Iraq’s new leader faces hopes of re­con­struct­ing his rav­aged land

Lodi News-Sentinel - - NATION/WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los

BEIRUT — Af­ter five months of po­lit­i­cal wran­gling, Iraq’s for­mer oil min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi was cho­sen last week to form a new gov­ern­ment — the lat­est hope for re­con­struct­ing a county rav­aged by war and hard­ship.

His pre­de­ces­sors came to power amid ex­is­ten­tial bat­tles against the Is­lamic State and a Kur­dish suc­ces­sion bid that promised to dis­mem­ber the coun­try. But as prime min­is­ter he faces an ar­guably greater chal­lenge: ap­peas­ing an elec­torate that has lost pa­tience with the en­tire po­lit­i­cal class and is eager to see re­sults more than 15 years af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sion.

An econ­o­mist who lived in ex­ile in France for many years be­fore re­turn­ing to Iraq in 2004, he served as fi­nance min­is­ter and vice pres­i­dent, and sat on a com­mit­tee to write Iraq’s con­sti­tu­tion in 2005. At 76, Ab­dul Mahdi is the old­est per­son to hold the prime min­is­ter’s post in the post-Sad­dam Hus­sein era, and has a rep­u­ta­tion for quit­ting when things don’t go his way. He re­signed as both vice pres­i­dent and oil min­is­ter.

“He’s been in the es­tab­lish­ment. He was a for­mer com­mu­nist, then be­came a Baathist, a Marx­ist and an Is­lamist . ... He is a very close friend to the Kurds,” said Re­nad Man­sour, an Iraqi ex­pert at the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank.

“He’s some­one who is re­spected across the board, and that’s dif­fi­cult con­sid­er­ing how he flipped be­tween par­ties.”

His sup­port­ers point to his sta­tus as an in­de­pen­dent as proof that Iraq is fi­nally mov­ing away from the sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics that have di­vided the coun­try. All agree he is an af­fa­ble man, dis­play­ing nei­ther the vi­o­lent streak of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki nor Haidar al-Abadi’s aver­sion to bare-fisted pol­i­tics when he led the coun­try.

Ab­dul Mahdi comes to power very much a com­pro­mise can­di­date, one agreed upon by par­lia­ment’s top blocs, in­clud­ing the fac­tion headed by na­tion­al­ist cleric Muq­tada alSadr, and Iran-friendly, Shi­ite-dom­i­nated mili­tias led by for­mer com­man­der Hadi Ameri. Ab­dul Mahdi also comes with the im­pri­matur of Grand Ay­a­tol­lah Ali al-Sis­tani, the coun­try’s top re­li­gious fig­ure.

Even the U.S. and Iran, two coun­tries that have long used the premier­ship as a proxy for their own bat­tles, ac­cepted him as a draw: He wasn’t the United States’ first choice, but nor was he Iran’s.

“These are peo­ple that we know pretty well. They’ve been around the Iraqi gov­ern­ment scene for some time,” said U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Michael R. Pom­peo at a news con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton.

“What we talked about was build­ing out an Iraqi gov­ern­ment that was ... in­ter­ested in the wel­fare and fu­ture good for­tunes for the Iraqi peo­ple, not con­trolled by the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic of Iran.”

The new prime min­is­ter will prob­a­bly con­tinue his pre­de­ces­sor’s bal­anc­ing act be­tween the two ad­ver­saries, said Zaid Ali, an Iraqi an­a­lyst and au­thor of “The Strug­gle for Iraq’s Fu­ture.”

Al-Sadr, whose re­formist mes­sage gained him the high­est num­ber of votes in May’s elec­tions, has given Ab­dul Mahdi one year to “prove his suc­cesses be­fore Al­lah and his peo­ple,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment he re­leased on so­cial me­dia last week.

He has also of­fered to re­lin­quish his al­lo­ca­tion of min­is­ters for Ab­dul Mahdi to choose “with­out fac­tional pres­sures.” (In Iraq’s par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, win­ning par­ties chose Cab­i­net mem­bers de­pend­ing on their share of the votes.)

Ab­dul Mahdi will pre­side over a gov­ern­ment rest­less to re­build and move past the rav­ages of war with the Is­lamic State. Yet few in­vestors are will­ing to help fi­nance a state staffed by vo­ra­cious politi­cians.

Mean­while, thou­sands of en­raged cit­i­zens across the coun­try have protested the state’s in­abil­ity to pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices, such as elec­tric­ity.

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