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Finding a replacement to Iraqi PM will not be easy

Dec 05,2019 - Last updated at Dec 07,2019

Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi was never the man to tackle Iraq's existential problems. He was a compromise candidate, agreed on after five months of bickering, and backed by the two largest parliamentary blocs that have competing agendas. He has no party or militia to give him the muscle to overcome resistance from the factions and politicians in power in order to mount serious anti-corruption drive, promote investment in the country's devastated infrastructure, restore public services and press for political reform. He had a difficult year in office, which climaxed when demonstrators took to the streets in early October demanding his resignation and an end to the sectarian political model of governance imposed by the US occupation in 2003. The latter demand transformed protesters into revolutionaries.

Abdel Mahdi declared his intention to step down last Friday after 50 revolutionaries were slain in the Shia southern bastions of Nasiriya and Najaf. This prompted Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to call for an end to lethal force against popular action, a new government and free and fair elections which "reflect the will of the Iraqi people".

Abdel Mahdi's resignation was accepted by parliament on Sunday. His departure was cheered by demonstrators but feared by post-Saddam politicians and their backers, the US and Iran. It will not be easy to find a replacement the people's movement will accept. Too much blood has been spilled. At least 430 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded by security forces and masked men fielded by militia commanders. They lead the political parties the revolutionaries want to overthrow and hold accountable for corruption which has cost the country $320 billion over the past 16 years.

President Barham Saleh must ask the largest political bloc to nominate a replacement within 15 days while Abdel Mahdi will continue as caretaker. Once a successor is named, he will have 30 days to form a cabinet: A time limit which has eluded Iraqi politicians since the US occupation. During this crucial period, the street can be expected to maintain pressure on the political elite to agree to appoint a clean figure who has not been involved in Iraq's recent political life and is prepared to tackle graft and provide security, electricity, water, decent schools and jobs. 

Mismanagement, corruption and constant warfare have been the unexpected consequences of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ex-US president George W. Bush's administration sought to wipe clean Iraq's slate of governance since the Baath party took control in the 1960s and start over with Washington-friendly rulers. Bush's Viceroy L. Paul Bremer III demobilised the army, disbanded the administration and outlawed the Baath party. But, when it eliminated Iraq's former secular rulers, soldiers and administrators, the US created fierce resistance to the occupation by alienated Baathists and Sunnis, who had been marginalised by the rise of Shia fundamentalists. This, ultimately, led to the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its two offshoots, Daesh and Jabhat Al Nusra and the creation of Daesh's false caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq. The US occupation did not install democracy and bring prosperity to Iraq as promised by Washington’s apologists for the occupation.

Following its invasion of Iraq, the US imposed an ethno-sectarian power-sharing government on Iraq based on the failed model designed by the French mandatory regime for Lebanon. The president had to be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. The US aim, of course, was to divide and rule by promoting competition among these three communities and fostering communal identity over national identity. The US sought to maintain a long-term grip on Iraq, once the hard core of the eastern Arab world. Iran went along with this plan and has benefitted.

Exiled political figures who returned on the backs of UN tanks were elevated to positions of power although they had no experience in governance. Many of these men belonged to the Iraqi Shia fundamentalist Dawa movement, Iran-founded Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Iranian-recruited Badr Corps militia, which fought on Tehran's side in the eight year war with Iraq (1980-1988). When these forces came to dominate the Iraqi political scene, the US effectively projected Iraq into Iran's sphere of influence. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Soleimani became major players in Iraq, particularly after the US withdrew the majority of its troops in 2011.

The Trump administration's destructive withdrawal from the 2015 accord limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief and reimposition of sanctions has compelled Iran to rely increasingly on Iraq for oil sales, acquiring hard currency and trade. Iran cannot afford to lose influence in Iraq and must, somehow, reach an accommodation with the revolutionaries.

They blame Iran for the state of affairs in Iraq although the US is the external power mainly responsible. Consequently, Iran's consulates in the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala have been torched. Iraqi security forces have, so far, countered attempts by the revolutionaries to storm Baghdad's fortified Green Zone where the US and other embassies and government offices are located. Nevertheless, the US clearly concerned about the security of its citizens while they are in Iraq. Vice-president Mike Pence did not go to Baghdad when he visited US troops at Assad base in western Iraq recently.

Iraq's multiple rival political factions have little time to choose a successor for Abdel Mahdi. They no longer can count on Iraqis to be patient while politicians bicker and horse-trade in order to form an alliance capable of naming a new prime minister. The revolutionaries have vowed to remain in the country's streets and squares until their demands are met and are prepared to endure the attacks of powerful militias which have dominated the political scene for years. Their leaders believe they have a right to rule because the militias, grouped in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, played a major role in the battle against Daesh. The revolutionaries argue the US installed rulers have failed, now it is the turn of the post-US occupation generation to reclaim and rebuild the country as a secular republic.

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