Politics

Ex-intel chief becomes Iraq PM amid fiscal, virus crises

By Khalid al-Taie and AFP

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Mustafa Kadhemi took office as prime minister on May 7th after the Iraqi parliament approved the new government overnight, nearly a month after the ex-head of the National Intelligence Service was nominated by President Barham Saleh. [Photo courtesy of the Iraqi parliament]

Iraq's former intelligence chief Mustafa Kadhemi took office as prime minister Thursday (May 7th) facing a staggering economic crisis, a pandemic and the spectre of renewed protests after breaking months of political deadlock.

Parliament approved the new government overnight after last-minute changes to the cabinet line-up, nearly a month after the ex-head of the National Intelligence Service (INIS) was nominated by President Barham Saleh.

It was the third attempt to replace outgoing premier Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The nomination of 53-year-old Kadhemi followed weeks of lobbying of deeply divided political parties, including those close to neighbouring Iran who had been wary of his ties to the US.

The new premier has pledged to strike a balance between competing allies Washington and Tehran, which have been at deepening loggerheads since 2018.

Kadhemi has already received a call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced a 120-day waiver extension on US sanctions to let Iraq buy gas from neighbouring Iran.

The waiver is "a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success", the State Department said.

Outgoing premier Abdul Mahdi resigned late last year following months of protests decrying rampant corruption, unemployment and a political class seen as beholden to neighbouring Iran.

A partial government

Iraqi lawmakers, observing social distancing and wearing masks and gloves to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), approved 15 ministers out of a prospective 22-seat cabinet.

Seven ministries -- including the key oil and foreign affairs positions -- remain empty as political parties squabble over shares.

Ministers who were approved included those for the sensitive portfolios of finance, interior, defence, health and electricity -- securing the majority that Kadhemi needed for his cabinet to be considered viable.

The new government is meant to hold early elections seen as an opportunity for a political reset for the country, but it will also face urgent policy priorities.

Iraq's economy is set to shrink by 9.7% this year and poverty rates may double, making it the country's worst annual performance since 2003, the World Bank has warned.

The enormous deficit brought on by collapsing crude prices may force the cabinet to trim salaries for state workers, potentially sparking new anti-government rallies.

Meanwhile the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 100 Iraqis, and the country's dilapidated health system is at risk of being overwhelmed by a spike in cases.

In his overnight address to parliament, Kadhemi pledged to hold early elections and draft an emergency budget law.

Enforcing Iraqi sovereignty

The new government so far includes ministers who are "competent and professional", said Issam al-Fayli who teaches political science at al-Mustansiriyah University.

Kadhemi is "a first-class figure who has shown no sign of corruption or weakness throughout his command of one of the state's most important institutions, the National Intelligence Service", he told Diyaruna.

But this government faces monumental tasks and challenges that put it before a difficult test, he added.

"Success will not be easy to achieve, and we need the solidarity of all political partners," he said.

The most serious challenge is the presence of unlawful weapons in the hands of groups and factions linked to parties that seek to expand their influence at the expense of Iraq's sovereignty and national resources, said al-Fayli.

In his speech to parliament Wednesday, Kadhemi stressed the importance of enforcing Iraq's sovereignty through restricting the possession of weapons to the state.

He also underscored that Iraq must not serve as a launching pad for aggression against other countries or as a theatre for foreign conflicts and interference.

The prime minister has a "real sense of the magnitude of all these dangers and challenges, which include first and foremost the fight against terror groups and ensuring they do not regain a foothold", al-Fayli said.

'Strong, independent'

Ahmed Sabry, 44, hopes the current government will be "different from its predecessors and will work to calm the situation", he told Diyaruna.

"Our support of the government depends on it quickly moving to meet all of our demands and initiating serious steps to fight corruption, poverty and unemployment," he said.

"We will support the government and stand by its side as long as it is strong and independent, and does not allow any external party to interfere in our internal affairs," 41-year-old Ilham Saad told Diyaruna.

It must safeguard the state's sovereignty against outlaws, she added.

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