Can Iraq’s new leaders deliver stability?

Abdul-Mahdi is an Islamist but doesn’t belong to the Dawa Party and is perceived as a technocrat with a decent record in government.
Sunday 07/10/2018
New Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi walks at the parliament building in Baghdad, on October 2. (AP)
End of deadlock. New Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi walks at the parliament building in Baghdad, on October 2. (AP)

SULAYMANIYAH - The election of a respected Kurdish politician to be Iraq’s president and his designation of a compromise figure as prime minister gives the country a fighting chance of achieving stability after years of sectarian bloodshed, war and economic turmoil.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, 58, who was elected by parliament, is respected by both the United States and Iran, arch-rivals whose competition for influence in Iraq has fuelled factionalism in a country dogged by deep sectarian rifts.

The US Embassy in Baghdad and Iranian President Hassan Rohani both congratulated Salih, raising hopes he might energise the traditionally ceremonial role of president and engage Tehran and Washington to Iraq’s benefit.

“President Barham Salih has a strong personality and he’s well respected by the West and regional countries and most importantly Iran,” said senior lawmaker Rebwar Taha from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that nominated Salih.

Salih’s choice of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, 76, as prime minister defuses months of tension between Iraq’s two main Shia blocs that hold the most seats in parliament and possess the most powerful militias. His premiership marks the end of 15 years of rule by the Dawa Party, which has dominated Iraqi politics since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Lawmakers said that was precisely what made Abdul-Mahdi an attractive option, especially to powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who despises Dawa.

Al-Sadr, alongside outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, leads one of the two main Shia blocs. The other is led by Iran-backed militia leader Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Amiri and Maliki are Iran’s two most prominent allies in Iraq. Abadi was considered the preferred candidate of the United States and al-Sadr portrays himself as a nationalist who rejects both US and Iranian influence.

Iraq now has its three top leaders — a president, prime minister and speaker of parliament — and is edging closer to forming a new government five months after an inconclusive parliamentary election that was marred by historically low turnout and widespread fraud allegations.

The appointments come weeks after protests in the oil-rich city of Basra, the jewel of Iraq’s southern Shia heartland, threatened to destabilise the country. The government’s inability to handle the protests and provide residents with the basic services they were demanding convinced al-Sadr to abandon Abadi, his ally.

“After the unrest in Basra, Sayed Muqtada was convinced that a prime minister who failed to bring clean water to his people will definitely fail at bringing stability to his country,” said one source close to al-Sadr. “That was enough for Sayed Muqtada to sit with Amiri and accept a compromise candidate, Abdul-Mahdi.”

Salih’s election is the first time someone has risen to one of Iraq’s top posts without a backroom deal — an outcome that may suggest lawmakers are making the country’s dire needs a priority over political gains.

Since Saddam’s fall, power in Iraq has been shared among its three largest ethnic-sectarian components. The most powerful post, that of prime minister, has always been held by a Shia Arab, the speaker of parliament by a Sunni Arab and the presidency by a Kurd, though that formula has not guaranteed stability.

Both Washington and Tehran had been vying to influence the shape of the incoming government but neither can claim to be the deciding factor in the presidential outcome.

“The outcome was not predetermined. Despite US and Iranian intervention, everyone was on the phones,” said Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is currently in Baghdad. “It was a unique political process, true politics but this was an outlier event.”

Salih designated Abdul-Mahdi prime minister less than two hours after being named president. Abdul-Mahdi arrived at parliament before the presidential election was finished, knowing he was a shoo-in.

Abdul-Mahdi has the right political pedigree. He is an Islamist but doesn’t belong to the Dawa Party and is perceived as a technocrat with a decent record in government.

Getting the approval of al-Sadr, the cleric who has mass appeal to the poor working class which has grown impatient with the political elite dominated by Dawa, was key.

The other big test Abdul-Mahdi passed was gaining the blessing of Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Arguably the most powerful man in the country, Sistani has long urged politicians to stop clinging to power and give a new breed of technocrats a chance to rebuild Iraq.