Iraq’s leadership has to deal with Covid-19, the Islamic Republic, the Daesh, and the United States.

After nearly six months of political negotiations since the incumbent prime minister Adil Abd al Mahdi tendered his resignation in the face of widespread protests, and two failed attempts to pick his successor, Mustafa al Kazimi as prime minister-designate was able to form a cabinet. 

Parliament approved 15 out of 22 cabinet members last week, which can belatedly tackle the pandemic that has proved challenging for Iraq’s eviscerated health sector. It also has to deal with the potential resurgence of the Islamic State (Daesh), which stepped up attacks during the month of Ramadan.

However, the Daesh threat is related to security governance, which the Iraqi state has improved incrementally since its 2018 defeat. Covid-19 is related to socio-economic governance, an area in which post-2003 Iraqi state lacks capacity. 

To compound matters, Iraq faces a confluence of challenges to both forms of governance. In the socio-economic realm, the new government has three immediate priorities: the Covid-19 outbreak, which led to a decrease in oil prices and religious tourism, which will deprive the Iraqi state of funds to address a sustained protest movement that began in October 2019, job creation and providing reliable services and lastly an end to corruption that inhibits the former two.  

The two most pressing issues related to security governance is the US and Iranian conflict spilling over on Iraqi soil and dismantling the remaining Daesh networks in Iraq. An analysis of al Kahdimi and his cabinet will answer if it has the technocratic capacity to address these immediate challenges.

Security governance

In June 2016, Kazimi became head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, a key agency involved in dismantling Daesh. This role has granted him the qualifications related to security governance. 

During his exile, Kazimi lived in Iran and the United Kingdom. Living in the Middle East and Europe gave him the background to navigate both cultures, which his predecessor Nuri al Maliki lacked, having lived primarily in the Middle East. 

Maliki’s leadership style was inherited from his past as an underground operative for the Dawa Party, banned during Saddam Hussein’s rule.  Maliki’s paranoia and centralising tendencies can be traced to his formative experience in the Iraqi opposition, which led to his downfall after the Daesh invasion of 2014. 

In this sensitive security position, Kazimi would have gained experience in balancing the American and Iranian presence in Iraq during the military campaign against the terrorist group, and indeed both states appeared to have agreed on his candidacy. 

Beyond these two states, he would have developed relations with the numerous Middle Eastern and European states involved in the international coalition against Daesh, including NATO. 

Kazimi also faces a challenge from the Shia militias in the Iraqi state. While a Shia, the Hezbollah Brigades resisted his appointment, arguing as intelligence head he was complicit in providing the US with the information that led to the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and their leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis in January 2020.

While the allegation may never be proven, the fact that the accusation was made foreshadows a future intra-sectarian contest between a militia embedded in the state and the highest executive office of the government.

Some Iranian-affiliated militias allegedly also targeted Iraq’s protesters. Kazimi’s ability to hold those responsible to account will be essential to placate the protesters, but would only exacerbate pre-existing tensions with those very militias.

In terms of security governance, the greatest challenge the new Iraqi government faces is preventing a resurgent Daesh while managing a pandemic at the same time.

In theory, Daesh has already mastered social distancing and shelter-in-place measures, as a network of sleeper cells prior to its rise in 2014 and after its demise in 2018. Daesh will benefit from the respite by riding out the pandemic without suffering a loss of its ranks and stepping up attacks. 

Socio-economic governance

The parliament approved the positions for interior, defense, finance, water, and electricity, posts related to socio-economic and security governance, essential for allaying the protester’s demands. 

While the protesters objected that the ministers were chosen by the same entrenched parties that they accuse of cronyism, there are a significant number of technocrats – a departure from past cabinets.

Fortunately for mitigating the pandemic, the parliament approved the health minister, Hassan Mohammed Abbas Salman, who would be considered a technocrat, as he has doctorate in pharmacy and was the head of a prominent hospital.

The Finance Minister is Ali Allawi, who has worked at the World Bank and remained independent from the major parties. The Electricity Minister, Majid Mahdi Hantoush, spent his entire career working in the organisation, and the Water Ministry is led by Mehdi Rasheed Mehdi, a career water specialist, placing two technocrats in charge of delivering Iraq’s daily needs. 

Finally, in terms of socio-economic governance, a free media is essential to spread reliable medical information during a pandemic, as demonstrated by China’s failure to report on the outbreak of Covid-19 during the initial outbreak. 

After 2003, Kazimi cofounded the Iraqi Media Network and was the editor of the Iraq section of the Al Monitor website and the Iraqi edition of Newsweek magazine. Hopefully this experience will make him sympathetic to Iraqi journalists and push him to open up the media landscape to report freely on the pandemic, which has faced restrictive measures on reporting since the Daesh invasion and covering the 2019 protests. 

The pandemic emerged as an exogenous shock to Iraq’s already stressed public health infrastructure, exacerbated by the fact that since 2003 the state has lacked efficient executive leadership to provide reconstruction and security. 

The new government faces a daunting challenge in breaking with the past and developing the technical capacity to provide basic public goods to its citizens, including health and security, water and electricity. 

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