During the years preceding his naming as premier, Mustapha al-Kadhimi watched leaders come and go in the office of the prime minister, taking note of each blunder they made.

Haidar Abadi (2014-2018) was toppled by the Iranians because he had snuggled too close to the Americans and agreed to abide by renewed US sanctions on Iran. His successor, Adel Abdul Mahdi (2018-2019), fell because of the exact opposite—he cuddled up to the Iranians, coming across as an Iranian puppet during the uprising of October 2019.

Kadhimi at the time was Director of Iraqi intelligence, and when named premier in May 2020, he seemed bent on avoiding both mistakes, walking a very thin line between pleasing both the US and Iran.

He promised early parliamentary elections to replace the current Parliament that had been voted into office in 2018, filled with Iran-backed MPs and militiamen-turned politicians. He also pledged accountability for the 600 demonstrators killed during the October 2019 protests. High on his agenda was confiscating unsolicited arms of Iran-backed militias and curbing their influence—first on the list was the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and its affiliate, Kata’ib Hezbollah.

A Vulnerable Premier?

Kadhimi was backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme Shiite authority in Iraq, and was liked by the Kurds for his lifelong opposition to Saddam Hussein. Both Iran and the US had initially welcomed his appointment, having worked with him on counterterrorism against the Islamic State (ISIS), considering him neither a stooge, nor an opponent.

Unlike his predecessors, Khadimi had never lived in Tehran or been on Iranian payroll, which made him favorable to Iraqi Sunnis. His greatest setback was that he was a relative newcomer to Iraqi politics, having never assumed a government job prior to his appointment as intelligence chief in 2016.

Khadimi’s greatest setback was that he was a relative newcomer to Iraqi politics.

Additionally, he hailed from none of the powerful hereditary political families in the Shiite community, like the Sadrs and the Hakims, and does not belong to any of the political parties that controlled the Parliament and militias on the Iraqi street. For that reason, most of them supported his appointment, thinking that he would be too weak and that they would manage to manipulate him.

From day one, Kadhimi tried to prove his worth, striking at the very same Shiite groups that had brought him to power. For starters, he tried to improve government control of border crossings, depriving the militias from access to cash and arms streaming in from Iran. He also revamped the country’s security services, sidelining officers considered too close to Iran. But when trying to confront the PMU, Kadhimi hit a brick wall.

Fighting the PMU

Originally set up to fight ISIS, the Popular Mobilization Unit has outgrown its purpose and become a state within-a-state in Iraq. During the era of his predecessor, Abdul Mehdi, its forces were recognized as part of the Iraqi military institution and technically, were to report to the commander-in-chief, who at present, is Kadhimi himself. But it is an open secret in Baghdad that they report to Iran and not the Iraqi Premier, whom they mistrust and don’t like; a mistrust that is mutual.

One year ago, Kadhimi ordered the arrest of 14 members from Kataib Hezbollah—only to release them under pressure from the Shiite community. Last month, Kadhimi struck at the PMU—yet again—by arresting its commander, Qasem Musleh, on May 26 in the Anbar province.

Iraq Kadhimi Iran militias

Qassim Mahmoud Musleh, center with mask, head of the Popular Mobilization Units, is welcomed by his supporters at the holy shrine of Imam Hussein, in Karbala, Iraq, after a judge ordered his release on June 9, 2021. Musleh’s arrest sparked a standoff between the government and paramilitary groups in the country. (AP Photo/Samer Khalil)

Musleh was accused, among other things, of targeting civilians and journalists who dared to voice criticism of Iran, and blamed for the killing of Ihab Wazni, a prominent activist who had coordinated the anti-Iran demonstrations in Karbala, a holy city 100-km southwest of Baghdad. Musleh—who remains in custody awaiting trial—was also accused of masterminding rocket attacks on US forces in Iraq after the January 2020 assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force.

At least 300 attacks have been launched by unidentified Iraqi militias since late 2019, universally believed to be working at the orders of the PMU.

At least 300 attacks have been launched by unidentified Iraqi militias since late 2019, universally believed to be working at the orders of the PMU. Three of them have occurred since Musleh’s arrest. They have targeted the US Embassy in the Green Zone and the Ayn al-Asad military base in the Anbar province. To date, four Americans have died from those drone attacks, in addition to 25 Iraqis. The militias use small explosive-laden drones to strike at the Americans, flying so low that detectors are unable to spot them.

Musleh’s arrest has sparked huge uproar from the PMU, as fighters took to the streets surrounding the premier’s office, coming face-to-face with Iraqi security and the elite Counter-Terrorism Forces. Kadhimi criticized the show of force, saying that it was a “serious breach, not only of order and the law, but of the constitution.” On June 2, he threatened to resign if he was not given a free hand to reign in areas under the control of the PMU.

Laith Abdul Rahman, an Iraqi writer and political analyst, told Inside Arabia that “Sources close to the Prime Minister are saying that Kadhimi is preparing for a military operation in Baghdad and the Diyala Governorate [northwest of the Iraqi capital],” adding: “They are waiting to see what happens with the Iranian-US nuclear talks, before taking action.”

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The Battle for Sinjar

Elsewhere, the Prime Minister is also fighting another uphill battle with the PMU, this time in Sinjar, in the Nineveh Province of northwestern Iraq. The city of Sinjar had previously fallen to ISIS in 2014-2015. The city was looted and its Yezidi population enslaved or uprooted from their homes. Last November, Kadhimi reached an agreement with the Kurds to rebuild Sinjar and disarm the 20,000 militants headed by the PMU that have since taken control of the city.

The Sinjar Agreement called for the immediate evacuation and disarmament of the militants, with no provisions on how that ought to be done, and which Kadhimi has been unable to deliver. The militia refused to disarm and leave the city, threatening to fight Kadhimi’s forces if he tries to take them out by force—a battle that Khadimi knows he cannot win. What he did was deploy forces to Sinjar, who have taken no steps against the militias and are standing at arms-length from them.

The reason, it seems, is the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 10, 2021. The last thing that Kadhimi needs ahead of those elections is another armed confrontation in Sinjar.

Upcoming Elections

On June 4, Kadhimi announced that he would not be running for the October elections, saying that his only task was to make sure that they happen in an orderly manner. That is easier said than done, however, precisely because of militia-rule in Iraq.

There are 329 seats in the Iraqi Chamber and Kadhimi would need approval of 165 of them if he were to think of renewing his tenure.

There are 329 seats in the Iraqi Chamber and Kadhimi would need approval of 165 of them if he were to think of renewing his tenure. That seems highly unlikely, since 169 of those MPs are either Iran-affiliated or Iran-funded, and this includes ex-Premier Nouri al-Malki’s State of Law Coalition (25 MPs), Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoun Alliance (54 MPs), Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance (48 MPs), and ex-Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s Victory Alliance (42 MPs).

The State of Law Coalition has already nominated Malki for a comeback—the man who executed Saddam Hussein and under whose reign ISIS overran Mosul. Malki seems almost confident that Kadhimi will be out by October and so does Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the largest bloc in Parliament and is also eyeing the post of premier for a member of his Sairoun Alliance.

The only thing that can change the current balance is if Iran finalizes its nuclear deal with the US and begins retreating from Iraqi territories, which would weaken its allies in Parliament and greatly increase Kadhimi’s chances of a second term.