Many observers believe this was the bloody and deliberate response to the June 25 Iraqi security forces raid on the headquarters of Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the militias that like to launch rocket attacks on US-related targets. However, others believe that the June raid was for show and was even coordinated with those targeted.
Such was the stature of Al-Hashemi, the message to new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was crystal clear: They can get anyone, even someone of Al-Hashemi’s popularity. It reinforces the fear that nobody is safe in Iraq, including in Baghdad. Many fear a new rise in assassinations due to the incessant battle for power in and over Iraq, which has been on an upwards curve, particularly since the US assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Quds Force, and Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
While Iran has its proxy militias, America still has 5,200 armed personnel in Iraq despite the perpetual instinct of President Donald Trump to get the US out of the country. Al-Kadhimi also has the delicate issue of the US troops’ continued presence, which was the prime topic of last week’s US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue meeting. The head of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie held talks with Al-Kadhimi and afterwards expressed cautious optimism of an agreement.
All this is in advance of the PM’s impending visit to Washington. No doubt the moves against the militias are intended to send a message to Washington to treat Al-Kadhimi as a serious partner, not a temporary placeholder. Al-Kadhimi is fully aware that the continued presence of US forces in Iraq is far from universally popular. It was only in January that the Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a complete US withdrawal.
For the US, the Trump administration has to find a way to achieve what his two predecessors failed to do: Tear Iraq away from Iran’s control. For all John Bolton’s fulminations in his much-debated book against Trump and the administration in which he served, his brand of uber-hawkishness was in charge when Iraq stepped into the post-Saddam Hussein vacuum in 2003. They were the architects of the Iraq catastrophe and had many opportunities to try to remedy their failures.
The Iranian leadership, just as it has done with Syria and Lebanon, orchestrates everything to weaken Iraq and prevent a strong state developing. Its success in this endeavor owes much to its superior understanding of its neighbor.
Al-Kadhimi’s government has to choose. Is it the right call to take on the militias, especially while in the middle of a pandemic? Can he afford not to find those responsible for Al-Hashemi’s assassination and make them face justice? Fourteen militiamen were arrested in the raid on Kata’ib Hezbollah, but they were quickly released; this was either a sign of weakness or due to a lack of evidence.
There is one thing that might work in Al-Kadhimi’s favor: Iran’s economy is suffering immensely, both due to the US’ maximum pressure policy and the coronavirus disease pandemic. The number of deaths in Iran due to coronavirus has surpassed 13,000, with President Hassan Rouhani having to reintroduce measures to battle against a second wave. Reports indicate that Iran has drastically cut its funding to proxy militias as a result. That said, as this assassination highlights, it might be a dangerous time to test Iranian resolve.
While Iraq’s Iran-aligned militias pose one challenge, extremist violence from the likes of ISIS has not been wiped out either. It remains a potent threat. Almost exactly three years after Mosul was liberated from ISIS bloody grip, Iraq’s second city remains in rubble, especially the western half. This is testament to the government’s inability to reach out to and win over Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, which still feels like the losers 17 years after the 2003 war.
What can Al-Kadhimi do in this toughest of roles? Somehow, he has to concoct a far more inclusive and accountable government. All communities in Iraq must have a say, and he must listen to the grievances of the protesters who have clung to Iraq’s streets and squares for so long, despite about 700 of them being killed between October 2019 and January this year. Al-Kadhimi may not be able to halt the Iraqi economy’s inexorable decline, but he has to stave off the worst-case scenarios.
The prime minister this week launched a drive to prevent the loss of income at Iraq’s borders. He claimed that the borders have become “a hotbed for corrupt people… We encourage businessmen (importing goods) to pay the customs, not the bribes.” The government needs the income due to the low oil price, but all too often customs dues are simply not being paid.
For years, if not decades, the question is when will Iraq have a leadership with the guts, ingenuity and determination to transform the country? The existence of powerful and unaccountable militias backed by Iran runs diametrically opposed to this aim. If Al-Kadhimi is in any way serious, he has to take on the militias. He can only do that if he has considerable international backing. But this alone will never be enough — he also needs to tackle the rampant corruption that is bleeding the country dry. The Iraqi swamp is massive and draining it will be as tough, if not more so, than dismantling the militias.