Worried about the possibility of further political chaos, Iraq’s main factions searched this week for a last-minute exit from the almost six months of political turmoil in the country that have been triggered by massive anti-establishment protests.
The leaders of the parliamentary blocs that represent the country’s main communities met several times this week to try to find common ground on forming an inclusive government amid sharp political and communal divisions.
Any solid agreement would need to guarantee support from the country’s Kurdish and Sunni political factions, which have been playing hard ball trying to extract concessions from Prime Minister-designate Mohamed Tewfik Allawi who was nominated by the majority Shia blocs.
Another stumbling block is strong opposition to Allawi by the anti-government demonstrators, who have been pushing for a prime minister who is not part of a ruling elite accused of corruption and incompetence.
The first sign of progress came from the parliament’s presidency, which said in a statement on Monday that it would convene an extraordinary session of the full assembly on Thursday to vote on Allawi and his cabinet.
The announcement ended a controversy about the parliament’s vote of confidence in the government and gave more time to the parties for wheeling and dealing about the cabinet line-up and agreed agenda.
Yet, Iraq’s desperate attempt at forming a new government has been facing severe and growing difficulties. It seems to be haunted by several major problems, each of which could bring about more turmoil.
Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated Allawi to replace former prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in November in the face of widespread anti-government protests which were largely blamed on his poor leadership.
Salih’s decision was controversial as many saw it as having no constitutional basis. But it was probably taken as a matter of political expediency after the ruling factions failed to find a candidate for two months, leaving the country largely leaderless at a time of increasing instability.
Iraq has been sinking deeper into crisis since protests began last October against corruption and nepotism in the country. The protesters were demanding jobs, better public services, security and an end to government dysfunction.
The mass street protests in Baghdad and across the oil-rich Shia heartland of southern Iraq grew despite a violent crackdown by the security forces and their allied Shia militias.
They then evolved into a broader national uprising, with demands for the resignation of the government and for new elections, challenging the country’s entrenched Shia political elite.
Shia groups that traditionally nominate the prime minister threw their weight behind the appointment of Allawi after the main Kurdish and Sunni blocs and the protest movement initially rejected his nomination.
Backing the nomination of the political outsider Allawi was an attempt by the Shia ruling factions to head off the protesters, who have resisted attempts to install politicians affiliated to the factions.
Abdul-Mahdi, who has remained in his post as a caretaker prime minister, has warned he will be forced to leave office if a cabinet is not agreed by 2 March, leaving the country in a dangerous constitutional vacuum.
Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has also threatened to organise protests outside parliament unless the MPs back the government of Allawi in a parliamentary confidence vote.
Al-Sadr, whose supporters form the largest bloc in parliament, has spent most of the past few months in neighbouring Iran, but he came back on Saturday to whip up support for Allawi’s endorsement.
Nevertheless, the political wrangling continues. The Iraqi Forces Alliance, the main Sunni bloc, announced on Monday that its representatives in parliament would boycott Thursday’s confidence vote session.
In a statement, the bloc, which has some 40 seats in the 329-member parliament, described Allawi’s platform as “crisis-ridden.”
The main Kurdish parties, meanwhile, have scoffed at Allawi as “lacking the confidence and trust of many Iraqi communities”. In a joint statement, the Kurdish groups called on Allawi to “reconsider” his government’s line-up “so that it will be representative of all Iraqi communities”.
But the Kurdish parties stopped short of threats to boycott consultations on forming the new government.
Under Iraq’s post-2003 political order, Iraq’s multiple sects and ethnicities share power and wealth. Political groups representing the Shia majority were given the key executive post of the prime minister, while the Sunni Arab parties hold the post of the speaker of the parliament, and the Kurds hold the presidency.
All the communities should also have the right to nominate their own representatives to become ministers in the federal government on a quota-based system.
Upon his nomination as prime minister, Allawi expressed his support for the protests and pledged justice for demonstrators killed by the security forces. He urged the protesters to “continue with the demonstrations” to help him to fulfill his promises.
He pledged to turn a new page in Iraq’s political system and re-establish trust between the public and the government, vowing to break away from an era that saw political turmoil and government dysfunction.
Allawi has spent most of his life in exile and is largely seen as a political novice. A cousin of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, the 65-year-old architecture graduate joined the latter’s political bloc in Iraq’s first election after the US-led invasion in 2003.
He served twice as communications minister under former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who headed a government that was widely seen as the most corrupt in post-Saddam Iraq.
Allawi resigned in 2012, accusing Al-Maliki of interference in his ministry and the government and turning a blind eye to corruption by people close to him.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison by a Baghdad court in March 2016 on charges of corruption in a government deal to buy surveillance cameras from a French company.
Though Allawi was later acquitted by an appeal court that found no evidence of corruption against him, he was widely blamed for participating in two governments which were seen as deeply corrupt and brimming with incompetence.
Allawi, much like Abdul-Mahdi, lacks a political base and will find it difficult to withstand pressure from the entrenched political groups that control the government’s departments and have their own militias.
Among the challenges Allawi is expected to face is the rising power of the pro-Iran Shia militias that are working under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF).
While the PMF itself remains loosely under government control, some of the most powerful and influential militias operate across the country and many Iraqis blame them for mounting lawlessness and violence.
His government also faces tough decisions to try to fight ruinous corruption, jump-start economic reforms, eliminate inefficiency and dismantle the cronyism and patronage networks that stifle the government.
Allawi will also need to grapple with the balance between the US and Iran, two rivals which have been vying for influence in Iraq since the US-led invasion toppled former president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Among other key challenges that Allawi must face is the future of the thousands of US forces in Iraq, there to help in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group. Shia groups and Iran are pressing hard on the government to implement a parliamentary decision to expel US forces from Iraq.
But Allawi’s main challenge will be to meet the demands of the protesters across Iraq who were unconvinced with his nomination and have pledged to escalate their movement further, saying he is not the independent they have long demanded.
On Tuesday, the protesters resumed their sit-ins in Baghdad and other southern cities voicing opposition to Allawi’s nomination. The street protests might be less well attended because of government announcement of Coronavirus spread in Iraq but their resentment against the authorities is still growing.
Since 2003, Iraq’s ruling elites have failed disastrously to stop the downturn in the country. A course correction is long overdue, in order to give the Iraqi people the direction and hope they deserve.
Allawi’s appointment and whatever cabinet he will be able to form will unlikely be able to relieve Iraq’s agony by ending government ineptness and stopping the country’s descent.
It will likely not take long for the praise that the United Nations’ mission in Iraq and some Western governments heaped on Allawi’s nomination to prove to be misleading and the reality surrounding his appointment to be exposed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly