Following his appointment on May 7, 2020, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi was keen on visiting the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). However, the visit was a contentious issue among Iraqis, with some deeming the visit to be a friendly gesture, while others opposed it, particularly when Kazimi wore the PMF uniform. This act boldly reflected the mounting popular desire to end the PMF’s armed sectarian outlook.
This visit had wider implications considering its timing and what Iraq was going through. It was an attempt by the Iraqi prime minister to bridge the confidence gap with an organization that does not trust him. In his first speech after he took office, he preemptively addressed the PMF, saying, “Arms should be under the control of the state exclusively,” in reference to one of the basic objectives of his government, along with fighting corruption and bringing home displaced persons. Since the prime minister, according to the militias’ viewpoint, represents a short-term solution within a transitional period that will pave the way for elections, and usher in a more democratic and transparent system, the militias announced that they do not accept him.
The chief of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, called on Kazimi not to interfere in matters which do not fall within his remit, particularly fighting corruption and reforming the system.
On the other hand, Kazimi is not unaware of the fact that he is not accepted by Iraq’s parties and militias, although Iran has not publicly voiced opposition to his appointment.
However, this cannot be understood as Iran’s acceptance of Kazimi. He faced Iranian accusations of involvement in the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF. The Iranians insinuated – in an indirect manner – that Kazmi is Washington’s man in Iraq.
It is believed that Kazimi’s past role heading Iraq’s intelligence services, advanced and qualified him to ascend to power since he was once privy to a mine of secrets.
However, this information seems rather useless as Washington has access to it and Kazimi’s past role raises the likelihood of militias waging a street fight against his government. This is an imminent scenario that could play out in case Iran fails to secure a face-saving or even a partial compromise during negotiations with the United States, leading to the economic sanctions being lifted or suspended to an extent, especially since Iran’s options are no longer as extensive as before.
At a time when Iran is pursuing its set policy of brinkmanship, the militias have continued to provoke the United States through firing rockets at areas in close proximity to the US embassy and targeting the bases of allied forces in the hope that they could pressure the United States to be open to Iran in a way that leads to reaching an understanding between the two sides.
However, the sudden US decision to shift its embassy from Baghdad to Erbil has complicated the equation for all parties. This decision could lead to the weak government of Kazimi being toppled, which in turn could lead to the country’s fragile political system collapsing. The system is based on a complex mesh of appeasement between the United States and Iran. Both countries vie to dominate Iraq. If the link between the two sides is severed, the Iraqi government could fall.
Considering the above, the militias suspended their provocative attacks and returned to the “resistant” option by assassinating activists in Shiite-majority regions and kidnapping and assassinating dwellers in Sunni-majority regions.
These militias had previously conducted military parades, deploying their fighters, and displaying their weapons on Iraqi streets without coordinating with the government, however, the latter has not commented on the matter.
Hence, when these militias carry out assassinations, they understand that nobody will hold them to account. The influence of militias, highlighted by Harakat Hezbollah’s ability to forcibly release several of its fighters who were apprehended after firing missiles at the Green Zone where the US embassy is located, is expected to increase further.
Security operations that fail to identify perpetrators, let alone hunt them down, indicate that Kazimi is unable to spearhead the pushback against militias to cease the growing cycle of violence. This could lead to popular resentment against him, and seal his fate like former prime ministers when the younger generation vented their anger against them.
However, the remarkable shift in the matter is that the current prime minister has not reiterated what former prime ministers reiterated in relation to the PMF. The former prime ministers were bold in saying that the PMF is part of Iraq’s armed forces and must act in accordance with the orders of the commander-in-chief, who is the prime minister. This is mentioned clearly in the provisions of the Iraqi Constitution.
It is no surprise that Kazimi has preferred to remain silent on this matter, stopping short of revealing his convictions which are consistent with reality: the PMF is an armed militia operating outside state control. It does not comply with state laws.
This means that his convictions conflict with those of the Shiite parties and political blocs. The latter are only receptive to those convictions that safeguard their interests and permit them to continue to control the levers of power in the country.
There are blocs facing marginalization, as is the case with the Wisdom Movement, led by Ammar al-Hakim, which has no militia. But these blocs see no interest in throwing their weight behind the prime minister against the PMF. According to their viewpoint, Kazimi’s government will not last and the PMF will remain.
This led the prime minister to stand alone in attempting to address the financial crises without daring to touch the privileges of parties and militias that are exhausting a significant percentage of the state’s dwindling revenues because of declining oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
These developments may partly explain the poor relationship between the two sides even though both sides have refrained from mentioning this.
Notwithstanding the imminent change in the US administration, the crux of the matter is that the whole issue hinges on Iran’s political viewpoint which shapes the approach through which the parties and militias in Iraq deal with the current realities. We can consider the truce reached between the militias aligned with Iran and the United States as a truce between the militias and the Kazimi government. Many believe Kazimi will not be able to keep up the same kind of momentum in meeting his government’s aims since Donald Trump is set to leave the White House. Iran had opted to delay tackling its crises until after the US elections, including the Iraqi crisis, which is the most urgent of these crises.
This truce does not seem to be transitional as it appears to favor Kazimi as well. The fight against corruption was a clear objective for his government, however, he is now retreating from addressing this matter, as well as slowing down in introducing reforms. The mentioned steps can be considered a waste of time, given the circumstances which the parties and militias are experiencing as they await the Iranian go-ahead. This indicates an opportunity for the government to make some more gains, especially in relation to retrieving stolen assets and fixing internal issues.
Also, Kazimi faces additional pressures from the parties via their representatives in Parliament as he increases borrowing and refuses to rationalize government spending. The Parliament voted against a bill allowing an individual to receive multiple salaries. The government’s attempt to pass a contentious bill in relation to domestic borrowing caused a media uproar due to potential increases in government expenditures.
Against all the odds, Iraq’s financial situation seems to be far worse than ever before. This has led to deep pessimism among experts, which has prompted them to sound the alarm bell as they fear bankruptcy which threatens the survival of the Iraqi state.
The sweeping statement that “]Iraq’s[ parties, backed by militias, managed to curb the ambitions of Kazimi and his government because of the financial squeeze,” is not wholly accurate.
This statement is not fully accurate if we consider the economic plans of the prime minister. These plans were not established on sound grounds such as reducing government expenditures, austerity and reviewing laws to limit the waste of public money.
To conclude, Iraq is now in a state of limbo until the strategy of the new US administration towards the region becomes clear. Whatever the outcomes are, the undeniable fact is that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi will continue to be involved in tensions with the militias if he does not carefully consider his strategy towards them.