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Mustafa al-Kadhimi | The spymaster-turned-PM

Iraq’s new leader takes over a country hit by economic and security crises

When Mustafa al-Kadhimi was picked to head Iraq’s National Intelligence Service in 2016, the country was in a very bad shape. Just two years ago, the Islamic State had captured swathes of Iraq in the north and north-west, including Mosul, the second largest city. Protests were raging in Baghdad and southern cities, demanding better public services and an end to corruption. Iran was tightening its grip over the government in Baghdad through Shia militia groups. Mr. Kadhimi, a journalist and a rights campaigner, did not have any experience in spycraft. Prime Minister Haider Abadi chose him because he had worked as a successful political mediator between Iraq’s fractious political parties during several crises.

Defeat of IS

As Iraq’s spymaster, Mr. Kadhimi played a key role in the defeat of the IS. He cultivated strong ties with the U.S. and Iran, both important players in Iraq and are opposed to each other. Iraqi troops, helped by the U.S., Iran-backed Shia militias and Kurdish paramilitaries, recaptured the lost cities, from Fallujah to Mosul, from the IS. Mr. Kadhimi’s relative success as Iraq’s war-time spy chief and pragmatism may have influenced President Barham Salih’s decision in April to nominate him as Prime Minister.

Iraq is never free of crises. If security threats were looming large when Mr. Kadhimi was appointed the intelligence chief, the country was going through political instability and prolonged protests when he was picked for the premier’s job. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahd resigned in late November amid violent protests. President Salih nominated two politicians to head the government after Mr. Mahd’s resignation, but both failed to win Parliament’s approval. Then the President turned to Mr. Kadhimi, who he has known for years. “We just appointed... the head of intelligence of the country. But this gentleman that has just been appointed is a former journalist, a human rights activist, and he's quite, quite well-known in the human rights circle,” President Salih said then in an interview. He was acceptable to both the Americans and the Iranians. Last month, he won the parliamentary approval with the votes of the Fateh Coalition, which is made up of parties that have close ties with Iran.

Born Mustafa Abdellatif Mshatat in 1967, a year before the “July Revolution” that brought the Ba’athists to power, he grew up in the “Arab socialist” Baghdad. In 1985, when Saddan Hussein was at the pinnacle of his power, Mr. Kadhimi fled the country to Iran. He was critical of Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship and, like many other critical voices during that time, he eventually moved to Europe, where he worked as a journalist. Mr. Kadhimi came back to Iraq in 2003, after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Saddam regime. The Ba’ath party would be outlawed and Iraq would fall into a cycle of sectarian violence.

Mr. Kadhimi co-founded the Iraqi Media Network in the post-war country. He served as the executive director of the Iraq Memory Foundation, which is involved in documenting the crimes committed during the Saddam era. He was also an editor and columnist at the Iraq section of Al Monitor, a website focussed on West Asia. But his life took a drastic turn in 2016 when Prime Minister Abadi appointed him as the intelligence chief.

Daunting challenges

As Prime Minister, Mr. Kadhimi is facing daunting challenges. Protests refuse to die down despite the brutal crackdown by the authorities. Iraq has got caught in the conflict between Iran and the U.S. After the U.S. assassinated Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in January in Baghdad, Iraqi MPs passed a resolution in Parliament demanding the ouster of U.S. troops from the country. The collapse of oil prices have hit the economy badly. Moreover, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought the economy to a virtual standstill and unleashed a major healthcare crisis.

Mr. Kadhimi has signalled that he would reach out to the protesters, in sharp contrast with his predecessors. But to placate the protesters, who are agitating against corruption, the rule of the elite, foreign intervention and joblessness, Mr. Kadhimi has to fix a lot of systemic problems today’s Iraq faces. He should also strike a delicate balance between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. would push him to turn against the pro-Iran militias, while Iran would nudge him to oust the American troops from the country. Prime Minister Kadhimi is in an unenviable position.

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 7:50:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/mustafa-al-kadhimi-the-spymaster-turned-pm/article31768400.ece

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