Iraq’s Prime Minister Kadhimi Can Turn Tragedy Into Opportunity


For Iraq, the murder of a well-known scholar in Baghdad is a tragedy that stands out from an abundance of adversity. For Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, it is also a leadership test — and just possibly, a political opportunity.

The scholar, Husham al-Hashimi, was shot dead on Monday night by gunmen on motorcycles. He was an expert on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and had advised the government on terrorism and extremist groups. In the past year, he had been focusing more on the Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran, that permeate Iraqi security and political structures.

His trenchant criticism earned him their hatred: His friends say Hashimi received death threats from these groups. And his killing fits a pattern of assassinations. Although nobody has as yet claimed responsibility, the militias must be prime suspects.

Prime Minister Kadhimi has promised to bring the killers to justice. The militias represent the greatest threat to social and political order in Iraq. His predecessors have tried, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to bring them to heel. None of them got very far. Kadhimi might, if he can take advantage of a series of fortunate circumstances — in addition to the unfortunate one of Hashimi’s murder.

Kadhimi’s background makes him uniquely qualified for the task. As a former head of Iraqi intelligence, he knows more about the militias than the average politician. His previous job required him to develop relationships in Washington — or more accurately, with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — and in Tehran.

Another crucial element in place is Kadhimi’s choice to lead counter-terrorism operations: He has reinstated Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, who was demoted last year by former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, apparently under pressure from Iran.

Kadhimi could also benefit from Tehran’s travails. Caught between American sanctions and a resurgent Covid-19 outbreak, Iran is reportedly struggling to support its Iraqi proxies. Monthly payments to the Shiite groups have been slashed — consolation gifts of silver rings have been poorly received.

Iran has not been able to compensate for the loss of its chief puppet-master, Qassem Soleimani, and his Iraqi cats-paw, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an American drone strike at the start of the year. Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, has struggled to control the militias, who have not been able to rally around a Muhandis-like local leader.

Since becoming prime minister in May, Kadhimi has tried fitfully to rein in some of the militias. He ordered raids against prominent groups like Kataib Hezbollah, but those arrested have quickly been released. He has warned groups to end rocket attacks on U.S. targets, but these have continued.

What Kadhimi has lacked is the full backing of parliament, where many Shiite politicians take their orders from Tehran, and from ordinary Iraqis. Although he has promised to address the grievances of the young protesters whose “October Revolution” brought down his predecessor, they view him with suspicion as a creature of the discredited political establishment.

To take on the militias and their Iranian masters, Kadhimi will need more support from Iraqis of all stripes and from the international community. In the hands of a skillful politician, Hashimi’s murder could serve this cause. The scholar had been popular with the protesters, who have faced the bullets and truncheons of the militias. Although the October revolutionaries have lost some steam since the early spring — thanks to the pandemic and the withdrawal of support from a radical Shiite cleric-politician — the murder could galvanize them.

The United Nations, European Union, the United Kingdom and other international representatives have condemned the killing. (Even the Islamic Republic felt obliged to summon some faux dismay.) Kadhimi must now ask for actions to follow words: greater military and intelligence support for Iraq, and diplomatic pressure on Iran.

Kadhimi could fail. Tehran retains substantial influence in Baghdad and the will to use it. Even allowing for Iran’s reduced support, the militias are capable of bloodying the nose of any force Kadhimi might muster against them. The Iraqi economy has been devastated by low oil prices and the pandemic. And Kadhimi has yet to demonstrate the political adroitness required to turn a tragedy into an opportunity.

Now would be a good moment to start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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