Saleh becomes new Iraq president, tasks Mahdi to form government

President Barham Saleh designates Adel Abdel Mahdi to be Iraq’s next prime minister.
Wednesday 03/10/2018
Iraq's new President Barham Salih (centre right) walks with new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (centre left) in the parliament building in Baghdad, on October 2. (AP)
Iraq's new President Barham Salih (centre right) walks with new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (centre left) in the parliament building in Baghdad, on October 2. (AP)

LONDON – Moderate Kurdish candidate Barham Saleh swept to the post of president of Iraq Tuesday evening in a parliamentary vote pitting Kurdish heavyweights against each other for the first time following an ill-fated independence referendum.

Saleh routed his main rival Fuad Hussein with 219 votes to 22, dealing a blow to Hussein’s main backer, former Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani who was the architect of the September 2017 poll.

The new president instructed former vice president Adel Abdel Mahdi, a veteran of Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein, to form a government.

Tuesday’s poll follows a weekend parliamentary election in the Kurdish autonomous region, mired in economic crisis and still in shock from the fallout of the plebiscite which sparked a punishing response from Baghdad.

The largely ceremonial role of president has been reserved for the Kurds since Iraq’s first multi-party elections in 2005, two years after the US-led invasion.

Under a tacit accord between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK would hold the federal presidency and the KDP the post of Iraqi Kurdistan’s president.

The vote for an Iraqi president was scheduled for Monday before being postponed due to the lack of a quorum.

In a first round of polling Tuesday, neither Saleh nor Hussein won the two-thirds vote necessary to win outright, forcing a second round.

Barzani had backed for president Fuad Hussein, his 72-year-old former chief of staff.

But the post went to Saleh, a 58-year-old moderate who has served both as Iraqi deputy premier and Kurdish prime minister.

Iraqi President Kurdish Barham Saleh is seen delivering a speech at parliament in Baghdad, on October 2. (Iraqi parliament via AFP)
Iraqi President Kurdish Barham Saleh is seen delivering a speech at parliament in Baghdad, on October 2. (Iraqi parliament via AFP)

Saleh was part of an interim authority put in place by the United States following the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam.

He later became deputy prime minister under Nuri al-Maliki then returned to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil in 2009 to become head of the Kurdistan government.

Born in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, Salih joined the PUK in 1976 and later worked in its foreign relations department in London. He studied at Cardiff University and the University of Liverpool.

For senior PUK official Khaled Shouani, it was important to put forward a “moderate” candidate for president who would be “accepted by all” and push to repair ties between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.

The new president’s tendency to push for consensus would also satisfy both the United States and the PUK’s traditional ally Iran, the two main international powers in Iraq, Shouani said.

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq’s presidency is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shia and the parliament speaker is Sunni.

The prime minister-designate will have 30 days to submit his cabinet to parliament. 

Mahdi is an independent who previously served as vice president, oil minister and finance minister. He is not allied with either of the two Shia-led blocs that each claim to have the most support after May’s elections, in which no party won an outright majority. He was previously a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a large Shia party with close ties to Iran.

Two Shia-led blocs have emerged since the May elections, both of which claim to have the most seats and therefore the right to form a government. One is led by the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and includes supporters of the populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers won the most votes in the election. The other bloc includes state-sanctioned militias, many of which are backed by Iran, as well as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The various political factions had been mired in negotiations and horse-trading for months.

(AW and agencies)