Iraqi leader fights on multiple fronts as economic and security crisis deepens

When thousands of Iraqis took to the streets last month to mark the anniversary of mass protests that forced the resignation of the government, Mohammed did not dare venture out.

Instead, the veteran activist was holed-up in the southern city of Basra, fearful of militias who have stepped up attacks against those demanding change to a political system many Iraqis consider corrupt and beholden to armed factions.

“Many of our friends either died or survived an assassination attempt,” said Mohammed, who asked that his real name not be used. “Now we are in hiding.”

His fears demonstrate how little has changed since the 2019 protests Iraqis dubbed the “October revolution”. The demonstrations initially raised hopes after the then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned and was eventually replaced by caretaker premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a political neophyte who promised to address the protesters’ grievances.

Mr Kadhimi vowed to prosecute those responsible for killing more than 500 protesters, rein in militias, stave off economic collapse and hold early elections next June under a new electoral law.

But seven months after his appointment, Iraq has slipped deeper into crisis as the downturn in oil prices has left the government struggling to raise funds to pay salaries, coronavirus cases have soared and militias roam freely, striking fear into their critics.

Even Mr Kadhimi’s associates say he will struggle to deliver on his pledges. “This is a temporary government up against a system that is 17 years old — it’s often under-appreciated just how deep the vested interests are that we are working against,” a senior Iraqi official said, referring to the period since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi demonstrations last year were dubbed the ‘October revolution’ but the country remains mired in insecurity and economic crisis © Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Mr Kadhimi acknowledged the challenges on a trip to Europe last month. The “entire fiscal situation has collapsed” because of the slump in crude prices he told reporters at a roundtable interview in London. Iraq depends on oil revenues for 90 per cent of its budget.

The government is also under pressure from a US administration frustrated with Baghdad’s inability to restrain Iranian-backed militants as Mr Kadhimi tries to balance the competing interests of Washington and Tehran, the two main foreign powers vying for influence in Iraq.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, in September threatened to close the US embassy in Baghdad if the government failed to stem militia attacks on American targets. The Iraqi official said Baghdad took the threat “seriously”, warning such a move would trigger an exodus of other diplomatic missions and isolate Iraq.

Mr Kadhimi has made some attempts to take on militias, notably in June when security forces launched a raid against Kita’ib Hizbollah, an Iranian-backed group Washington blames for attacking its troops.

But militiamen detained in the operation were released and the following month, Hisham al-Hashemi, an adviser to the prime minister, was assassinated in apparent retaliation. At least two activists in Basra, a centre of the protests, were killed in the following weeks — sending some like Mohammed into hiding.

Mr Kadhimi said the killing of Hashemi and the activists was an attempt to target the government. He insisted he was working to “discipline and control” the militias, many of which are part of the state security apparatus under umbrella group the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

But, he added: “My policy relies on patience . . . rather than being dragged into a civil war.”

Many see Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the country’s last chance to have a more liberal, reform-minded leader © Christian Marquardt/Pool/Getty

Many inside and outside Iraq view reining in the armed factions as almost impossible, given their firepower and role in the political system, set against the weaknesses of the more formal security forces.

“The stark reality is there is no security force that can be counted on absolutely . . . that’s not a foundation to embark on security sector reform,” the Iraqi official said.

He said Mr Kadhimi’s aim was to “lay down the tracks for the next government and a [change of] course” after elections.

The prime minister has said he will not seek a second term, but he is expected to be part of efforts to form a new political entity to take on the factions that have dominated Iraqi politics.

“We know [Kadhimi] cannot control the arms, but we were betting on using democracy [through] the early elections and the election law,” said Mushriq al-Furaiji, an activist in Baghdad.

But Mr Kadhimi is not guaranteed to be able hold the polls on schedule as an electoral law intended to boost representation needs the support of rival factions in parliament. Even then it would not address the political quota system — under which those factions share out government posts — that many Iraqis blame for cronyism and patronage.

On the economic front, the cabinet last month approved a “white paper” that sets goals for reforms, including slashing the public sector wage bill from 25 per cent to 12.5 per cent of the budget and narrowing the fiscal deficit from 20 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent.

But painful reforms that would hit already struggling households will be difficult to implement, particularly during an economic crisis ahead of elections.

Yet for all the problems, many consider Mr Kadhimi the country’s “last chance” to have a more liberal, reform-minded leader, said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House. The fear is, if he fails “something worse is about to come”.

“There were a few years after the fight against Isis when things seemed to be improving, but that was always a smokescreen because nobody was addressing the roots of the problem — the lack of accountability in politics, the armed groups and the economic problems,” Mr Mansour said.

“I don’t know how much more they can keep kicking the can [down the road]”.

Additional reporting by Chloe Cornish in Beirut

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