Iraq PM Kadhemi: former spy chief facing uncertain future

·3-min read
Born in Baghdad in 1967, Mustafa al-Kadhemi studied law in Iraq but then left for Europe to escape repressive dictator Saddam Hussein (AFP/-)

Iraq's prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi -- who survived an assassination attempt on Sunday -- is a former spy chief and skilled negotiator who faces an uncertain future following last month's legislative elections.

Kadhemi, who headed Iraq's National Intelligence Service (INIS), took the reins in May last year after parliament granted his cabinet a vote of confidence, capping weeks of horse-trading over ministerial positions.

Born in Baghdad in 1967, he studied law in Iraq but then left for Europe to escape repressive dictator Saddam Hussein, working as an opposition journalist.

After the US-led 2003 invasion toppled Hussein, 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-PM Haider al-Abadi handpicked him to head the INIS 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 Mohammed 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.

- 'Unprecedented' consensus -

Kadhemi was first floated as premier in 2018 but political blocs instead opted for Adel Abdel Mahdi -- the caretaker PM who resigned in December 2019 after months of protests, and whom Kadhemi replaced.

The intel chief's name began circulating a few months later as President 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 under pressure from Shiite parties close to Iran, who saw the lawmaker as worryingly close to Washington.

In January 2020, 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.

But Kadhemi worked through the caretaker PM's influential chief of staff Mohammad al-Hashemi to repair ties with Iran and its allies in Iraq, the adviser and a diplomat based in Baghdad told AFP.

With pro-Tehran factions on board, the adviser said, Kadhemi scored "an unprecedented Shiite-wide consensus".

- 'Superb negotiator' -

That set Kadhemi up with better chances than the two prior candidates, but he has faced a host of challenges, from the country's ailing economy to the coronavirus.

He brought forward elections, originally scheduled for 2022, in response to the anti-government protests over endemic corruption, unemployment and failing public services.

But the results of those elections now mean he is facing an uncertain future, with coalition wrangling and accusations of fraud.

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.

But, he cautioned: "Iraq is on borrowed time -- the stakes have gone up much higher."

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