Kadhimi spoke from his stylish office in a building that’s a modern recreation of Ziggurat’s ancient tower. Around him was a Baghdad that looked almost normal as the April heat began to sizzle the city. That 2003 US invasion that shook Iraq’s stability but also brought democracy seemed a long way off.
Kadhimi would like continued US support, including a small military presence outside of combat, to help stabilize his nation. “We truly believe in our relationship with the United States as a country that helped us get rid of dictatorship and also … advance our democratic system,” he argued. It’s hard to find a leader in the Middle East today who is so unabashedly pro-American.
But at Ain al-Asad air base, in the white desert sands about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, one can see how vulnerable Iraq’s balance remains. Early in the morning of April 8, three days before my visit there, an Iranian-made Shahed-131 drone was shot down as it entered the American zone of the base.
Loaded with shrapnel and a powerful shaped charge in its cone, the drone could have killed or wounded many Americans. It was fired here by one of the Iran-backed militias; it targeted the American presence and indirectly the US alliance with Kadhimi and other Iraqis opposed to Iranian interference. Next time, one of these drones might hit its target.
US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla met with Kadhimi — and also visited the site of al-Asad’s attack — during a visit to Iraq last weekend, during which I accompanied him. It was Kurilla’s first station in the region since becoming the new commander of US Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US forces in the region. Kurilla said he was impressed by Kadhimi’s eagerness to work with the United States. But what interested him most was talking to the troops in al-Asad who shot down the Iranian drone – and hearing how they operated their weapon systems and what they needed.
As Kurilla assumes command, he examines the essential puzzle for Centcom: what are the core issues that can advance US interests in the region even as the overall US troop presence dwindles? Kurilla, badly wounded in Mosul in 2005, knows better than most the enormous cost of the past two decades of “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also knows that this region remains where US troops regularly come under fire.
Iraq, at the fulcrum between Iran and the Arabs, remains the most enticing but also the most frustrating challenge in the region. It is large and fertile, blessed with energy and other resources, with a dynamic but fickle population mix of Shia, Sunni and Kurds. In Kadhimi, Iraq has a leader who has strong support from moderate Arab nations like Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, but who is also speaking to Iran.
The problem for Kadhimi and his American friends is that, for now, Iraq remains weakened by corruption, political feuds and Iranian interference. Iraqis want a strong, well-run state; The pro-Iranian political parties fared poorly in last October’s elections. On paper, there is now a parliamentary majority for a coalition of Shia, Sunni and Kurds to form a new government, perhaps with Kadhimi as prime minister.
But forming a government has so far been impossible. Pro-Iranian militants who tried to assassinate Kadhimi last year and denounced him as a tool of the United States say the election was stolen. Kurdistan leader Masrour Barzani, meanwhile, is rejecting a new term for President Barham Salih, a fellow Kurd but a political enemy. It’s a crazy dead end. Until a new government is formed, Kadhimi remains in power – but relatively powerless.
Iraqi corruption and Iranian manipulation reinforce each other. When he became prime minister in 2020, Kadhimi attempted to keep the house clean by appointing Iraq’s toughest police officer, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef, to head a criminal commission to prosecute militia killings and corruption. But under Iranian pressure, an Iraqi court last month ordered Abu Ragheef’s arrest. Kadhimi refused to execute the warrant, but it’s a depressing spectacle.
The situation could worsen if nuclear talks between the United States and Iran collapse and Kadhimi remains precariously in the middle. If the talks fail, “Iraq will likely become a victim,” a US official warned.
When I asked Kadhimi what his agenda would be if he were given a new mandate as prime minister, he immediately replied: “Consolidate Iraq’s sovereignty” so that he can resist outside attempts to manipulate the country. His second goal was “establishing a state arms monopoly,” which I translated as disarming the militias. He went on to discuss economic reform and privatization.
Those are the right goals and I hope Kadhimi can do it. But he will need help. That brings us back to the United States, which has been Iraq’s best and worst friend over the past several decades.
Iraqis fear that US interest and power in the Middle East is waning. An Iraqi quoted the exhortation of the former Egyptian president for me Hosni Mubarak: If you are a friend of the United States, sleep without a blanket. If nuclear talks with Iran blow up, it’ll get chilly out here.