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New Iraqi government faces protest and division as it looks to unify nation

President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi have been seen as potential unifiers. They face steep challenges
Newly designated Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (2nd L) walks out of the Parliament with newly-elected Iraqi President Barham Saleh (R) in Baghdad (AFP)

BASRA, Iraq - The election of Barham Salih as president of Iraq and Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister has finally broken a deadlock in place since parliamentary elections in May led to repeated in-fighting, negotiations and accusations of fraud.

Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - whose hopes of another term were effectively ended by his failure to resolve a crisis over water pollution, electricity and unemployment in Basra - congratulated his successor in a tweet on Tuesday evening, wishing him "success in shaping [the new government] and choosing who is the best to fill the government positions to provide better services to the citizens".

Mahdi's rise to power marks the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent shift to Iraqi civilian rule that the country has not been run by a member of the Islamic Dawa Party.

A former communist, Mahdi was inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran to join the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shia movement close to Iran, and remained with the party until 2017, when he split to become an independent. He served in post-2003 governments as vice president, finance minister and oil minister.

Politics in Iraq has long been seen as a struggle between competing American and Iranian power blocs, but Mahdi's nomination was supported both by the Sairoun Alliance - backed by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and seen as critical of Iranian influence - and the Fatah Coalition, which is composed of supporters of Iran-backed militias.

While Abdul Mahdi is respected by the international community, expectations should be low. He will have no base in parliament at all, and he has no history of taking on corrupt interests

- Kirk Sowell, Inside Iraqi Politics

The UN greeted the nomination of Mahdi warmly on Wednesday.

“Just as the United Nations supported Iraq during the difficult fight against the terrorist Da’esh (Islamic State), the UN reiterates its support for the Iraqi people as they build a new future of peace, stability and prosperity,” UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jan Kubis said in a statement.

However, Mahdi's status as an independent also has some major drawbacks, warned Kirk Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.

"While Abdul Mahdi is respected by the international community, expectations should be low," he told Middle East Eye.

"He will have no base in parliament at all, and he has no history of taking on corrupt interests, despite his talk of good government."

He added, however, that Mahdi was on good terms with the different blocs in parliament and that he should have no trouble to put together a coalition government before the end of the 30 day time limit.

"The problem will be forming a government that can actually do things," he explained.

Kurdish disunity

Salih has also been welcomed in some corners as a unifying figure. Although both he and the outgoing president Fuad Masum were both members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Salih has long been a popular figure among both Kurds and Arabs.

However, his candidacy raised eyebrows among some Kurdish observers. Salih resigned from the PUK in 2017 over what he saw as its corruption and tribalism, forming the Coalition for Democracy and Justice with an aim to break the grip of the ruling Kurdistan Democracy Party (KDP) and PUK on Kurdish politics.

His decision to rejoin the PUK in order to run for the presidency was therefore viewed cynically by some observers, though he denied he had returned simply because they offered to back him for the presidency.

Also not happy about the appointment was former Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president Massoud Barzani, who criticised the "mechanism" of the voting process.

"The Kurdish candidate should have been chosen by either the largest parliamentary bloc or through an agreement between the Kurdish blocs," he said in a statement on Tuesday.

For the first time in post-2003 Iraq, the nomination for the presidency - who is, by convention, a Kurd - involved the PUK and KDP standing opposing candidates, with the latter fielding Fuad Hussein.

US President George W. Bush (2nd-R) speaks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (L), Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi (2nd-L) and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh (R) during a meeting at the Hyatt Regency in Sharm el-Sheikh (AFP)

Tensions have been high between the KRG's two main parties since October 2017, when Baghdad recaptured Kirkuk and other territories controlled by Kurdish forces in the wake of the previous month's independence referendum.

PUK forces withdrew from their positions in the wake of the Baghdad assault after making a deal with the central government - something seen as a betrayal by KDP supporters.

Lawk Ghafuri, an Iraqi Kurdish political activist, said that Salih as president would oppose further attempts to push for independence for the Kurdish region.

"Barham Salih being the president of Iraq is a good thing for Iraq, but a negative one for Kurdistan, and that is due to the road of independence Kurdish people and KRG have already started," he said, referring to the 25 September referendum.

"Barham Salih is someone against the Kurdistan independence project and he has always claimed that Kurdistan region should be inside a powerful and united Iraq."

Although Salih voted in favour of independence in the referendum, he has been seen as distinctly lukewarm on the subject.

Ghafuri also agreed with Barzani's complaint that the presidential candidate should have been a unity figure agreed upon by Kurds.

"Kurdish political parties should have reached an agreement within themselves and not let Baghdad decide on their fate," he explained.

Sowell suggested the KDP's opposition to Salih had always been illusory, with Hussein put forward "just to extract something from the PUK, and that failed".

Basra crisis

Arguably, the biggest headache confronting the new president and prime minister on the horizon is dealing with the crisis in Basra, which is still being rocked by protests and spiralling violence on the streets as a result of a lack of water, electricity, unemployment and corruption.

Abadi's failure to resolve the problem, which has seen as many 100,000 people hospitalised this summer as a result of infected water, effectively led to opposition parties uniting to deny him another term as prime minister.

Iraqi citizens find it difficult to find the right person who is loyal to Iraq and would work just for the sake of Iraq

- Rami Alskini, Sairoun MP

Local politicians have complained that the process of forming a government has delayed the release of much needed funds and the implentation of reforms in the province.

Rami Alskini, a Basra MP for the Sairoun Alliance, said that previous governments had failed to pay attention to Basra's needs and that this needed to change.

A protester in Basra holds a banner with senior politicians (including PM Haider al-Abadi) crossed out (Alex MacDonald)

"The central government will serve Basra when they actually approve legislative decisions concerning Basra regarding money, because it was delayed previously," he told MEE.

"The money that comes out of Basra should go to Basra and they should provide Basra with the money they need to end the debts and finish the Japanese projects," he added, referring to stalled water desalination projects.

He also lamented the increasing tensions between the US and Iran, which he said had turned much of Iraq into a geopolitical battlefield.

"The Iraqi government is reflected by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and America - each part is pushing for their needs and wants," he explained. "Politicians, some of them are with America, some of them are with Iran, so each one is pulling towards his side.

"Iraqi citizens find it difficult to find the right person who is loyal to Iraq and would work just for the sake of Iraq."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.