After five months, and two failed attempts to form a government in Iraq, the country has a new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Khadhimi – a former intelligence chief and journalist.
The country is dealing with multiple crises, including an economy hit hard by the low price of oil – Iraq’s principal source of revenue – and the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrecked economies across the globe, and there is optimism al-Khadimi will be able to set Iraq on a path to recovery.
Described as having a “unique personality,” Iraq’s new prime minister has promised to fight corruption, limit access to weapons to those within the government, and return the displaced to their homes. He has also said a priority will be to hold accountable those who had killed protesters during previous months of unrest.
He also promised early elections and to pass a budget law that will have to address the acute economic crisis, that has deepened due to falling oil prices. The absence of leadership has left Iraq without an approved budget.
For five months, Iraq had no government following the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who stepped down as anti-government protesters took to the streets in their thousands, demanding jobs and the departure of Iraq's ruling elite. Al-Khadhimi was nominated by Iraqi President Barham Salih after two previous nominees failed to form a government.
Fifteen of the cabinet posts have been filled, but some remain vacant – including foreign affairs, justice, oil, agriculture, and trade – as major political parties failed to form a consensus on how they should be allocated.
The new leader was welcomed by the US and Saudi Arabia, among other countries.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended on April 26 a sanctions waiver, allowing Iraq to import Iranian energy for a further 30 days.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the new Iraqi leader and reiterated the Kingdom’s support for Iraq in achieving stability and security.
David Schenker, the State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, said of al-Kadhimi: “If Kadhimi is an Iraqi nationalist, dedicated to pursuing a sovereign Iraq, if he is committed to fighting corruption, this would be great for Iraq, and we think it would be great for our bilateral relationship.”
A source close to al-Kadhimi told AFP that the new leader “has a unique personality and a pragmatic ideology, in addition to having good relations with all the players involved in Iraq. He has good relations with the Americans and a recently recovered relation with the Iranians.”
But Iraq risks being further caught in the middle of tensions between Washington and Tehran, as militia groups vow revenge for the killing of Iran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani and his associate in Iraq Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed on Iraqi soil.
The right man for the job?
Iraq’s new leader faces myriad challenges, but before his rise to political prominence, he had a career in journalism and later served as the country’s spy chief.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi was born in Baghdad in 1967, and studied law before becoming a journalist, where he was known for his opposition of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
He lived abroad in Iran, Sweden, and the UK where he worked in several positions, including serving as the Iraq Pulse editor for Al-Monitor and the director of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation in London.
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Kadhimi returned home and helped establish the Iraqi Media Network along with being the executive director of the “Iraq Memory Foundation” that worked on documenting crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In June 2016, al-Kadhimi was named the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service amid the country’s escalating battle against ISIS.
Beyond a bad economy, and the ever-present potential for regional flare-ups, al-Kadhimi will have to contend with a growing ISIS insurgency in northern Iraq, as the extremist group has stepped up attacks on government troops.