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Iraq’s coming government crash

Power struggle over a bizarre cabinet is complicating Iraq’s longest battle to form a government

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 14 Dec 2018
Iraqi Prime Minister
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi attends the celebration ceremony of the first anniversary of defeating Islamic state in Baghdad, Iraq, Dec 10, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)
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Post-Saddam Iraq has felled four prime ministers: Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari were installed as temporary premiers by the US Occupying Authority, but they could not secure enough votes to stay in the post after elections; Nouri Al-Maliki and Haider Al-Abadi also failed to secure a third and a second term in office, respectively.

It could also soon bring down Adel Abdul-Mahdi's short career as Iraq’s prime minister, since he is being challenged by the post-Saddam political environment and acrimonious political rivalries. Fewer than two months into his premiership, speculation is already high that Abdul-Mahdi may not be able to continue.

Iraq’s hung parliament endorsed Shia politician Abdul-Mahdi on 2 October as the country’s next prime minister, authorising him to form a new government six months after the May elections that were marred by claims of irregularity and sharp divisions.

Three weeks later, Abdul-Mahdi was sworn in with only a partial cabinet after lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on key portfolios including the interior and defence.

Rivalry between the two main Shia blocs in the Iraqi parliament that have been jostling over ministerial positions was seen as the main obstacle to the formation of the cabinet.

Even though power struggles between Iraq’s ruling Shia groups could be blamed for the standoff, many Iraqis still believe that the problem lies with Abdul-Mahdi himself who was chosen as an independent prime minister after the parties failed to agree on a candidate of their own.

The choice of Abdul-Mahdi was met with scepticism because it came amid an intense power struggle among Iraqi factions that have been wrestling with a lingering political crisis.

His nomination also came amid ongoing US-Iranian interference in Iraq’s affairs, with both Tehran and Washington robustly pushing their own candidates for the post.

Abdul-Mahdi’s difficulties in choosing cabinet members were again underscored this week when Iraq’s parliament failed to meet to approve candidates proposed to fill the still-vacant postings.

The two largest parliamentary groupings that have emerged since the May elections, Saaroon, led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and Al-Fatah, led by Hadi Al-Amiri, have remained deeply split over the nominees, especially the appointment of a new interior minister that has been the centre of the contentions.

A vote in parliament to fill the vacant ministries in Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet was put back on 4 December after Saaroon MPs walked out from the session, denying the assembly the required quorum to vote on eight additional ministers.

The boycott came a day after Al-Sadr urged Abdul-Mahdi to present the rest of his cabinet without the controversial nominees for approval.

He was referring specifically to Faleh Al-Fayadh, a former head of the Popular Moblisation Force, who is backed by Al-Fatah.

Al-Sadr warned that his faction, which won the most seats in the elections, would resort to street protests to block the government if it was prevented from vetoing Abdul-Mahdi’s nominees in parliament.

The leaders of Al-Fatah, meanwhile, launched similar threats and insisted that abandoning Al-Fayadh or any other nominee in the list of cabinet ministers remained out of the question.

The sabre-rattling then caused Shia grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to issue a stern warning to those who might resort to violence, whether verbal or physical.

“There are various kinds of acts of violence, and one of them is killing rivals or threatening them or smearing them,” Sistani’s representative Abdel-Mahdi Al-Karbalaei said in his Friday sermon on 7 December.

Sistani’s warning came a day after a senior official in the Saraya Al-Salam militia, associated with Al-Sadr, was assassinated. Hussein Al-Hijami was shot by unknown gunmen in the Al-Shuala area of north Baghdad.

Hachem Al-Zamili, a senior official in the Sadrist Trend in Baghdad, told local media that the murder of Al-Hijami had been related to the crisis over the government formation.

While Iraq hunkers down for a prolonged government crisis, all eyes remain focused on Abdul-Mahdi, whose clumsy style of managing the crisis has been questioned by many Iraqis.

Iraq’s government stand-offs have long been attributed to the country’s post-Saddam dysfunctional system and the untidy political business of its ruling elites. However, there are good reasons this time round to think that Abdul-Mahdi himself bears some responsibility for the impasse.

In order to understand the predicament in which Iraq now finds itself and make an educated guess as to how Abdul-Mahdi’s tenure might change the country, it is necessary to understand the new prime minister and whether he is the best politician to lead Iraq in one of its most difficult periods.

Abdul-Mahdi has thus far failed to show the necessary guidance instinct in handling the crisis, allowing the rival political forces that are lying in wait to exploit his weaknesses and dictate the way they want the government to run the country in the coming period.

On Sunday, he missed another deadline to name new candidates for his half-empty cabinet and submit the list to parliament for endorsement. The move once again disrupted Iraq’s flabby and incoherent parliament.

Part of Abdul-Mahdi’s problem is that he was a compromise candidate for the post of prime minister after the two main Shia blocs failed to secure enough seats in parliament to nominate a candidate for the job.

The political expediency that gave him the chance to be prime minister of the strife-torn nation has also led him into a political minefield.

Abdul-Mahdi’s unimpressive performance in every government he has served in since the fall of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a reason for doubting whether he was up to the task. He also seemed hardly likely to be a change from other proven dysfunctional corrupt or incompetent leaders.

Abdul-Mahdi has twice resigned from government posts in the past, and a few days before he was named for the premiership he wrote in a statement that he did not consider himself “fit for the job” of prime minister.

Critics have brushed aside an unofficial CV for Abdul-Mahdi saying that he was a graduate of the Sorbonne University in Paris and held degrees in economics, citing no evidence of professional job experience before he joined the cabinet in Iraq’s post-Saddam governments.

Abdul-Mahdi’s political background also looks shabby. He has variously been a Baathist, a Marxist, an Islamist and liberal.

He joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the 1970s in the heyday of the group’s fight against Israel, and he later joined the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to fight the Saddam regime.

However, unlike his predecessors who have been part of the ruling party backed by a powerful parliamentary bloc, Abdul-Mahdi is not aligned to any political group, something which was always likely to make him the head of a bizarre government made up of ministers nominated by political blocs and trusted with serving their interests.

All this leaves important questions unanswered concerning Iraq’s likely future. So far, Abdul-Mahdi remains incapacitated by the power struggle between the two main Shia political groups that installed him in power.

Abdul-Mahdi has had no time to catch his breath. He must now show leadership and competence to start the work of fighting the rampant corruption in the country, fixing the ailing economy, fighting the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group and starting the reconstruction of war-ravaged areas and providing badly needed services.

The parliament will now meet again on 18 December to try to vote on the vacant ministerial portfolios. However, on the streets frustration is building with Abdul-Mahdi, and there are fears that public apathy may change into a wider rejection of the prime minister and his government.

Whether or not Abdul-Mahdi’s downfall is imminent, the crisis in the government in Iraq seems to be paralysing efforts to rebuild a country wrecked by political turmoil, ethno-sectarian divisions, and violence.

Even if Abdul-Mahdi survives the present crisis, his government will likely remain paralysed until the next elections.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s coming government crash 

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