Iraqis agree on new leaders but stability still precarious

Maintaining the precarious balance between the US and Iran and keeping the various domestic constituencies happy could prove tricky.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Newly elected Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) walks with his predecessor Fuad Masum during the handover ceremony in Baghdad, on October 3. (AFP)
Uncertainties. Newly elected Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) walks with his predecessor Fuad Masum during the handover ceremony in Baghdad, on October 3. (AFP)

LONDON - Iraq has filled the posts of prime minister, president and parliament speaker — five months after its national elections — but forming the next government could still prove divisive.

The Iraqi parliament selected veteran Kurdish politician Barham Salih to be the country’s president. Hours later, Salih invited Shia Adel Abdul-Mahdi to be prime minister-designate. The naming of the president and prime minister came two weeks after Iraqi members of parliament elected Sunni politician Mohammed al-Halbousi as speaker.

Abdul-Mahdi, who has served as oil minister and vice-president, has one month to form a government that is approved by parliament, otherwise, his post would be designated to a new pick.

He was a consensus candidate of the two largest parliamentary blocs, both claiming to have the largest number of seats in parliament after forming new political alliances since the elections.

The constitution dictates that the largest bloc nominates the prime minister but since it is not clear which is the largest bloc, the rival groups of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and militia leader Hadi al-Amiri separately filed nominations of Abdul-Mahdi. Bizarrely, the two blocs also made a third joint nomination for Abdul-Mahdi.

There are fears that problems would arise in Abdul-Mahdi’s selection of a cabinet because many of the country’s dominant parties would press him for ministerial posts.

Al-Sadr, on Twitter, said he urged Abdul-Mahdi not give in to pressure from political parties wanting government posts based on “muhasasa” — the allocation of official positions based on ethnic, sectarian and partisan considerations.

“We were able to bring a prime minister who is independent and has previously resigned from government over corruption… we have asked him to form his ministerial cabinet without any party pressure or ethno-sectarian muhasasa, while keeping the beautiful Iraqi mosaic. We have asked him not to recommend for ministerial positions anyone who is from our side (party), whoever he may be,” said al-Sadr.

“We have given him (Abdul-Mahdi) one year to prove his success before God and his people.”

A year is not considered long enough to solve Iraq’s chronic problems, which include corruption and inefficiency.

Despite being credited with defeating the Islamic State, preserving Iraq’s unity and maintaining sound international ties, incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had his reputation severely damaged by the crisis in Basra.

The protests over poor living conditions in the oil-rich southern province effectively ended Abadi’s chances to remain as prime minister when his ally al-Sadr and the country’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, withdrew support for his second term.

Abadi maintained that the central government had allocated sufficient funds as well as the authority to local officials to carry out measures to avoid water shortages and pollution. He insisted local authorities and some of his ministers had let him down.

Most local officials, who hail from the country’s dominant parties, will likely remain in office once Abdul-Mahdi takes charge. However, it is unknown whether he would reduce the number of ministries to avoid wasteful spending as he advocated. Unlike al-Sadr, members of Amiri’s bloc are likely to press to have their representatives in the cabinet.

Observers said that Abdul-Mahdi would be pressured to award more government posts to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) after its candidate, Fouad Hussein, lost the presidential race to Salih, who is from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Abdul-Mahdi, who reportedly enjoys good ties with KDP leader Masoud Barzani, is likely to seek to keep both rival Kurdish parties happy.

The United States and Iran both welcomed Abdul-Mahdi, who has good relations with Washington and Tehran. The Iranians are likely to be happy that Abadi, who vowed to abide by US sanctions against Tehran, is leaving office. The United States will probably be relieved that Iran-backed militiaman Amiri is not going to be Iraq’s prime minister.

On Abdul-Mahdi’s Facebook page, the first congratulations call reported was from Saudi Arabia.

Maintaining the precarious balance between the United States and Iran and keeping the various domestic constituencies happy could prove tricky. Ghassan al-Attiyah, director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy in London, told German radio DW, that Iraq was headed towards a phase of instability because “the current prime minister does not possess a popular or political party base of his own but relies on the satisfaction of others about him.”