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Iraq’s consensus prime minister walks a political tightrope

Iraq’s cabinet ministers are traditionally chosen in backroom deals between the country’s political parties. But new prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s attempt to open up the process is striking: 15,000 people have responded to an invitation for competent candidates to submit CVs, he announced on his Facebook page last week. The unorthodox recruiting drive reflects Mr Abdul Mahdi’s desire to show he is serious about change in a country fed up with crumbling infrastructure and endemic corruption. But the prime minister, a veteran politician and son of an education minister, will still face the constraints imposed by the political parties that helped him into office as a compromise candidate. Politics in Iraq is entering “a critical and a decisive phase,” said Dr Ihsan al-Shammari, head of Baghdad University’s politics centre. The prime minister’s performance “will decide whether it ends in salvation or disaster.” Baghdad insiders and foreign officials describe Mr Abdul Mahdi as scholarly, but a tough negotiator and smart economist. The new prime minister “has a very calm demeanour. He never looks ruffled or angry,” recalled Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq. The son of an education minister from a prominent Baghdad family, Mr Abdul Mahdi, from Iraq’s Shia Muslim Arab majority, spent decades hopping between countries, sometimes using a fake passport, before returning to Iraq to play a central role in the post-Saddam Hussein government. He lost a previous premiership race by one vote, and narrowly escaped an apparent assassination attempt as vice-president in 2007. Formerly representing the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Mr Abdul Mahdi ran for office as an independent in May’s elections, meaning he has no MPs in parliament he can rely on. He became prime minister through a deal between a tenuous alliance of political parties, including the political wing of the Shia militias, Fatah, and the Sairoon bloc, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and militia leader turned populist politician.


A lack of political machinery is a potential weakness as Mr Abdul Mahdi tries to continue reforms started by former premier Haider Al-Abadi. Attempting to curb corruption and slim bloated state institutions and companies, the reforms challenge the interests of parties that helped Mr Abdul Mahdi into power.


“He’s developed a lot of relationships over the years,” said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of al-Bayan Centre, a Baghdad think-tank. “But he doesn’t really identify with any one party or political viewpoint. This can be positive, but also means he relies on existing political entities for support.”


“He is dealing with people willing to kill for power,” said Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq’s former ambassador to the UN and founding director of Indiana University’s Middle East studies centre. “That is the game in Baghdad. Can he stare them down is the question.”


Cabinet selection will be his first test. Mr Abdul Mahdi must weigh populist demands for technically qualified candidates against pressure from the political parties. Under an informal “quota” system to ensure representation for all Iraq’s groups, ministries have long been used as fiefdoms to control state infrastructure and distribute jobs and favours to supporters. The leader of Mr Abdul Mahdi’s former party has said he will not support previously unknown candidates as ministers.


“He’s a compromise prime minister . . . he feels he’s beholden to some political parties,” said Dhia al-Asadi, political adviser to Mr al-Sadr and Sairoon. “This is his biggest challenge from the beginning.”


Mr al-Sadr won the most seats in parliament under the Sairoon banner, and has called for technocratic picks rather than a government based on religious quotas. Mr Abdul Mahdi needs Mr al-Sadr to support his slate, but he is not a guaranteed ally. Mr al-Asadi said Sairoon’s instruction to back Mr Abdul Mahdi “is conditional on his performance”.


Despite the challenges Mr Abdul Mahdi faces, there is an air of optimism around the consensus candidate, hurriedly appointed last week by newly elected president Barham Salih, a Kurd.


Expelled from Jesuit missionary school in 1957 for joining political demonstrations, Mr Abdul Mahdi studied economics and trade in Baghdad and took a scholarship in Paris. With Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party in power, Mr Abdul Mahdi pursued academia and publishing in France, Lebanon and his mother’s home country of Syria, and travelled to Iran and the US. He later gravitated to Shia Islamist politics, and since 2003 has spent time as vice-president, finance minister and oil minister.



The new prime minister has good relations with the west while never trying to hide his Iranian connections. “Anything of note I would say to Adel, I would assume he would give it back to the Quds force [of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard],” said one western diplomat.


“He’s an acceptable face to all sides,” said another western diplomat. This will be crucial as he tries to stop Iraq getting caught in the crossfire of the US’s renewed sanctions on Iran, Iraq’s biggest trade partner, enforced in November.


With Iraq in dire need of fiscal reform, Mr Abdul Mahdi has strong credentials. As interim finance minister, he negotiated debt relief with Iraq’s creditors, and 14 years later helped sell Iraq’s first eurobond. When pitching to investors, Mr Abdul Mahdi “had the facts under his fingernails”, said Dennis Flannery, Citibank’s recently retired Iraq country director. Fixing Iraq’s electricity and water supplies is his most pressing task. But the country is still reeling from the brutal ISIS insurgency that killed thousands and reopened sectarian divisions. The largely Iran-backed Shia militias that formed in 2015 to fight the Sunni extremists have grown powerful, posing their own challenge to the state. More recently, a series of murders and unexplained deaths of prominent women have frightened liberal society and raised doubts over security. Some observers question Mr Abdul Mahdi’s staying power, citing his resignations from the vice-presidency and oil ministry; others say stepping down when no more could be done shows Mr Abdul Mahdi is a realist. “I hope none of my children choose a path in politics,” Mr Abdul Mahdi once told a TV interviewer.