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Why Barham Salih's appointment as president is good news for Iraq

The new Iraqi president is a sophisticated and experienced personality who knows Iraq's complexities and shortcomings all too well

On 2 October, the Iraqi parliament appointed Kurdish politician Barham Salih as the new president of the republic. This is good news for the country and for the region.

Salih is a sophisticated and experienced personality, relentless in promoting dialogue and coexistence. He knows the complexities and the shortcomings of his country, the composite interests of its neighbours, and how to address the international community to maintain the support to Iraq.

Although the provisions of the Iraqi constitution limit his powers, the new president, through his authoritativeness, will definitely raise the profile of the presidency in Iraqi policy; hopefully, he will also be able to lessen the intricacies of its political system.

Nuanced approach

Salih is appreciated both in Washington and Tehran. He has always maintained effective channels of communication with the two capitals as well as with the other major European and Arab ones. His experience and his nuanced approach and vision will be useful in the difficult times ahead, dominated by the increasing tension between the US and Iran.

Provided that he finds someone willing to listen, Salih could play an important role in steering Washington away from making more fateful mistakes in the region; similarly, he could also soften certain "basic instincts" coming from some political circles in Tehran.

Salih could play an important role in steering Washington away from making more fateful mistakes in the region

Assuming his new role, Salih behaved differently from any other politician arriving at such a high position. Only two hours after his oath, he formally asked Adel Abdul Mahdi to form a new government. Someone else would have been waiting days, maybe weeks, just to mark their newly acquired power and take credit for the political agreement behind Mahdi's selection.

The tandem between the new president and the newly designated prime minister could be one of the more promising events that Iraq has been waiting for for too many years.

A long list

The challenges facing the new Iraqi leadership are daunting. Providing decent governance to the Iraqi people will be imperative to avoid ensuring that the huge sacrifice made in the struggle against the Islamic State group (IS) will not be vain. Two priorities top the long list of what needs to be done.

The first one is restoring basic services to the population, particularly in two critical areas: the ones liberated from Islamic State and in southern Iraq, which has been criminally neglected for decades and is now on the brink of an environmental disaster.

Iraq is distancing from its previous religious and ethnical sectarianism. Political blocs have more cross-confessional and cross-ethnic configuration

The second is fighting corruption, together with streamlining bureaucratic procedures to attract investment, relaunch the economy and post-war reconstruction.

These two issues are social ticking bombs that the new Iraqi leaders must immediately defuse. The war against Daesh (IS) has been won, but this does not mean that security in the country has been re-established. 

Reliable high-ranking Iraqi sources point to at least 20,000 jihadists still at large in the country, not only in the western part but also in north and western Baghdad, western Mosul and Kirkuk. This is the third priority of the new Iraqi government: it won the war, but to win the peace, it will need an effective counter-intelligence and law-enforcement effort to completely eradicate Da'esh.

Nonetheless, a sense of fresh air is provided by the recent political developments. Iraq is distancing itself from its previous religious and ethnic sectarianism. Political blocs have more cross-confessional and cross-ethnic configuration.

Political maturity

One of the evident signs of the increasing political maturity in Iraq is that the same Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) - the Iran-backed militia, which played a major role in defeating IS - are engaged in an outreach exercise towards disgruntled Sunni constituencies. Iraq's Sunnis have been affected by the shifting power balance in the country, the cruelty of Daesh and the destruction imposed by the conflict in the last four years.

An Iraqi man reads the headlines at a newspaper stand in the capital Baghdad on 29 August 2018 (AFP)
Appointing Salih as president, Iraqi MPs also decided independently and against the will of the main Kurdish political party, the KDP.

Despite such heartening developments, analysis and media coverage about Iraq will continue along the zero-sum methodology, based on the binary mindset that sees any development in that country through the prism of a power game between US and Iran and their respective regional allies.

The latest political outcomes in Baghdad have not escaped such characterisation and, probably, this trend will continue.

Solid rumours point to the selection of Adel Abdul Mahdi for prime minister as the result of a tripartite agreement among the most important Shia power brokers in the region: Iranian IRGC Commander Qassem Suleimani, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Therefore, if Iraq was a boxing match, Suleimani has prevailed over Brett McGurk, the US president's special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, on points.

Other reports point to huge sums of cash delivered to Baghdad from the Gulf to influence the latest Iraqi political outcomes in a way detrimental to Iran's interests. Tehran was accused of a similar practice by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis during last spring's electoral campaign.

An Iranian plan?

The only certain fact, so far, is that Washington's first choice as head of the government, the outgoing prime minister Haider al-Abadi, has been sidelined. Notwithstanding his merits in the successful conflict against IS, certain reservations about him in Tehran and the cold shoulder from Najaf’s Marja'aya, Iraq's highest Shia religious authority, turned out to be insurmountable.

Putting aside speculative exercises, it would be a big mistake to summarily include the new Iraqi leaders in the pro-Iranian camp. Nonetheless, it would be an even bigger mistake to believe that they would be ready to buy the anti-Iranian narrative elaborated in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and to enrol Iraq into the anti-Iranian coalition assembled in the same three capitals.

Like it or not, Iran will continue to be the most powerful player in Iraq
Marco Carnelos
Read More »

Unfortunately, in some Western and Arab capitals, the anti-Iranian narrative sometimes borders on obsession. Therefore, Salih and Abdul Mahdi, as if they had nothing more important to do, will be compelled to dispel the suspicion that there is a plan orchestrated by Iran behind the latest Iraqi institutional set-up.

They both have the reputation, the credibility, the experience and the boldness to achieve this objective, as well as the far more important one: catering to the demands of the Iraqi people.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He has served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East Peace Process Coordinator Special Envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, ambassador of Italy to Iraq.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: The newly elected Iraqi President Barham Salih delivering a speech on 2 October, 2018 at the parliament in Baghdad (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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