Iraq at ‘crossroads’ as protesters push for overhaul of ruling elite

The unusual disassociation of the highest Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, from the process is another factor complicating the negotiations.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Political paralysis. An Iraqi protester carrying his national flag walks past graffiti at Tahrir Square in  Baghdad, December 20. (AFP)
Political paralysis. An Iraqi protester carrying his national flag walks past graffiti at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, December 20. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - Iraqi protesters seem headed towards another victory over the ruling parties resisting demands for an overhaul of the political system protesters see as profoundly corrupt and flagrantly influenced by neighbouring Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi yielded to the protesters’ demands to resign but not until more than 450 people were killed and an estimated 20,000 wounded in a government crackdown since protests began October 1.

Despite Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, protests continued in the face of repression, killings and abductions to which the Iraqi government appears complicit, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

HRW put the human toll in Baghdad’s main protest area on December 6 at 29-80 killed and 137 injured.

The HRW report was based on interviews with witnesses of violence at Al-Khilani Square. It quoted Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East director as saying: “There’s very strong evidence the Iraqi authorities outsourced their dirty work against protesters, leaving just as the killings commenced and returning to assist with arrests.”

“If they stood by and allowed these armed men to attack protesters or carried out the murders themselves, the Iraqi government forces will be responsible,” she said.

Divisions between parties clinging to power have threatened to cause more unrest as protesters seem adamant that the next prime minister be independent and not under suspicion of corruption.

The protesters’ specifications for the next prime minister included not having held any ministerial post since 2003, not being over 55 years old or a dual citizen of another country in addition to pledging not to run in upcoming elections.

Faced with the ruling elite’s inability to nominate a candidate who meets the demonstrators’ specifications, protesters are not likely to stop calling for regime change.

A protester who identified himself as Ali told the Associated Press that he and his comrades had gone  too far to stop now. “This is a one-way street,” he said. “It’s either us or them. If they win this time, it’s over.”

The constitution says the prime minister is to be selected by the largest parliamentary bloc but none of the names floated gained street approval and Iraqi President Barham Salih postponed the process to December 22, based on a federal court ruling allowing holidays to be excluded from the 15-day

run-up to the deadline, which started on Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation date.

Salih said he received a letter from the parliament speaker accepting Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation on December 4 although it was tendered December 1.

Leaked names of prime minister candidates included Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, Qusay al-Suhail, Asaad al-Eidani, Moustafa al-Kazemi, Raed Jouhi, Tawfiq al-Yassiri, Ali Abdul Amir Allawi.

However, none seems to stand a chance of gaining protesters’ approval. Sudani, a former minister and ex-governor who announced his resignation from the Islamic Dawa Party, was the first to face widespread street rejection on grounds that he was not “independent,” being a long-standing member of a party known to have strong historical links with Iran.

Agence France-Presse quoted a source familiar with the negotiations as saying Salih was betting on Sudani’s rejection “so he can present the candidate of his choice” without needing parliament’s approval, as the constitution stipulates.

The unusual disassociation of the highest Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, from the process is another factor complicating the negotiations. While he has played kingmaker of Iraqi governments since 2003, Sistani recently said this time he intended to play no role, only expressing a wish that the choice be made without “foreign interference.”

Former parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi described the situation in Iraq as “a dangerous crossroads,” pointing out to a “signed request by 150 deputies to choose an independent personality for the prime minister’s post” who can manage “a transitional phase.” Alhurra news channel quoted him as saying that “the street wants reforms, a new government, elections and anti-corruption stances…”

Responding to a question about “the rejection of Iranian hegemony in the southern provinces,” Nujaifi replied: “All of Iraq does not accept Iranian influence.”

Iraqi Professor Mohamed al-Rubeai, writing in Baghdad’s Al Mada newspaper, accused leaders of following an “ostrich strategy” that consists of ignoring protesters’ demands. “The truth is that ostriches do not actually bury their heads in the sand. I see it as a useful metaphor for describing the Iraqi leaders who face a great challenge and perhaps chronic psychological problems by denying reality,” he said.

Rubeai wrote: “Think for a moment when you hear the resigned prime minister, former prime ministers and leaders of political forces refusing to admit responsibility for the spread of administrative and financial corruption, mismanagement and violation of human dignity… Why do they prefer to look the other way, instead of tackling problems head-on?”

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