Al Jazeera states without qualification that Mustafa al-Kadhimi holds both Iraqi and British citizenship. Turkey’s old-established Anadolu Agency, on the other hand, asserts: “Al-Kadhimi does not possess any citizenship other than Iraqi, although he possessed a political asylum passport granted to him by the UK during his opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
Given the hoops that any individual has to go through to gain British citizenship, the latter version seems more likely, but whatever his exact legal status, Kadhimi certainly lived and worked in the UK for a good many years from the late-1980s to about 2015. What he did during his period in self-imposed exile from his own country – part of which he spent also in Iran, Germany and the US – provides a clue to the man, his beliefs. and the direction in which he might lead Iraq in the future.
It was on May 6, 2020, following nearly six months of political wrangling, that Iraq’s new prime minister took office, following parliamentary approval of most of his proposed ministerial appointments.
Two previous presidential nominees for prime minister had failed to secure sufficient support over a period of increasingly violent public protest. The protests began in October 2019, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets, accusing the political class of incompetence and corruption that had driven the country into economic ruin. The heavy-handed attempts by the government to quash the riots, undertaken by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, led also to widespread objection to excessive Iranian influence within Iraq.
The death of hundreds of protesters on the streets only served to exacerbate the febrile situation, and finally led to the resignation of then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. What followed was a long search by President Barham Salih for a prime minister that would be acceptable domestically and also to the two major external states most involved in shaping Iraq’s future – the US and Iran.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s intelligence chief, but with a long career as journalist and peace activist behind him, proved an inspired choice. No professional politician, he was not tarred in the public mind with the brush of incompetence and corruption. Unaligned with any political party, he had made few enemies among the political class. Having spent many years as an exile in the West, he was well-known and liked in Washington and London. And his four years embedded in Iraq’s security service while Iran strengthened its grip on the country’s governance, made his appointment acceptable to the Iranian regime.
Born Mustafa Abdul-Latif Mishatat in 1967, he adopted the name al-Kadhimi (taken from his birthplace, Kadhimiya) for his career as a working journalist and peace and humanitarian activist. Strongly opposed to the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, he left Iraq in 1985 for Iran, before moving to Germany, the UK and the US, and he remained in exile until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, After that, although he continued to be based in London for the next seven years, he returned to Iraq from time to time.
For much of his time in Britain, Kadhimi became involved with the work of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation (not to be confused with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based organization concerned with fostering the nonviolent resolution of armed conflict). The Foundation was a body registered in Britain as a charity specifically concerned with Iraq. Kadhimi was working for it when it opened Salam House in north-west London as a cultural center that hosted weekly talks, discussions and exhibitions by notable Iraqi and international speakers, and by bodies concerned with Iraq, British society and the Middle East.
When it registered as a charity in 2009, the Foundation listed as its objectives the promotion of conflict resolution and reconciliation, with a view to relieving suffering, poverty and distress. In addition its purpose was to promote human rights, equality and diversity, with specific mention made of racial harmony, the education and welfare of children, women’s rights and gender equality. Later it expanded its purposes to encompass the promotion of peace and tolerance through an understanding of Iraq’s history, contemporary society, arts, culture and governance.
It was with this organization and its unquestionable humanitarian values, that Kadhimi associated himself for many years while residing in Britain. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the values embraced by the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation are values endorsed by Kadhimi, and that in Iraq’s new prime minister the world has found a leader motivated by integrity, dedicated to peace, and with the highest regard for a humane approach to conflict resolution.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Kadhimi joined a group of Iraqi activists in the US to help Iraqis come to terms with their past. Using the already well-established Iraq Research and Documentation Project, founded in 1992 at Harvard University by anti-Saddam activist Kanan Makiya, they established a new body which they called the Iraq Memory Foundation.
The three founders – Makiya, Hassan Mneimneh and Kadhimi – believed that justice in the future required the people of Iraq to come to terms with the atrocities perpetrated in their name during the 24 years of Saddam’s rule. The ultimate rationale behind the Iraq Memory Foundation was that only the truth could help heal a society that had been politically and physically brutalized on a large scale.
The foundation eventually had offices in Washington, Baghdad and London. Between 2003 and 2010, Kadhimi ran the London end, also commuting to Baghdad from time to time to help document not only the crimes of Saddam Hussain’s regime, but all facets of the Iraqi experience of dictatorship. Managing a team spread across various countries, Kadhimi oversaw the documenting of testimonies and the collation of footage from victims.
During this period Kadhimi worked as a columnist and managing editor of the Iraq section of the US-based international Al-Monitor news website. He also served as editor-in-chief and columnist of Iraq’s Newsweek magazine for three years from 2010, and his articles are noteworthy for attempting to foster the spirit of social peace within Iraq.
This, then, is Iraq’s new prime minister, a figure – if his past affiliations and activities are anything to go by – unusual to a degree in today’s Middle East. Everything about Kadhimi’s past suggests a man imbued with generous humanitarian instincts, an upholder of social justice, utterly opposed to the repressive dictatorship under which his country suffered for so long, and fired with the desire to help his nation come to terms with its past and move forward into a brighter future. If his many years spent in Britain contributed to this hopeful profile, they were years well spent.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review, the author of ‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016,’ and blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com