It does not look as if Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi wants a direct confrontation with the factions which make up the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and are loyal to Iran. He is well aware that he cannot bear losing such a confrontation. That perhaps explains why just a few days after the arrest of fighters associated with the Iraqi wing of Hezbollah that was planning to attack Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone, 13 of them were released, and only one was detained after a friendly meeting with the faction's leaders to ease the tension.
Meanwhile, Al-Kadhimi decided to dismiss Falih Al-Fayyad as head of National Security and National Security Adviser, but he is still the chairman of the PMF. This suggests that the Prime Minister is trying to exclude PMF figures close to Iran from sensitive security institutions based, if the leaks are to be believed, on requests from the US. Al-Fayyad's dismissal from his security positions came in advance of Al-Kadhimi's visit to Washington this month, which is intended to put more pressure on the Iraqi leader to make changes in sensitive security positions, many of which are still under the control of pro-Iran parties.
The most important question is whether Al-Kadhimi can dismantle the deep state that Iran has built up over the past 17 years. It appears to be the main actor in conducting Iraq's affairs.
The Prime Minister vowed on television to make changes to important state institutions, which will, it is intended, dismantle the pro-Iran deep state. He also promised to regain control over Iraqi border crossings that are under the control of the PMF militias. These are all as yet unfulfilled promises, not least because of the refusal of many political forces and armed factions to agree to such changes.
Thirteen years after the US-led invasion, Iraq is a major battlefield for the conflict between Washington and Tehran. While the latter seeks, through its various political and armed proxies, to block any path which would see weapons only the hands of state personnel, and activities linked to Iraqi sovereignty carried out only by the state, the US is reassuring Al-Kadhimi's government enough to pick up the pace and carry these changes through and so ensure Washington's ongoing support, which Iraq needs desperately.
Reuters reported that Iran is suffering from great financial difficulties, which make it hard to fund so many militias in the region. The factions have been told that they need to pay the fighters themselves. They are now in desperate need of their economic wings which control many aspects of the Iraqi economy.
However, the financial crisis in Iraq means that the government is also in dire need of the imports controlled by the factions to reduce its monthly budget deficit. Iran is in the background, controlling Iraqi institutions through its proxies, but faces its own, even worse, problems economically and at a national security level. There have been several explosions in Iran recently, and they are not believed to be accidental; an Israeli cyberattack is a possibility. Moreover, US sanctions continue to contribute to Iran's economic woes, with the value of the Iranian rial plummeting to an all-time low.
Tehran is thus occupied with its own issues, and has in any case lost the means to influence and control quite so many Iraqi institutions since the US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in January. Al-Kadhimi thus has a historic opportunity to make the right decision and find a place for Iraq in the game of regional checks and balances.
He must realise that his confrontation with the armed factions is inevitable and he has to choose the appropriate time and place for that. I am assuming that he has a real desire to pull Iraq out of the US-Iran conflict zone.
In this case, Al-Kadhimi has no other choice but to move away from reliance on US-Gulf aid and instead rely on the people who have protested since October in rejection of the political parties in Iraq and, indeed, the whole political process that has turned their country into a failed state in every sense of the word. If, however, he fails to take this opportunity and remains submissive to the authority of these parties and militias, he will ultimately mark the end of the political path which in any case appears to be on its last legs.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 7 July 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.