The line between total chaos and the semblance of a political process has been blurred following Sunday’s acceptance by the Iraqi Parliament of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation. This is new territory for post-2003 Iraq: The first time that a sitting premier has been ousted as a result of public pressure and the loss of the confidence of the supreme religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Abdul-Mahdi’s departure, more than a year after he was chosen as a compromise candidate by the two largest blocs in Parliament — Sairoon, led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and Fatah, which is associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi Al-Amiri — is seen as a triumph for the popular uprising. More importantly, his ouster is viewed as a defeat for Iran and its Iraqi proxies.
He now faces possible criminal charges, along with his interior and defense ministers, for the killing of more than 400 and the injuring of more than 19,000 protesters since the outbreak of the uprising early in October. But, while protesters celebrated his resignation, they continued to demand the departure of lawmakers too. Their most important demand is the adoption of a new non-sectarian election law and a government headed by someone who has no ties to either the US or Iran.
It is unlikely they will get what they want — at least not now. Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation has triggered a heated constitutional debate, which will require a ruling by the Supreme Court. Apparently, the constitution does not address the case of a premier resigning of his own accord. President Barham Salih will either head the government himself or designate a new candidate from the largest parliamentary bloc within 15 days. Sairoon has already said that it will not name a candidate of its own. One lawmaker described the current legal situation as “a constitutional black hole.”
The current impasse will encourage foreign powers to engage in behind-the-scenes horse-trading to come up with a candidate that both Tehran and Washington will support. But the old rules of the game have changed. Iraqis are showing a rare sense of unity in rejecting foreign meddling — especially in Shiite-majority southern provinces. In Najaf, the seat of the religious authority, Iraqis marched denouncing the interference of both the US and Iran.
Salih will have a tough time naming a suitable candidate — one that will be accepted by the public regardless of the position of Washington and Tehran. Failing to do so will push Iraq further toward political uncertainty. Iran stands to lose the most out of the recent developments. Not only has it lost its influence in Shiite provinces — its Najaf consulate was torched again over the weekend — but its proxies have failed to stamp out the rebellion even as they used extreme force. Now the notorious Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Al-Quds Brigade, is back in Iraq trying to manage the crisis. The use of force has failed to quell the uprising and he must now take a different path if he is to maintain Iran’s sway.
A more pressing matter for the regime is to deal with officials involved in the deliberate killing of demonstrators. Al-Sadr has called for the setting up of a revolutionary court to try senior officials including Abdul-Mahdi. Bringing those who ordered the use of lethal force against demonstrators to justice will become a major headline in the coming days and weeks.
In addition, Iraqis want to see those who pilfered state resources for their own wealth brought before the courts. This means most of the ruling political class and is a challenge that no politician will be able to confront unless he has full popular backing.
The leaderless uprising has a chance to narrow down its immediate demands, giving the president the opportunity to name a figure that will be accepted by the majority of Iraqis. In the meantime, Parliament must move to approve a new election law that will steer Iraq away from the quota-based system.
Iraq’s path toward recovery will prove difficult but not impossible. Stamping out corruption and ending foreign meddling are two tough tasks that will be painful and divisive. But the real challenge will be finding a new political formula to govern the country as a replacement for the sectarian-based system. One force that will resist change is Iran, which considers Iraq a strategic asset in its confrontation with the US and its regional allies. The sad reality is that Tehran may opt to create chaos in Iraq rather than give up its influence. This is something that Iraqis must avoid at any cost.