Daily Briefing: MUSTAFA AL KADHIMI, IRAQ’S NEW PRIME MINISTER FACES ONSLAUGHT OF CHALLENGES (May 19,2020)

Mustafa al-Kadhimi
(Source: Wikipedia)

Table of Contents:

Don’t Let “Strategic Dialogue” Sink Iraq:  Michael Rubin, RealClearDefense, May 11, 2020


The U.S.-Iraqi Relationship Is coming to a Head—and That’s a Good Thing: John Hannah and Maseh Zarif, Foreign Policy, May 4, 2020


Rolling Back Iran in Iraq:  John Toolan Jr., RealClearDefense, May 13, 2020


Why Hezbollah’s Man in Iraq is Now Worth $10 Million to the US:  Aya Iskandarani, N Opinion, Apr. 19, 2020

______________________________________________________

Don’t Let “Strategic Dialogue” Sink Iraq
Michael Rubin
RealClearDefense, May 11, 2020

The third time was the charm. After two previous nominees failed to win parliamentary approval, In the early morning hours of May 7, 2020, Mustafa al-Kadhimi formally assumed office, becoming Iraq’s sixth prime minister since the 2004 restoration of sovereignty. Kadhimi has long been Washington’s first choice. He is a noted liberal. Prior to entering politics, he was a writer and human rights activist. In June 2016, he was a surprise appointee to head the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, and he distinguished himself. He was a quiet leader who did not seek a higher office. He professionalized the service and demanded its employees always respect the rule-of-law. He presided over the defeat of the Islamic State but did not seek the limelight. He also became the mediator of choice: not only between Sunnis and Shi’ites and Arabs and Kurds but also between Washington and Tehran. Unlike many other intermediaries, Kadhimi preferred to remain in the shadows.

This is one of the reasons why he is the perfect man for the job as Iraqi trust in its political class falls to all-time lows. According to the Iraqi prime minister’s office, more than 40 percent of Iraqis were born after the 2003 war. They are less willing than an earlier generation to accept subpar leadership just because they are Shi’ite, Sunni, or Kurdish. Iraqis took to the streets in October 2019 to protest political corruption, lack of economic opportunity, and Iranian influence. When security forces tied to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi fired on the crowds, the protestors demanded change. Not every Iraqi knows Kadhimi, but those who do respect him.

Kadhimi faces an onslaught of challenges that dwarf those faced by his predecessors. With 90 percent of state revenue coming from oil, he will struggle to make payroll. Tapping into hard currency reserves will destabilize the currency and spark inflation. COVID-19 may have dispersed the protestors, but it has not diminished their demands. Indeed, the chief mandate Kadhimi has is to implement electoral reforms and then take Iraq to the polls. This is easier said than done as meaningful reform requires the acceptance of the Iraqi powerbrokers whose power it will diminish. Resurgent Islamic State activity and Iranian-backed militias operating out of government control will further challenge Kadhimi.

Iraq’s stability depends on Kadhimi successfully addressing these challenges. Washington, however, may soon upend the Iraqi apple cart. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that, in just one month, the United States and Iraq will begin a “strategic dialogue.” “All strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country, and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq,” Pompeo said. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
______________________________________________________

The U.S.-Iraqi Relationship Is Coming to a Head—and That’s a Good Thing
John Hannah and Maseh Zarif
Foreign Policy, May 4, 2020

In June, the United States and Iraq will launch a “strategic dialogue” that is supposed to address all issues in their bilateral relationship, including the presence of U.S. forces. With Iraq now serving as ground zero in the escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran, it’s hard not to feel like the U.S.-Iraqi relationship might be coming to a head. That is a good thing, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump should make sure that it does.

It’s high time that Washington reassessed its Iraq policy. Over the past year, the relationship has grown increasingly dysfunctional from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Over the past year, the relationship has grown increasingly dysfunctional from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Iraqi security services have brutally killed hundreds of innocent civilians for peacefully protesting the government’s rampant failings. Iran has systematically exploited the Iraqi economy to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Worst of all, Iranian-backed militias—some sanctioned by the United States, most on Baghdad’s payroll—have conducted several rocket attacks against U.S. troops, diplomats, and private-sector actors, with the Iraqi government holding no one to account.

This situation is not sustainable. Since 2003, year in and year out, the United States has provided Iraq with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military assistance, as well as crucial diplomatic backing. That support was premised on the assumption that Iraq would emerge over time as a key partner in preserving stability and security in the Middle East. Instead, the Iraqi government today is headed increasingly in the opposite direction, visiting horrific levels of violence on its own people, while standing aside as its territory, institutions, and economy are subverted by the United States’ most dangerous foe in the region, Iran.

At the heart of the Trump administration’s approach should be the introduction of much stricter conditionality of U.S. support. This is a matter of necessity as much as choice. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout will put unprecedented strains on the U.S. budget for years to come. Going forward, there will be no tolerance for foreign assistance programs that fail to pay visible dividends for U.S. interests—let alone those which appear to be strengthening enemies such as Iran. The time has come for some hard choices to be put before the Iraqi government. It needs to be brought to the full realization of how much it has to lose if it doesn’t begin demonstrating at least some minimal resolve to resist Iranian imperialism and fight for Iraqi sovereignty. The upcoming strategic dialogue offers what might be the last chance to salvage a viable partnership between the United States and Iraq.

The Trump administration is seeking more than $600 million this fiscal year to help train and equip Iraqi security forces in the ongoing fight against the remnants of the Islamic State. That’s on top of the critical contributions that the U.S. military provides to Iraqi counterterrorism operations in terms of logistics, intelligence, and combat airpower. The administration is also requesting more than $120 million to support the Iraqi economy and for other programs, including land mine removal. In addition, the United States has long served as Iraq’s key advocate in gaining access to billions of dollars of economic assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Perhaps most important, however, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York maintains a dollar account for Iraqi foreign reserves and annually ships the country billions of dollars’ worth of $100 bills to keep its cash-based economy afloat and functioning. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
______________________________________________________

Rolling Back Iran in Iraq
John Toolan Jr.
RealClearDefense, May 13, 2020

A new government in Iraq may be the kickstart the United States needs to reset its relations with Baghdad and roll back Iranian influence. Iran’s longtime goal has been to undermine America’s regional commitment and provoke U.S. attacks that draw Iraqi condemnation. The United States should avoid a tit-for-tat with Iran or its proxies and instead launch a concerted effort to roll back Iran’s military presence in the country.

Iran has a longstanding presence in Iraq, and the two countries share a nearly 1,000-mile border. Iran can avoid direct conflict with the conventionally stronger American military by relying on its Iraqi proxies. The integration of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq’s state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) allows these groups to portray themselves falsely as defenders of Iraqi nationalism.

Iranian proxies, like Kataib Hezbollah, are likely to increase their activity against American positions to provoke a response that can sow tension between Washington and Baghdad. When this group killed an American contractor at the end of last year, the United States responded with airstrikes against the group’s leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani’s death garnered much of the coverage afterward, but al-Muhandis’s role as deputy commander of the PMF also caused complications for U.S.-Iraqi relations.

From an operational standpoint, the strike against Soleimani and al-Muhandis was a tremendous success that also warned against further American deaths.

Yet, Iranian proxies continue to launch rockets on bases hosting U.S. soldiers and the Green Zone. Iran and its proxies have launched numerous attacks since the strike against Soleimani, including a recent attack on Camp Taji that killed two American soldiers and one British soldier. This increased aggression suggests that the one-off responses are not enough to deter Iranian action. In fact, such a tit-for-tat could be counterproductive as it would allow Iran to further portray action against PMF groups as a reason that Iraq should no longer tolerate an American presence.

Therefore, delegitimizing and isolating Iran’s proxies in Iraq from the rest of the Iraqi security forces is a crucial challenge going forward. A vital step in this long-term process will be re-demonstrating that a partnership with the United States is more advantageous to one with Iran.

Along these lines, former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s reported decision to separate four PMF brigades from the rest of the Iranian-backed forces has game-changing potential. Bringing the militias without Iranian support under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office could create more opportunities for American forces to target Iranian proxies without reprisals from Baghdad. The confirmation of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Iraq’s new prime minister could signal further tension between Baghdad and Iran’s proxies. Kadhimi’s candidacy received Shia support but Kataib Hezbollah opposed him and has accused him of being involved in the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
________________________________________________

Why Hezbollah’s Man in Iraq is Now Worth $10 Million to the US
Aya Iskandarani
N Opinion, Apr. 19, 2020

Last weekend, the US State Department issued a $10 million reward for information on Mohammad Kawtharani, a senior Hezbollah figure based in Iraq. This is not the first time that Kawtharani has landed on the radar of the Americans. In fact, he was added to the US terror list in 2013. But why is he now worth $10m?

The answer lies in Hezbollah’s growing ambitions in Iraq and abroad, and a shift in its influence and role from a sister proxy of the Iranian regime to a mediator of sorts, at a time when the rule of Tehran is under fire both domestically and in the region.

Kawtharani is believed to have been close to Qassem Suleimani, the slain commander of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite military branch of the regime responsible for managing pro-Iranian groups abroad and carrying out external operations. Kawtharani has also played a role in sending Iraqi militiamen to fight for Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria.

As Hezbollah’s representative in Iraq, he has also come to assume the unofficial role of co-ordinator for the country’s many Iran-aligned militias following the demise of Suleimani. This January, Suleimani was killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad along with Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the former head of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the many Tehran-backed militias united under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which he also co-headed.

With two major figures once responsible for the consolidation of Tehran’s grip on Iraq now gone, a power vacuum had set in – although Esmail Qaani had been appointed Sulaimani’s successor. And even as the PMF’s militias jostled for power, Moqtada Al Sadr – whose Sairoon coalition is the largest bloc in parliament, faced off with authorities and other pro-Iranian groups for dominance in Iraqi politics. This is when Hezbollah stepped in to offer guidance. The group has had ties to Iraq’s Iranian proxies for decades, going back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Shortly after Suleimani’s killings, Hezbollah’s representatives met with Iraqi militia leaders in a bid to unite their ranks. The end goal was to nominate a prime minister capable of putting together a cabinet agreeable to their Iranian patrons and at the same time capable of assuaging the concerns of Iraq’s youth, who had been protesting against institutional corruption, Tehran’s grip on the country and the rule of militias, since October. Hundreds of unarmed civilians have lost their lives in a bid to push out corrupt politicians. And even Mr. Al Sadr, who had initially aligned himself with the protesters, began siding with Tehran and taking up arms against the protesters.

Hezbollah seemed ideally positioned to guide Iraq’s fractious militias through what is essentially a contradictory process. After all, the group has succeeded to quell, at least in part, Lebanon’s own protest movement that began 17 days after Iraq’s “October Revolution.” These include the end of the sectarian rule, widespread corruption, and deteriorating standards of living.

Contrary to its Iraqi counterparts, Hezbollah can count on its image for being “incorruptible”, an advantage in its dealings at home and abroad. Despite being listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, the Arab League, and many European countries, the group maintains an aura of respectability, and even sanctity, with influence beyond its traditional base of religious Shias. This is due in large part to the group’s claim of being a resistance movement and its success in liberating Lebanon’s south from Israeli occupation – although others also took part in the fight. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
______________________________________________________

For Further Reference:

Secret Iran-US Deal leads Kadhimi to Power in Iraq: Zehra Nur Duz, AA, May 18, 2020 — A “behind-the-scenes deal” between the US and Iran have paved the way for the designation of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Iraq’s new prime minister, according to the London-based Middle East Eye (MEE).

A Conversation with President of Iraq Barham Salih: YouTube, Apr. 20, 2020 — In a conversation with Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) Senior Fellow Puneet Talwar, Iraqi President Barham Salih discusses the coronavirus, his political and economic vision for Iraq, and Baghdad’s perspective on U.S.-Iran relations.

Iraq Military: Rocket Lands Near US Embassy in Baghdad Green Zone: Samya Kullab, Times of Israel, May 19, 2020 — A rocket struck Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, early on Tuesday morning, according to an Iraqi military statement, the first attack on the area since a new prime minister was sworn in earlier this month.

Generation Jihad: Ep. 6 – Hezbollah’s Main Man in Iraq Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, FDD’s Long War Journal, Apr. 21, 2020, Podcast — Take a look around the globe today and you’ll see jihadists fighting everywhere from West Africa to Southeast Asia. They aren’t the dominant force in all of those areas, or even most of them. But jihadism has mushroomed into a worldwide movement, with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and other groups waging guerrilla warfare and launching terrorist attacks on a regular basis.