In this special Newlines Institute Contours podcast, Iraq experts Rasha Al-Aqeedi, Caroline Rose, and Contours host Nicholas Heras discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s visit to Washington to meet President Joe Biden and what al-Kadhimi’s trip means for the dynamics inside Iraq and for U.S. policy on Iraq. Al-Aqeedi, Rose, and Heras give al-Kadhimi a grade for his term as prime minister to date and forecast what to expect next in Iraq. Rasha Al-Aqeedi is the Senior Analyst and Program Head for the Nonstate Actors Program, Caroline Rose is the Senior Analyst and Program Head for Power Vacuums, and Nicholas Heras is the Senior Analyst and Program Head for State Resilience and Fragility
, at the Newlines Institute. All three have written extensively on dynamics inside of Iraq, U.S. policy on Iraq, and the geopolitical impact of events in Iraq in the Middle East and beyond the region.
Nick Heras: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today’s Contours podcast, a production of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. My name is Nick Heras and I’m the senior analyst and head of the State Resilience and Fragility Program here at the Newlines Institute. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi is traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with a range of Biden administration officials, including with President Joe Biden himself, in what will be the first time the two world leaders have met face-to-face. To discuss Mustafa Kadhimi’s visit to Washington and what he has done over the course of the more than the year that he has been prime minister of Iraq, I’m joined by my colleagues Caroline Rose and Rasha Al-Aqeedi. Caroline, Rasha, and I will be grading Kadhimi’s term in office to date, and we’ll discuss what to look for moving forward in U.S. policy in Iraq, dynamics inside Iraq, and the geopolitical consequences of U.S.-Iraqi engagements. Rasha, what grade would you give Mustafa Kadhimi?
Rasha Al-Aqeedi: I have, I have teachers in my family, professors, all the way from elementary school to college professors, and the one thing, the one student that frustrates them the most is the student who is capable, who has the knowledge, who has the background and has the time to study, and perform well, but chooses not to for whatever reasons. He might think that he doesn’t need to study very well and perform regardless, he might think that the teacher is going to be merciful that day and not grade him too harshly and that student usually gets the lowest grades, different from someone who puts in a lot of effort and for whatever reason does not do well on the exam. Mustafa Kadhimi falls into the first category. He has international support. He had — I’m going to say “had,” because I’m not so sure we can say “has” anymore — but he did have some level of domestic support, the will of the people, even the marjaiya to push him into accomplishing a few things, and reluctantly, he chose not to. Even the few things that he did regarding corruption were not good enough. Even the recent announcements of the assassin of Hisham al-Hashmi, it was also a bit lackluster. He left out some details, which kind of backfired. If I were to grade him on his performance inside Iraq, I would give him a D.
NH: Rasha, can I just break in here quickly? Because I feel like you’re grading Kadhimi a bit harshly. I mean, he inherited a system that was a mess at least for the better part of two decades.
NH: He came onto the scene after the Trump administration essentially assassinated Qassem Soleimani, creating a really tumultuous internal situation in Iraq. Kadhimi was the compromise candidate between the U.S. and Iran. Of course as you know, the U.S. and Iran are the most important geopolitical actors in Iraq. I mean, this — the Biden team, and by the way, it seems like this will be the first in-person meeting between Kadhimi and Joe Biden, if you can believe that, that will happen on Monday. You know, my question to you is, it seems like the Biden team looks at him as a great leader. They’ve — an excellent leader, even. Someone who’s pragmatic, gets things done, and they’ve even emphasized, the Biden team, that it’s because of Kadhimi that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and some of the others — we’ll call them Sunni Arab actors — are actually reinvesting in Iraq. So what do you say to that?
RA: I say that because the standards for an Iraqi prime minister are actually so low, that a C-minus is actually considered a good performance. That’s why Kadhimi, if you compare him to Nouri Maliki, he is a prime minister that the United States can actually talk to. That as you mentioned, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, regional allies, even Iran, to some extent, they can get along with. That was different from other prime ministers. And the United States is focusing on one thing, and that’s overall stability. If Kadhimi can deliver that, and the situation does not — is not out of control in Iraq, that is how they’re grading him. my grade. And okay, I will be nice and I’ll give him a C-. I’m not … I’ve upgraded a bit. I’ll give him a C-minus — is that in Iraq, he could have done more. And I am aware that of his — of the restraints in the context of the country security-wise, there is basically a parallel state also that is very, very strong and being empowered by the minute. And that’s exactly why there were, there were things that he could have done better but he decided not to. Corruption, for one, and the economic deals between Iraq and Lebanon that was clearly under the pressure of the sort of the resistance camp. There were things that he did not resist.
Even his attitude toward the October protests. In some way he utilized, or I want to say exploit it, actually, the fact that he came as prime minister because Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign because of the protests. Now, the protesters did not choose him, and we had an activist on a podcast a few months back explain this to us. But he did kind of — he really milked that, he really used that, he came after the protest. At the same time, he did all, all he could to make sure that these, that these activists were subsided. So he supported the protests initially, and the activists, and guaranteed that he would make sure justice was brought about and that the, their attackers and their assassins and people who tortured them would be put behind bars. He did none of that. And not only that, he neutralized the protest movement by actually employing some of the activists and making sure that they were giving pro-government sign, not necessarily with inside the movement, but even within civil society, he attempted at least. So he clearly does not want an opposition, and for him to actually come on becoming the premiership, post-Adel Abdul Mahdi, to give all those promises and then not carry out any of them has been perhaps the most frustrating thing.
And then we look at what has happened in Iraq ever since — just since the beginning of the year, we’ve had two hospital burns that just caught on fire, killing scores of people. The total number is 144, I believe, between two hospitals. We had the suicide attack in February in a very populated market, and recently, in some other city. So, even security-wise, there are things that are essential that he’s not taking care of. So while I appreciate that, yes, he can come to the United States and still claim that he’s a friend or an ally, that he can meet with different international leaders. I’m kind of happy that makes them feel better, but it’s not, it’s not really serving Iraq.
NH: Caroline can I just jump in here and ask you a question? Because I believe that one of the reasons the Biden team appreciates Kadhimi is that they think he’s the guy that can oversee this transition of the counter-ISIS mission in Iraq, and I want to get your take on that.
Caroline Rose: Yeah. Well, I, I’d like to jump in and say that this is a really fascinating debate because when grading Kadhimi, there’s the question of what are the standards of success, and for example, in my opinion, I think really, you know, if he was being tested objectively, he should get an F. But do we give him the curve? Do we curve the grade, and therefore, would he receive like D or a C? Because when, when asked, what grade would I give Kadhimi, I would give him an F in that the citizens of Iraq have been ultimately betrayed by a lot of this balancing act that Kadhimi has been playing between Iran and the United States. However, he’s been playing it to a degree of success, because he’s been able to retain U.S. presence in Iraq for longer than I originally thought he would have been able to. Because at the beginning of 2020, the United States started this trend of withdrawals transferred out of eight bases, reduce the U.S. presence from 5,000 personnel, not including contractors, to now 2,500, and towards the end of the Trump administration, it looked like we were really going to put out a timetable for official withdrawal. And then crickets. Nothing. And now we’re kind of getting this, this very interesting, you know, he-said, she-said, oh we’re going to transition forces to a non-combat role even though we’ve already been there for a few months. So we’re getting mixed messages, but we’re not getting a clear answer of whether the U.S. forces are going to withdraw or not. And I think to a degree Kadhimi and his government, they’ve been able to lobby the U.S. government to stay and retain a degree of presence and receive a degree of intelligence support, logistical support, and training from the Operation Inherent Resolve mission. And so, I think that that, to a degree, should definitely be counted in for a grade on Kadhimi.
But, you know, like Rasha mentioned, she’s really, she’s really right in the aspect that this balancing aspect has hurt Iraqi citizens. There was a raid in June 2020 on Khatib Hezbollah. It was, like, on June 25th. And CTS, the counterterrorism service, they raided this, one of the headquarters of KH and after a while, they detained them, but then they released them immediately afterwards. And when they were detained, they were sitting in these gold-plated seats, you know, just casually waiting for a few hours until they were released, and there was the rumors that Kadhimi also did this with the approval, or at least the knowledge that, you know, that they corresponded with the IRGC on this. So you know, there’s this very careful balancing act at play and I think that a lot of Iraqis, and including the United States, they recognize this. They recognize that Kadhimi is not necessarily always in the U.S.’s corner and not necessarily always in the Iraqi people’s corner as well. And so while I am sympathetic to a degree of how Kadhimi has to play both sides and, you know, out of concern of both his personal safety and then also, you know, with the, this larger geopolitical balancing act that he has to play, I think that the U.S. definitely should pressure him on more accountability and being a bit more up front about things.
RA: I’m just not so sure that Kadhimi and the Iraqi government have been successful at lobbying the U.S. to stay. I think it’s more just, it’s, that’s the U.S. policy. The United States at this point is just not ready to, is not ready to leave. There could be the ISIS activities on the ground, becoming more observant, as we see. They’re becoming more vigilant, taking their — I mean, the way that ISIS have attacked, have been attacking recently, it’s not only a, you know, it’s not only a throwback to 2006 how they were operating. It’s a lot more sophisticated and more careful. They’re less, they’re less suicidal kind of in that way, in that they want to maintain as much as they can. This is a new strategy that they’re adopting and the United States can see, sees that. So that operation is ongoing. There’s also the Syria angle, in addition to perhaps other geopolitical leverage that United States wants to maintain. I don’t think Kadhimi, like, I could be mistaken. I don’t think Kadhimi’s been the one who’s successful at actually keeping the U.S.
I agree, however, yes, when it comes to balancing, if we’re going to be fair, this is pretty much all he can do. I don’t think, I don’t believe he can be on the Iraq side, the Iraqi side, any better than he already is, and, and that is unfortunate. As Nick was saying, he did inherit a very chaotic situation. On the domestic, it’s just on the domestic level, that’s the, that’s the frustrating issue. If we if we step away a little bit from geopolitics, let’s just look at corruption. When a tragedy happens, like the hospital catching fire, which is in itself crazy, the least he can do is hold people accountable. That has not happened. Now these are things I have a hard time believing that Iran interferes with. I don’t think, let’s not blame the IRGC for not holding these people accountable. I don’t believe the United States is preventing this. The same thing with, with the electricity — there are things that as a prime minister he should do, just basic things that are also so simple. And I think he’s really squandered his chances of getting re-elected or being reappointed, because he wasn’t elected.
NH: But Rasha, I just want to break in here, because the Biden team is actually highlighting the fact that Kadhimi is the one who’s brokering agreements. They might not be coming quick, but they’re coming steady and, you know, slow and steady might win the race. And it seems that the Biden team is saying, look, Kadhimi is a guy, he inherited a tough situation, he’s doing the best he can, but he’s the only person that we have right now who can make a deal with the Jordanians, who can make a deal with the GCC, who can get the Saudis on board. I mean, you had King Abdullah II visit Washington last week. Reportedly King Abdullah II from Jordan was very much pushing the fact that the United States should continue to be engaged in Iraq and actually should make Iraq a wheel that turns a broader regional policy. Now, we have discussions between the Iraqis and the Jordanians about linking the Iraqi electrical grid to the Jordanian electrical grid to reduce the influence that Iran’s electoral … electrical grid has in Iraq to reduce the requirements that Iraq needs from Iran for electricity. So the administration is highlighting these facts that yes, look, it’s not perfect. No one said it was gonna be perfect, but we’re making some progress. So I want to ask you, Kadhimi — is he a turtle? And can he win this race?
RA: (Laughter) Turtle. I mean, we hear about these agreements, we don’t know their details. They kind of also sound like they’re serving Egypt and Jordan, perhaps more even than Iraq. That’s at least the little that I’ve heard. So, he’s trying his best. I think Kadhimi, I don’t know if I would call him a turtle. I mean, I get, I get the analogy here, but Kadhimi’s also all about optics. I don’t think he has a clue how much this backfiring on him. I think this is another — we’ll talk about this later, but back to your question. Is he a turtle? I don’t think he can win this race. I don’t necessarily think he’s a turtle. I think, I think turtles, although they’re very, very slow, they’re also very determined. I think he lacks determination, too.
NH: Okay, so, Caroline, I want to ask you to jump in here because this question of determination — from your perspective, if you were sitting in the NSC right now and you were briefing to the administration the case for Kadhimi, what would it be?
CR: Well, that’s a, that’s a good question and before I answer that, I also want to just quickly touch upon a point that Rasha made and it’s this question of whether, like, Kadhimi has been successful lobbying. I agree with you — there’s no way to really know, and likely not. I think that likely the United States, there is an imperative there, where they are, not — they’re too afraid to completely withdraw too fast — make the same mistake that we did before. So I agree with you that this in many ways is the Biden administration itself. You know, the Trump administration stopped right before the inauguration, and, you know, the Biden administration was hesitant and they’ve been very cautious in Iraq. So you know I think a part of this is also the U.S., you know, trying to make that calculation as well. But, I would like to mention that especially this this weird mixed messaging and then mixed signals that we’ve received over the past week, that’s still to a degree is an advantage to Kadhimi just because, you know, he’s able to go home to Iraq with somewhat of a win. If you can make a narrative out of it, it’s somewhat of a win, right? Saying that, look, we had another strategic dialogue with the United States, they’re making — they’re making ground on withdrawing. And, you know, now we’re making the official transition to a non-combat role even though on paper, and off paper, the United States has already made that transition pretty much …
CR: Since November — since November of last year. So, you know, politically, especially ahead of the elections, if Kadhimi can, you know, make this into a win, you know, this could be a really big advantage for him, and I’m sure the United States is, you know, not — is kind of dancing and beating around the bush knowing that this could be a potential political win for Kadhimi. Just because of, again, you know, when he in this — in these upcoming elections there are so many different factions that he has to appease that, you know, this, this could certainly be something that he could create into a win.
Now, in terms of how I would brief the National Security Council on why Kadhimi is a horse to back, I’m not necessarily sure if I would say he’s a horse to back, but rather the best choice that the United States has at the moment. You know, like, Rasha mentioned, he has experience, he has relationships, you know, you can be sympathetic for Kadhimi to an extent. But really, at this point there’s not many other choices. He’s a caretaker prime minister, essentially, and like, you know, Rasha made a really good point where he’s got the potential. That’s the sad part about all of this is that he has the potential. He knows, you know, how the game is played. However, when it comes to really the end of it, it’s going to be very hard to put Kadhimi entirely in the United States’ corner. It’s just impossible in this political and security landscape in Iraq. And, you know, and at this point, especially as the U.S. is looking at an eventual withdrawal, it’s going to be very difficult to try and change that reality in Iraq.
NH: So can I pick up on this thread a little bit? There are still over 1 million internally displaced people in Iraq, many of whom were displaced by the ISIS war. You know, Rasha, I want to ask, I want to ask you this point, if you’re one of those 1 million IDPs in Iraq, do you feel like Kadhimi has done anything for you?
RA: I believe those IDPs in Iraq have given up on the entire political process. Whether it’s Kadhimi or anyone else, the state has failed them miserably. I find one thing Iraqis like to take pride in, especially when they travel abroad, they say we don’t have homeless people in Iraq, in the sense that we see them in certain U.S. states or in Europe. Because they don’t even consider the IDPs homeless. That’s how disconnected they are from the rest of the country. What consecutive Iraqi governments have succeeded in is really — how do I say this — they succeeded in dehumanizing IDPs so much that to a huge extent the rest of Iraq doesn’t even care about them. So for an IDP, if you tell him that, very rarely will you get an answer beyond like they’re all the same, they don’t care about us. So that’s another, that’s another venue, actually, that Kadhimi could have tapped in with any, with any of his political affiliates. The thing with Kadhimi and elections is that he was, he was a, you know, he basically came as a compromise between different parties. So the pro-Iran factions were okay with him. The rest were okay with him. The United States said okay, this person does not have any blood on his hands, so far, we can, we can work with him, he’s decent. But he has not, he does not have backing from any political party, so that’s, that’s one of the reasons, also, I believe that why he’s not so motivated to take on such initiatives. And when time comes, you have political politicians, like Khamis al-Khanjar, Mohamed Halbousi, who’s currently the parliament speaker. These are the ones who approached the IDPs, and they still — no one, no one trusts them. And they also will struggle a lot with voting. So the voting process in the whole, the political process in the whole, is not as important to them.
But looking just at what does Kadhimi want? Does he want to be the next prime minister, does he feel … given, looking at the optics, and Caroline, you brought up a really good point of how he’s going to come back to Iraq with this victory of I forced the U.S. troops — and this is a narrative that he perhaps can compete with the resistance factions with that — I forced U.S. troops to change their role from combat to advisory, Iraq has no longer has any combat troops or occupation forces, as they like to call them, even though we know that’s not the situation. And we know that this has been the reality for some time now. Optics means so much to him. If we look at his recent activities in the country at a very domestic level, and also, you know, the United States is kind of tapping into this. I don’t, I’m not sure it’s very helpful but meeting up with with YouTubers, young people, Tik-Tok stars, while you have tragedies that have happened that have killed hundreds of people, and not doing anything about those, but actually meeting up with a comedian, for example, like a young Tik-Tok user in Iraq who’s basically a comedian who make sarcastic videos. He met up with him recently and said, I know you made a video about the situation of the country, and there are rumors that he actually employed him within the state to monitor social media for something – like a social media manager for him, something similar, like it’s so far, it’s just a rumor. These optics are backfiring severely on a domestic level, but it looks, it looks like he’s trying to build a portfolio for himself where he’s done these things that no other prime minister has because he’s enjoying the job, he wants to take on four more years. So it, in effect, for him to be prime minister, he’s going to need, he’s going to need political backing. So he’s going to need the Sadrists, he’s going to need perhaps even elements of the different Sunni parties. He’s going to need the Kurds, has he been successful in balancing those?
NH: So I want to throw, I just want to quickly throw out a figure for you both. It seems that the United States is going to invest approximately 15 million dollars into the upcoming election in October in Iraq, assuming it’s held. Not of course, in money to go to political parties — no conspiracy theories here — but through the U.N. mechanism to support the high electoral commission as well as electoral, electoral monitors, as well as international technical assistance for the election. So it seems as if these, assuming they happen, these upcoming October elections, are a set piece in U.S. policy toward Iraq, with the idea being that if you can have a government that’s more representative of the existential needs of Iraqis, that you can begin to have some movement on the environmental issues, the economic development issues, the weaning Iraq away from energy, energy market dependency, as well as potentially improve Iraq’s balance between we’ll call Iran and the resistance axis and the rest of the Arab, predominantly Sunni world. So, there’s a lot being put into these upcoming elections in October, again, assuming they happen, and based on what Muqtada has recently said, they might not happen. But I just want to ask the both of you, you know — you’re sitting in the White House, you’re thinking about October. What is your dream scenario? And what is your nightmare scenario?
CR: I would — so I would say so far we’ve already seen signs that this election is going to be boycotted, and — widespread across Iraq. Just, it seems that Iraqi citizens are just so fed up with the system, and it’s not necessarily just from one thing — it’s the, it’s the two hospital fires. It’s the electricity cuts, it’s the rampant corruption. And I want to say something as well, you know, Rasha made a good point. Kadhimi is checking the boxes. He’s not doing it with a lot of, it seems like genuine interest, but he’s checking boxes just to fulfill a narrative. And, for example, with, you know, disclosing the killer of Hisham, you know, all these different raids on particular militias — the timing of them is really interesting because they’re always too late or they’re not — they’re ambiguous, or they don’t necessarily provide clear names. That implements a good track record of accountability. And so Kadhimi’s just checking boxes and I think the people are aware of this. The Iraqi citizens are not stupid. And I think that a lot are fed up with the system and this is contributing to this environment.
And so, I think for the United States, a nightmare scenario, of course, is an election that they’ve invested so much money, so much money, including the United Nations — I think, the United Nations just received a 5.2 million donation for monitoring the October elections as well — all this money and the election is boycotted and you still have a paralyzed Iraqi government. And something that either Kadhimi will continue to be the caretaker prime minister of and have to still do this balancing act, or something that of course, then collapses and enables a lot of these Iran-affiliated and aligned militias to take over the political system and really, really paralyze any sort of U.S. interests in Iraq. Because at the end of the day, the U.S. looks at Iraq like you said, Nick, as a, as kind of the centerpiece for its Middle East strategy. It is the doorstep for Iran into the Levant and into the Mediterranean, and Iraq needs to be stable. It’s not right now, but it needs to be stable for U.S. interests in the Middle East, especially as we pivot to Asia and the Eastern European theaters. So yeah, it’s looking quite grim, and I’m not necessarily sure if U.S. interests are going to be realized in this coming October election.
RA: Yeah, I agree with Caroline completely. I think the worst-case scenario would be a massive boycott that leaves only the PMF factions and their affiliates and the elections happen, actually go through. And in this case they would have a massive parliamentary victory. That’s definitely the — that would complicate things for not just the United States but also for Iraq. We see that at a very, very domestic level. The more you have the sort of — I call them the equivalent of the far right — but sort of the ultra-conservative political elements in the country, the more they dominate, you find, you find Iraq even at a very domestic level when it comes to minority rights, women’s rights, you see how it’s definitely taking us several steps back from, from progress. The recent status law, for example, that’s being pushed, it’s, it’s extremely misogynist and it’s only, it’s only possible because of the factions that you have in parliament now, whether they are Sadrists, ultra-conservative Sadrists, or elements of, this, of the PMF, of the Fatah Alliance. That’s, that’s the, that’s my, that’s the worst case scenario.
The best case scenario that would happen is that you have — and there is a possibility that this, that this could happen — is that you have new blood coming into the political system from factions that are not necessarily associated or affiliated with the October movement, but young people that have realized that as Iraqis, born and raised in Iraq, who do not have second passports, who don’t have interests abroad, true grassroots Iraqi politicians, they need their country to work for them. This is the only country they’ll ever have. So they’re stepping into the political system, and we have a few alliances that are coming together or political blocs that are being formed. If they manage to get a few seats in parliament, even if it’s not many, and they make, they make a presence, it could encourage others for future elections and that’s how you have that incremental change that happens. So by the year, I don’t know 2030-something, when the elections happen, they will be a significant, they will be a significant number in parliament. Now this is given that the security situation is better, that they are not assassinated, because that’s a, that’s a possibility, but because their politicians, I believe they’re — they can maneuver and perhaps guarantee their security. My — another thing, this is also considering that they won’t be swallowed by the system and end up being very irrelevant or enabled, inactive, because of how the system is set, where it’s only the big whales that are the massive players. They’re, the only ones who can actually, they can — they’re the only ones who matter. They’re the only ones who decide. And we see that, we see that in Iraq’s parliament — you have five or six figures that are perhaps the most prominent and everything else is like this, you know, vested network of interests just amongst themselves.
So can a new movement, can young activists — young politicians, not activists — can they come and break in that system? That’s the best-case scenario. Are there signs that this is happening? I’ve noticed that recently, there’s been a massive backlash against Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UNAMI representative of Iraq, and she was usually on positive, or at least neutral terms with the militia leaders. But all the PMF affiliates now, and Fatah Alliance politicians, they’re attacking her. They’re accusing her of wanting to overthrow democracy in the country, because she’s really pushed to monitor the elections. And she’s been very, very vocally critical, more than usual, about the situation in the country. So is this change going to happen? This is again, sadly, very, very unlikely, but that is the best case scenario just to answer your question, Nick.
NH: All right. So because I think this is interesting because in our discussion so far, and we started out talking about okay, how would we grade Kadhimi’s term for a little bit over a year now that he’s been in office, this is a huge visit, you know — there’s some, you know, some folks like to quip that Kadhimi is the prime minister of photo ops, right? He gets his photo op with the Pope, gets his photo op with foreign leaders including Jordanian king and the Egyptian president, you know, leaders, all these sorts of leaders. But fundamentally, as you pointed out, Rasha, that, you know, the house of Iraq is continuing to collapse underneath him. So in a sense, very good photo op, very good foreign policy prime minister, and designed to be that way.
But I want to take a step back because when you hear the administration, the Biden team, talk about Kadhimi, they emphasize him as a problem solver. And you, we’re going to probably see today — as we record, it’s Monday, the 26th of July, the Biden-Kadhimi visit, meeting is today — you’re probably going to hear the administration talk about the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars are going to invest in, you know, USAID supporting the Iraqi economy, in the energy sector, agriculture, investing in Iraqi higher education, helping IDPs, just a range of issues that really don’t have much to do with anything outside of Iraq. So I want to ask you, is this the beginning of Kadhimi the problem solver inside of Iraq?
RA: Since the United States kind of approved — or not approved, were, relatively happy with his appointment as prime minister, that has been his role — that he would be a problem solver because he’s someone that they could actually talk to, as both Caroline and I pointed out earlier. I think that this, the U.S. policy, however, the points that you mentioned, this is kind of also been static. This is also been stable in U.S. approach towards Iraq. Especially now, since USAID is kind of picking itself up after the Trump years — it has more funding now, so they will invest more in the country, and they have a prime minister that they can actually talk to. So these projects are going to continue. But I also don’t think that the United States has — the United States … is the administration is being very realist in knowing that Kadhimi, there’s very little he can do. But it’s the best option that that Iraq has. It’s the best option that that the U.S. has to make sure that Iraq is at least, not — does not collapse, does not fall under ISIS control, does not fall completely under IRGC control. That’s what the U.S. is betting on. It’s just that minimal level of stability of the country where Iraq is at least kept one piece. It’s not disintegrated. That’s what they’re supporting. So perhaps not even Kadhimi in person, just the person who can provide that.
And also, as Caroline mentioned, Iraq is no longer high on the priority. It has not been high on the U.S. foreign agenda for a while now. It’s going to decrease even more and I’m not sure necessarily that the U.S. is even concerned about a necessary vacuum, because they feel that Kadhimi, with his diplomatic relations here, with the Middle East, with the rest of the Middle East, with the GCC, he is going to make sure that several different parties are now invested in Iraq, not just Iran. That’s the U.S., that’s the U.S. vision. Do I agree with it? Absolutely not. I think they’re underestimating … this is, this has less to do with Kadhimi. I just think there’s a lot of underestimation with how deeply the IRGC has infiltrated the country, and what their plans are for Iraq, and how they want to guide the country, and Kadhimi has very little leverage and very little capability to solve that or do something about it.
NH: So can I just push back on this point a little bit? Because it does seem, actually, that Iraq is a bit of a priority for the administration, at least early on in its term. You have — Prime Minister Kadhimi is, I think, the second Arab leader to actually get a visit to the White House to visit President Biden himself. He’s going to get a photo op. He’s gonna get a whole bag of goodies from United States. He’s going to continue to have U.S. support, with all that entails. So I guess my — and he’s also in a lot of ways, the key to a U.S. strategy of finding a way to approach Iran so that competition between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq doesn’t flare into a larger conflict, and more to the point, competition between Israel and Iran, specifically in eastern Syria-western Iraq, doesn’t lead to a larger regional conflict. So, it does seem in many ways, Kadhimi is the fracture point in the region. If he fails, the U.S. approach fails. So I want to ask, Caroline, is Iraq downgraded in U.S. policy or is it something a little bit better than that?
CR: I think that when approaching kind of the long-term foreign policy game plan, our long-term strategy as we pivot to different theaters as we look to, you know, confront near-peer powers, Iraq still plays a very central role, as you mentioned, Nick. It is going to be one of the bastions of either stability or instability in the Middle East and this threatens, of course, trade routes, it threatens commercial, financial interests, you know, human rights, a lot of the main agenda items that are on the Biden administration’s, you know, agenda. And I also think that, you know, this isn’t necessarily the case for the Biden administration but future administrations as well. So I think you’re right. Like, Kadhimi in many cases kind of stands between all of this — you know, between potential escalation with Iran between, you know, a forever war that the Biden administration clearly wants to have an end date with, as we’ve seen with Afghanistan. But at the same time, you know, there is hesitation and I think, for good reason. There’s a good reason why we have not seen a full timetable for withdrawal. We’re going into our second strategic dialogue discussion in, you know, in recent months. And I think that, you know, the fact that we really have not seen much substantial change in what the heck the Operation Inherent Resolve mission is going to be doing in the next two to three years in Iraq. I think there’s a reason for that and I think that there’s just a lot of hesitation of, we really do not want Iraq to slip into, you know, complete instability. Relative instability, fine. We can’t necessarily change much about that. And we’re going to back Kadhimi even though he’s not necessarily an effective leader.
And, you know, I think regarding your question before this as well, Nick, you know, reforms — reforms without bite, reforms without kind of a pack in its punch, they’re easy to pass. Kadhimi can definitely look at his tenure as caretaker prime minister and say I’ve done x amount of raids. I’ve done, you know, I passed a few reforms on, you know, the electoral system. I have, you know, try to promote accountability with assassinations, and while they’re not necessarily as effective and successful as they really should be, he still has a list of these different, you know, reforms, and I guess you could call them mini successes and for the United States it’s not necessarily effective. I think the Biden administration should pressure Kadhimi on, really taking it to the finish line, really making it and ensuring that it is, it’s fully effective, but I think they’ll take it for now. I think they’ll take it for now because the alternative is worse. So I think that you know, right now Iraq isn’t necessarily holding back U.S. foreign policy. I think that Iraq is definitely one of the main centerpieces of U.S. foreign policy, whether the Biden administration wants to acknowledge it or not.
NH: Well, it’s interesting, too, because as you all know in D.C., everything’s China, China, China. And China gets something like the third highest or fourth highest depending on the year, its energy requirements from Iraq. Also from the perspective of Iran, if you’re going to create a sort of closed sort of multinational economy, with the resistance axis that’s tied into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, you need Iraq. Iraq is essentially the crown jewel in that resistance axis closed economy tied into China’s Eurasian geopolitical ambitions. So it’s very interesting too, this dynamic.
CR: Can I just add something very quickly about that as well, right? We hear China, China, China, and also when we’re talking about potential withdrawal in Iraq, there’s of course the question of what two great powers of the United States is competing with — Russia and China — what’s their game plan in Iraq? I think it is very crucial for the U.S. to not only look at China’s relationship with Iran but also potential, you know, the potential game plan for Beijing in Iraq, as well, just because of that recent 25-year infrastructural plan that China and Iran recently signed just a few months ago. And so, of course, they’re looking at this region. Of course, they’re looking at Iraq and the potential vacuums that it opens up as, you know, kind of a playground for, you know, their economic Belt and Road Initiative and different economic initiatives and strategies. But at the end of the day I’m not necessarily thinking that you know Chinese going to look to fill the United States’ shoes in a security context in Iraq. So it’s going to be very important as the U.S. looks for a withdrawal timetable, as it looks for a new strategy in Iraq, the balancing game with Kadhimi and Iran, on how they’re going to relate to big powers and their competitors in Iraq — that’s going to be very crucial for this administration.
RA: No, I’m going to have to continue to push back. Now it’s like two against one. I do agree that I think we’re all at the same, we agree on one thing is that maintaining Iraq’s stability is the United States, you know, end goal with its with its foreign policy approach but that’s it. That’s the bare minimum, the United States is not doing anything more, and it’s more like Kadhimi, you’re on your own, Iraq, you’re on your own. So I don’t necessarily even believe that the United States is looking to compete with China economically in the country. The thing with China is that they work faster and they have the money and they’re coming into Iraq. while the U.S. is still present right now, as we speak, and America does not seem to be pushing back. So that’s the, that’s the other thing. I don’t — I think that the United States is not — its investments in Iraq politically, even security-wise, perhaps that’s the strongest things so far, but everything else has been minimal. It will continue to be that way. The goal is yes, we’re going to make sure that Iraq is at least stable, it does not disintegrate, and this Kadhimi is the best that we can do right now, but nothing — nothing beyond that.
I think the competition with China is not necessarily Iraq, and keep in mind that the United States has allies and partners within the GCC that rely mostly on China for their imports, whether its goods, whether it’s with the export of oil as well, and that has not really ever been a problem. So regarding this great power competition, I don’t think that Iraq is going to be the central, the center of it, just because the United States to be, to be clear, to be honest, already ceded a huge part of Iraq to Iran already. So it’s already, Iran already has the massive leverage. It’s just a matter of China — how much China can get. I don’t think the U.S. is going to necessarily stand up to that. And I also don’t think that that’s necessarily something very, very bad. If China can help build Iraq’s infrastructure, I don’t think the U.S. is going to mind.
NH: Well, that’s an interesting point, and I think it’s important for us to highlight that there is a current political mood right now in the United States, so it’s say, well why are we spending let’s say 15 million dollars more on Iraq’s democratic process when these guys and gals have had almost 20 years to figure it out? On top of the billions of dollars they received from us to establish their democracy and their system to begin with. Now we all know the issue of Iraq’s system as well as the political culture in Iraq. We don’t have to go through a seance on that now. But I think it’s interesting as we head into the set piece event in U.S. policy with the you know, October elections if they happen. So I have a question for you both. We kind of danced around this a little bit today. You know, this time next year, is Kadhimi prime minister of Iraq? And then related to that, you know, everyone’s talking about Iraq, everyone’s talking about Kadhimi. But who are some actors that will actually be the kingmakers that will determine whether the U.S. approach is correct or not?
RA: So given — let’s consider that the October elections are taking place. Muqtada Sadr will continue to be a kingmaker. I think that his boycott of the election is temporary. He most likely will go back. He’s done this again. He’s waiting for politicians and everyone to go to his home, beg him to come back, feel relevant and important. Muqtada sort of likes these things. And after that he probably will return. So he has a significant say in the elections. The PMF, the Fatah Alliance, which are the political factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces. You have the Sunni — Sunni politics no longer really exist. The two strongest, three strongest names of Sunni politicians — political spectrum — Khamis al-Khanjar, Muhammad al-Halbousi, and the Nujaifi clan– they’re are fighting amongst themselves recently. It’s been quite, quite a theater. It’s very, very sad to see how it’s played out. And both are accusing the other of being waliayeen, loyal to Iran, which is, which is the new, which is kind of surprising. Unsurprising, but that’s how it’s being played out. But they also have how many votes they will obtain is also significant. And of course the Kurds. Kadhimi came to power by these alliances. Now, will he stay prime minister? Iraq is very hard to predict. I don’t think anyone saw him this time — not this time last year, let’s say, when the protests started, no one thought Mustafa Kadhimi could be prime minister six months later. So Iraq is unpredictable. But I am going to say, yes. I think that if the elections take place — if they don’t take place, he will continue being the caretaker, and it will take another year or so. If they do take place, I believe with U.S. pressure and also with other political agreements, that — and also his current relationship with the Sadrist bloc — that he will have enough, he will have enough to assume four more years.
CR: I would add, I completely agree with Rasha in terms of the Sadrist bloc, Fatah Alliance, them consolidating increased gains. And as a result, I could see Kadhimi or whoever might be in power — I agree, it’s a bit hard to predict in the next year or two years — but I would imagine they’re also kind of similar to a paralyzed, lame-duck-esque caretaker prime minister. And I think because of that as well, the movement that emerged from 2019 and the protests, that will also become paralyzed and it will also increasingly become a very hostile environment for free speech, for expression, we’ll continue to see a lot of these assassinations. And even though the government itself, you may not necessarily see a incredible majority of the Fatah Alliance or the Sadrist movement, but I think that you’ll still see their social — a socio-economic influence in Iraq increase and as well as kind of the terror on the streets that they are enacting, and intimidation tactics, and malign influence. And so I think that that is really the political landscape that we’re looking at in the next year to two years, and the U.S. is going to be forced to maneuver, maneuver this. It’s going to be increasingly difficult.
NH: So I’ll just weigh in very quickly. I think that the U.S. policy would probably prefer that Kadhimi remains in place for some extended period of time. I mean you couldn’t design a better U.S.-friendly prime minister who also has credibility with the Iranians, and he’s, he was — it’s almost like he was engineered in the lab. He’s a guy who’s good with narratives as a journalist. You know as Rasha pointed out knows how to send winks and nods to the protesters, understands how to talk to the GCC and the Saudis, is good with the cameras, but also he was the intelligence chief, so he knows where a lot of the threats are coming from. So I think there is going to be a lot of energy to try to get Kadhimi in place, at least for the time being, you know, to try to water the garden, so to speak, to see if some of it — to see if some of these seeds of democracy bloom.
I think fundamentally, though, the problem is that Iraq is no longer a cohesive state. It is a geographic space. And so you can’t just have a one-size-fits-all Iraq policy. You need to have a policy towards the Kurdistan region, which means you also have to have a policy towards what is Turkey doing in Kurdistan and Iraq, and does that mean Turkey’s going to stay in Kurdistan in Iraq for years and years and years like it’s set to do in Syria, like it’s done in Cyprus? So that adds some torque to this entire situation. You have to have a policy towards Baghdad. You have to have a policy towards what we’ll call the Sunni majority as well as diverse areas in Ninewa Plain, in Anbar, Salah-al Din, some of these places, they are increasingly becoming a country apart. You have to have a policy towards the border area itself as our colleague — Hassan Hassan likes to call Sy-raq — eastern Syria, western Iraq — and you have to have a policy fundamentally towards the so-called Deep South because in a lot of ways the future of what we know to be Iraq, or if you want to call it Mess-o-potamia, is going to be tween is going to be this predominately Shia-on-Shia debate.
But what does the future of this of Iraq look like? And so I think that makes it incredibly complicated. There is no one-size-fits-all policy, and I think we’ll have to watch is in terms of calibration which of these several policies in the Iraq bucket ends up being the most important one and whether any of those overflow into other policy discussions.
CR: I just have one quick add on, Nick. I just think that that’s a really good point, and because of this, while we’ll be looking at the October elections closely, and while of course the strategic dialogue matters, and while you know, all these questions about Kadhimi, they do matter to U.S. interests. But at the end of the day, putting all of our stock into Kadhimi and expecting him to deliver on all these different U.S. interests and initiatives, it’s just not going to happen. And I agree, where you have kind of more of a local strategy, you work with different governance institutions, you work with different leaders, governors. You look at the provinces in Iraq, not necessarily just the federal government, and, you know, even tribal entities as well, that’s super important. And so you’re right, like having different Iraq strategies in place while still, in theory, supporting Kadhimi but really not putting too much trust and hope into one man who’s just not simply going to deliver. The balancing act is just too hard. I think that that’s how the you should approach Iraq, and I think that was just a good point
RA: And that — the issue is that the U.S. is doing that. It’s just not doing it enough. It’s doing it to a level that it almost does not matter. And I kind of sympathize with the Americans’ situation as well, because if the United States were to go at that domestic level, where it talks to organizations, civil society, tribes which are — I completely agree with Nick’s assessment about Iraq not being a cohesive state, which is why it’s so hard to get it to function properly, but if the U.S. were to invest more in this, you would have other actors on the ground accusing the U.S. of interference, and America does not want that. And there’s a domestic narrative inside the United States that’s very important, that’s also deciding most of the policies that the American people also no longer want to interfere. They don’t want any kind of intervention in the country. There is Iraq fatigue even in the media, where tragedies like the hospital fire don’t even make it into the headlines. So, all of that taken into consideration, the U.S. is where it is because this is all it can do. I know for sure that in this administration, there are people that genuinely care about Iraq from a pure humanitarian perspective. They actually feel that they owe it to Iraq to make it work because there — the U.S. invaded the country, It broke it, but it didn’t buy it. They feel that they should do something to at least help the country stand on its feet, but these are the options that are available.
This is just how I’m going to sort of conclude — you know how I brought up the students, being a teacher being frustrated at the student who doesn’t do much work, doesn’t do their work and doesn’t perform well on the exams, and that’s why they get the C-. So Kadhimi gets a C- because we don’t think he’s not smart, we don’t he’s not a good student. We just think he needs to work better. And this is where I agree with Caroline on sort of pressuring … from that point you mentioned earlier, the U.S. kind of pressuring Kadhimi on to things that he can, he can perform better at, that he can be better at, and if he’s not — the U.S. is kind of also to some extent also counting on him a lot to balance these geopolitical differences between various states to sort of, you know what, we’re gonna take an eye off of Iraq. We want to keep you here, Kadhimi. You’re not our guy, but we trust you because we want to emphasize that Kadhimi’s not America’s guy. That’s, that’s, definitely not the situation. That’s the accusation he receives sometimes, but he’s more a person that America can work with. Can he do it? Kadhimi, I don’t think can do it, but they also the other thing is that I don’t think anyone can do it, if that makes sense.
NH: So Rasha, I know that you wanted to conclude with that but I actually do have a follow-up question for you that I think will, that I think really captures this the beautiful way you just expressed this analysis of the perspective within the White House on Iraq and how that interacts with Iraqis. Look, there’s going to be a photo op today, and it’s going to be Kadhimi, and it’s gonna be Biden, Biden’s first meeting with Kadhimi face-to-face, there’s gonna be pictures coming out of that photo op from the White House. What would you tell your friends in the administration who care deeply about Iraq? How those pictures are going to play among Iraqis?
RA: They’re going to be — it depends. So for the section of the young newcomers to policy who want a good relationship with the international community as a whole, they look at that as something positive, and it is, overall. It’s, it’s not a bad thing that an Iraqi prime minister can actually still go to the White House despite the fact the U.S. Embassy and facilities are being constantly attacked inside Iraq. That is a good thing. So, and Caroline mentioned this earlier, that, that a diplomatic sort of relationship being maintained is positive. It is positive. But you also have people that are going to say, okay, what’s in it for us, as the civilians who at 50 — the temperature’s over 125 degrees, we still don’t have electricity more than three, four hours a day. Now, in the South, and you mentioned the Deep South — Deep South is suffering with water issues once again. Every single, every single year, this time around, this is what happens. They, there’s no — there’s no drinkable water for them. What’s in it for these people? How is that going to help us?
And Kadhimi, because of he, he really pushed it — I’m gonna be honest with you, he really pushed it with the photo ops — there’s an entire video mocking his photographer who, by the way, is an excellent photographer. I mean, he’s the best — I’ve never seen a photographer like this. But they’ve, they’re mocking like, they mock the positions. It’s like Kadhimi opening an envelope, Kadhimi drinking chai, Kadhimi — he’s focused so much on it that he’s kind of coming across as a narcissist, someone who’s become too obsessed with his own image and is not really looking, looking beyond that. I would tell the United States to step away from that if possible. There was recently something that that the active assistant secretary, I think, did when he reached out also to the same YouTuber and he spoke to him, that was not a good optic as well. It kind of played into that — it played into a narrative that just kind of touched Iraqis the wrong way. Just staying away from the photo — not the photo ops, they’re important — but just the optics of things where everything is visual and there’s very little on the ground to, you know, to talk about. There’s not — there are not so many achievements to actually that can talk for themselves. That would be, that would be the best that would — that’s what I would tell people in the administration.
NH: Thank you very much, Rasha. So C- for Kadhimi thus far, and his term from Rasha. Caroline, now that we’ve all done, we’ve talked about, what would you give Kadhimi?
CR: It’s funny because I started with C- as well. So Rasha and I like, I feel like now we’re kind of on the same level because at the beginning, we were a bit, we gave a lower grade. Yeah, I give him a C- but I would like to … that with the fact that I would give him an F, right, by like our standards, but I want to add that curve because they’re different grading systems. There … it would be a curve just because you’re right like the standards are so low. You’re … what how can you define success in Iraq right now when you have a paralyzed governance system, reforms that are really hard to achieve even though they’re half-hearted, and then on top of that, you know, the United States looking to withdraw, and then you’ve got also Iran on the other side, with all of these different proxies and militias that are working against you. So yeah, I’d give them, I give them a solid C. Solid C. He’s passing, you know, there was a curve, he got through this next one, but it’s very precarious for him looking forward.
NH: So I guess I’ll take the moderator’s prerogative and go last. Now that we’ve talked this all out my view on Kadhimi is that the curve that I would grade him on is what is it that the U.S. wants from him, and it’s changed a bit. Under the Trump administration it was for him to take the militias head on. In that context, you know, he’s more where Rasha was you know he’s a D- or if you want to be charitable, a D. Fundamentally speaking, though, that’s not his role anymore. His role with the Biden team is to begin this process of turning Iraq into just another country like Peru or some other country that the U.S. doesn’t put a lot of focus and attention on. Not because it’s not an interesting place, not because it doesn’t deserve the attention of Americans, but just because they don’t want to have to constantly go there, put out fires and turn into a place that sucks energy, time, resources, and more importantly for them, domestic political capital United States and inflection point in American history. So from that perspective and from that curve, I do believe that Mr. Kadhimi as he comes to Washington gets an A-. Thank you, everyone, for joining us for the special discussion on Iraq. We will continue our sentinel stare on Iraq and U.S. policy towards the Middle East here at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. Thank you, Caroline, and thank you, Rasha.
RA: Thank you, Nick.
CR: Thanks, Nick.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.