A frac­tured Iraqi Cab­i­net: Ab­del-Mahdi fac­ing up­hill bat­tle

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - KIRK H. SOW­ELL Kirk H. Sow­ell is the pro­pri­etor of Utica Risk Ser­vices, a Mid­dle East-fo­cused risk con­sul­tancy. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @uti­carisk. This com­men­tary first ap­peared at Sada, an on­line jour­nal pub­lished by the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tio

Adel Ab­del-Mahdi, a for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter, oil min­is­ter and vice pres­i­dent of Iraq, barely man­aged to se­cure a con­fi­dence vote of two-thirds of his Cab­i­net on Oct. 25. The for­mer mem­ber of the Is­lamic Supreme Coun­cil of Iraq, a Shi­ite Is­lamist party, was nom­i­nated prime min­is­ter on Oct. 2. But he has since nearly failed to launch his gov­ern­ment, which will face pres­sure from a pop­u­la­tion frus­trated by years of fail­ures on se­cu­rity and pub­lic ser­vices.

The roots of Ab­del-Mahdi’s weak gov­ern­ment lie in the man­ner in which the prime min­is­ter him­self was elected. Af­ter he re­signed as oil min­is­ter in 2016, Ab­delMahdi left ISCI to be­come an in­de­pen­dent and did not run in the May 2018 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. How­ever, on May 23 he pub­lished a Face­book post ex­plain­ing why he could not be prime min­is­ter be­cause all the re­forms he would want to im­ple­ment would be op­posed by many. Th­ese in­cluded such broad changes as mov­ing away from the ren­tier state, strength­en­ing state in­sti­tu­tions and en­sur­ing their in­de­pen­dence from po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, rein­ing in il­le­gal mili­tia ac­tiv­ity and re­duc­ing the in­flu­ence of trib­al­ism.

This pitch aligned well with the rhetor­i­cal vi­sion of pop­ulist Shi­ite preacher Mo­q­tada al-Sadr, who has long as­so­ci­ated him­self with such themes. The po­lit­i­cal class was fo­cused for much of the sum­mer on the strug­gle over Haider al-Abadi’s ef­fort to se­cure a sec­ond term. Yet once the fall­out over Basra’s mas­sive wa­ter pol­lu­tion cri­sis ended Abadi’s hopes in early Septem­ber, Sadr quickly backed Ab­del-Mahdi as a re­place­ment, and Barham Salih des­ig­nated him to head the next gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately af­ter his own elec­tion as pres­i­dent on Oct. 2. Sadr con­di­tioned his sup­port two days later by declar­ing that he was giv­ing Ab­del-Mahdi “a pe­riod of one year to prove his suc­cess.” This gives Sadr the op­tion to take credit for the gov­ern­ment’s suc­cess if it does well or turn against it next year if protests over poor pub­lic ser­vices swell again.

More­over, the coali­tion nom­i­nat­ing him was un­clear and frac­tured. Al­though Sadr was the driver be­hind his nom­i­na­tion, the only fig­ure who ac­tu­ally ran in the elec­tion whose ap­proval was es­sen­tial for Ab­delMahdi’s can­di­dacy was Hadi al-Ameri – leader of the Badr Or­ga­ni­za­tion and head of the Fatah Al­liance, which with 48 seats is the sec­ond largest in Par­lia­ment af­ter the 54 for Sadr’s Sairun. The process was so opaque that Iraqi jour­nal­ists were un­cer­tain which of th­ese blocs had nom­i­nated him.

Sadr and Amiri, be­ing po­lit­i­cal ri­vals with very dif­fer­ent world­views, also never agreed on a spe­cific pol­icy pro­gram or even a method of choos­ing min­is­ters, with Sairun giv­ing Ab­del-Mahdi full dis­cre­tion to nom­i­nate their share of the min­istries while Amiri’s Fatah in­sisted on nam­ing spe­cific min­is­ters. Fur­ther­more, Ab­del-Mahdi con­ducted sep­a­rate bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions for min­is­te­rial po­si­tions with Nouri alMa­liki’s State of Law Coali­tion and the Sunni Arab Na­tional Axis Al­liance, even though they were tech­ni­cally both part of Amiri’s Con­struc­tion Bloc (Bina). With­out agree­ments with both par­ties, they likely would have blocked pas­sage of his Cab­i­net, but this sit­u­a­tion also un­der­lines Ab­delMahdi’s lack of a uni­fied coali­tion. His bi­lat­eral agree­ments with par­ties do noth­ing to bind them to each other into a work­ing ma­jor­ity ca­pa­ble of pass­ing leg­is­la­tion or ap­prov­ing ex­ec­u­tive ap­point­ments.

The lack of a real coali­tion be­hind the new gov­ern­ment be­came ev­i­dent when Par­lia­ment met to ap­prove the pro­posed Cab­i­net on Oct. 24. Ab­del-Mahdi got off on the wrong foot dur­ing his speech pre­sent­ing his gov­ern­ment pro­gram by fail­ing to make more than pass­ing ref­er­ence to the de­mands of Sunni Arab MPs – such as re­con­struc­tion and the re­turn of Sunni provinces’ dis­placed cit­i­zens. This led Speaker Mo­ham­mad al-Hal­bousi of An­bar to push through a mo­tion to in­cor­po­rate a list of Sunni de­mands into Ab­delMahdi’s pre­pared text re­gard­ing the gov­ern­ment’s pro­gram, hold­ing a vote to ap­prove his state­ment be­fore the body could pro­ceed to con­sider min­is­ters.

As Speaker Hal­bousi then moved to hold votes to ap­prove in­di­vid­ual min­is­ters, Sadr’s Sairun bloc, pu­ta­tively his big­gest sup­porter, de­clared that they ob­jected to sev­eral of the min­is­te­rial nom­i­nees from other blocs, such as the out­go­ing Hashd mili­tia leader Falih al-Fayyad’s nom­i­na­tion as in­te­rior min­is­ter. They al­leged that some were for­mer Baath mem­bers and oth­ers face cor­rup­tion or other crim­i­nal charges, and thus Par­lia­ment could not go for­ward with their con­fir­ma­tion. The prob­lem is, hav­ing ne­go­ti­ated the min­is­te­rial ap­point­ments bi­lat­er­ally with each bloc right up un­til that af­ter­noon, Ab­del-Mahdi had not pro­vided blocs with the names of his nom­i­nees un­til about five hours be­fore the meet­ing.

Par­lia­ment took what was sup­posed to be a 30-minute break that went on for much longer, and near mid­night it ap­peared Ab­del-Mahdi would fail. Bloc lead­ers then emerged with a com­pro­mise to pass just 14 of the 21 min­is­ters orig­i­nally sub­mit­ted. The most im­por­tant of those ap­proved in­cluded For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Ali al-Hakim, Oil Min­is­ter Thamer al-Ghad­hban, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Fuad Hus­sein and Elec­tric­ity Min­is­ter Luay al-Khat­teeb. All passed on a voice vote, and the pas­sage of the ma­jor­ity of the Cab­i­net al­lowed Ab­del-Mahdi to take the oath of of­fice in the early morn­ing of Oct. 25. How­ever, among the im­por­tant po­si­tions left un­filled were the in­te­rior min­is­ter, the de­fense min­is­ter and the jus­tice min­is­ter.

Amiri’s Iran-aligned Fatah Al­liance and their Sunni al­lies ob­tained some lesser min­istries, and so were not en­tirely emp­ty­handed. But they failed in their most im­por­tant goal, which was to get Fayyad con­firmed as in­te­rior min­is­ter. Like­wise, they failed to have Asma Salim Sadiq, an oth­er­wise un­known fig­ure whose brother heads the pro-Iran Chaldean Ba­bi­lyon Brigades, as jus­tice min­is­ter. Aside from leav­ing the po­si­tion un­filled, her re­jec­tion meant that there are no women in the Cab­i­net. Mean­while, Sadr was able to show that his bloc was able to veto the prime min­is­ter and pre­vented the elec­tion of the Fatah-aligned min­is­ters to which he most strongly ob­jected.

Ab­del-Mahdi’s ef­fort to fill his Cab­i­net con­tin­ues to face re­sis­tance. Par­lia­ment was sched­uled to hold a vote on new nom­i­na­tions on Nov. 6, but de­spite pre­dic­tions that at least a few min­is­ters would pass, Par­lia­ment did not con­sider any of them, and has not yet sched­uled a fur­ther vote on nom­i­nees. In ad­di­tion, re­ports in­di­cate that be­tween two and four of the 14 min­is­ters ap­proved on Oct. 25 face im­mi­nent im­peach­ment threats. The grounds for im­peach­ment in­clude al­le­ga­tions of un­re­solved cor­rup­tion charges, for­mer mem­ber­ship in the Baath Party, and even an ac­cu­sa­tion that Sports Min­is­ter Ah­mad al-Obeidi is wanted for a mur­der com­mit­ted in 2004.

With­out a strong coali­tion back­ing him, Ab­del-Mahdi is al­ready fac­ing his first pol­icy cri­sis over the pas­sage of the 2019 bud­get. He was mov­ing for­ward with an amended ver­sion of the one drafted by the out­go­ing Fi­nance Min­istry, ex­pect­ing to have it in­tro­duced into Par­lia­ment on Nov. 6 de­spite ob­jec­tions from both Sunni Arab and Kur­dish MPs. The Sunni crit­i­cism fo­cused on the large dis­par­ity in cap­i­tal spend­ing for Shi­ite-ma­jor­ity provinces ver­sus Sunni-ma­jor­ity provinces, which have tra­di­tion­ally re­ceived the same amounts per capita. Dur­ing the ses­sion, in­stead of con­duct­ing a for­mal “first read­ing” of the bill to be fol­lowed by de­bate, MPs launched into a 2-hour-long tirade in which ev­ery ma­jor bloc, par­tic­u­larly the Sun­nis but also the Sadrists, strongly crit­i­cized the bill as in­ad­e­quate. Par­lia­ment voted to wait for the gov­ern­ment to agree to amend­ments be­fore pro­ceed­ing.

At a time when Iraq needs a strong gov­ern­ment with a clear pol­icy pro­gram for ad­dress­ing the na­tion’s chal­lenges, the new premier is al­ready strug­gling. With no pop­u­lar man­date and no sta­ble coali­tion, Ab­del-Mahdi seems set to face an up­hill bat­tle each time he wants leg­is­la­tion passed or a nom­i­nee ap­proved.

The lack of a real coali­tion be­hind the new govt be­came ev­i­dent when Par­lia­ment met Be­tween two and four of the min­is­ters face im­mi­nent im­peach­ment threats

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