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Iraq’s political class must address 'crisis of trust,' says PM

In an exclusive interview, Mustafa al-Kadhimi also discusses Iraq’s shift to regional hub for diplomacy and economic progress despite strong political headwinds. 
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi meets Jordanian King Abdullah at the UN General Assembly's high-level week in September 2022.

NEW YORK — Iraq needs to distance itself from a "past that is full of violence" toward a future based on dialogue, said Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor.

Kadhimi, who made his first address to the UN General Assembly this week, is seeking to broker an agreement among Iraq’s political parties that is focused on inclusion and engagement, rather than exclusion and violence.

Kadhimi has been convening a national dialogue among Iraq’s political leaders and parties, which may be the best hope for Iraq, or at least a critical first step, to avoid further political deadlock, if not outright violence, and put Iraq on a path to elections.

Iraqi leaders have been unable to form a government since parliamentary elections in October 2021. The party of Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won the most seats, but his rivals' success in bringing together one-third of lawmakers in an opposing block has prevented him from forming a government. 

Sadr withdrew his lawmakers from the Council of Representatives, or parliament, in June. The rival Coordination Framework alignment, made up of mostly Shiite parties, including some aligned with Iran, are seeking to form a new Iraqi government. 

When the Coordination Framework tried to form a new government by nominating Mohammed Shia al-Sudani — who is a close figure to Nouri al-Maliki, a historical foe of Sadr — last month, the cleric’s supporters seized the parliament and other government buildings. The intra-Shiite feuding spilled into the streets of Baghdad, including militia clashes in the heavily fortified Green Zone that killed over 60 people and injured hundreds. 

The only empty chair so far at the national dialogue is Sadr, but Kadhimi is optimistic, as he believes Sadr’s participation is essential to Iraq’s political stability. 

“Everyone now understands,” said Kadhimi, “that any government that does not involve Sadr will face huge challenges.”

Iraq’s political class faces a "crisis of trust" with the public, he said. Excluding Sadr, for example, could lead to a repeat of October 2019, or worse. 

Kadhimi came to office in May 2020, in the wake of the resignation of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who stepped down after security forces and armed groups killed over 500 anti-government protesters between October and December 2019.   

The popular Tishreen movement, and the increased role of new independent parties in Iraq, is a sign of change, which Kadhimi takes to heart.

“My priorities are dialogue, then dialogue, then dialogue,” said the Iraqi prime minister. 

The government deadlock occurs in the wake of some noteworthy achievements in foreign policy and regional integration over the past two years.

Kadhimi’s regional policies have included being “very clear with the Iranians, telling them that we want relations, a state-to-state relationship, and we want noninterference in internal affairs.” 

“Iran has friends in Iraq, and it is able to influence them and push them toward dialogue rather than using the weapons that they currently possess,” Kadhimi noted. “We need a good relationship and we currently do have a good relationship with Iran.” 

Iraq has also undertaken a shift in regional affairs toward regional integration and diplomacy.  

“Iraq under Saddam Hussein was an unstable force in the region,” said Kadhimi, “from day one, we would change this dynamic to be a positive contributor to stability and regional integration.” 

“It was Iraq and Jordan that launched the idea of a new Levant,” he said, a concept based on common ground and interests “in order to serve the ultimate benefit of all through development, through economic ties and also through energy ties," including plans for an integrated electricity grid.   

"The thinking behind this trilateral arrangement with Jordan and Egypt is to create a mechanism for wider coordination with the wider regional countries,” he added. 

That wider coordination also includes the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  

Kadhimi, along with King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, attended the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in June, which was attended by US President Joe Biden. 

At the summit, there was also a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia and the GCC for electric grid coordination. 

“Some radical elements inside Iraq did not want, or did not wish, did not hope to see the relations with the GCC progressing this way,” said Kadhimi. “But the majority of the Iraqi people support this relationship, and they are pleased with it.” 

In his meeting this week with French President Emmanuel Macron, the two leaders discussed plans for a conference in Amman, a follow-up to last year’s summit in Baghdad, which established Iraq as a “hub” for regional diplomacy and efforts to stabilize the region. 

“Many countries that had disputes, bitter disputes, between them actually attended the conference and sat on the same table in Baghdad,” said Kadhimi. “And we are now discussing the appropriate time for holding this conference [in Jordan], which will aim at establishing further coordination to face the challenges facing the region and the world.” 

Kadhimi said that Iraq has been involved in five discreet mediation efforts in the region, including the talks between Iranian and Saudi officials hosted in Baghdad.  

“Because of the degree of disengagement that existed between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Kadhimi continued, “we needed these five rounds of talks so far between the parties to build an environment of trust.” 

He said that there will be another round of talks soon, before negotiations could proceed to a higher level.  

“This role played by Iraq contributes to calm and stability between regional countries, and this has its repercussions on Iraq itself as well,” he said. 

Kadhimi came to office two years ago during a dire political and economic crisis.   

“The economic situation in Iraq was collapsing,” he explained. “We got to a point where we couldn't pay salaries for public servants and pensioners. We were in the middle of the coronavirus [pandemic]. Oil prices had collapsed. And the Iranian-American conflict clashed on Iraqi soil.” 

He added, “This is why we took the tough decision to present an economic reform document named the White Paper. It is the first economic reform document presented by an Iraqi government for seven decades. Many opposed my decision to actually go ahead with this. This White Paper set out a five-year timeline, during which the Iraqi economy will witness reforms, advancing it toward another stage. 

“As a result, the political sides that feared the success the government can achieve through this document took a reaction to block funds and support from this government. This is why while I've been prime minister for 28 months, political forces only allowed me to work on a budget for six months. Despite that I was able to launch several strategic projects including Fao Port, the biggest port in the region, extracting associated gas, solar energy, building 1,000 schools each year and finishing dozens of uncompleted hospitals, roads and other projects.

“Iraq’s central bank reserves were regressing,” he said, "but over the past 18 months they have increased from $49 billion to $86 billion. We are paying public servant salaries in full. The reserve in gold reached unprecedented levels. We also worked on restarting the projects, the construction projects, that were stuck without moving forward for 10 years or longer.”

Kadhimi continued, “We opened three major hospitals in the country and we signed contracts for alternative energy. So, you can see that there is a methodical approach toward developing the Iraqi economy.” 

"The change in the exchange rate that we conducted in Iraq was one of the most successful alterations, or modifications, of national currency exchange rate models in the world. It happened without serious repercussions. We also inaugurated a number of highways. And we launched the first project where flare gas is captured and directed toward electricity generation plants," he said.

“We managed to achieve all this despite the serious efforts by political parties to block the progress,” he added.  

Kadhimi said, “We also worked on a project to counter corruption. Corruption has a major impact on economic development. But this project unfortunately faced a severe backlash from mafias and corrupt people of influence. The government is now facing revenge by those adversely affected by this anti-corruption project.” 

He concluded, “This anti-corruption project was always a moral responsibility and a public demand, a popular demand."

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