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Abdul Mahdi facing an almost impossible mission in Iraq

Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has his work cut out for him. He is a consensus choice for one of the most difficult jobs in the region and indeed the world. He was selected by newly elected president, Barham Salih, on Oct. 2 as an independent figure — he is the first prime minister to get the job from outside the pro-Iran Dawa Party since 2005. His nomination was backed by the two largest blocs in parliament following more than five months of bickering over the May election results amid allegations of vote rigging, demands for a manual recount and behind-the-scenes interventions by both Iran and the US.

The 76-year-old economist — a former vice president and minister of oil — has emerged as a compromise candidate who has until Nov. 1 to name a Cabinet. He is seen by many as a man who shuns sectarianism and leans toward secular ideals. But he is already under pressure from political parties to hand out ministerial portfolios in accordance with a divisive ethno-sectarian system that has been blamed for many of the country’s woes, including institutional corruption, economic mismanagement and foreign meddling.

Abdul Mahdi, whose own party has only two seats in parliament, will have to navigate treacherous waters and face massive undercurrents as he attempts to complete his first mission: Forming a government that will secure a vote of confidence. While he must rely on the backing of major blocs — especially the Islah alliance led by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr — he should make use of the fact that the Shiite parties have never been so fragmented. His other controversial ally is the Al-Bina bloc, led by the pro-Iran Hadi Al-Amiri. Both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri support Abdul Mahdi and his political fortunes depend on the endurance of that alliance.

Abdul Mahdi, who wants to form a Cabinet of technocrats with no party affiliations, has launched a website that has allowed more than 30,000 Iraqis to submit applications for ministerial posts. Whether he succeeds in changing the way governments are formed in post-US invasion Iraq depends on both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri in the first place. Both men have divergent views on how the political system should be reformed.

Assuming that Abdul Mahdi can form a government and secure the backing of parliament, he will then face the more difficult task of putting Iraq’s limping economy back on the road to recovery. In the past few months, angry protests have broken out in the oil-rich southern province of Basra, where mostly young Iraqis took to the streets to demonstrate against high unemployment and poor public services. Some of the protests turned violent as party headquarters, public buildings and the Iran consulate were set on fire. Failure to improve living conditions in Basra has hastened the fall of outgoing Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who for a short while was close to securing a new term.

Another challenge for Abdul Mahdi will be in convincing Iraqis that he can succeed in waging a war on corruption, speed up the rebuilding of cities and towns destroyed during the war against Daesh, limit the political influence of both the US and Iran, and normalize ties with Iraq’s Arab neighbors. It’s a tall order for anyone and that is why he needs the support of Western powers and Arab countries, especially the Gulf states.

But he also needs the backing of traditional players if his mission is to secure some meaningful gains. The fragmentation of Iraq’s political parties was apparent in the failure of Kurdish groups to agree on a candidate for president. Thus Salih was elected through a vote in parliament, despite a divided Kurdish position. Abdul Mahdi will also need to win the confidence of Sunni parties by committing to reforming the dysfunctional quota system that has marginalized Iraq’s Sunni minority for decades. That marginalization, which peaked during the tenure of pro-Iran Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, was a major driver behind the emergence of Daesh in Sunni provinces.

One factor that could help Abdul Mahdi succeed is that Iran’s influence may wane in the coming months as additional US sanctions come into effect in November. Iran’s troubled economy will compromise its ability to maintain or expand its influence in Baghdad.

While reforming Iraq’s political system will take years and may prove difficult to maintain, Abdul Mahdi’s ability to trigger economic growth and attract foreign investment will be the ultimate test for his future survival. Iraqis have suffered as a result of massive corruption and failure by successive governments and parliaments to address its endemic economic problems. Iraq’s stability is fundamental for the region and the world. This is why Arab and Western countries must rally to make Abdul Mahdi’s difficult mission more likely to succeed than fail.