Iraqi PM resigns in wake of deadly crackdown, protesters vow to carry on

Abdul-Mahdi’s exit described as ‘blow to Iranian influence’.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

BAGHDAD - Iraqis celebrated what was described by a young protester as “a great first step,” referring to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement of his decision to resign.

The move was announced November 29 after two months of protests that initially called for social reforms and demanded government action to provide jobs, end corruption and improve basic services.

But the violent crackdown against the protesters has resulted in at least 435 people being killed, mostly unarmed demonstrators, a Reuters tally indicated. The number of wounded in Baghdad and the southern provinces reached 15,000, Agence France-Presse estimated.

Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement to step down came shortly after the country’s highest Shia Muslim religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged parliament to consider withdrawing its support for the cabinet to stem spiralling violence.

Sistani said in a statement published on his official website and delivered by his representative in a televised sermon that the government “appears to have been unable to deal with the events of the past two months… Parliament, from which the current government emerged, must reconsider its choices and do what’s in the interest of Iraq.”

He added that the parliament “is also called upon to expedite the adoption of a package of electoral legislation that is satisfactory to the people in preparation for free and fair elections, the results of which truly reflect the will of the Iraqi people.”

In his announcement, Abdul-Mahdi said: “In response to the highest religious authority’s call and in order to facilitate it as quickly as possible, I will present to parliament an official request to accept my resignation from the leadership of the current government.” He did not specify when the resignation would be tendered. But parliament was scheduled to convene an emergency session on December 1 to discuss the crisis.

The Iraqi constitution stipulates in Article 81 that the president is expected to “charge another nominee to form the Council of Ministers within a period not to exceed fifteen days.”

Experts in Baghdad believe Abdul Mahdi’s resignation is a  blow to Iran, which intervened to keep him in place. His announcement came less than 48 hours after the torching of the Iranian Consulate in the holy city of Najaf on November 27.

It was the second such incident of its kind since the protesters set fire to the Iranian Consulate in the holy city of Karbala on November 4.

Both incidents reflected mounting anti-Iran sentiment that was often expressed in the protesters’ now popular slogan “Out, Out Iran.”

The Independent described it as “a sign that many Iraqi Shia have abandoned any sense of religious solidarity with Iran as a Shia state.” The London daily newspaper added that the torching of the Iranian Consulate in Najaf -– one of the two Shia shrine cities, the other being Karbala and both visited by millions of Iranian pilgrims every year — marks a fresh stage in the escalation of the crisis.

Washington called November 29 on Iraqi leaders to address the “legitimate” grievances of protesters, including corruption after Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation.

“We share the protesters’ legitimate concerns,” a US State Department spokeswoman said, echoing a US line through the two months of protests.

“We continue to urge the government of Iraq to advance the reforms demanded by the people, including those that address unemployment, corruption, and electoral reform,” she added.

The protesters, who have been assembling in Baghdad’s downtown Tahrir (Liberation) Square since October 1, broke out in song and dance in celebration shortly after Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation announcement.

A protester, Mustafa, 24, told a pan-Arab news channel: “The premier’s offer to resign is a great first step and we’re extremely elated to receive this news.”

Another protester, Zainab, 29, was quoted as saying that even if Abdul-Mahdi is no longer prime minister, “they will replace him with someone else. So we will celebrate when the parliament is dissolved and free and fair elections are held under the UN’s supervision.”

Baraa Abdel Mutaleb, a professor and womens rights activist in Najaf, told the Guardian, “We’re in a maddening dictatorship. We are calling for change. The quality of life and the standard is very poor.”

She was echoing similar views expressed by many residents in Baghdad and other centre-south provinces who often complain about lack of essential services and frequent interruptions in the delivery of electricity. Iraqis have endured intermittent blackout of internet service throughout the period of current protests.

While celebrating protesters in the capital city vowed to stay put until all their demands are fulfilled violence continued unabated in southern provinces, where at least 21 people were killed. And one protester was killed by security forces near Ahrar Bridge in central Baghdad, police sources said.

Reuters reported that a victory for Iraq’s national football team against the United Arab Emirates November 29 gave protesters in Tahrir Square more cause for celebration and they set off fireworks, enjoying a brief respite from the unrest.