Iraq’s Al-Kazemi Government: Real Change or a Temporary Settlement?

Following a seven-month political crisis in Iraq, in the midst of widespread protests in southern and central cities that caused the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Intelligence Director Mustafa Al-Kazemi succeeded in forming a new government. The Iraqi parliament gave the new cabinet a vote of confidence on May 7 following failed attempts by Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan Al-Zurfi to form a government.

A Change in the Rules of the Game?

Giving confidence to Mustafa Al-Kazemi’s government contradicts every rule of political action that Iraq has known since the American invasion. Al-Kazemi is the first prime minister who does not hail from the leaders of the parties that seized power in 2003, despite having worked with them. He is also the first prime minister to display clear liberal inclinations and strong ties to the West by virtue of his longstanding engagement with the Iraqi opposition during the 1990s. It can be said that Al-Kazemi marks the ascent of the second generation of Iraq’s Shia politicians who, despite being raised within the Islamist current, has turned out to be more pragmatic and liberal.

Former premier Haider al-Abadi played a major role in the emergence of this generation to which the former candidate for the post, Adnan al-Zurfi, also belongs. Al-Abadi—a second-tier leader in the Dawa Party—was the one who nominated the relatively young Al-Kazemi (born in 1967) for the position of the head of the intelligence service in 2016, and the two men share a close relationship.

For these and other reasons, Al-Kazemi raised doubts among Iran-friendly political forces that opposed his candidacy more than once before. Indeed, it would not have been possible for Al-Kazemi to assume this role had it not been for changes in the Iraqi political scene brought about by the massive protest movement that started in October 2019, in addition to regional and international transformations affecting Iraq, especially since the US-Iran tensions in the Gulf last summer which culminated in the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport earlier this year.i

New Rules for the President

The resignation of Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government came in late November 2019 in response to popular pressure and the demands of the protest movement. These were supported by the Najaf Shia marjaiyya of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and exacerbated by the killing of hundreds of protesters at the hands of security forces and militias affiliated with Iran. Al-Sistani demanded that parliament choose a new “non-controversial” prime minister and that the protesters accept the choice.

In November 2019, the demonstrators finalized their demands, which were quickly adopted by political forces, religious authorities, and intellectual elites, and had the support of the United Nations. Among the most important demands was the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi’s government—accused of condoning the killing of activists—and the formation of an interim transitional government whose primary mission was to organize early and fair elections under international supervision to prevent a cover-up and reveal the activists’ killers.

President Barham Salih took advantage of this atmosphere to change the prevailing political rules in place since 2003, declaring his rejection of at least three main candidates nominated by pro-Iran parliamentary blocs to succeed Abdul-Mahdi. Although the president’s stance provoked many Shia parties which never imagined he would challenge them, Salih maintained his position based on public demands and announced that he would not nominate a candidate unacceptable to the protest movement.

The president first rejected the candidacy of Mohammed Shayyai al-Sudani, nominated by the Fateh coalition, the parliamentary arm of the Iranian-allied militias on December 13, 2019. On December 22, the president rejected the nomination of Qusay al-Suhail, who previously served as minister of higher education. On the 26th of the same month, he refused to allow Asaad al-Eidani, the governor of Basra, to form a government.

In fact, a Kurdish president who lacked the support base needed to confront influential Shia forces would not have succeeded were it not for the backing he received from other quarters. This included the Najaf marjaiyya that has supported the demand to nominate an independent prime minister whose main task would be to organize fair elections under international supervision. Sistani’s position was opposed by Tehran because such elections will practically change the balance of power in favor of the protest movement and reduce the representation of Iranian-affiliated political forces and militias. These forces secured a large representation in parliament in the 2018 elections because of their victory over the Islamic State. President Saleh broadcast a lengthy speech to the Council of Representatives on December 26 in which he said he would rather tender his resignation than accept a candidate rejected by protesters.ii

With the president’s insistence, backed by the protest movement and Najaf, on rejecting candidates affiliated with Tehran, three nominees were put forward from February to April 2020. The first, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi, faced Sunni and Kurdish objections because he did not consult with them and the second, Adnan al-Zurfi, met Shia opposition because he was nominated by the president without consultations with the majority Shia blocs. Finally, exceptional circumstances forced the various camps to hold a serious dialogue around the last candidate Mustafa Al-Kazemi.

Allawi was forced to withdraw his proposed government on March 1 after parliament failed for two days to achieve the quorum necessary for a vote of confidence, and the Kurdish and Sunni blocs submitted a fundamental objection because the government did not include their party shares. Adnan al-Zurfi, a former governor of Najaf who has a strong relationship with Washington and supports youth organizations that oppose religious parties was put forward on March 17. His candidacy posed a great challenge to most of the Shia political forces that found that their so-called right to nominate the prime minister had been taken over by the president. The Kurdish and Sunni political forces maintained neutrality, understanding the importance of the Shia camp’s approval of the prime minister, which led to al-Zurfi’s withdrawal and the nomination of Al-Kazemi on April 9, 2020.

Iranian Turnaround

Parliament’s vote of confidence for Al-Kazemi’s government was a surprise to many since just days before the session he was strongly rejected by Tehran’s allies. Since the outbreak of the October 2019 protests, Shia militias made accusations of preparations for a coup that will bring him to power.iii Rumors have been cast and questions have been raised about his responsibility as head of the intelligence service, or even his involvement in, for facilitating the assassination of Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport.iv

The support of Shia political forces to Al-Kazemi’s government (except for the State of Law coalition headed by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki) is due to a change in Tehran. The Iranians were taken aback by the size of the protests against interference in Iraq’s affairs, especially in the central and southern Shia majority cities, as protesters targeted Iranian consulates and allies in Iraq in a remarkable display of patriotic sentiment demanding that Iraq not be implicated in international crises on behalf of the Islamic Republic.

The nomination of candidates unaffiliated with Tehran is an indication of a victory for the protest movement. This has prompted some political forces close to Iran to rethink their position for fear of paying a price in the upcoming elections. Iran also could not continue to reject candidates indefinitely after Allawi and al-Zurfi. This was seen also as an Iranian attempt to reach an accommodation for ruling Iraq or deescalating with Washington which seemed to stand strongly behind al-Kazemi.

The New Government

In forming his government, Al-Kazemi chose figures from within or close to the protest movement and pledged to fulfil its demands, despite the difficulty of success, especially regarding unmasking the killers of the protesters. It seems that by including figures in the movement in his government, Al-Kazemi wanted to convince the parliamentary blocs that the only way to save the regime from collapse is to respond to public demands. But the differences seemed deeper than simply distributing ministerial portfolios, especially considering Iran’s concerns about the status of its allies in Iraq and the immunity it wants for them, as well as the future of relations between Baghdad and Washington, while Al-Kazemi refuses to make major concessions. Al-Kazemi’s position was recently strengthened after Sistani’s decision to separate thousands of marjaiyya fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces and fold them into the Ministry of Defense. This included the Imam Ali Brigades, the Brigades of Ali al-Akbar, the Abbas Brigade, and the Ansar al-Marja’iyya Brigade.v

After difficult negotiations, Al-Kazemi succeeded in gaining confidence for two-thirds of his ministers during an extraordinary session of Parliament. But the government’s latest form caused frustration among the protesters as Al-Kazemi was forced to sacrifice several of his experienced and competent ministers who were considered supportive of the “October Uprising.”

However, Al-Kazemi’s loss in this regard is matched by his success in appointing officers independent of the influence of militias loyal to Tehran, in the Ministries of Interior and Defense. In addition, the Intelligence and Army Staff and the Counter-Terrorism Service, an important Iraqi commando apparatus, remained practically subordinate to him. Al-Kazemi, upon assuming his position as prime minister, made a decision to return Lieutenant-General Abdel-Wahab Al-Saadi to the leadership of the Counter-Terrorism Service, after being ousted by former premier Abdul-Mahdi as a result of complaints by militias loyal to Iran.vi

Challenges Facing the Kazemi Government

Al-Kazemi’s government faces major challenges, primarily in addressing the repercussions of the COVID-19 epidemic that has paralyzed the country. But the biggest challenge is the collapse in oil prices as the government will shortly become unable to pay public sector salaries after a decade of significant bloating when parties divided up the state and appointed their members and supporters to government jobs. Moreover, Al-Kazemi will have to fight to implement a state monopoly over arms, a goal which he has clearly declared to be part of his government’s agenda. This will bring him into a real confrontation with the Iranian-backed militias and their associated networks.

Al-Kazemi will also need to establish a balance in his relationship with Tehran and Washington in order to ensure that his programs and government policies are not obstructed. His first steps in this direction will be the management of the strategic dialogue between Washington and Baghdad expected to begin this summer, as the two sides will study the US military presence in Iraq and levels of cooperation, after Tehran and its allies failed to compel Washington to rapidly withdraw troops following Soleimani’s assassination. And it is more likely that Al-Kazemi will be able to save Iraq from financial and diplomatic isolation that was under consideration in Washington following accusations that the former prime minister was too far under the influence of the militias loyal to Tehran.

Al-Kazemi enjoys the support of respected parties, such as the marjaiyya of Najaf and secular and Kurdish forces, but groups in the October movement see that the current regime suffers from irreparable defects. However, the youth groups represented by the protest movement seemed to be more inclined toward giving him an opportunity as a compromise between the demands of the movement and the interests of the parties and forces dominating the political process since 2003. This may represent a window to gradual change that is less costly than toppling the entire regime with the hope that the elections that Al-Kazemi pledges to hold will change the balance of political forces in Iraq.

An earlier version of this paper was published on May 13, 2020 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.

i See Al-Kazemi’s biography as a mediator resolving disputes between the Iraqi parties over 15 years: “After turning the table … Who is Mustafa Al-Kazemi?”, Nass News, 26/12/2019, accessed 11/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3cq6l1A.
ii Muhammad Tawfiq, “The President of Iraq Threatens to Resign if a Temporary Prime Minister is Not Agreed upon”, CNN Arabic, 23/12/2019, seen on 11/5/2020, at: https://cnn.it/3dCbpjE.
iii Aktham Saif Al-Din, “Al-Kazimi’s Nomination Strengthens the Division between Armed Factions in Iraq,” The New Arab, 12/4/2020, accessed 12/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2Lljw8c.
iv “Accused of Aiding in the Killing of Soleimani … Who is Mustafa al-Kazimi Charged with Forming the Iraqi Government?”, Al-Hurra, 4/4/2020, accessed 11/5/2020, at: https://arbne.ws/2AjT4tu.
v Suadad al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shia leader Sistani Moves to Break Iran’s Grip Over Militia Movement,” Middle East Eye, 1/5/2020, accessed on 12/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/35S7wVq.
vi “Al-Kazemi Appoints Lieutenant General Abdel-Wahab Al-Saadi to Head the Counter-Terrorism Agency,” Russia Today, 9/5/2020, accessed 12/5/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2YUXAZM.