Khadhimi embodies Iraqis' hope for change even if challenges abound

The Iraqi PM sent a strong message by reinstating Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi to his post as operations commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service.
Monday 11/05/2020
A file picture shows protesters holding a poster that read: "We are all Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi" during a protest in Baghdad, last October. Kadhimi has reinstated Saadi in his key anti-terrorism post. (AP)
Strong message. A file picture shows protesters holding a poster that read: "We are all Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi" during a protest in Baghdad, last October. Kadhimi has reinstated Saadi in his key anti-terrorism post. (AP)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's reinstatement of a top military commander on May 9 indicated his commitment to freeing state institutions from Iranian influence and clipping the wings of Iran-backed militias, experts said.

“Al-Kadhimi's broad international and Arab relations will provide him with great opportunities for success," said Iraqi parliamentarian Hisham al-Suhail, adding that members of parliament "are confident"of the premier’s ability to ensure tangible change.

Kadhimi sent a strong message to the cabinet as it began work by reinstating Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi to his post as operations commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service.

Saadi, who was removed from his post last September by former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi with no explanation, is viewed by Iraqis as one of few public figures who have resisted involvement in party politics or sectarianism.

His removal caused a stir among Iraqis, many of whom deeply respect him for his central role in the three-year battles against ISIS, which Iraq declared victory over in 2017.

In 2015, when Saadi was leading the fight against ISIS in the town of Beiji with just 250 soldiers, he rejected "help from non-Iraqis," particularly Iranians and Iran-backed militias, which had become powerful actors in the country.

"If I had accepted help from non-Iraqis, the history books will say the victory was not ours, the Iraqis," Saadi said at the time, angering Iran-aligned elements in Baghdad.

Saadi, a Shia who rejects Iranian influence and spent time training in the US, is viewed by many as Washington’s man in the military.

His reinstatement early in Khadhimi’s tenure shows that the premier is looking to shrewdly balance the political challenges facing the country, including competing pressures from the US and Iran, plunging oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the decisions taken on Khadhimi’s first cabinet meeting May 9 were the release of all anti-establishment protesters who were detained since October 2019 and the compensation of relatives of nearly 600 protesters who were killed in demonstrations.

He also ordered the formation of a fact-finding committee to investigate the violence that took place during protests and to hold those involved in killing protesters to account.

Speaking to reporters following the cabinet meeting, Kadhimi said that a crisis cell made up of specialists in foreign affairs and international relations had been formed to review the strategic agreement signed with the United States on the basis of protecting the unity and sovereignty of Iraq.

A panel of experts has also been formed to coordinate with the relevant authorities to hold “free and fair” elections, he added.

Despite Kadhimi’s announcements, thousands of Iraqi protesters returned to the streets in the capital Baghdad and other governorates, demanding an end to rampant corruption, improved living conditions and an overhaul of the country’s political elite.

The majority of Iraqis, however, seem to have responded positively to the new prime minister, who will have to win political backing for crucial reforms amid deep national crises.

The government’s new decisions appear to indicate Khadhimi is attempting to compensate for the damage caused under Abdul-Mahdi's tenure, during which Iran exerted more influence over the country’s political, economic and security affairs.

Kadhimi was also sure to mention the need to maintain security and stability in the region during a meeting with Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi and US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller, the prime minister's media office said in a statement May 9.

The Iraqi prime minister added that Iraq will not be a ground for settling accounts and launching attacks on any neighbouring or allied countries, according to the statement.

US-Iran tensions have played out more intensely in Iraq since the killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Iraq's paramilitary Hashd Shaabi forces, in a US drone attack near Iraqi capital Baghdad in January.

Iran-backed militias have frequently attacked Iraqi military bases housing US troops across Iraq as well as the US Embassy inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.