The last time Iraq’s prime minister tried to arrest members of the powerful Iran-backed militias, they were out of custody within a week. This time, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi held on to one of their own for twice as long, as near a victory as can be imagined, given the fragility of the Iraqi state. Two events over three days in May have set the stage for a summer of confrontation as Iraq heads into a new election in October. On one side, the powerful Shia militias that defeated ISIS in Mosul. On the other, long-running popular protests that have already toppled one prime minister.
In the middle is Al-Kadhimi, in office for a year and as liable to be blamed for any violence that comes from confronting the militias as for failing to deal with the demands of the protesters. But Al-Kadhimi’s dilemma is not merely a political balancing act, weighing one group against the other. It is existential, because what the protestors are really calling for is the primacy of state power over the militias.
With the stakes so high, Al-Kadhimi’s brief victory over the militias looks paltry, a gesture that hardly rises to the political moment. A premiership that is judged a success because a paramilitary leader has been held for a matter of days is surely a premiership in name only.
The confrontation began after Iraqi security forces arrested Qassem Muslih, the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces division in Anbar. The PMF are an umbrella group of some 40 militias, many of them backed by Iran. The next day, the PMF mobilized a show of force on the streets of Baghdad, surrounding the headquarters of the prime minister. A tense stand-off eventually ended with the PMF dispersing. But a message had been sent. The militias would not tolerate one of their own being arrested.
In the past, such a show of force would have been enough to make the government back down and release Muslih. A year previously, soon after Al-Kadhimi took office, he arrested 14 members of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia. The same thing happened: armed militias took to the streets of Baghdad and the men were released.
This time Al-Kadhimi held firm. Although Muslih was eventually released on June 9, the prime minister may now feel sufficiently empowered by the protest movement to finally break the power of the militias, or keeping Muslih in custody was simply a way of sending a message.
In truth, Al-Kadhimi’s actions seem opaque and that opacity is deliberate. He has not, for example, yet said whether he will stand for election in October. That uncertainty means groups like the PMF and their supporters within Iraq’s parliament are reluctant to move against him too forcefully, lest they waste their political capital on someone who is on his way out. The same is true of the protesters, who will not want to call openly for Al-Kadhimi to go – only for him to go anyway in a matter of months.
That opacity gives him a certain ability to navigate all the shades of gray of Iraq’s politics.
One interpretation of this standoff with the militias is that Al-Kadhimi knew he could not win an outright clash with the PMF, but hoped to hold Muslih for long enough to establish that he would not be bullied by them. That would give him some credibility with voters and even the protesters, who may believe he is sincere in wanting to seek out those who attack activists. It may even give him a boost as the country enters a summer of protests and perhaps set him up as a law-and-order candidate in the autumn.
If that seems an overly cynical interpretation, it is worth recalling that after his year in office, Al-Kadhimi has yet to make a definitive break with the militias or their patrons in Iran. The investigation he promised into the disappearance of protesters kidnapped by armed men has yet to start work. He has neither said he wants American troops to leave Iraq nor that he wants Iranian influence to cease. He has been as happy to visit Tehran as Riyadh and Washington.
Some will see in that the same cautious balancing of forces as with his balancing of protesters and the militias. But there is a point at which balance becomes inertia.
Al-Kadhimi may have won a small victory against the militias, but it is a most fragile one, likely to be overturned at any moment. The paramilitary leader hasn’t been charged so far and has yet to see the inside of a courtroom. If he does, the response from the PMF militias could be fierce, the kind of clash a cautious Al-Kadhimi will want to defer until after the election.
But tiptoeing along a tightrope is only an option if you have a plan for getting to the other side. Al-Kadhimi’s caution is helping no one: not the families who want answers about the loss of their sons and daughters and not ordinary Iraqis who need to live in a country where the writ of the state still runs.
Instead of a balancing act, the prime minister looks like he is playing a waiting game –one in which another opportunity to demonstrate that he runs his own country might just slip away.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.