The gap between Washington’s perspective of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and reality grows daily. Many in the State Department remember Kadhimi as the human rights scholar who chronicled late dictator Saddam Hussein’s abuses or as the journalist who covered Iraqi politics for Al-Monitor, often from a liberal perspective. Those in the Central Intelligence Agency still see Kadhimi as the competent bureaucrat who took the helm of the Iraqi Intelligence Service at the height of the fight against the Islamic State and worked closely with the United States (and Iran) to end its self-declared emirate.
The American foreign policy establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kadhimi emerged as interim prime minister from the scrum that followed the eruption of nationwide protests and the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Kadhimi had a limited mandate: Oversee electoral reform and act as caretaker until new elections. Iraqis hoped he might also seize the moment. Almost half of Iraq’s population was born after 2003. They were no longer willing to give Iraq’s self-dealing political power brokers the benefit of the doubt. They wanted fundamental reform and someone willing to call out corruption. Kadhimi’s weakness—that he had not arisen from a political party and so had no party machine to back him—could also have been his strength. He could argue that Iraq’s political class must take his bitter medicine or face a revolution that would bring them all down.
In the end, Kadhimi has disappointed. His skin is thin. Iraqis from across the political spectrum note corruption is worse now than under Abdul-Mahdi, though they disagree about Kadhimi’s complicity. Kadhimi’s administration has also been Iraq’s worst for press freedom. Tehran has grown increasingly comfortable with Kadhimi as the Iranian regime realizes his ambition will lead him to give them anything they need without the scrutiny that Maliki or Abdul-Mahdi would bring. Economically, he brags of achievements but does not produce the data to support them. High oil prices will not last forever.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with Kadhimi is ambition. He could have been a great leader if he prioritized substance over length of term. But his desire to join and perpetrate the system rather than disrupt it has led him to allow the most illiberal of Iraq’s powerbrokers—the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Masoud Barzani and the Sadrists to run roughshod over reform.
Certainly, Kadhimi would deny such charges. Whether the militantly pro-Iranian Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq attacks the International Zone or Muqtada al-Sadr’s partisans invade the parliament, Kadhimi argues that he fears precipitating civil war.
Americans have a tremendous capacity for wishful thinking. Eighteen years ago, there was an active debate in the White House about whether U.S. forces should target and kill Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the youngest and least accomplished son of the martyred Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, had encouraged a mob of thugs to stab to death Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, the son of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, who had returned to Iraq shortly after American forces invaded the country and had far greater religious credentials and political skill than Sadr.
Sadr’s forces were part mafia, part mob and terrorized society as Sadr sought to use all means necessary to accumulate wealth. Khoei was among the first he killed, but scores would follow him. During the American occupation, Sadr aligned himself firmly with Iran. In time, even the Iranians recognized he was more liability than asset, and cast their lot more firmly with the Badr Corps’ Hadi Amiri, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Qais Khazali, or Kata’ib Hezbollah’s Ahmad al-Hamidawi.
With greed and a desire for the limelight both trumping piety, Sadr ultimately remade himself as a defender of Iraqi nationalism against the ambitions of Iran. Too many diplomats and journalists are willing to believe him. The thinking goes: Sadr might be mercurial. He might also refuse to meet Americans directly, but at least he is anti-Iran. This is a mistake, however. The United States should never support any figure who storms parliament and uses violence to achieve what he cannot at the ballot box.
This is why Kadhimi’s reaction to Sadr’s antics is so disturbing. On August 3, 2022, ahead of Friday prayers in Saddam’s old parade grounds, a lieutenant colonel from Iraqi special division answering to Kadhimi gave a tour of the location to the head of Saraya Salam, al-Sadr’s militia. Sadr himself demanded parliament dissolve itself and hold new elections. As Iraqi political analysts have pointed out, this mirrored a proposal by a top Kadhimi aide. It would effectively keep Kadhimi in power for another year.
Such extensions have a real cost. Iraqi faith in the system is on life support. Voter turnout would hemorrhage in a new election. This would allow the most illiberal forces—Barzani and Sadr—to dominate. Kadhimi may hope in such a scenario that, at worst, he gets another year while at best he could be a compromise candidate for an additional four.
Some in Washington may accept such a bargain. Sadr, Barzani, and Kadhimi may posture as anti-Iran, but they would be fatal for Iraqis’ hopes and aspirations. Iraqis wanted reform and a standard of living commensurate with their country’s vast wealth. To accept Barzani and Sadr as the forces behind the curtain would be akin, in the American context, to putting John Gotti, Jr., in charge of the Small Business Administration and Bernie Madoff in charge of the Office of Management and Budget.
Within the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound, American diplomats and officials imagine the worst about Iraq. Certainly, Iran penetrates the country, but Iraqis are much more resilient and nationalistic than the United States often understands. This does not mean the United States should turn its back to the fight against corrupt officials like Nouri al-Maliki and Amiri. Their loyalty lies outside Iraq. To rescue Iraq from them only to deliver Iraqis to Barzani and Sadr is akin to rescuing a drowning man from a river, and then dumping him into the ocean with cement shoes.
Kadhimi is a patriot, but he enables this dynamic for the wrong reasons. He is in the palace to promote a new Iraq. If he believes himself indispensable and seeks to force a choice between himself and reform, it is essential the United States side with reform. The reverberation of a candidate whose incentive is to delay democracy rather than encourage it could very well push Iraq past the breaking point.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).