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West cautiously optimistic about Abdul Mahdi

Abdul Mahdi

The appointment of Adel Abdul Mahdi as the new Iraqi Prime Minister has been treated with cautious optimism in the West. However the general consensus is that he will have very narrow scope to instigate the crucial reforms that Iraq so desperately needs.

For the moment Abdul Mahdi is making the right noises. On his Facebook page wrote, “In addition to rationalizing the activities of the state, its budgets, its expenditures and its projects, we must make investment, whether public or private, national or foreign, a major issue that is protected and appreciated by all.” Setting aside the fact that the reforms Abdul Mahdi seeks might very well fail because of the coalition of vested parties that have propelled him to power, there remains the fact that the country needs far more radical change than platitudes.

The latest appointments to the life stories of both the new Iraqi president and prime minister bear some scrutiny in calibrating the likely success of Iraq in the next few years. Both are products of European education systems.


Barham Salih studied for a long period in the UK, while Abdul Mahdi studied and lived in France. Barham Salih experienced Britain in its turbulent 1980s period, when the hold of the trade unions and the ‘big state’ idea was being dismantled by Margaret Thatcher, one of Britain’s greatest 20th century prime ministers. At its best British political and educative philosophy is pragmatic and technocratic. This certainly seems to be reflected in Salih’s outlook.

For such geographically close countries, France and Britain are surprisingly different in political philosophy and culture. In France, Abdul Mahdi experienced a country that is fundamentally corporate, egalitarian and where the “state” is large. Education is based on European models of philosophy – strong, centralised, empirical and mellifluously narrated. Abdul Mahdi’s Facebook comments seem to spring straight from the playbook of French political culture, strong on intent, weaker on specifics. 

Writing of Iraq in the Guardian, Patrick Cockburn comments that “the pressure for the reform of the kleptocratic state is greater than ever before.” It remains to be seen if Abdul Mahdi’s French statist influence can address issues in Iraq. Cockburn highlights the problem when he observes that in Iraq “at least $4bn a month is spent paying some 4.5 million state employees who often hold their jobs because of party or religious affiliation.”

Perhaps it is the case that a future Iraqi political class will be made up of Iraqis who have absorbed the sense of western secular values but are able to bring a purely Iraqi subtlety to their visions for the country. The Salih/Mahdi leadership might just be a stepping stone towards this kind of enlightened and galvanised future. However, the fact is that Iran, a country with a very different trajectory than that of Iraq is the ever present neighbour. In a tacit British view, Cockburn states that “Both appointments show a shift towards Iran and away from the US.” In the new multi polar world there are circling powers Russian and China, hiding behind Iran who are more than ready to exploit Iraq.

This assertion may well raise the spectre of the coming months and years for Iraq. It seems that even elderly, western-educated and generally respected Iraqi leaders can do little in the present time to resist the pull and influence of Iran. How much they collude to assist the pernicious hold of Iran over Iraq remains to be seen.