005—does not have roots in Iraq’s Shi‘a religious parties, he was only able to come to power with their support and had to partly defer to them to form his cabinet. What were the forces that brought about this government? 

I am not sure I would agree with your first sentence. The bloc of Shi‘a parties and armed militias in and outside of parliament were forced into choosing an alternative to their primary choice, the incumbent but then-caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. The demonstrations that began on October 1, 2019 (although they had earlier roots and manifestations) are ultimately what brought a new and different kind of government into being.

Nothing quite like this has happened in Iraqi politics before; at least, not since Iraq’s Shi‘a first exercised power in the shape of the misconceived Iraqi Governing Council set in place by the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2003 after the fall of Saddam. Let us remember the demonstrations and mass protests of the fall of 2019 were overwhelmingly Shi‘a demonstrations against a Shi‘a-led sectarian political order.

The two key demands of the demonstrators were Iraq-centered or “patriotic” in nature. The first was for a polity encapsulated by the most popular slogan: نريد وطن، (nureed watan), “We want a country.” The second demand was an end to sectarianism, which the young Shi‘a demonstrators from Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq associate with corruption, but which also took the shape of a deep animus to the all-pervasive Iranian influence in Iraq.

Now, you are right to point out that Kadhimi does not have roots in Iraq’s Shi‘a religious groupings (they are not really parties, but armed groups; some in and some outside of the formal structures of government). And he does have to “partly defer” to them, as you point out, while not being of them, and this does constitute the biggest obstacle to real reform that he faces.

Adding to the challenges he faces is that today we know something we did not know last fall when his predecessor resigned in November: Namely, that a cabal of the seven largest Shi‘a parties, in and outside of parliament, sat down in secret negotiations with Abdul Mahdi and laid out a plan that involved his formally “resigning” while continuing to act as a caretaker prime minister. Meanwhile, successive candidates for prime minister who were ostensibly acceptable to the demonstrators had their proposed cabinets shot down one after another by this cabal. Their goal ultimately was to have Abdul Mahdi return to office as the only man left standing. It is important to add that Abdul Mahdi had always been Iranian General Qasem Soleimani’s choice for the job, from as far back as the 2005 elections.[1] We are therefore not only talking about the political maneuvering of the Iraqi Shi‘a groupings but Iranian interests in Iraq as well. The plan worked well, twice leading prime minister-designates to withdraw their candidacies, but it broke down with the third and most popular choice, Mustafa al-Kadhimi.  

So then how did Kadhimi succeed in forming a government while the two designees before him failed?

Three factors I believe played a role. First, the strong behind-the-scenes support of Kadhimi by the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (the most influential senior Shi‘a cleric in Iraq). Second, Iranian acquiescence to his premiership, based on their growing perception that perhaps he was not the threat they had originally thought he would be. And finally, the support of Muqtada al-Sadr’s parliamentary group, which weighed in on his behalf in part because of Kadhimi’s good relations with the demonstrators.

Muqtada himself played a very complicated cat and mouse game with the demonstrations over several months, sometimes siding with them and sometimes against. This damaged his reputation with his own social base, especially as some of his most fervent supporters were on the streets themselves, fraternizing with the demonstrators and their organizers. Nevertheless, the Sadr-Kadhimi nexus is an extremely fragile one for a variety of reasons.

Okay, so let’s go back to the previous government: Adel Abdul Mahdi became prime minister after the 2018 elections as a compromise candidate of competing parliamentary blocs. ISIS had largely been defeated, and oil prices were rising. Yet, he lasted barely two years in office. How did his brief term affect Iraqi politics today? 

The Abdul Mahdi government differs qualitatively from all previous Shi‘a-led Iraqi governments since 2003. The Abadi and Allawi governments aside, all were sectarian in practice to one degree or another, but none were so out of ideological commitment to the underlying principles of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

This requires a bit of a digression into the history of Abdul Mahdi, whose role in Iraqi politics is by no means over and done with. In his youth in the 1960s, he was a committed member of the Ba‘th Party’s National Guard and then became a follower of the Maoist split in the Iraqi Communist Party in the late 60s and early 70s. This was followed by a turn to political Islam, ending up after the revolution of 1979 as an ardent Shi‘a sectarian and leading member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Throughout the 1990s, he remained a loyal follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran, and the underlying principles of extending the Islamic Revolution outside Iran.

This personal trajectory combined with a French education in economics, fluency in several languages including French and English, and a soft-spoken, quiet manner, which seemed to work miracles in wooing over the leading lights of the CPA between 2003 and 2005. During those years, Abdul Mahdi was a favorite of the CPA; they saw in him the perfect Shi‘a Islamist moderate to preside over post-Saddam Iraq.

Abdul Mahdi, therefore, was alone in Iraq in possessing enormous credibility with both the U.S. and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders who were in charge of the Iraq portfolio and reported directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But, despite his colorful history, in an important sense Abdul Mahdi had never changed. He was not, and probably had never been, a “democrat,” as that word is usually understood. He believed in “consensus” politics, which, as he described it to me in February 2003 during discussions we had in northern Iraq as members of the Iraqi opposition, involved forcing minorities (read Sunni Arabs) to accept majority views (read Shi‘a Iraqis) as represented by “mass parties” (read SCIRI). As a member of the Governing Council, he contributed to the marginalization of Sunni Arabs (but not Kurds) through the formation of a single Shi‘a political bloc (sometimes called the “Shi‘a House” or al-Bayt al-Shi‘i) and during discussions on the draft constitution.

In government, beginning in 2018, he brought the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi), including its pro-Iranian militia groups, into a new national security body, chaired by himself, which then gave these paramilitary organizations access and influence over many state, police, and national security institutions. This had never happened before; the Iraqi state and the multitude of armed Islamist groupings had been entirely different things. If anything, militia influence was beginning to wane under the previous Abadi government. However, under Abdul Mahdi, militia influence mushroomed overnight. In February 2019, the PMF even announced the establishment of its own naval unit.

The deleterious consequences of this policy did not go unnoticed by the Iraqi public, many of whom despise the militias. And the militias’ influence and connection to the state was felt during the crackdown on the demonstrators beginning in October. I interviewed a protester in February 2020 who had been kidnapped and abused by anonymous masked men. Her captors showed her photos, documents, and social media messages between her and others that had been collected by state security services and shared with her non-state captors. It is interesting to note that she had been released from their clutches by the actions of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, then headed by Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who used his office at the time in a myriad of small ways to protect and help the demonstrators.

Some Iraqis see Kadhimi’s government as an interim one, created to deal with the spread of coronavirus and a fiscal crisis caused by a collapse of oil revenues while guiding Iraq to early elections, which he recently announced would be held on June 6, 2021. Others view his mandate as broader, to include enacting real political and economic reforms and disarming militias. Without a preexisting political constituency and with elections in ten months, to what extent can he challenge Iraq’s political status quo? What is the single biggest challenge this government faces?

Kadhimi’s government is an interim government; he would be the first person to say so, and he has, on more than one occasion. The coronavirus issue is important to understanding why the demonstrations that roiled Iraq have slowed down, even stopped, but I do not think it had anything to do with the creation of the Kadhimi government. The fiscal crisis was being discussed inside the Abdul Mahdi government, before and during its caretaker status, although not publicly. Since Kadhimi’s appointment and the approval of his cabinet, both crises are being used as cudgels to beat down his government, and this was perhaps inevitable. Yet, at the same time, Kadhimi is the first Iraqi prime minister to come out in press conferences and talk openly about the depths of the fiscal and health crises the country faces. These appearances are always somber fact-filled truth-telling occasions whose impact on public opinion, judging by recent polls, seems to be positive, at least for the time being.

Three items rank high on the new government’s agenda. The first is early elections, now set for June 2021. These, Kadhimi has promised, will be internationally observed, which is going to be difficult to realize because of conditions inside Iraq and because the militias will be hostile to the presence of such observers.

The second is accountability for the killings of hundreds of Iraqis during last fall’s demonstrations. On this, he has so far been tardy, although unbiased, independent people have been put in charge of compiling the names and preparing the procedures by which people will be held accountable. The individuals responsible for the killings are mostly from pro-Iranian militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Holding these organizations accountable is going to be even harder than holding free and fair elections.

The third item on the agenda of Kadhimi’s reforms follows from the second: disarming the militias. Kadhimi has made important personnel changes in the security forces and a joint operations coordinating committee restructured by his predecessor. And I suspect he will, at a later stage, disband this committee. Right now, though, it serves his purposes to hold the militias at bay. He has already announced that he thinks they should be dissolved into the Iraqi Armed Forces. But that is easier said than done. More directly, he made one tentative move against the militias, arresting 14-19 members of Kata’ib for mortar attacks, which was only partially successful (all except for one or a few seem to have been released several days later).

One response of the militias has been targeted killings of high-profile intellectuals who are supporters of Kadhimi (for example, the assassination of security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi). In this, we see a foreshadowing of the future struggle that must at some point break out if Kadhimi is to remain in government.

Iraq today is not a “state” in the accepted meaning of this word, above all because the means of violence are not concentrated in state hands. The demonstrators express this in their slogan, “We want a country” - نريد وطن. Can Iraq become one? Unlikely, before the coming elections. My sense is that Kadhimi will play down this plank of his program in the coming months. He is too weak. The militias are everywhere; Abdul Mahdi’s policies made sure of that, as I have previously explained. But in order for Iraq to avoid Lebanon’s and Syria’s fate, its newly emboldened militias will have to be militarily dismantled.

On your second item, of holding individuals in the security forces and militias accountable for the killing of over 500 protestors and wounding of more than 15,000 since October, how can Kadhimi both satisfy the demands of alienated Iraqis and maintain the support of the entrenched ruling elite?

The simple answer is that he cannot. He has to work with the fact that the entrenched Iraqi ruling elite is not one or two unified blocs. It is an unruly, heterogeneous collection of groupings, none of which are driven by ideology but instead by crass material interests compounded by years of corruption. The exceptions are those armed groups who give primary allegiance to Khamenei—mainly Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. These are effectively creations of Iran’s IRGC, and they model themselves after Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They actively seek a situation of dual power in Iraq, similar to what exists in Lebanon, where interests are confined to fiefdoms dominated by one or another of the groups.

The fly in the ointment for those armed groups, as I see it, is the greatly weakened regional capabilities of Iran at this point in time. These stem from a whole variety of reasons, of which I do not need to go into here, other than to say that they were exacerbated in Iraq by Sulaymani’s and Muhandis’s killing,[2] along with what rumors suggest is deep Iranian weariness with the squabbles of its Iraqi Shi‘a militias (especially in Syria, where they seem to have performed poorly). Iranian weakness, albeit temporary, is Kadhimi’s strength in the short term.

Some critics accuse Kadhimi of being too close to the United States and opposed to the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are widely seen as closely allied to Iran. Others have suggested that Iran acquiesced to Kadhimi’s premiership because they believe he will lay the groundwork for either a withdrawal or significant reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq. What does Kadhimi’s appointment mean for Iraq’s relations with those two powers?

I do not share that way of formulating the issues. Iran acquiesced to Kadhimi’s premiership because it needs him (i.e., Iraq) as a way of breaking out of the stranglehold of sanctions. Iraqi markets and banks, influenced by militia leaders, are useful for the Iranian government to launder money and as a channel for foreign currency. And a pro-Western prime minister in Baghdad is a better cover for such operations than a pro-Iranian one. Yes, U.S. withdrawal would be nice for Iran, but contrary to media reports and Iranian and Iraqi rhetoric, it is not an important issue. And Kadhimi’s appointment can be nothing but good news for the U.S. government; his relations with Western intelligence agencies were excellent during his tenure as intelligence chief. But, alas, what it also means is that both sides, the U.S. and Iran, can go on using Iraq in the ugly game that U.S. President Donald Trump set in motion when he withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, establishing an already crisis-ridden Iraq as the terrain over which U.S.-Iranian struggles will be fought for the foreseeable future.

[1] As commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Soleimani was the chief liaison between the Iranian government and Shi‘a parties and militias in Iraq. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on January 3, 2020, barely a month after Abdul Mahdi resigned and before a successor could be agreed upon. 

[2] On the effects of these killings, see: Maryam Alemzadeh, David Siddhartha Patel, and Kelly Stedem, “Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon after Soleimani,” Crown Conversation 1 (Crown Center for Middle East Studies, January 2020),

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.