Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi began a coordinated campaign to retake segments of the Iraqi state from entrenched interests, build toward a state monopoly on use of force, and increase his negotiating position with the United States in the ongoing US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Kadhimi ordered Iraq’s elite, US-trained Counterterrorism Service (CTS) to retake Iraq’s border crossings from poorly regulated militias and to conduct a raid on key Iranian proxy militia and US-designated terrorist organization Kata’ib Hezbollah to prevent additional rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq. These moves are intended to demonstrate to the United States that Kadhimi is a reliable security partner ahead of his planned visit to Washington in July, when Kadhimi will renegotiate the US-Iraqi relationship in the next stage of the Strategic Dialogue. Meanwhile, pro-Kadhimi parliamentarians announced the establishment of a new political bloc. This bloc could provide Kadhimi the political base he needs to weather the ongoing backlash against his bold moves, particularly from Iranian allies and proxies who have thoroughly penetrated the Iraqi state.
Iraq Situation Report
Converging challenges to the Iraqi state threaten to deny Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi the political support he needs to improve Iraq’s security and economy. Kadhimi must improve domestic stability in areas like service provision, fiscal policy, and security in order to secure leverage for the second round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue scheduled for July 2020. Kadhimi is facing increasing anti-US attacks by Iran’s Iraqi proxies, a surge of COVID-19 cases, and increasing opposition to the financial reforms necessary to keep the Iraqi economy afloat. Iranian officials are pressuring Kadhimi in high level meetings to accept key Iranian demands that support Iran’s objectives in Iraq, such as purchasing essential goods inside Iraq with foreign currency to circumvent the US-imposed maximum pressure sanctions.
Recent Iranian proxy attacks represent a major test for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s commitments to preserving Iraqi sovereignty and protecting US anti-ISIS forces. The attacks occurred at the start of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, which aims to determine the future of US forces in Iraq. Iran’s Iraqi proxies intensified both their kinetic and political lines of effort to advance Iran’s key objective in the Dialogue: the rapid and complete expulsion of US forces from Iraq. Separately, Turkey also tested Kadhimi’s commitment to Iraqi sovereignty by launching a new, large-scale air campaign with 81 airstrikes on sites purportedly associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, drawing harsh condemnations from Baghdad. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) likely took advantage of the Turkish air campaign to also target Iranian Kurdish dissidents based in Iraq in what may have been a coordinated Turkish-Iranian operation.
Iraq’s most important external partners, Iran and the United States, as well as Iraq’s domestic politicians, are competing to consolidate their leverage ahead of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue set to begin on June 11. Iran dispatched its IRGC-Quds Force Commander and energy minister to solidify a key energy deal that the United States had hoped to deter by encouraging partnerships with Gulf States. Iran’s proxies in Iraq responded by opposing the US-encouraged outreach to Saudi Arabia and attempting to form a parliamentary mechanism to demand the expulsion of US forces from the country. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has strengthened his domestic position by filling key vacant security roles, passing a full cabinet, and forming an alliance in Parliament to support his actions in order to navigate the competing demands on his country in the Strategic Dialogue. The pursuit of leverage by all actors indicates each expects their stance in the Strategic Dialogue negotiations to be met with resistance.
Economic and diplomatic competition between the United States and Iran is ramping up as both sides attempt to control the conditions leading up to the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue in mid-June. Iran seeks to ensure that Iraq continues to import Iranian energy, a key economic driver for Iran's sanctions-battered economy. Iraq relies on those imports to bolster its under-funded, often-strained electrical grid. The United States is aiming to reduce Iraqi reliance on Iranian imports by encouraging investments by US and allied companies and leveraging its sanctions waivers. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is capitalizing on what appears to be a grace period granted to him by the United States and Iran to work with both sides and secure Iraq’s energy and defense requirements.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seeking to develop closer energy relationships with Iraq’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to demonstrate to the United States that Iraq is making progress in divesting from Iranian energy reliance and renewing relations with all of its neighbors before the June US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to balance a variety of opposing forces in Iraq. After a week of executive orders and appointments generally viewed as favorable to the United States, Kadhimi called the Iranian-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) heroes who are essential to the anti-ISIS fight in a visit to PMF headquarters. Kadhimi needs to maintain his ties with the PMF and Iran’s proxies in Iraq to prevent militia-led civil unrest and ultimately state collapse. However, Kadhimi also made a point of showcasing his leverage over the PMF by bringing with him the leaders of militias that defected from the PMF in April. Those defections threatened to fracture the PMF and offended the organization’s leadership which remains under Iranian, rather than Iraqi, government control. Iran continues to work to demonstrate its influence over Iraqi affairs in other areas; the Iranian ambassador told Iranian media that Kadhimi asked for financial aid from Iran and said that Iraq remains “dependent” on Iran for financial support despite US pressure to sever those ties.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi jumpstarted his term by conducting a series of executive-level actions favorable to Iraq’s restive population and the United States, but potentially harmful to Iranian interests in Iraq. Kadhimi appointed powerful generals with US ties to head the US-trained Counterterrorism Service and Iranian-infiltrated Ministry of Interior, indicating a willingness to push back against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s security sector. Kadhimi also issued orders likely designed to win over Iraq’s popular protest movement, which appeared divided over how to respond to the new government. Each of these moves challenges Iran’s influence in Iraq and may draw backlash from Iran’s political and militia allies in the country despite previous Iranian support for Kadhimi’s government. Kadhimi’s shift could benefit the United States, which Kadhimi is likely to court for financial support to mitigate Iraq’s ongoing budget crisis.
Key Takeaway: Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government formation process further splintered Iraq’s already fractious political scene. Disagreements over cabinet appointments created new fractures within political blocs, calling into question whether individual members of parliament will vote along their usual party lines. Despite worsening political acrimony, Kadhimi maintains broad Sunni and Kurdish support in Parliament and will likely be able to satisfy enough Shi’a blocs to ascend to the office of prime minister with a partial cabinet. Because of their shared interest in Kadhimi's success, Iran and the US confined their competition to other lines of effort ahead of the June US-Iraq strategic dialogue, thereby creating enough space for Iraq’s political elites to negotiate government formation. One day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iraq to bring armed groups under state control, the US-funded outlet al-Hurra published a story indicating that recently formed militias in Iraq are under the direct control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Key Takeaway: The government of Iraq remains beset by competing domestic and international forces, a political conflict that threatens to further destabilize the Iraqi state. Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani likely worked with caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi to remove key militias loyal to Sistani from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The order places these militias under the direct command of the Office of the Prime Minister, a move which will be viewed by Iraqis as a vote of no confidence by Sistani in the remaining Iran-backed PMF factions and leadership. Simultaneously, Iraq’s Shi’a political blocs, led by the Iran-backed Conquest Alliance, are frustrating Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to form a cabinet, calling into question whether Kadhimi will be able to overcome the partisan and ethno-sectarian deadlock to form a government. Additionally, Iran-backed parties are taking steps to weaken opposing ethno-sectarian groups by claiming some cabinet positions for Shi’a blocs rather than for their usual Kurdish occupants.