Iraqis re­ject PM-des­ig­nate picked by elites

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

BAGH­DAD: Anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tors Sun­day re­jected Iraq’s new prime min­is­ter-des­ig­nate fol­low­ing his nom­i­na­tion by ri­val gov­ern­ment fac­tions, com­pound­ing the chal­lenges he’ll have to sur­mount in or­der to re­solve months of civil un­rest.

Mean­while, new di­vi­sions emerged among pro­test­ers and sup­port­ers of a mav­er­ick and of­ten in­scrutable Shi­ite preacher, who ini­tially threw his weight be­hind the up­ris­ing but now is repo­si­tion­ing him­self to­ward the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, af­ter elites se­lected a can­di­date for pre­mier that he en­dorsed.

Sun­day, Mo­q­tada al-Sadr told his fol­low­ers camped out among pro­test­ers in the cap­i­tal and in the coun­try’s south to un­block roads and re­store nor­malcy, an­ger­ing pro­test­ers who felt Sadr had be­trayed them and the re­formist aims of their move­ment for po­lit­i­cal gain.

Satur­day’s se­lec­tion of for­mer Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Mo­hammed Allawi, 66, to re­place out­go­ing Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­delMahdi was the prod­uct of months of back­room talks be­tween ri­val par­ties, end­ing a po­lit­i­cal stale­mate.

Hun­dreds of stu­dents voiced their re­jec­tion of Allawi at ral­lies in Bagh­dad’s cen­tral plazas and in south­ern Iraq. Pro­test­ers hung portraits of Allawi marked with an “X” on bridges and tun­nels around Tahrir Square, the epi­cen­ter of the four­month protest move­ment. “We don’t want Allawi be­cause he is a party mem­ber cho­sen by the par­ties,” said Hadi Safir, a pro­tester in Tahrir. “We want an in­de­pen­dent nom­i­nee.”

Oth­ers were more diplo­matic, say­ing they’ll wait and see how Allawi de­liv­ers on prom­ises to hold early elec­tions.

Iraqi of­fi­cials said it was likely Allawi would face the same po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties that be­dev­iled his pre­de­ces­sor, who was of­ten caught be­tween ri­val po­lit­i­cal blocs Sairoon, headed by Sadr, and Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Ameri.

“He is not known as be­ing tough or out­spo­ken, so some see him as an even more paci­fied ver­sion of Ab­delMahdi, and will just serve the will of the par­ties,” one Iraqi of­fi­cial said. The of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to speak to re­porters.

But Allawi will have to cope with shift­ing sands of power in the Iraqi arena, with Sadr cur­rently gain­ing the up­per hand af­ter show­ing his dom­i­nance over the Iraqi street. The preacher re­cently staged an an­tiU.S. rally that brought tens of thou­sands to the street. By ask­ing his fol­low­ers to re­turn to Tahrir Square,

Sadr gained an ad­van­tage in the ne­go­ti­a­tions for prime min­is­ter.

“The groups we call pro-Ira­nian … are tak­ing a back­seat now as Sadr emerges as more ac­tive in shap­ing the new gov­ern­ment,” said Harith Hasan, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter.

Fol­low­ing the U.S. airstrike in Bagh­dad that killed top Ira­nian gen­eral Qasem Soleimani, Hasan said “the con­vic­tion in­creased that

[Iraq’s] mil­i­tary ap­pa­ra­tus and mili­tias would be un­able to put an end to the protest move­ment and at the same time se­cure a new deal for the new prime min­is­ter with­out that help of Sadr – that strength­ened his po­si­tion.”

Stu­dent demon­stra­tions were also held in the south­ern city of Basra re­ject­ing Allawi’s can­di­dacy. Other pro­test­ers burned tires in the holy city of Na­jaf. “We did not choose this per­son; we de­manded cer­tain qual­i­fi­ca­tions,” said Ahmed Ali, a pro­tester in Basra. “Mo­hammed Allawi is re­jected by the peo­ple.”

Mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests erupted on Oct. 1 in Bagh­dad and the pre­dom­i­nately Shi­ite south. They have de­cried ram­pant gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, poor ser­vices and lack of em­ploy­ment, and came with lofty goals: over­throw the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, pass elec­toral re­forms and hold snap elec­tions. Se­cu­rity forces have killed at least 500 pro­test­ers since.

Sadr’s fol­low­ers re­turned to the demon­stra­tion camps Fri­day af­ter the cleric re­v­ersed his de­ci­sion to stop sup­port­ing the protest move­ment.

Upon re­turn­ing, Sadr’s fol­low­ers con­sol­i­dated con­trol of strate­gic ar­eas in Tahrir Square, in­clud­ing key bridges lead­ing to the for­ti­fied Green Zone, the seat of gov­ern­ment. Sig­nif­i­cantly, they also moved into a skele­tal high-rise build­ing nick­named the “Turk­ish Restau­rant,” which of­fers a strate­gic look­out over the protests. Mili­ti­a­men in­ter­viewed said they had come to clear the area of “trou­ble­mak­ers” and drug-users. “We came here to clean this place up,” said one mili­tia mem­ber, stand­ing guard out­side the build­ing.

Many pro­test­ers said Sadr’s fol­low­ers had threat­ened them to toe the preacher’s line or leave the square. “They will never mix with us,” pro­tester Mariam Nael, 18, said. “We are here for our home­land, they are blindly fol­low­ing the tweet of one preacher.”

An Iraqi demon­stra­tor sits amid burn­ing tires block­ing a road dur­ing on­go­ing anti-gov­ern­ment protests in Na­jaf.

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