Following his meteoric rise in Iraqi politics, what has been the legacy of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and whose interests did he really serve?
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been in office for more than two years, a full year longer than his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who stepped down after civil unrest swept the country in October 2019.
Amid the on-going political deadlock and uncertainties surrounding his potential successor – and, indeed, the highly-contentious formation of a new government – it is worth reflecting on Kadhimi’s leadership and how he has impacted Iraqi politics. Importantly, what has Kadhimi achieved during his tenure, aside from managing to keep himself out of the fray?
Kadhimi’s proactive predecessor
Economist and former vice president Adil Abdul-Mahdi was appointed as prime minister of Iraq in October 2018, five months after the country’s parliamentary elections. At the time of his ascension, Iraq’s infrastructure and economy were in tatters from the war against ISIS that had officially ended a year earlier.
The liberation of Iraqi and Syrian territory from the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” had dealt a blow to US plans for the region. Washington has historically sought to keep borders shut between Iran and the Mediterranean, and ISIS’ defeat had not only cleared the Syrian-Iraqi border, but the two states had militarily cooperated to achieve this. By some, this was viewed as a catalyst for Baghdad to politically shift away from US influence.
This shift was particularly noticeable in a string of strategic decisions initiated by Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet. In what the US clearly viewed as an act of defiance – but which many Iraqis simply saw as being in their sovereign, national interest – the Iraqi government opened its borders with Syria and declined to participate in sanctions against neighboring Iran.
When Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) bases were bombed in 2019, Abdul Mahdi did the unthinkable: he publicly revealed that the perpetrator was Israel. These kinds of details are usually kept under wraps in US-dominated Iraq, and the Americans were furious.
Moreover, the violation of Iraqi airspace renewed Baghdad’s quest to obtain advanced S-400 air defense systems from Russia. The Iraqi government’s desire to control its own airspace – an indispensable part of its national security – was instead met by a threat of sanctions from Washington.
Since the 2003 US invasion and occupation, the reconstruction of Iraq’s power grid has been outsourced to US companies who have systematically neglected the grid while making billions in profits. To break this American chokehold on Iraq’s national electricity network, Abdul-Mahdi personally signed a $14 billion strategic deal with German company Siemens to rebuild the country’s electricity grid.
This deal faltered under US pressure and never materialized. But it was the signing of a strategic deal with China that would prompt Washington to draw a red line which would ultimately lead to Abdul-Mahdi’s downfall.
The Iraq-China partnership included an oil-for-reconstruction deal that would circumvent an existing US construct in which all revenues from Iraqi oil sales are deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY).
The deal with China would enable Baghdad to circumvent US financial controls and allow Iraq to make strategic decisions with less threat of US coercion. In 2020 for example, the administration of former president Donald Trump threatened to cut Iraq’s access to its Federal Reserve accounts if US troops were expelled from Iraq. The Iraqi parliament had recently passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of US military forces in response to their illegal and extrajudicial assassinations of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi deputy head of the PMF, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
If the strategic partnership with Beijing was implemented, Iraq would have become a key node within China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This would have radically altered Iraq’s economy from one that exports cheap unrefined oil and imports expensive commodities to a nation that refines its own natural resources and exports high value products.
Under Abdul-Mahdi’s lead, and despite the war-depleted coffers with which he began his tenure, Iraq was making moves to assert its sovereignty, regenerate key instratructure and service sectors, protect its territorial integrity, strengthen diplomatic relations with immediate neighbors, and build the foundations of a new economy.
In contrast to today’s rising concerns over food security, during Abdul-Mahdi’s year in office, Iraq became self-sufficient in wheat and other strategic crops. Despite a much average oil price of $56.99 per barrel in 2019, poverty rates never reached the scale Iraq faces at this moment.
How did Mustafa Kadhimi become PM?
The protests in October 2019 that forced Abdul-Mahdi to step down were mainly led by working-class supporters of populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an enigma in Iraqi politics. Protesters then quickly began displaying posters of candidates to replace the PM, among these, a certain Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Yet at the time, Kadhimi, who directed the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, was virtually unknown to the Iraqi public. After a chaotic five-month period with two failed attempts to pick a prime minister, Kadhimi – the Sadrist bloc’s first choice – was sworn into office in May 2020.
His ascension to the top seat was made possible by a carefully-constructed deal struck between Iraq’s various power brokers. For the Sadrists, he was the ideal candidate who could serve their interests under the guise of an ‘independent technocrat.’ This relationship became more explicit when Kadhimi called Sadr the “leader of the resistance” and defended Sadrist politicians against corruption allegations.
Kadhimi’s nomination was agreed upon by Iraq’s anti-US political factions based on several hard conditions: that, as prime minister, he would organize early elections, expel all foreign military forces from Iraq, and expose the factions that had killed protesters during the 2019 civil unrest.
Initially, the PMF factions consisting of Kataeb Hezbollah and other anti-US parties, vehemently opposed Kadhimi’s nomination, claiming he was a “US puppet.” It has been reported that these factions came to terms with his nomination after their allies in Iran advised them that no further delays in the government formation process were feasible.
Immediately after Kadhimi came into office, pro-western, Gulf-sponsored media such as Al-Hadath and Al-Hurra started polishing his image by presenting him as the savior of Iraq.
In one of his first public appearances, Khadimi called his brother to inform him that he would not tolerate the use of their relationship for personal benefit. To his detractors, it was pure theater: to cast himself on a national scale as an anti-nepotism and anti-corruption figure. They pointed out that Kadhimi, a Shia, was equating his actions to that of Ali Ibn Abi Talib – one of Shiism’s, and Iraq’s, most revered religious personalities – declining his brother’s (Aqeel Ibn Abi Talib) request for money. This was one of the many, many photo ops that would mark Khadimi’s time in office.
What if anything, has Kadhimi achieved?
All strategic decisions made by Abdul-Mahdi that could have positively altered the course of Iraq’s economy and international relations, were overturned by Kadhimi. Any serious efforts by the previous government made in quest of real autonomy were abandoned.
Under the new prime minister, the China deal was set aside and Kadhimi instead proposed to enter a ‘strategic partnership’ with Jordan and Egypt that would essentially amount to handing over Iraq’s oil wealth in exchange for basic commodities, while indirectly normalizing with Israel.
Over the same period, he signed an $8 billion deal in the White House with General Electric, the very same US corporation that had reaped billions of dollars in profits since 2003 by sabotaging the reconstruction of Iraq’s electrical grid.
Under Khadimi’s watch, the construction of the Grand Faw Port was outsourced to a defunct South Korean corporation, while ignoring a lucrative Chinese proposal. This move, for all practical purposes, killed a strategic project that should have been a game changer for the Iraqi economy.
As of today, hardly any progress has been made in the construction of the port that was to become one of the top ten global ports. This is a realm that the Chinese have mastered as part of their ambitious BRI project to connect shipping and transportation routes throughout Asia. But Kadhimi gave it to the Koreans.
During Kadhimi’s tenure, for extended periods, Iraq’s government has neglected to pay salaries to millions of civil servants. This was unprecedented in the country’s post-2003 history, despite the various calamitous crises Iraq has faced in the past 19 years.
In yet another violation of the agreement that brought him into office, Kadhimi did not expel US troops from Iraq, but rather, provided them with an opportunity to re-brand their “boots on the ground.” While a few US soldiers departed, around 4,000 military personnel remain in Iraq in “advisory roles” – that number provided courtesy of the prime minister’s office.
But the move that perhaps struck hardest at Iraqi people’s daily lives was Kadhimi’s support for devaluating the Iraqi dinar. In December 2020, the Iraqi government, following World Bank instructions, devalued the dinar by 23 percent against the US dollar.
For a country that relies heavily on imports, this meant a steep hike in consumer prices. Overnight, millions of Iraqis were plunged into poverty. As of today, the rate of the dinar has not been restored, despite the fact that oil prices have skyrocketed to over $100 per barrel.
It is clear that rather than serving Iraqi interests, Kadhimi is following the US playbook. From his relations with regional states, to his choice of strategic economic partners, to his servitude to western-led austerity proposals, the prime minister has yet to take a step that benefits a sovereign Iraq.
A US asset in Iraq
How is it that a little-known Iraqi journalist suddenly found himself helming Iraq’s intelligence service in 2016, then assumed the country’s most powerful political position a mere three years later? Who exactly is Mustafa Al-Kadhimi?
Prior to his appointment as prime minister – and shortly before that, his intelligence post – Kadhimi was only known to Iraqis as a mid-level journalist.
From 1999 to 2003, he worked as director of programming for Radio Free Europe’s Iraq service, and held this position throughout the entire buildup to the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq. Radio Free Europe was founded in 1949 as a CIA front organization to disseminate US propaganda during the Cold War.
After the invasion, Kadhimi directed the Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF), an organization set up by Kanaan Makiya, an Iraqi “dissident” who collaborated with and enjoyed a direct relationship with the White House and Pentagon.
The IMF collected Iraqi government archives and relocated them to the US before and during the occupation – essentially, natives performing the duties of US intelligence.
The IMF was originally founded during the 1990s as the ‘Iraq Research and Documentation Project’ with a 1993 grant from the Bradley Foundation, a far-right organization that funds projects that promote US exceptionalism, free markets and other US interests. In the years after the invasion of Iraq, former President George W Bush called the group his “favorite foundation.”
In 1994, the IMF received a bridging grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US organization founded in the 1980s by then-president Ronald Reagan, known for furthering US strategic interests by destabilizing countries and organizing coups under the guise of promoting democracy.
In the intervening decades, NED has funded and directed the activities of civil society groups and media outlets in countless countries around the world, seeding US narratives and priorities at the local level, everywhere.
In 1991, NED co-founder Allen Weinstein said: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” Between 2004 and 2006 the IMF, while directed by Kadhmi, was awarded $5.1 million in Pentagon contracts and $1 million from seized Iraqi state funds.
In addition to joining the IMF, Kadhimi also took part in founding the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) in the first year of the US occupation of Iraq. The IMN was founded by the Coalition Provisional government’s military occupation, led by USB official Paul Bremer, often referred to as the architect of Iraq’s post-invasion, fractious political structures.
With an initial budget of $100 million, the founding of the IMN was based on a white paper created by the US Department of Defense’s (DOD) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Near East and South Asian Affairs.
Rather than being run by professionals with experience in running media outlets, IMN was overseen by a department of the US DOD that specializes in spy-ops. The IMN top brass were to coordinate with US Central Command (CENTCOM) to identify what infrastructure was to be preserved and what infrastructure was to be bombed.
Kadhimi’s career also entails doing work for the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation (HDF), an organization founded in 2008, based in the UK, and run by Hussain al-Sadr – a relative of Iraqi powerbroker Muqtada al-Sadr.
The HDF was yet another organization that promoted “peace” between the different ethnic groups in Iraq while being based in a country that was actively occupying Iraq. Furthermore, Kadhimi worked for a weekly magazine that at the time was run by current caretaker President of Iraq Barham Saleh. These early relationships would play a vital role later on in his career.
A checkered past and an uncertain future
Up until this moment in his life, there have been no mention of any academic credentials. It is reported that later in 2012, Kadhimi obtained a bachelor’s degree in law at a private university in Baghdad. It is noteworthy that he was 45 years of age when he obtained the degree.
Shortly thereafter, Kadhimi began to write for Washington DC-based Al-Monitor, an English-language media outlet that reports on the region, where he worked as both columnist and Iraq editor between 2013 and 2016.
This is his last known position before being named director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service in 2016. Some Iraqis allege that he received this sensitive posting because of US pressure on Iraq’s then-prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi.
Reflecting on this checkered past, it is clear that Kahdimi – from early on in his career – was groomed into becoming a US asset. He was neither an important Iraqi political personality who rose in the opposition ranks against the former regime of Saddam Hussein, nor did he have a remarkable academic career that could have transformed him into a skilled and able technocrat.
Instead, Kadhimi looks to have ascended to his prime ministership by virtue of being a presentable ‘benign figure’ – unlikely to be rejected by either side of the Iraqi political spectrum – who could quietly serve US interests. Since Washington’s influence in Iraq has diminished from its earlier heights, Kadhimi’s task mainly consists of maintaining the status-quo and preventing political developments that benefit Iran and other US regional adversaries.
Since Abdul-Mahdi stepped down, Iraq has effectively been economically and politically paralyzed. Almost two and a half years of Mustafa al-Kadhimi in office has produced only more poverty and increased external meddling in Iraq.
Despite his clear desire to renew his tenure within a future government formation, it remains unclear what Khadimi’s political future will look like. This will be decided by the outcome of the current political crisis. Muqtada al-Sadr, the US, and neighboring Persian Gulf are trying to keep him in office. Iran remains neutral, but its Iraqi allies want Kadhimi out.
Bogged down in a proxy war with Russia in the Ukraine, and facing a western economic downturn, the US cannot afford a new escalation in West Asia. Any Iraqi conflict, after all, would further drive up oil prices and speed up the global economic meltdown.
Washington, therefore, opts to preserve the status quo; a paralyzed Iraq with an unimpeded oil flow. That way, Iraq, with its enormous military and economic potential, stays out of the regional balance of power struggle that could threaten US-Israeli interests. For this role, Mustafa Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister who did nothing, is ideal.