Fresh faces are rare in Iraqi politics. An exception can be found in the country’s new prime minister, bureaucrat-turned-politician Mustafa Al Kadhimi. As a former journalist and director of the National Intelligence Service he is free of affiliation to Iraq’s competing ethno-religious factions that have long scuppered effective national policymaking. Kadhimi assumed office on 7 May promising to operate a technocratic government that will deliver sustainable economic and political development: in his words a "solution-based, not a crisis government". He fashions himself on Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a model technocrat who guided the country’s transformation into a bastion of prosperity and stability.
Unfortunately for Kadhimi, precedent leaves no cause for optimism. Failed technocratic governments litter Iraq’s modern history. Cabinets promising to rise above sectarian factionalism have always capitulated to the demands of powerful political forces and their corresponding militias. The most recent, curated by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in 2016, was paralysed by disputes with the Popular Mobilization Forces. Kadhimi has already bowed to pressure from the Iran-backed Fateh faction and pledged to uphold the muhasasa; the ethno-religious political apportionment system that perpetuates sectarian discord.
Worse still, Iraq faces a conflation of crises that threaten to overwhelm the incoming administration. Anti-government protests, albeit diminished, continue in Baghdad. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely contained, it presents a long-term threat to public health and has inflicted significant economic damage. Low oil prices exacerbate the budgetary pressures generated by the pandemic. A resurgent Islamic State in the northeast presents a tangible security threat, whilst the ominous spectre of conflict between Iran and the US, played out in Iraq, looms large.
Kadhimi is arguably Iraq’s most promising prime minister in the post-Ba’ath era. However, the realities of governance and the multiplicity of challenges Iraq faces are almost certain to disrupt his well-intentioned plans for comprehensive reform.
This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up for the newsletter here.