Iraq has become a country like Lebanon, relying too much on sectarian and ethnic balances. New Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi does not have his own power base, so he has to rely on the support that the sectarian and ethnic groups will extend to him.
Several problems have accumulated since the resignation of the previous Iraqi government and are awaiting solutions. Four of them are more important than the others: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the status of the US armed forces in Iraq, the dwindling oil price, and corruption.
COVID-19 is the most urgent issue because it cannot wait. Like the entire international community, Iraq was caught unprepared for the pandemic. As a result of years of war, social unrest, ethnic fights and Daesh, there was a big shortfall in medical facilities, equipment and medical staff, so the country has had to quickly find the missing components for its fight against the virus. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Al-Kadhimi to congratulate him for the formation of his government, the only other issue they discussed was COVID-19.
The second important task the government has to deal with is what Washington calls the “US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue.” Baghdad prefers to describe it as negotiations over the status of forces agreement (SOFA). The date for talks has already been fixed for June 10. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale is designated as the negotiator for the US side. On the Iraqi side, there is not even a foreign minister who will be the main person in charge of these negotiations.
Turkey negotiated a similar agreement with the US in the 1980s. The rights and privileges granted to the US military personnel had proliferated and neither side knew their exact extent. Turkey wanted to compile them in one single text and appointed an outstanding negotiator, Sukru Elekdag, to conduct the negotiations. Thanks to his strenuous efforts, a SOFA was agreed.
Iraq’s negotiations may prove to be more difficult because the US may have acquired more widespread prerogatives as a result of the close cooperation between the countries since the US military intervention in 2003. Now Iraq has to negotiate and eliminate those prerogatives that it does not want to perpetuate.
The tendency in Baghdad to reduce the prerogatives of the US military has become more acute since Qassem Soleimani’s assassination in January. After this deliberate act of violence, the Iraqi parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution to expel US forces from the country altogether.
Furthermore, Al-Kadhimi’s government program provides for the preservation of Iraq’s sovereignty. This must be a diplomatic way to tell foreign countries, especially the US and Turkey — and perhaps even Iran — to withdraw their forces from Iraqi territory. The Iraqi SOFA is further complicated by the US’ interest in turning Iraq into an outpost for waging attacks and operations against Iran. Therefore, it may prove to be more difficult to negotiate.
The third important issue that the Al-Kadhimi government has to tackle is the extremely low oil price. This issue has a special importance for Iraq because about 90 percent of its state income is generated from oil-related activities.
Voting on two key portfolios — the oil and foreign ministries — was postponed during the parliamentary vote of confidence in Al-Kadhimi’s government. This will, of course, complicate things because of oil’s importance to the country’s economy. If the oil price remains at its present low level, Iraq’s economic difficulties will continue to grow and the protests that initiated the political upheaval will become more widespread.
The fourth important issue is corruption. Like in almost all countries in the region, corruption in Iraq is a social phenomenon that disturbs the general public. Almost everybody complains about it, but very little is done to come up with a lasting solution. Corrupt practices were banned in Iraq some 3,770 years ago, with severe punishments suggested by the Code of Hammurabi. More recently, in the 16th century, the poet Fuzuli, who joined the ruling court after Baghdad was seized by the Ottomans, complained in one of his works: “I greeted them. But they did not accept my greeting on the grounds that it was not a bribe.” Al-Kadhimi may not be able to uproot such a deep-rooted tradition, but he can certainly make an attempt in that direction.
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