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Iraq’s newly elected President Barham Salih, a Kurdish former deputy prime minister, has appointed Adel Abdul Mahdi, a 76-year-old economist and veteran Shiite politician, as the country’s new prime minister. Abdul Mahdi assumed the position on 25 October 2018, months after the parliamentary elections in May.
Abdul Mahdi was the consensus candidate of the two Shia-led blocs both claiming to be the largest in parliament, one led by the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the other by the Iran-backed paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Under a de facto power-sharing deal agreed in Iraq after the US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, the speaker of parliament is always a Sunni, the prime minister a Shia and the president a Kurd.
The new prime minister left Iraq in 1969 for exile in France, where he studied economics and worked for think tanks and magazines in French and Arabic. He is the son of a Shiite cleric who was a minister in Iraq’s monarchy. While living in France, he was an important member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). After it split into two factions, Abdul Mahdi joined the ICP Central Leadership that rejected all forms of cooperation with ‘anti-progressive regimes’ in 1967, until it disappeared at the beginning of the 1980s. Progressively adopting Iranian Islamic ideas, he rejected his communist past when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini eradicated communist and liberal opposition groups in Iran. He was eventually made a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exiled opposition party and militia that was formed by Iran in Tehran in 1982 but composed exclusively of Iraqi exiles.
He started assuming official functions in Iraq in 2005, when he was named vice-president. He ran for prime minister under the United Iraqi Alliance, losing by one vote to Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He stayed on as vice-president until he resigned in 2011, after surviving an assassination attempt in 2007. He then served as oil minister from 2014 to 2016, before finally being appointed prime minister on 2 October 2018. This was despite a Facebook post on 23 May, in which he said he did not want the job. ‘Assuming I got accepted now, I will soon lose. I will face majorities which will not allow their groups to provide necessary support,’ he wrote.
His nomination follows months of political deadlock in Iraq since the inconclusive May elections. He is the first elected prime minister in post-Saddam Iraq not to hail from the Shiite Islamist Dawa party. “The nomination of Mr Adel Abdul Mahdi came after an agreement between the Binaa bloc and the Islah bloc to nominate him via consensus and not a majority bloc in order to get past the issue of which is the majority bloc,” said Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesperson for the Binaa bloc.
The US Ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, congratulated the new appointee in a tweet, saying the US would ‘work with the future PM to help his government meet the needs and aspirations of all the people of Iraq’. Back in 2005, The New York Times wrote about Abdul Mahdi: ‘He is thought to be an attractive candidate to the Americans. He has worked closely with the Bush administration, and helped renegotiate Iraq’s foreign debt. Like many Iraqi leaders, including even many of the clerics themselves, he takes a cold-eyed view of the need for American troops to stay in the country until Iraqi security forces are strong enough to defeat the guerrilla insurgency on their own … Far from being devoutly religious himself, they say, Mr. Mahdi is a secular man who attached himself to a largely Islamist group to get closer to power, and by so doing made that group more acceptable to the outside world.’
Thirteen years later, this assessment is still true, although he faces numerous challenges including unemployment, corruption, poor public services and tensions with the Kurds in northern Iraq. Kurdish leaders insist that Baghdad has to honour earlier agreements about revenue sharing from oil proceeds as well as restore the semi autonomy that was curtailed after the Kurds launched a failed attempt to control the northern oil city of Kirkuk.
Less than a month in the post, Abdul Mahdi is already attracting criticism. Bloomberg opinion editor Bobby Ghosh wrote: ‘It was an inauspicious start to his premiership, but the messy process of cabinet formation was entirely consistent with his May prophesy. The political groups he warned about – a half-dozen factions whose backing he needed for his confirmation – jockeyed ferociously for control of key ministries, leaving Abdul Mahdi unable to deliver on his promise of a cabinet of “technocrats”. His picks to run the oil and electricity ministries may fit that description, but in other positions it seems clear that Abdul Mahdi’s choices were forced on him. None of the nominations came from an online application process he announced earlier this month, designed to attract fresh talent to government. Worryingly, his nominee for the powerful interior ministry is Falih al-Fayadh, who ran the Iran-backed militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces.’
“Abdul Mahdi’s nomination represents the best choice to pleasing all the Shia players who were about to reach a point of conflict and no return,” said Baghdad-based political analyst Ahmed Younis to al-Jazeera. He added, “All the Shia blocs reached the conclusion that their divisions could lead to an intra-Shia conflict, which would weaken their position in Iraq. Now, with Abdul Mahdi, there are no winners and losers, everyone is happy.”
Sirwan Arab, a university professor and oil expert, told Rudaw, an online news site, “Some groups in Iraq have authority. That is why the job of the new prime minister of Iraq will be a bit difficult to manage in this short period he has. There isn’t a viable atmosphere for [him] to implement the program he has … For the first time … attention is being given to sustainable development. The chance given to Abdul-Mahdi is the last chance both for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi state.”
Renad Mansour, an Iraq analyst at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said to the Financial Times that Iraqis had already signalled that they “were looking for something different” by electing a cohort of lawmakers, two thirds of whom had not sat in parliament before. “What they’re trying to show is this could be the beginning of some gradual change,” he said.
On the first day of his term, Abdul Mahdi also moved his offices out of Baghdad’s highly secure Green Zone to a rehabilitated government compound opposite Baghdad’s iconic central railway station, saying he wanted to bring his government closer to the people. The Green Zone was established in 2003 by the US for its embassy and Iraqi government institutions.
Abdul Mahdi’s task will not be easy. A lot is at stake for the country’s stability and development, and he might not be as free to make decisions as he would have hoped.