Following a political crisis lasting more than seven months, in the midst of widespread protests in southern and central cities that prompted former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign, Intelligence Director Mustafa Al-Kazemi succeeded in forming a new government. The Iraqi parliament gave a vote of confidence on 7 May following failed attempts by Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan Al-Zurfi to do the same.
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 Shi’i politicians. Although this generation was raised in the Islamic incubator, it turned out to be more pragmatic, and more liberal, despite its ties it to the traditional Shi’i Islamist regime.
The former Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, played a major role in the emergence this generation, to which the former candidate for prime minister, Adnan al-Zurfi, belongs. Al-Abadi — a leader in the second line of 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 has elicited doubts from political forces close to Iran, who opposed his candidacy for the position more than once when his name was nominated. 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 centred around Iraq, especially since the US-Iran tensions in the Gulf last summer, culminating in the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, at Baghdad earlier this year.
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 marja’ and exacerbated by hundreds of deaths by the security forces and militias affiliated with Iran. Shi’i marja’ Ali al-Sistani demanded that parliament choose a new “non-controversial” prime minister and that the protesters accept it.
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 the Adel Abdul Mahdi government — accused of condoning the killing of hundreds of activists — and the formation of an interim transitional government whose primary mission is 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 parliamentary blocs close to Tehran in parliament to succeed Adel Abdul Mahdi. Although the position of the president provoked many Shi’i parties who never imagine that the president could challenge them, Salih maintained his position based on public demands, and announced that he would not be able to appoint a candidate that the protest movement would not be satisfied with.
The President first rejected the candidate Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, nominated by the Fateh Coalition, the parliamentary arm of the Iranian-allied militias on 13 December 2019. On 22 December, the President rejected the nomination of Qusay al-Suhail, who previously served as Minister of Higher Education. On the 26th of the same month, the president refused to allow the nomination of Asaad Al-Eidani, the governor of Basra, to form a government.
In fact, as a president who did not come from Kurdistan and who lacked the support base needed to wage such confrontation with influential Shi’i forces, he would have no way out were it not for the fact that other parties have supported the protest movement. This includes the Najaf marja’ that has supported the demand to nominate an independent prime minister whose main task would be to organize fair elections under international supervision. Najaf has encountered Tehran's disapproval here because it will practically change the balance of power in favour of the protest movement, and reduce the representation of Iranian-affiliated political forces and militias. These forces became over-represented in the 2018 elections, due to the impact of their victory over the Islamic State organisation. President Saleh broadcast a lengthy speech to Parliament on 26 December in which he said he would rather hand in his resignation than accept a candidate rejected by protesters.
With the President’s insistence, backed by the protest movement's position and Najaf on rejecting candidates affiliated with Tehran, three candidates were put forward from February to April 2020. The first of them (Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi) faced Sunni Kurdish objections to his disregard for them, and the second (Adnan Al-Zurfi) met Shi’i opposition because was nominated by the President without consultations with the majority Shi’i blocs. Finally, exceptional circumstances succeeded forced the various camps to hold a serious dialogue with the last candidate Mustafa Al-Kazemi.
Allawi was forced to withdraw his proposed government on 1 March 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 17 March. His candidacy posed a great challenge to most of the Shi’i political forces who found that their "right" to nominate the prime minister had been confiscated by the president. The Kurdish and Sunni political forces maintained neutrality, understanding the importance of the Shi’I camp’s approval of the prime minister, which led to the withdrawal of al-Zurfi, and the nomination of Al-Kazemi on 9 April 2020.
Parliament’s vote of confidence to Al-Kazemi’s government was a surprise to many, as just days before the session, Al-Kazemi was strongly rejected by Tehran’s allies. Since the outbreak of the October 2019 protests, Shi’i militias made accusations of preparations for a coup that will bring him to power. Rumours and questions have also been raised about his responsibility as head of the intelligence service, or even his involvement, in facilitating the assassination of Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad airport.
The shift of some Shi’i political forces to give confidence to the Al-Kazemi government (the State of Law coalition headed by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki maintained its rejection) 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 Shi’i majority cities, as protesters targeted symbols of Iran and its allies in Iraq, including their consulates, in a remarkable display of patriotic sentiment demanding that Iraq not be implicated in international crises.
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 recalculate for fear that they will pay the price in the upcoming elections. Iran would not have continued to reject the candidates indefinitely after expressing reservations about Allawi and rejecting Adnan al-Zurfi. This was also a reference to Iranian attempts to reach a settlement that could continue to rule Iraq, or to calm with Washington, which seemed to stand strongly behind al-Kazemi.
The New Government
In the formation of his government, Al-Kazemi chose figures from within or close to the protest movement and pledged to fulfil its demands, despite the likelihood of success being unclear, especially regarding the disclosure of the killers of the protesters. It seems that Al-Kazemi wanted, by including figures in the movement to his government, to convince the parliamentary blocs that the only way to save the regime from collapse is to respond to the demands of the public. But the differences seemed deeper than simply distributing ministerial portfolios, and this is especially related to 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 the decision taken by the marja’, Ali al-Sistani, to separate thousands of Marja’ fighters from the PMF and place them in 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.
After difficult negotiations, Al-Kazemi succeeded in gaining confidence of 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 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 Defence. 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 Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi as a result of complaints by militias loyal to Iran.
Challenges Facing the al-Kazemi Government
Al-Kazemi’s government faces major challenges, foremost in addressing the repercussions of the Covid-19 epidemic that has paralyzed the country. But the biggest challenge is the subsequent collapse of oil prices, as the government will shortly become unable to pay public sector salaries after a decade of significant inflation as a result of quotas between the parties that divided up the state and led to jobs being handed out to party members and supporters. 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, in light of the accusation that the former Prime Minister was too far under the influence of the militias loyal to Tehran.
In his movement, Al-Kazemi enjoys the support of balanced parties, such as the Marja’ of Najaf and secular and Kurdish forces, but groups influencing the October movement see that the current regime suffers an irreparable defect. However, during the past two days, the youth groups represented by the protest movement seemed to be more inclined towards allowing 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 regime and, the hope that elections that Al-Kazemi pledges to hold will change the balance of political forces in Iraq.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 “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.
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.
 “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.