No More Excuses – Iraq’s Prime Minister Must Face Down Iran and Its Militias

In a recent interview, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said he envisaged the Middle East as a region that he called “the New Levant,” which would be like the European Union, where capital and technology flow freely. He also said he favored the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq because it would remove the raison d’etre of pro-Iran militias operating in Iraq. As befitting a man known for his intellect, Al-Kadhimi believes that peace, good governance and trade – rather than endless vendettas and wars – are the best way to secure a better future. Clearly, he is saying all the right things, but can he deliver?

His four months in power have been a mixed bag, especially concerning his promise to restore state sovereignty and rein in Iran’s militias, despite winning the support of top Shia cleric Ali Al-Sistani and the population at large. But the power and influence of pro-Iran militias have yet to be curtailed. In fact, the militias continue to hunt down Iraqi anti-Iran regime activists, including one of Al-Kadhimi’s advisors.

The only explanation for the prime minister’s reluctance to face down the militias is politicking. As a political outsider, it is likely that Al-Kadhimi wants to avoid confrontation while he builds as big a consensus as he can before elections next June. If he remains in power until then, he will probably run on a ticket designed to turn him into a real political player who can then use his bloc to implement his vision.

But June is a long way away and if Al-Kadhimi fails to take some risks, it is unlikely that his popular support will last that long. He became prime minister on the promise that, as an outsider, he would not play political games and would instead confront opponents head on and impose drastic, rather than incremental, change.

Facing up to the pro-Iran bloc, however, risks the loss of Al-Kadhimi’s parliamentary majority. But it is not a given. With popular support on his side, Al-Kadhimi will make it hard for legislators who might try to cast a vote of no confidence against him, especially if they try such a move in order to impede the restoration of Iraqi state sovereignty against the militias.

But if Al-Kadhimi does take that risk, he will find he has both the region and the world on his side. America’s policy on Iraq has been to boost the state and undermine violent non-state actors. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have expressed a willingness to supply Iraq with whatever Iran threatens to withhold – mainly electricity to the southern provinces. In fact, leaning on neighboring Arab countries for help in rolling back Iranian influence might prove to be a good test of Al-Kadhimi’s proclaimed commitment to a more integrated Arab region living in peace and prosperity.

Over the past decade and more, it has become clear both to Iranians and to people in the countries subject to Iranian influence that the type of political Islam practiced by the “Islamic republic” is a recipe for government failure, economic collapse and misery.

By contrast, Arab countries – mainly in the Gulf – have offered a different model, one that has delivered a good standard of living to all and is the envy of the rest of the Middle East. Replacing Iraq’s current trade and financial links with Iran with new links forged with Arab countries could be a way to begin improving Iraq’s government indicators and the quality of life for millions of Iraqis. If that were to happen, there could be no better boost to Al-Kadhimi’s chances in next year’s elections.

Al-Kadhimi’s caution in confronting Iran may be understandable, but to many Iraqis this reluctance is inexcusable. Iraq’s bureaucracy is notoriously bloated, costly, inefficient, incompetent and corrupt. It is no more than one of the world’s biggest patronage networks. The country urgently needs reforms that will slim down the government and unleash the power of the private sector to create jobs and grow the economy. The shake up announced September 14 could be a start, but more is needed. As in Lebanon, pro-Iran militias in Iraq use corruption to reward loyalists and they will certainly fight tooth and nail against any attempt to eradicate graft.

Al-Kadhimi already has wasted four months testing the waters. It is time to do what has to be done: crack down on the militias and clip Iran’s wings in Iraq, even if it invites Tehran’s wrath against him. If Al-Kadhimi continues to say the right things but not implement them, he is likely to lose next June. That is the price of caution toward Iran and its militias.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.