Iraq’s Parliament chose an American-backed former intelligence chief as the new prime minister early on 7 May 2020 morning, giving the country its first real government in more than five months as it confronts an array of potentially crippling crises. The prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, 53, who has a reputation for pragmatism, was also seen as an acceptable choice to Iran, the other major foreign power competing for influence in Iraq. Mr. al-Kadhimi is Iraq’s first real prime minister since the last one resigned in November in the face of persistent anti government protests.
  1. He has already promised to take a new approach to the social unrest, meeting protesters and consulting with them rather than backing the previous government’s sporadic efforts to crush or ignore the turmoil.
  2. But the protest movement that arose over government corruption and persistent joblessness last fall is no longer the government’s most pressing crisis. The coronavirus has frozen the economy. Oil and gas revenues, the government’s main source of income, are historically low.
  3. Simmering tensions between the United States and Iran have played out in skirmishes on Iraqi soil that could turn into a wider war.
  4. Plummeting energy prices have nearly halved Iraq’s operating revenue, making it likely Mr. al-Kadhimi will have to either cut salaries for government workers or drastically reduce their numbers in the next few weeks. Either way, with the government as the country’s largest employer, the decision would have dramatic consequences.
  5. It will also fall to Mr. al-Kadhimi and his advisers to determine when and how to reopen the economy and lift the curfews that have silenced the country’s cities in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
  6. The virus appears to have had relatively little impact on Iraq. The country has registered about 2,500 cases, among the lowest in the region, but politicians and health officials are unsure whether those numbers would explode if they lift restrictions.
  7. Although Mr. al-Kadhimi faces a litany of problems, his presence on the political stage signals a degree of flexibility in a political system that seems deadlocked. The grip of Shiite political parties with religious ties may also be loosening.
  8. Since 2005, and the first elected government after Saddam Hussein’s removal, the country’s prime ministers have been from the Shiite Dawa Party, which has religious origins and close ties to Iran.
  9. Mr. al-Kadhimi, whose political engagement was more secular, is thought to be more open to the anti-government protesters, many of whom have espoused anti-Iranian positions. He is also thought to be willing to protect them against the Iranian-backed militias that have previously attacked and killed them.
  10. Mr. al-Kadhimi’s first real balancing act will be starting negotiations to reset the United States military mission in Iraq, as well as to figure out its commitment to working with Iraqis in other sectors, including health care and education.