Why you should care
Iraq’s leadership scramble could affect the regional tussle between the U.S. and Iran.
Iraq needs a new prime minister following the recent resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi, but so far no one seems to want the job.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the country’s biggest parliamentary bloc, has said he does not want to nominate a candidate. The nebulous protest movement that brought down Abdul Mahdi’s government has no leader to put forward. And those establishment figures discussed as possible successors since the prime minister stepped down last week have been quickly dismissed by the public.
Selecting a prime minister under the political system installed in Iraq following the U.S.-led removal of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 has always been difficult. Parliamentary elections have never delivered a majority to any one party and the largest group must build support for a governing coalition by trading Cabinet positions. After elections in 2018, it took six months and the tacit endorsement of both Iran and the United States to select Abdul Mahdi. This time, experts say, it is expected to be even harder.
Whoever will be prime minister will be [Iran’s] friend. Iran is one step or more ahead of the U.S. in that case.
Abbas Kadhim, Atlantic Council
“I don’t see anyone in his right mind would want to be prime minister in Iraq for the next few months,” says Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative.
Any new prime minister will face a furious anti-establishment protest movement, which, after 16 years of largely ineffective government, is calling for wholesale change.
“Our main problem is the parties and the system and the wrong management mechanism of the state,” says Moussa, a 29-year-old activist from the southern province of Nasiriyah, which last week suffered the worst day of violence in two months of protests. The anti-government movement was not just about removing “a corrupt minister or PM,” he says.
At least 400 people have been killed since October as security forces have responded to the demonstrations with a brutal crackdown. The protesters say they are fed up with government corruption and foreign influence. They are demanding changes to the election law, which they believe is skewed to benefit the existing political parties, a new electoral commission and fresh elections.
Against the backdrop of public rage, al-Sadr’s Sairoon political group, the self-declared largest parliamentary bloc, has said it does not want to participate in any negotiations to select the next prime minister.
According to Dhiaa al-Asadi, political adviser to al-Sadr, Sairoon is stepping back because it “believes that the political parties are still insisting on choosing the prime minister themselves, which is in contrast to what people are calling for.” Al-Asadi says Sadr will back whichever candidate protesters appear to support.
But gauging public support for any potential leader will be near impossible given the lack of any formal leadership structure around the demonstrations, analysts say.
Familiar figures from Iraq’s political scene, including former Minister of Oil Ibrahim Bahr al-Olom and outspoken member of Parliament Izzat al-Shahbandar, have been floated as potential successors in the past few days but do not meet the protesters’ criteria for fresh leadership.
The result is likely to be a drawn-out political impasse and “a very cruel winter for Iraq” if Baghdad’s elites fail to compromise and protesters stay on the streets, says the Atlantic Council’s Kadhim.
Iranian officials are already reported to be visiting Iraqi political leaders as they try to hash out deals. But perceptions of Iranian interference will do little to build broad-based support for a new leader. Iran brokered the deal that brought Abdul Mahdi to power and then became a focus of the protest movement’s anger when demonstrators attacked Tehran’s diplomatic outposts in the cities of Najaf and Karbala.
“The involvement of Soleimani is making things more complicated,” says a senior Iraqi official, referring to Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite overseas unit. “It looks like there is no brain in Iraq, just Soleimani.”
Washington and Tehran have vied for influence in Iraq for decades, but analysts say Iran now commands greater sway. “Whoever will be prime minister will be [Iran’s] friend,” says Kadhim. “Iran is one step or more ahead of the U.S. in that case.”
Sairoon’s al-Sadr is currently in Iran, undertaking a period of religious study in the holy city of Qom, though the Iraqi leader has publicly distanced himself from the government in Tehran.
His adviser, al-Asadi, says he is still watching events in Iraq closely. Al-Sadr’s absence from the process “doesn’t mean he will not have a veto if these names are not acceptable to the protesters,” he says.
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