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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a human-rights activist, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq,... (AP Photo / Khalid Mohammed)
The Mideast story with the most potential to change the region for the better is getting insufficient attention.
I’m not referring to the U.S.-brokered deals between Israel and two Gulf states, but rather to current developments inside Iraq, where a highly unusual Iraqi prime minister (a longtime human-rights activist) is fighting to normalize his country.
The odds facing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi are stiff, with Iranian-backed militias challenging his efforts, his followers and his life. Yet there is real hope for positive change in Iraq, in large part because of Kadhimi’s courage.
“For those who care about stabilizing the Middle East, Iraq is really central,” says Michael Knights, an expert on Iraq and Gulf security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iraq going right could be the black swan that could change everything.” With its central geography abutting Turkey, Iran, the Gulf and Jordan, Iraq could provide an anchor in an increasingly chaotic region, and a hedge against renewed terrorism from any quarter (including Iran).
So who is this new Iraqi leader and what does he want?
When Kadhimi met President Donald Trump at the White House last month, the news focused on the announcement that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will drop from 5,200 to 3,000 by September. In a small meeting with journalists, which I attended, Kadhimi stressed that Iraq doesn’t want combat troops but rather “training and security cooperation,” plus cooperation on the economy, education and health.
In other words, Iraq wants to be an ally like Poland or Kuwait, where a limited number of U.S. troops stays on in the interest of both countries. A relationship where Iraq is not a “forever war” anymore.
But all this depends on whether Kadhimi succeeds in bringing lawless sectarian militias under government control and combating deep-seated corruption.
His surprise ascendancy to prime minister, in May, came after months of demands by young Iraqi protesters — Iraq’s version of the Arab Spring — demanding an end to sectarian government and violence. Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them poor Shiites, were assassinated by snipers, presumably by Iran-backed forces. (Demonstrators want all U.S. and Iranian forces gone but were more fervent about Iran.)
Kadhimi came to office promising justice for the dead youths — and reform of a government in which sectarian political parties divide the spoils. He also promised early elections sometime next year.
His bona fides include years of human-rights work in exile and as director of the Iraq Memory Foundation upon his return to Baghdad in 2003. In a previous surprise appointment as director of Iraq’s national intelligence agency, he professionalized the body, which contributed greatly to the defeat of ISIS.
“He wants to hold people accountable for the 700 targeted killings (of demonstrators) and to dismantle the militias, and have only the state bear arms,” says Kanan Makiya, founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation, author and professor emeritus at Brandeis University. “He really wants to be the person who normalizes the country and makes it work.”
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