Since the start of the protests in Iraq on 1 October, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi who is backed by the country’s ruling Shia elites has been manoeuvering himself into a terrible corner, one with devastating implications for the country.
A massive peaceful protest movement triggered by anger over corruption, Iran’s increasing meddling in Iraq, and the Iraqi government’s violent crackdown had put Abdul-Mahdi under immense pressure to quit.
Tens of thousands of protesters have been marching across the country over the past two months, and the protests have spread from the capital Baghdad across most of the Shia-populated southern provinces.
What began as peaceful protests have exploded into the country’s biggest political crisis since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Disgruntled at the government, mostly young and unemployed protesters have led the calls for Abdul-Mahdi to step down and for the overhaul of the country’s dysfunctional political system that they say is endemically corrupt and serves foreign powers, especially neighbouring Iran.
In response, the Iraqi security forces have killed more than 400 mostly young and unarmed protesters and wounded thousands of others. Videos circulating on social media have highlighted how deadly the security forces’ response has been, including the deployment of military-grade grenades against the protesters.
Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, widely sought by the protesters, could now prove to be a major threat, however, since it could give rise to a dangerous power vacuum in Iraq and even existential consequences for the war-weary nation.
Abdul-Mahdi officially submitted his resignation to the Iraqi parliament on Saturday after weeks of procrastination and amid escalating violence that saw dozens of protesters killed in Baghdad, Nassiriya and Najaf, the spiritual bastion of Shia Muslims.
It also came after the country’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for Abdul-Mahdi’s government, which has been rocked by the street protests, strikes and blockages of roads and bridges.
In a statement Abdul-Mahdi said he was stepping down in order to “preserve the blood” of Iraqis and to prevent the country from “slipping into cycles of violence, chaos and destruction.”
Yet, Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation is unlikely to spell the end of the turmoil that has wracked the nation over the past two months. It may even risk deepening the crisis in Iraq, which has struggled to recover from post-US invasion conflicts.
With Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, Iraq is left without a clear path towards resolving its political crisis. Even if parliament accepts his resignation, the formation of a new government could be many months away.
The roots of Iraq’s political turmoil reach back to the political order forged by the US Occupation Authority after 2003, which established a sect-based system controlled by sectarian political leaders and militias.
Part of this quota-based system allocated the symbolic post of president to the Iraqi Kurds, the speaker of the parliament to the Sunni Arabs, and the powerful post of prime minister to the majority Shias.
Under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, the president “shall take up the office of the prime minister” should the post become “vacant for any reason”.
The president then has 15 days to put forward a new prime minister to parliament for endorsement. The constitution obliges the president to put forward a nominee that comes from “the largest bloc” in parliament.
However, it does not specifically address the case of the resignation of a prime minister, which leaves many constitutional and political questions open for legal debate and political wrangling.
It is now up to the ruling factions to come up with ways of ending the crisis peacefully or risk leaving the pursuit of a solution to angry Iraqis on the streets.
The big question at the moment is whether these factions, which have been intent on defeating the uprising and ensuring their own survival, will act differently and reduce the risk of deeper unrest.
But for reasons that are both historical and strategic, the country’s Shia ruling elites that control the political process in conjunction with their Sunni and Kurdish allies will be hard-pressed to agree to any meaningful compromise.
Conceivably, the nomination of a new prime minister and the formation of a new government could be yet another controversial battle in which the ruling classes will attempt to sway public opinion in support of their candidates.
Parliament voted on Sunday to accept Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, and it asked President Barham Salih to nominate a replacement. However, it also made clear that the new prime minister should be named by the largest bloc in the assembly.
This is unlikely to quell the anger of the many Iraqis who think that the country’s Shia political oligarchs are mainly responsible for the dysfunctional political system that they blame for the lingering national crisis and the current standoff.
The parliament’s move is expected to further complicate efforts to end the political and institutional crisis and to increase the uncertainty in a situation that is becoming steadily more radicalised.
Many protesters who have celebrated the departure of Abdul-Mahdi have made it clear that they want a new prime minister and ministers who are not affiliated to the political factions that have run Iraq since 2003.
Most of the protesters have said that they would not stop their demonstrations until the whole of the political class has been removed, and they have vowed to stay in the streets until the entire system has been dismantled.
After the parliamentary vote to accept Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, some protesters put out a list of demands and preconditions for the new leader, including a pledge that he would not join or form a political party or seek to stand in the upcoming elections.
“We [the protesters] are the largest bloc,” declared one protest organiser in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, in a clear sign that the protesters consider the parliament to be irrelevant.
Much seems to be at stake. Most importantly, there is the fear that the violence will worsen if efforts to elect a new prime minister are stalemated. Even after Abdul-Mahdi quit, strains remained high in Baghdad and other Shia cities.
The protesters remain in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in the streets across the mainly Shia south of Iraq, and they have said they will press ahead with their demands for overhauling the entire system.
On Sunday, protesters in Najaf set fire to the Iranian consulate in the city for the second time in a week. They also burned the entrance to the shrine of Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim, a mentor of Abdul-Mahdi and the founder of one of the key pro-Iran factions in the parliament.
This week, the protesters were joined by demonstrators in the country’s Sunni provinces that up to now have refrained from joining the protests. Many young Sunnis say they have been moved by the rising death toll among the protesters in the south.
Looming in the background is the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, which has been driven out of the country’s main cities, but is still operational and ready to attack. The present instability could provide opportunities for the group to exploit to regain some power and make a comeback.
Shia tribes have imposed a tight siege around the main prison in Nassiriya that hosts thousands of IS militants and former ruling Baath Party leaders after reports that inmates might be exploiting the chaos to plan a jail break with outside help.
The more the situation deteriorates, the more the leaders of the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country are likely to use it as a pretext to push for independence, as they did following the rise of IS in 2014 when Kurdish forces seized Iraqi territory and the Kurdish authorities in Iraq organised a referendum to break away from the rest of the country.
The crisis may also encourage Iran to step in, either to try to shape the new Iraqi government as it has done since 2003, or to help its proxies crackdown on the protesters and end the uprising by force.
The role played by neighbouring countries and foreign powers, especially the United States, will also be worth watching. If the situation is left unchecked, it is likely that they will be able to increase their interference in Iraq.
As it stands, the situation in Iraq could lead to various scenarios, ranging from a prolonged stalemate, to intense political and sectarian struggles, to a social explosion that would make Iraq teeter on the edge.
In fact, the battle for the future of Iraq is just beginning. Abdul-Mahdi, who was originally chosen as a compromise candidate, was merely a figurehead for a government run by the Shia politicians and militias that run the country.
Abdul-Mahdi’s fall, therefore, is merely a symbolic victory for the protesters. They know that Iraq’s dilemma will not end with the fall of a prime minister, but at least the new battleground for change is now clear.
If Iraq is to move to “the better future” that the protesters have been pushing for, then much bigger changes are needed in order to prevent leaving the country on the brink.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.