Mustafa al Kazimi will have to pick a side if he wants to enact meaningful change.

For someone who has had a long career working in the news business, it's amazing that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kazimi thinks he can play both sides of the fence and not be called out. 

In just over a month of being in office, Kazimi has attempted to placate the anger of the protest movement that has been going strong since October last year by promising reforms, arrests of security officials who have beaten and killed protesters, and the release of prisoners arrested for peacefully demonstrating. 

Literally within days of doing so, he was filmed wearing the uniform of the pro-Iran militias widely blamed for anti-protester violence and heaping praise upon their commanders in a cringeworthy show of deference to the established status quo.

This can only mean one thing. Whatever the good intentions, Kazimi may have to help the Iraqi people come out from under the boot of a sectarian and oppressive system, the system is too large for him and he will not be the man to change Iraq for the better.

Shia militias still rule the streets

Barely a week into his tenure, Kazimi showed promising signs that he may be the kind of prime minister Iraqis had been craving for almost two decades - who was not afraid to stand up to foreign-backed militants who use violence with absolute impunity.

Kazimi seemingly came out swinging on Twitter to announce that he had ordered security forces to “detain those behind assaulting protesters in Basra” after demonstrators were shot at by an Iran-backed Shia militant group in the oil-rich southern city. 

At least one protester was killed while others had to be admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds.

While this earned him praise outside of Iraq, most Iraqis were not very impressed. The group he targeted for arrests was a little-known outfit called Thaer Allah, or Vengeance of God, who have been active in Basra since the early days of the US-led occupation that began in 2003.

While they are undoubtedly a menace, they are rarely active outside of Basra and do not have the numbers or the national scope of larger groups such as the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl ul-Haq (AAH), or Kataib Hezbollah (KH), some of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) most favoured groups.

What this suggested was that Kazimi may have cut a deal with the IRGC to allow him to crackdown on one of their smaller groups in order to polish his credentials with the Shia-majority protest movement who have been calling for Iran’s departure from Iraqi politics for the better part of a year.

These fears swiftly materialised less than a week later after the prime minister was filmed attending a gathering of a who’s who in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a paramilitary organisation that is formally part of the Iraqi armed forces but is in effect controlled by the IRGC and includes groups like Badr, AAH, and KH. 

Many of the militia groups represented had been repeatedly accused of descending upon the protesters armed with guns, knives, and clubs, killing, arresting, and forcibly disappearing them with no judicial oversight and as Iraqi law enforcement stood by and watched.

In the footage, Kazimi can be seen donning the PMF’s uniform and pouring praise on the militants, saying that he was personally “joyous and proud” to be amongst them, and that they were “the pride of all Iraqis”.

Understandably, this outraged regular Iraqis up and down the country, particularly as the United Nations reported days after this rather grotesque photo-op, they had credible evidence that at least 154 demonstrators had been abducted, tortured, and sexually abused while detained by “unidentified gunmen” which has almost become a byword for IRGC-linked groups. 

All male protesters reported being tortured, urinated on, being photographed nude as they hung from the ceiling, and had their families threatened with death. 

Female demonstrators reported harrowing stories of how they were beaten, threatened with rape, and then sexually molested with the obvious intent of shaming them into silence.

Foreign policy and foreign interference

While Kazimi's record thus far on the domestic situation does not give rise to much hope of any meaningful change, even his foreign policy initiatives are seemingly being cut down at the knees by Tehran-backed political blocs who fear any reduction in the privileges they enjoy at the expense of the Iraqi people.

Late last month, and after a meeting between the two countries’ finance and oil ministers, Saudi Arabia announced that it would be pouring in billions into the Iraqi economy, including a $3 billion loan to shore up Iraq’s budget deficit as well as investments in Iraqi natural gas fields. 

Riyadh also declared it would be reinstating its ambassador to Baghdad, reversing its decision to remove him after tit-for-tat allegations between the two neighbours in 2016. This was hailed as a pragmatic foreign policy seeking to ensure Iraq’s good ties with all its neighbours to the benefit of the public.

Almost immediately, pro-Iran political blocs in the Iraqi parliament announced they would be attempting to pass a “JASTA-like” bill – in reference to the controversial American law that allowed victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government – that would allow Iraqis harmed by suicide bombers who are Saudi nationals to claim reparations from the Saudi Arabian government.

The reality is that Iraq has no power to enforce any such law, even if passed through parliament. The country is simply too weak, and also its domestic courts will have no jurisdiction to enforce reparations arising from international claims. 

However, this was clearly an attempt by Iran-backed groups to derail any warming of ties between Baghdad and Riyadh as it could be seen as a way to weaken Tehran’s grip over Iraqi affairs.

It is therefore clear that, despite his best efforts, Kazimi is finding that he is unable to straddle the line between serving the concerns of the Iraqi people while keeping the status quo happy. 

After all, he was not elected and does not have a popular mandate, and is reliant on the goodwill of the various parliamentary blocs. 

The beleaguered premier finds himself in the unenviable position of attempting to please both sides, which damages his reputation amongst the people, while allowing the established elite to machinate behind his back to undermine him.

If Kazimi truly cared for the Iraqi people, he seemingly has only one choice – denounce the political system as a failed mess of corruption and sectarianism that serves foreign agendas, and pledge elections at the earliest possible opportunity. This is the only way he will be able to build a popular mandate that would empower him to make true changes. 

Anything less than this is merely perpetuating the sorry state of affairs that led to the protests in the first place

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