Can Kadhimi save Iraq from Iran-backed militias before the snap election?

Iraq faces multiple deep challenges right now. Even without the COVID-19 crisis, the country was on the brink of economic collapse and political turmoil.

IRAQI PRIME MINISTER Mustafa Al-Khadimi delivers his first televised speech after his nomination, in Baghdad in April. (photo credit: IRAQIYA TV/REUTERS)
IRAQI PRIME MINISTER Mustafa Al-Khadimi delivers his first televised speech after his nomination, in Baghdad in April.
(photo credit: IRAQIYA TV/REUTERS)
Almost 90 days after becoming the new Iraqi prime minster, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has announced an early legislative election to be held in June 2021, a year earlier than originally scheduled.
The United Nation swiftly welcomed the call by saying the election would promote “greater stability and democracy.” But what do the Iraqi people actually need right now? Have the elections in the past 15 years solved any problems in that divided country? The answer unquestionably “No.”
Iraq faces multiple deep challenges right now. Even without the COVID-19 crisis, the country was on the brink of economic collapse and political turmoil. Trust between the ruling elites and the people is at its lowest level ever. Protesters’ demands are answered by bullets that no one exactly knows who fired.
Amid this scene, the last “solution” to the people’s clear demands is an unnecessary early election. It is not because elections are not good for democracy; it is because democracy in Iraq is not working at all.
People’s hopes for a brighter future were ruined by fraud and unfair elections after the removal of dictatorship in 2003. No matter whom the Iraqi people are voting for, at the end of the day, the kleptocratic elites and militia groups are the real rulers that control institutions and the government.
In his televised speech, Kadhimi promised, “Everything will be done to protect and ensure the success of these polls.” However, this is not what Iraqis are asking for; they are asking the prime minister to protect them from powerful armed groups that in a bloody crackdown have killed more than 550 protesters and targeted several activists since last October. Thus, a better step for Mr. Kadhimi to take before holding a gratuitous election would be to disarm the Shi’ite militia groups known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in order to protect people instead of “protecting the polls.”
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi knows very well that the real challenge for Iraq (in this matter, for the Kurdistan region as well) is the militia groups that form a state inside the government. However, he cannot solve that. Consequently, the fall guy for his blame game is a snap election.
He has been told by people on the streets that they are seeking massive reform; dismantling of the current political system; an end to rampant corruption and nepotism; and disarming of the militia groups backed by Iran. Yet instead of answering those clear demands, the new prime minister is playing a blame game by sending people to the polls with virtually the same choice between ruling kleptocrats who ran in previous elections.
It is true that young Iraqis have asked for a new election, but one with a new electoral law that is fully inclusive and fair. Otherwise, the result will be the same, or worse as has been the case since 2005. Running an election with the current ruling elites is not the radical reform they are looking for.
The issue of independent militia groups in Iraq is different from seemingly similar issues in other countries. These groups are not only on the battlefields; they have a strong presence on the streets and at the polls.
EVERY MILITIA group has its own faction in parliament, which makes it very difficult to pass any legislation against them. And outside parliament, anyone who criticize them will face the same fate as Hisham al-Hashimi, who was killed in early July by an unknown gunman in the capital Baghdad.
Back then, when the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein, there was only one dictator, and all forces were under his full control. Now the dictator is gone, but Iraqis are struggling to cope with the new ruling kleptocrats who have ripped off the country’s wealth and who generated several militia groups under different names to protect their personal and party interests.
To be fair and objective, in the last three months Kadhimi mounted minor clashes against armed Shi’ite groups, and he has promised to disarm them. But he has not won the game yet. He has been challenged mainly by the terrorist group Kataib Hezbollah, which has strong links to Iran. Mr. Kadhimi is aware of the possibility that if he continues with his policy to bring them under state control, he will be the one who must leave the battle.
Some believe Kadhimi’s real intention by announcing an early election is to win Iraq’s street support and embarrass the political parties by putting the ball in their court. He of course recognizes that holding an election within 10 months of becoming premier is unpractical due to political, technical and legal challenges. Above all, there is an unapproved controversial bill that would allow people to vote for independent candidates in their small districts and towns rather than political blocs in the big cities.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has held four elections and experienced six prime ministers. What changed were the faces, what remained and got worse were the problems. Iraqis love voting and democracy, but not in the way they have been practiced. If a free and fair election is held, the current ruling elites will not be elected by people.
It is impossible even for Kadhimi to rule the country, as all the crises he inherited from previous cabinets are still emerging, let alone the continued political deadlock. Recently people’s demands have switched from regime change to respecting democratic values and bringing basic services such as water and electricity to the people and paying public employees on time.
In the first democratic election in 2005, voter turnout was nearly 80%, but by 2018, only 44.5% of eligible Iraqi voters took part. The majority of Iraqis do not trust the current dysfunctional system and its political elites. Thus, the solution to Iraq’s numerous crises is a radical change in the political system and bringing the corrupt politicians to justice, not repeating already failed attempts to solve the problem by changing the faces after sending voters to the polls.
The writer is a Kurdish journalist and researcher with a master’s degree in international journalism from the University of Salford, UK. He has worked for several major media outlets in Iraqi Kurdistan in the last decade such as Rudaw, NRT and KNN. He has written extensively in Iraqi media both in English and Kurdish languages with the focus on politics and journalism. He is a Chevening Scholar and IYLEP Alumni.