Iraq par­ties in talks over new pre­mier

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s ri­val par­ties were ne­go­ti­at­ing the con­tours of a new gov­ern­ment Mon­day, af­ter the pre­vi­ous Cabi­net was brought down by a two-month protest in­sist­ing on even more deep-rooted change.

Af­ter just over a year in power, pre­mier Adel Ab­del-Mahdi for­mally re­signed Sun­day af­ter a dra­matic in­ter­ven­tion by top Shi­ite re­li­gious au­thor­ity Grand Ay­a­tol­lah Ali al­Sis­tani. That fol­lowed a wave of vi­o­lence that pushed the protest toll to over 420 dead – the vast ma­jor­ity demon­stra­tors.

Par­lia­ment Sun­day for­mally tasked Pres­i­dent Barham Saleh with nam­ing a new can­di­date, as pre­scribed by the con­sti­tu­tion.

But Iraq’s com­pet­ing fac­tions typ­i­cally en­gage in drawn-out dis­cus­sions and horse-trad­ing be­fore any of­fi­cial de­ci­sions are made.

Talks over a new pre­mier be­gan even be­fore Ab­del-Mahdi’s for­mal res­ig­na­tion, a se­nior po­lit­i­cal source and a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial told AFP.

“The meet­ings are on­go­ing now,” the po­lit­i­cal source added.

Such dis­cus­sions pro­duced Ab­del-Mahdi as a can­di­date in 2018, but agree­ing on a sin­gle name is ex­pected to be more dif­fi­cult this time around. “They un­der­stand it has to be a fig­ure who is widely ac­cepted by the di­verse cen­ters of power, not ob­jected to by the mar­jaiyah [Shi­ite re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment], and not hated by the street,” said Harith Hasan, a fel­low at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter.

The can­di­date would also have to be ac­cept­able to Iraq’s two main al­lies, archri­vals Washington and Tehran. “The Ira­ni­ans in­vested a lot in the po­lit­i­cal equa­tion in last few years and won’t be will­ing to give up eas­ily,” Hasan said.

Tehran’s point man on Iraq Qasem Soleimani, who heads the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps’ for­eign op­er­a­tions arm, was in Iraq for talks on the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, gov­ern­ment sources told AFP.

Pro­test­ers hit the streets in Oc­to­ber in Iraq’s cap­i­tal and Shi­itemajor­ity south to de­nounce the rul­ing sys­tem as cor­rupt, in­ept and un­der the sway of for­eign pow­ers.

Iraq is the 12th most cor­rupt coun­try in the world, ac­cord­ing to Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional.

De­spite the oil wealth of OPEC’s se­cond-big­gest crude pro­ducer, one in five peo­ple live be­low the poverty line and youth un­em­ploy­ment stands at one quar­ter, the World Bank has said.

Demon­stra­tors say those sys­temic prob­lems re­quire more deep­rooted so­lu­tions than Ab­del-Mahdi’s res­ig­na­tion.

“We de­mand the en­tire gov­ern­ment be changed from its roots up,” said Mo­ham­mad al-Mash­hadani, a doc­tor protest­ing in Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir Square Mon­day.

Nearby, young law stu­dent Ab­del-Ma­jid al-Ju­maili said that meant the Par­lia­ment and even the pres­i­dent would have to go.

“If they get rid of Ab­del-Mahdi and bring some­one else from the po­lit­i­cal class, then noth­ing changed. They’d just be two sides of the same coin,” Ju­maili said.

But the pro­test­ers’ de­mand for an en­tirely new face has com­pli­cated the search for a new pre­mier.

Two po­lit­i­cal heavy­weights said they had opted out of talks on a new prime min­is­ter: former pre­mier Haider al-Abadi and the un­pre­dictable re­li­gious leader Mo­q­tada al-Sadr, who had backed the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment un­til protests erupted.

“They’re aware the bar is too high and it’s too dif­fi­cult for them to please the street,” Hasan said.

At the same time, the es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal class is un­likely to trust a to­tally new player.

“The dis­cus­sions now are over some­one from the se­cond or third tier of politi­cians,” the gov­ern­ment source told AFP.

“It’s not pos­si­ble to have some­one new. It has to be some­one who un­der­stands the po­lit­i­cal ma­chine to push things along.”

The gov­ern­ment and po­lit­i­cal sources said par­ties were con­sid­er­ing a “tran­si­tional” Cabi­net that would over­see elec­toral re­form be­fore an early par­lia­men­tary vote.

“This process will take no less than six months, in or­der to pre­pare for new elec­tions ac­cord­ing to a new elec­toral com­mis­sion,” the of­fi­cial said.

Ab­del-Mahdi, 77, is the first pre­mier to step down since Iraq adopted a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem fol­low­ing the U.S.-led in­va­sion that top­pled dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003.

The fac­tions that have ac­cu­mu­lated power since then are strug­gling to “think out­side the box” to re­solve the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, Hasan said.

“This is the main pres­sure on them – they re­al­ize they are deal­ing with a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion and it needs com­pletely dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions,” he told AFP.

Mean­while, pro­test­ers have kept up ral­lies in Baghdad as well as fur­ther south in Di­waniyah, Hil­lah, Kut and the Shi­ite shrine city of Na­jaf.

The lat­ter was rocked by mas­sive clashes late into the night Sun­day be­tween pro­test­ers and armed men pro­tect­ing a revered tomb of a Shi­ite re­li­gious leader.

Tribal fight­ers in­ter­vened to keep the peace, and a tense calm reigned over the city Mon­day morn­ing.

And in Nasiriyah, Ab­del-Mahdi’s birth­place and the site of most of the deaths in re­cent days, demon­stra­tors clung to their city cen­ter protest sites. –

A woman takes part in an anti-gov­ern­ment march in the cen­ter of the south­ern city of Basra.

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