[Published here April 9, 2020]
Spy chief Mustafa Kadhemi, the third candidate this year for Iraq’s premiership, is a pragmatic operator whose ties to Washington and Tehran could help to steer Baghdad through multiple crises.
The head of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) was nominated Thursday by President Barham Saleh, in a ceremony attended by a who’s who of the political elite, indicating broad support for the enigmatic figure.
Born in Baghdad in 1967, Kadhemi studied law in Iraq but then left for Europe to escape repressive ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, working as an opposition journalist.
After the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam, Kadhemi returned to help launch the Iraqi Media Network, archived crimes of the former regime at the Iraqi Memory Foundation and worked as a human rights advocate.
But he made an unusual career jump in 2016, when then prime minister Haider al-Abadi handpicked him to head the NIS at the height of the war against the Islamic State jihadist group.
It was there, sources close to Kadhemi say, that he formed his uniquely close links with top players of key nations including in Washington, London and closer to home.
“He’s got a pragmatic mindset, relationships with all the key players on the Iraqi scene and good ties with the Americans — and he was recently able to put his ties to the Iranians back on track,” a political source and friend told AFP.
The former journalist has a particularly close friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
In footage from a visit to Riyadh after his appointment, the Saudi royal could be seen warmly embracing Kadhemi.
But the clean-shaven man, his closely-trimmed hair tinged by white around his ears, has otherwise mostly remained in the shadows.
Kadhemi was first floated as premier in 2018 but political blocs instead opted for Adel Abdel Mahdi — the caretaker PM who resigned in December after months of protests, and whom Kadhemi would replace.
The intel chief’s name began circulating again a few months ago as Barham Saleh’s preferred candidate, but a political adviser close to the talks told AFP he had hesitated to take the risk.
“He did not want to agree unless it was going to be a sure thing,” the adviser said, having seen two candidates — lawmaker Adnan Zurfi and ex-minister Mohammad Allawi — fail before him.
Allawi could not pull together a cabinet by his 30-day deadline while Zurfi dropped his bid on Thursday under pressure from Shiite parties close to Iran, who saw the lawmaker as worryingly close to Washington.
In January, those same factions had accused Kadhemi of being involved in the US drone strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
Since then, Kadhemi had worked through the caretaker prime minister’s influential chief of staff Mohammad al-Hashemi to repair ties to Iran and its allies in Iraq, the adviser and a diplomat based in Baghdad told AFP.
With pro-Tehran factions nominally on board, the adviser said, “there is now an unprecedented Shiite-wide consensus on Kadhemi”.
That could set Kadhemi up with better chances than the two candidates before him, but he still faces a host of challenges.
Iraq’s economy is faltering due to crashing oil prices and it is struggling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 60 people in the country.
Tensions between arch rivals Tehran and Washington are simmering, and the US appears ready to take a harder line against Baghdad, seeing it as too friendly with Iran.
Last month, it granted Iraq its shortest sanctions waiver yet, set to expire in two weeks, to keep importing crucial gas from Iran to keep its power stations on.
A figure like Kadhemi could have the right connections to steer Iraq through these crises, observers say.
“Kadhemi is a superb negotiator and an incredibly astute player,” said Toby Dodge, head of the London School for Economics’ Middle East Centre.
He has until May 9 to consult with Iraq’s divided parties and submit his cabinet line-up to the 329-member parliament.
“Iraq is on borrowed time — the stakes have gone up much higher,” Dodge said.
“If Kadhemi’s candidacy goes wrong, it has much greater ramifications internationally and domestically, politically and economically than the other two relatively minor characters,” he told AFP.