Shafaq News/ The parliament giving its confidence to the new government, after months of delay, in this critical moment of Iraq’s history makes Mustafa Al-Kadhimi face the hell of major challenges, or as optimists say, puts him in front of the last opportunity to combat the current economic, political and security deterioration.
In addition to the parliamentary vote, many factors such as hopes, opportunities and crises combine to make Al-Kadhimi and his ministers gain confidence, which they should start to immediately deal with especially with months of continuous Iraqi street boiling.
Mohammed Tawfiq Alawi and Adnan Al- Zurfi's apology to form the government, then Al-Kadhimi's assignment, after Adel Abd Al-Mahdi's government resigned five months ago, all are indications of the worsening complications of the Iraqi political scene, situations for Al-Kadhimi to deal with carefully without risking the future of his government. Such as economic files, the fire of popular anger, security challenges, the relationship with Kurdistan and the broken contract with the Americans.
The economic challenge
The economic-livelihood file might be the most urgent to deal with, especially since Iraq is rich with oil but a large segment of citizens isn’t benefitted from this wealth.
According to the Ministry of planning figures, the poverty rate in 2018 was 20% and with deterioration of the economic conditions during the past two years, the proposition must have increased sharply. The ministry’s survey showed that the poverty rate was higher is some cities such as Al-Muthanna 52%, Al-Diwaniyah 48% and Maysan 45%.
Al-Kadhimi will have to check these numbers a lot since his first day in the government headquarters, Iraqis never expect less from him, for he realizes that the global demand for oil fell by 30% in April alone, for a country like Iraq which relies with more than 90% of its resources on oil, it will not be easy to confront the imminent threat to the country’s livelihoods.
This file becomes more sensitive because Iraq, despite its massive oil resources, is laden with 23 billion dollars of external debts, as the governor of the central bank announced, while about 40 trillion Iraqi dinars as internal debts leave alone the 40 billion dollars debt outstanding for the period before 2003, as the governor Ali Al-Alaq says.
Al-Kadhimi will have to start studying these files ASAP and prepare plans to deal with them, with the collapse of oil revenues and the government’s inability to pay salaries due to the shrinking in the İraqi economy by 4.7% as the international monetary fund stated.
So Iraq is facing a catastrophic satiation, especially with coronavirus that impeded the economy greatly, which makes the popular anger most likely to explode, unless Iraqis see bold steps to combat the internal corruption.
To see the image more clearly, we must remember that the last budget plan was established with 90% of oil revenues in mind, when the barrel price was 56 dollars, while now it’s only 30 dollars
No government will be able to tackle this challenge without waging internal battles to confront the policies of favoritism and spoiled sharing that spread during the past two decades, which experts say have made the public sector swell to the point to absorb about 50 billion dollars annually in salaries and compensations, which is the largest ratio in the general budget.
The Washington post says that Iraq is witnessing a discussion regarding deducting a percentage of salaries and it was reported that a government official stated that the deduction would affect senior ministries and senior government officials.
Perhaps it will be an influential massage among the Iraqis especially the youth who are suffering great unemployment.
However, such initiative would not be sufficient unless Al-Kadhimi announces a rescue plan that would need adequate parliamentary coverage and support from angry public opinion.
The security challenge
Iraqi people generally feel the burden of this challenge for they’ve been paying theirs and their children’s lifeblood because of it, therefore the must be asked question is whether Al-Kadhimi is fully aware of the size of these sacrifices and their burdens on the citizens and what are his next steps to address this.
However, the problem is that the security file is so complicated that it cannot be settled in isolation from the internal and regional forces.
Without excessive pessimism, Al-Kadhimi needs a miracle without a doubt.
ISIS imposed its agenda on the political climate in Baghdad before the session of granting confidence, after doubling its attacks recently, despite the announcement of the former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, of Iraq’s victory over ISIS in 2017.
It is clear that ISIS is exploiting the coronavirus, the US military repositioning, internal militias’ disputes, the security gap in disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil, the disorganized situation in Syria’s east and the escalated tension between the US army and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to regroup its ranks and reactivate its killing cells.
Nevertheless, Al-Kadhimi has to give utmost importance to these files, for neglecting any of them will bring more deterioration to Iraqis’ lives and deal a devastating blow to his government that will paralyze it from work.
Al-Kadhimi will need to strengthen the army , security services , provide them with enough activation and development funding, in a mission that will not be easy while the financial sources faltering. But he will be able, at least, to activate coordination and cooperation with Kurdistan, make good use of external support programs devoted to the security sector, activate border control with Syria, and reach a formula of political compromise that addresses the problems of PMF in a manner that’s convenient to the interests of the state and in agreement with the main political forces.
On another side of security disorders, Al-Kadhimi needs to give the protesters extra importance, his unfortunate luck is that he is to holding the position of prime minister at the gates of summer, which is usually accompanied by cut electricity and water services, which would increase the intensity of the protests.
The relations with Washington
The "strategic dialogue" between Baghdad and Washington is scheduled to start in June to cover all the complicated issues between them, including the future of the US military presence, especially after the Iraqi parliament formally voted to demand the withdrawal of US forces.
Washington will be represented by Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, It was not officially known whether Al-Kadhimi would personally participate in the dialogue sessions, as he would have just received a mountain of files to start searching through, though he is well aware that there is a lot to fix in the relationship with the US, for it’s a “dysfunctional partnership “ as the “Foreign Policy" describes it from an American point of view.
It also lists a group of elements that justify its description of this relationship as dysfunctional, among them: security forces killed hundreds of protesters, Iran's exploiting the Iraqi economy to circumvent US sanctions, Iraqi factions which some of are on US sanctions list for being backed by Iran, received financial support from the Iraqi government that are not being accounted for attacking American bases in Iraq.
“Foreign policy” noted that, although Washington has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military assistance and supported Iraq diplomatically, hoping that it will turn into a major partner in maintaining stability and security in the Middle East, it is going in the opposite direction, adding that the "strategic dialogue" is the last opportunity to change that direction and save the long termed American-Iraqi partnership, asking Washington to impose stronger conditions in return for American support and to make Baghdad understand that it will lose a lot, unless it shows resistance to the "Iranian domination”.
The Americans will participate in the dialogue sessions, armed with elements of power that enhance their negotiating position. Which is not an easy task for Al-Kadhimi, for the Americans will put ISIS’s file before him and remind him that Trump is seeking to provide 600 million dollars for training and arming the Iraqi security forces, also aiming to secure 120 million dollars to support the Iraqi economy and other programs, including de-mining.
Washington is also Baghdad’s passing ticket to the International Monetary Fund, if Iraqi and the world’s economic collapse continue. Therefore, Al-Kadhimi’s negotiation position will not be easy, for he understands that most of this aid cannot be replaced by other countries if Washington refrains from providing it.
Unless Washington sees an adequate Iraqi response to its demands, Trump’s administration will use the “oil sanctions “ pressure card on Al-Kadhimi, as alluded by “foreign policy “ , after the Iraqi Parliament’s embarrassing vote to remove the US forces from Iraq
About the US military presence, "Foreign Policy" clearly hints at an unequivocal distinction of the American view of both Baghdad and Kurdistan. Also called for the necessity of preparing a plan to enhance the role of the US forces in Iraq to secure the safety of Kurdistan, for unlike the Iraqi government, (KRG) is very supportive of the American military presence.
“Foreign policy” elaborated that by stationing in Kurdistan, the US can carry out necessary missions against ISIS, including in Syria, and with the reduced vulnerability of its forces without the broad protection measures it had to adopt in other regions of Iraq, Washington will be able to act flexibly in the face of the risks posed by ISIS and Iran.
It’s worth to recall what (KRG)’s president, Nechirvan Barzani announced to the "Monitor", that the Kurds and Sunni Arabs did not participate in the decision taken by the Iraqi parliament to remove the American forces, adding that it sets a “bad precedent."
In total, the strategic dialogue negotiations will be hard in all its aspects, while the Americans are waiting to monitor Al-Kadhimi’s steps regarding the future of the American forces, keeping in mind Donald Trump’s statement, "We spent 8 trillion dollars on the worst decision in history by going to the Middle East, as millions of people on both sides have been killed.”
Relations with Kurdistan
Al-Kadhimi gaining parliamentary confidence coincides with the escalated trust crisis between Baghdad and Kurdistan, while the Kurdish components in the Parliament announced their support for Al-Kadhimi’s nomination to form the government.
Several factors contributed to increase the differences between Baghdad and Erbil, the most prominent of which was the recent decision of Adel Abd Al-Mahdi’s government to cut Kurdistan’s salaries for unknown reasons, violating the agreements between the two sides.
The decision to cut the salaries came at a time when the Kurdish negotiating delegation was conducting intensive negotiations with various government forces in Baghdad to settle files that hinder developing relations between Baghdad and Erbil, which rises questioning about escalating the disputes in spite of the good relations between the Kurdish leadership and Adel Abd Al-Mahdi.
So, Kurdistan too, will be monitoring Al-Kadhimi’s first steps on the salary file, though the Kurdish blocs granting him confidence implies that understandings were made to settle this issue without additional tension between the two sides.
As known, the oil file is the most complicated one , as Kurdistan have 45 billion barrels of the Iraqi reserves that’s estimated as 150 billion barrels, Kurdistan exports 400-500 thousand barrels per day. But formally, 250 thousand barrel per day must be exported through SOMO Oil Company, and the resulting revenue must be applied to the federal budget. In contrast, Baghdad has to pay about 12% (8.2 billion dollars) of its federal budget to Erbil.
All Al-Kadhimi needs to do to fold this sensitive file is to activate the agreement that was between Kurdistan and Abd Al-Mahdi’s government in 2019, that included giving Kurdistan’s share that was not obtained from 2018’s budget, as well as pay Kurdistan’s employees and Peshmerga salaries. So it’s a simple test to show Al-Kadhimi’s will to solve this dispute with the Kurdish allies who supported him in the Parliament, to open the gate for the two parties to tackle the disputed areas’ sensitive file, within Kirkuk, Salahuddin, Nineveh and Diyala.
Al-Kadhimi can meet Masrour Barzani, Kurdistan’s Prime Manistee, in the middle of the road to defuse this neglected crisis, which was one of the elements that allowed ISIS to move under the shadow of the disputed areas to re-activate its forces. Masrour Barzani, shortly after becoming prime minister called for Baghdad to “leave the past conflicts behind" in a clear attempt to moisten the atmosphere.
The Kurdish voices that are calling for vigilance to deal with this file have multiplied in the past days. Among them, the voice of (KDP)’s MP, Bashar Al-Kiki, who stated to Shafaq News, "The disputed areas have been unstable since the events of October 16th, 2017 with the withdrawal of the Peshmerga despite the necessity of their presence and the security successes they have achieved over the past years”, calling for the necessity of normalizing the security agreements between The Peshmerga and the local forces in order to abort ISIS’s threat, and to administer these areas in accordance with article 140 of the constitution.
It is no secret that part of the Baghdad-Kurdistan complications is that political forces in Baghdad are not in agreement on how to approach the relationship with Kurdistan, this puts Al-Kadhimi in front of a major challenge that must be overcome to reach the political safety.
In the past week, protesters’ chants escalated, demanding early elections, supported by the religious references in Najaf, without having political consensus in Baghdad.
What can Al-Kadhimi do to renew the blood in the political arteries and convince the protesters that he was meeting their demands gradually? Especially as major political and governmental forces consider that elections will not be that much of an advance now, and it would not be held any time before the end of 2021.
Many questions are raised specifically because Al-Kadhimi spoke about the need to hold the elections within a year. Will the protesters give him that time? Perhaps, regardless of that, the elections can’t be held quickly for many reasons, the first being the spread of the coronavirus, as new cases are recorded daily because of the lack of public commitment to preventive measures, and opening the election polls may repeat Qum’s scenario where the first casualties appeared in Iran and were ignored at first on the eve of the parliamentary elections, when millions of voters went to the polls and undoubtedly contributed in spreading the epidemic.
Some might say that Iraq, with its limited health capabilities, is not able to deal with such a pandemic, other reasons stand in the way of early elections, for the electoral process seems to demand a billion dollars which is unavailable in the light of this suffocating economic crisis.
We shall see soon if Al-Kadhimi announce the difficulty of early elections.
Hassan Shaker Odeh, the representative of Al-Fateh alliance and the PMF, expressed that the elections need a lot of money while Iraq is going through a financial crisis due to the low oil prices. Ahmed Al-Asadi, the coalition's spokesman stated that there will be no early elections in the current crisis and it will take place after at least two years.
As for MP Abbas Alawi, said openly that most of the political forces are unwilling to hold early elections
Another disturbing factor is the need for some technical and legal requirements regarding the division of electoral districts, as well as definition of many districts that were considered one electoral district and integration of voters in districts with population that’s not more than 100.000 people, this will lead to some considerations, for political parties’ audience and tribal powers should be taken into account.
The Independent High Electoral Commission itself declared recently, that the elections need a series of steps, including the legislation for the election law, which determines the electoral districts and the number of seats for each constituency, as well as allocating the electoral budget, in addition preparing and updating the voter registration, printing and distributing the voter electronic card, preparing the lists of political parties and organizations, opening the door for registering elections candidates, preparing electronic verification kits, an electronic counting devises, results announcement software, as well as preparing publications that include the ballot paper, settlement and results forms, voter registry, the polling center and the contracts for what the elections need.
Adel Abd Al-Mahdi called in the beginning of March for early elections on December 4, and to dissolute the parliament 60 days before the elections, but the street’s rising demands started months before that.
All of the above does not open a paved path for Al-Kadhimi’s idea of early elections nor postpone it, which leads to, either a clash with political blocs in the parliament, or to additional tension in the street protests. And both options are bitter.