Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, shown here addressing the Iraqi people in a televised speech in Baghdad in April 2020, was targeted by a drone strike on November 7, 2021. Photo: AFP / Iraqi Prime Minister's Office

For Mustafa al-Kadhimi, it was third time lucky. Iraq’s new prime minister was the third candidate to be put forward in as many months. Neither of the others managed to form a government.

Kadhimi’s appointment is crucial to stabilizing a country rocked by mass protests and a pandemic. Yet as consequential as his appointment is – Iraq has had a caretaker prime minister for nearly six months – it comes in a month when two other consequential developments took place.

How Iraq fares in the future will depend on how he negotiates these other developments.

The first is integrating the powerful Shia militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) into the national army. The second is reconfiguring the muhasasa, the sectarian political system that has warped Iraq’s postwar development. Both issues will define Kadhimi’s time in office. His choices are to shape or be shaped by them.

On both, the past four weeks have been consequential. On the first, the militias are fracturing, with four of them splitting from the umbrella PMF last month and moving under the command of the prime minister.

On the second, mere days later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Iraq to drop sectarian quotas, echoing what protesters have demanded for months.

Iraq’s sectarian political system was put in place after the 2003 US-led invasion and distributes power among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It has resulted in constant division among the communities and elevating community over national identity.

A member of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military network waves a national flag as he exits a burning room after breaching the outer wall of the US diplomatic mission in the capital Baghdad, on December 31, 2019. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

This should have been no surprise to the framers of the system and to those who live with it because Lebanon has had a similar system since the 1943 National Pact. And in the Levant, it has created the same sectarianism, corruption, lack of national identity and opportunity for foreign interference.

Widespread protests against the Iraqi system and against its corollary of endemic corruption erupted in October, toppled the former prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, in December, and returned in mid-May after a two-month hiatus because of the covid-19 pandemic. They will not be easy to contain – especially now that they have been given tacit support by Washington.

During political wrangling last month before Kadhimi managed to form a government, Pompeo, the United States’ chief diplomat, made a low-key but pointed intervention, saying Iraqi leaders “must put aside the sectarian quota system and make compromises that lead to government formation.”

The comments were – no doubt deliberately – ambiguous. They offered enough support for part of what the protesters have been calling for, without explicitly backing them. And they suggested weakening the sectarian quota system in this instance, without jettisoning it entirely.

Yet Pompeo’s comments were the first time the US had publicly stepped away from the system it created, and suggests an appetite on the part of Washington to back more widespread reform. Kadhimi’s first priority must be to test this appetite.

A Lebanese demonstrator waves the national flag outside central bank headquarters in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020, as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement. Photo: AFP/Anwar Amro

The fracturing of the PMF militias is also a pivotal moment. What to do with the 40 militias in the PMF has been a perennial problem for Iraqi leaders since 2017, when Islamic State (ISIS) was finally defeated in Mosul. Many of the militias are lavishly funded, backed by Iran, and wield influence in Iraqi politics.

Successive prime ministers have tried to reorganize them or fold them into the national army. Just under a year ago Abdul-Mahdi gave the militias 30 days to integrate into the national army, a deadline that came and went without result.

So the decision of four separate militias in April to split and move under the command of the prime minister is important because all four were loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric. It was Sistani’s call in 2014 for Iraqis to fight ISIS that led to the development of the PMF in the first place.

Their departure suggests that Sistani has tired of Shia militias operating beyond political control and is willing to exert his influence to move them under state control. This is the second issue Kadhimi needs to test: If there is an opening for Shiite clerical support for the reform of the PMF, he must take the opportunity.

Two consequential developments in a matter of weeks. Alone, neither is sufficient to change Iraq. But they signal a changing mood among two powerful groups, the Washington elite and the Najaf clerical establishment. Kadhimi, now that he actually has the reins of power, has the chance to capitalize on that changing mood.

To do so will need decisive action, not incremental change. Incremental changes to a sectarian system and the incremental weakening of militias beyond state control don’t work. If Kadhimi is in any doubt, he only need cast his eye over at Lebanon, where a non-state militia, Hezbollah, is more powerful than the national army, and politicians remain mired in sectarian thinking. That is not a good role model for Iraq’s future.

Kadhimi’s preferred model is reportedly Singapore, and the new prime minister keeps a photograph in his Baghdad office of the first prime minister of that highly developed city-state. For Iraq to become like Singapore, it will need to stop acting like Lebanon. That means making equally far-reaching decisions, building on what happened this month.

Reforming the muhasasa is a necessary step. Indeed, it is the only way for the Iraqi state to grow deep roots.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.