The changing of the guard won’t change Iraq
In October, Iraq’s parliament elected Barham Salih, a Kurd, as president and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shia Arab, prime minister. Salih directed Abdul-Mahdi to form a government by the beginning of November, which he has partially accomplished.
These top-level appointments follow the election of Mohammed al-Halbousi as parliamentary speaker in September, breaking a deadlock in talks to form a new government that paved the way for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to leave office.
Abdul-Mahdi is the first Iraqi prime minister to take office since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq to not hail from the Shia Islamist and Iran-backed Dawa Party. While this may be cause for celebration for many fearful of ever-increasing Iranian influence on Iraqi affairs, Abdul-Mahdi is not only a former Ba’athist and communist, he is a Shia Islamist and a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It has rebranded to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
As such, it is clear Iran’s influence is as strong as ever in Iraq and unlikely to be diminished by this changing of the guard.
From when it was known as SCIRI, the ISCI has well-documented connections to the Iranian theocratic regime and seeks to establish an Islamic revolutionary government in Iraq along the lines of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime that overthrew the secular Iranian dictatorship in 1979.
Arguably, then, there is little difference between having a member of the Dawa Party or ISCI in power because they fundamentally agree on the direction Iraq should take and are subservient to the wishes of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on religious-political grounds.
Like his Dawa Party predecessors, Abdul-Mahdi enjoys close ties with the United States, having been willing to cooperate with the American occupation and serve as finance minister before becoming vice-president in 2005. Under the Abadi administration, another Washington darling, Abdul-Mahdi served as oil minister for two years from 2014.
Abdul-Mahdi is thus part and parcel of the post-invasion system and his posting as prime minister can be viewed as a second coming for the 75-year-old politician.
However, he may not be viewed as being representative of the Iraqi people. Iraq’s May 12 elections saw a record-low 45% turnout and the top executive posts were not appointed by direct elections but by alliance deal cutting in parliament. Indeed, even Salih is linked to Iran by way of his party affiliations, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party closely tied to the Iranian regime since the 1980s.
Similarly, and although he is a Sunni Arab, Halbousi is close to the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iran-sponsored but Iraq-sanctioned paramilitary organisation predominantly staffed by Shia jihadists. Many of those jihadists successfully ran for office under the Conquest Alliance bloc in May and will form part of the government.
How is this, then, any different from what came before it?
It is clear Abdul-Mahdi, Salih and Halbousi are on the pro-Iran axis. Similarly, ministerial appointments that have been ratified raise no hopes for any change, significant or minor.
Parliamentary blocs still hold sway and still hold any government hostage to their whims, even if that government was inclined to take an anti-Tehran stance, which this government is not. Abdul-Mahdi is merely a continuation of a long line of Shia Islamists who have led Iraq into a quagmire of corruption, spiralling violence, state and non-state terror and subservience to foreign powers.