Kazimi and the Militias: Compromises Within the Framework of Iraq’s Political Movement



Farouq Youssef

Iraqi columnist and researcher

Following his appointment on May 7, 2020, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi was keen on visiting the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). However, the visit was a contentious issue among Iraqis, with some deeming the visit to be a friendly gesture, while others opposed it, particularly  when Kazimi wore the PMF uniform. This act boldly reflected  the mounting popular desire to end  the PMF’s armed sectarian outlook.  

This visit had wider implications considering  its timing and what Iraq was  going through. It was  an attempt by the Iraqi prime minister to bridge the confidence gap with an organization  that  does not trust him. In his first speech after he took office,  he preemptively addressed the PMF, saying, “Arms should be under the control of the state exclusively,” in reference to  one of the basic objectives of his government, along with fighting corruption and bringing home displaced persons.  Since the prime minister, according to the militias’ viewpoint, represents a short-term solution within  a transitional period that will pave  the way for elections, and usher in a   more democratic and transparent system, the militias  announced that they  do not accept him.

 The chief of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, called on  Kazimi not to interfere in matters which  do not fall within his remit,  particularly fighting corruption and reforming the system.  

On the other hand,  Kazimi is not unaware  of the fact that he is not accepted by Iraq’s parties and militias,  although Iran has  not publicly voiced opposition to his appointment.

However, this cannot be understood as Iran’s acceptance of  Kazimi. He faced Iranian accusations of involvement  in the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF. The Iranians insinuated  – in an indirect manner – that  Kazmi is Washington’s  man in Iraq.

It is believed that Kazimi’s past role heading Iraq’s intelligence services, advanced and qualified him to ascend to power since he was once privy to a mine of secrets.

 However, this information seems rather useless as Washington has access to it and Kazimi’s past role raises the likelihood   of militias waging a street fight against his government. This is an imminent scenario that could play out in case Iran fails to  secure a face-saving or even a partial compromise  during  negotiations with the United States, leading to  the economic sanctions being lifted or suspended to an extent,  especially since Iran’s options are no longer as extensive as before.

At a time when Iran is pursuing its  set policy of  brinkmanship, the militias have  continued to provoke  the United States through firing rockets at areas in close proximity to the US embassy and targeting the bases of allied forces in the hope that they could pressure  the United States to be open to Iran in a way that leads to reaching an understanding between the two sides.

 However, the sudden US decision to  shift its embassy from Baghdad to Erbil has complicated the equation for all parties. This decision could lead to the weak government of Kazimi being toppled, which in turn could  lead to  the country’s fragile political system collapsing.  The system is based on a complex  mesh of appeasement between  the United States and Iran. Both countries vie to dominate  Iraq. If the link between  the two sides is severed, the Iraqi government could fall.  

Considering the above,  the militias suspended  their provocative attacks and returned to  the “resistant” option by assassinating activists in Shiite-majority regions and kidnapping and  assassinating  dwellers in  Sunni-majority regions.

 These militias had previously  conducted military parades, deploying their fighters, and displaying their weapons on  Iraqi streets without  coordinating with the government, however, the latter  has not  commented on the matter.

Hence, when these militias carry out  assassinations, they understand that nobody will hold them to account.   The influence  of militias, highlighted   by Harakat Hezbollah’s ability to forcibly release several of its fighters who were apprehended  after firing missiles  at the Green Zone where the US embassy is located, is expected to increase further.

Security operations that fail to identify  perpetrators,  let alone hunt them down, indicate that Kazimi is  unable to spearhead the pushback against militias  to cease the growing cycle of violence. This could lead to  popular resentment against him, and seal his fate  like  former prime ministers when the younger generation vented their anger against them.  

However, the remarkable shift in the matter is that the current prime minister has not reiterated what former prime ministers reiterated in relation to  the PMF. The former prime ministers were bold in saying that the PMF  is part of  Iraq’s armed forces and must act  in accordance with the orders of the commander-in-chief, who is the prime minister. This is mentioned clearly in the provisions of the Iraqi Constitution.

It is no surprise that Kazimi has preferred to remain silent on this matter, stopping short of revealing his  convictions which are consistent with reality: the PMF is an armed militia operating outside state control. It does not comply with state laws.

This means that his convictions conflict with those of the Shiite parties and political blocs. The latter are only receptive to those convictions that  safeguard their interests and permit them to continue to  control the levers of power in the country.  

There are blocs facing  marginalization, as is the case with the Wisdom Movement, led by Ammar al-Hakim, which has no militia. But these blocs see no interest in throwing their weight behind the prime minister against  the PMF. According to their viewpoint,  Kazimi’s government will not last and the PMF will remain.

This led the prime minister to stand alone in attempting to address  the financial crises without daring to  touch the privileges of parties and militias that are exhausting a significant  percentage of the state’s dwindling revenues  because of declining oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

These developments  may partly explain the poor relationship between the two sides even though both sides have refrained from mentioning this.

Notwithstanding the imminent change in the US administration, the crux of the matter is that the whole issue hinges on Iran’s political viewpoint which shapes the  approach through which the parties and militias in Iraq deal with the current realities.  We  can consider the truce reached between the militias aligned with Iran and the United States as a truce between the militias and  the Kazimi government. Many believe Kazimi will not be able to keep up  the same kind of momentum in meeting his government’s aims since  Donald Trump is  set to leave the White House. Iran had opted to delay tackling its crises until after the US elections, including the Iraqi crisis, which is the most urgent of these crises.

This truce does not seem to be transitional as it appears to favor Kazimi as well.  The  fight against corruption was a clear objective for  his government, however, he is now retreating from addressing this matter, as well as slowing down in introducing reforms. The mentioned steps can be considered a waste of time, given the circumstances which the parties and militias are experiencing  as they await the Iranian go-ahead. This indicates an  opportunity for the government  to make some more gains, especially in relation  to retrieving stolen assets and fixing internal issues.

Also, Kazimi  faces additional pressures from the parties  via their representatives in Parliament as he  increases borrowing and refuses  to rationalize government spending. The Parliament voted  against a bill allowing an individual to receive multiple salaries. The government’s attempt to pass  a contentious bill  in relation to domestic borrowing caused a media uproar due to potential increases in government expenditures.  

Against all the odds,  Iraq’s financial situation  seems to be far worse than ever before. This has led to deep pessimism among experts,  which has prompted them to sound the alarm bell as they fear bankruptcy which threatens the survival of the Iraqi state.

The sweeping statement  that  “]Iraq’s[ parties, backed by  militias, managed to curb the ambitions of Kazimi and his government  because of the financial squeeze,” is not wholly accurate.

This  statement is not fully accurate if we  consider the economic plans of the prime minister. These plans were not established on sound grounds such as  reducing government expenditures,  austerity and reviewing laws  to limit the waste of public money.

To conclude, Iraq is now in a state of limbo until the strategy of the new US administration towards the region becomes clear.  Whatever the outcomes are, the undeniable fact is that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi will continue to be involved in tensions  with the militias if he does not carefully consider his strategy towards them.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Editorial Team