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Iraq’s Promising New Leadership

Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Adel Abdul Mahdi, is the kind of leader the U.S. might have hoped for: experienced, well-respected, and, by the standards of Iraqi politics, above sectarian and ethnic factionalism. Unfortunately, the chances that he can create a government consistent with those values remain slim.

While Washington and its allies should wish Abdul Mahdi success and give his government all reasonable assistance, they would be wise to focus on strengthening economic, cultural and institutional relationships in Iraq without counting on the new leader’s political fortunes.

 

The outcome of Iraq’s May 12 vote could easily have been worse for U.S. interests. Indeed, for many months, they seemed certain to be. The biggest vote-getter, the firebrand Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, is a sworn enemy of the U.S., reflexively opposed to all Western influences. In the first years after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, Sadr led the Mahdi Army in bloody battles with coalition forces. Other Shiite factions that gained large blocs of seats in the 329-member parliament are proxies of Iran.

But persistent bickering among the Shiite groups since May led to the emergence of Abdul Mahdi, a former vice president and oil minister, as a consensus candidate. He now has less than 30 days to appoint a cabinet.

All indications that Abdul Mahdi will be favorably disposed toward the U.S. — or at least resistant to Iranian influence — are tempered by the circumstances of his ascension. His own party, once a major force among the Iran-backed Shiite parties, has just two seats in parliament. Abdul Mahdi has some goodwill among the political class, but no mass appeal. Lacking a significant constituency of his own, he will likely be beholden to the factions that elevated him. They may very well pack his cabinet and divvy up jobs among their followers, making it difficult for the new prime minister to deliver clean, efficient government.

The U.S. and other Western countries can play a constructive role nonetheless. Through much of this year, ordinary Iraqis have been protesting their government’s failure to boost employment. Iran, its own economy in deep trouble, can’t help with this. But Western countries can provide investment, technology and access to markets, all of which help create jobs.

 

At the same time, Washington should draw an important lesson from the electoral failure of its preferred candidate, Haider al-Abadi, the outgoing prime minister: It is a mistake to rely too much on the political fortunes of any individual leader — and better to focus on forging durable economic ties.

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