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Barham Salih named Iraq president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi to be prime minister

October 4, 2018

Don’t look now, but democratic politics is in full bloom in Baghdad.

Fifteen years after President George W. Bush faced derision for seeking to implant by force a representative democracy in the heart of the Middle East, Iraq’s political class has just navigated a major albeit messy transition of executive power in which popularly elected parties engaged in horse-trading to produce moderate, compromise candidates for president and prime minister.

“Iraq is starting a new phase, a new era,” Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Mahjoub said Wednesday, a day after the Iraqi parliament broke months of deadlock after an inconclusive May election to select Barham Salih, a British-educated Kurdish engineer well-known to Washington, as president, and veteran Shiite politician Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister.

In a political landscape riven by sectarian tensions and the rivalry between Iran and the U.S. for influence, both men are considered reliable, middle-of-the-road choices.

“We have made great progress,” Mr. Mahjoub told reporters during a roundtable discussion at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington. “It was unexpected for things to go that smoothly,” he said. “The Iraqi people are very optimistic about these events and about these nominees.”

The Trump administration on Wednesday echoed his hopefulness.

“These are people that we know pretty well,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “They’ve been around the Iraqi government scene for some time.

“I’m very hopeful that we can continue to work with the Iraqi people and the soon-to-be-completely formed new Iraqi government to deliver against that,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The process wasn’t always pretty.

The original voting date of September 2017 was pushed back as the government battled to subdue the last Islamic State enclaves in the north. There were widespread complaints about the electronic voting system in the May 12 election, leading to a manual recount a month later. The integrity of the vote was further clouded by a devastating fire at a storage site holding a large number of paper ballots.

Mr. Pompeo said he and Mr. Salih discussed “building out” an “Iraqi government of national unity that was interested in the welfare and the future good fortunes for the Iraqi people,” though he expressed concern about Iranian interference in its neighbor’s internal affairs.

The issue of Iranian influence looms large. In addition to sharing a more than 900-mile border with Iran and hosting more than 2 million Iranian pilgrims annually to Shiite holy sites in Iraq, the Iraqi electricity sector depends heavily on Iranian natural gas.

Mr. Salih and Mr. Abdul-Mahdi face daunting tasks not only of trying to jump-start Iraq’s badly damaged economy and healing searing ethnic tensions after four years of war with the Sunni extremist Islamic State group, but also of balancing relations with the U.S. and Iran.

Baghdad considers both to be allies, even as Washington seeks to isolate Iran and to crush its influence in the Middle East through renewed U.S. economic sanctions as part President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.

Iran’s hidden hand?

Mr. Pompeo made no secret Wednesday of his frustration over what the administration describes as Iranian meddling in Iraq.

He blamed Tehran-backed proxies for recent attacks on American diplomatic posts there including a rocket strike targeting the U.S. Consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra that prompted a withdrawal of U.S. personnel from the facility.

“We can see the hand of [Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,] and his henchmen supporting these attacks,” said Mr. Pompeo, who suggested that the administration is weighing military strikes or some other form of retaliation against Iran-backed proxies in Iraq.

The issue is sticky for Baghdad, which denies the existence of such proxies.

“There are no forces or military groups in Iraq that receive orders from abroad, whether from Iran or from another country,” Mr. Mahjoub said. “I’m not aware of the source of the information that Secretary Pompeo has regarding the Iranian role in the threats against the U.S. Consulate in Basra.”

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said recent protests and violence in the south were “a normal expression of democracy” and that Iraqi officials “regret that some riots happened and some facilities were attacked.” Many of the protests have centered on the region’s weak economy and the poor state of public services.

Mr. Mahjoub said he hopes Iraq can be “a bridge” between Washington and Tehran and urged U.S. diplomats to return quickly to the consulate in Basra, where Iran’s consulate was also recently attacked.

“Iraq doesn’t want to see the relationship between Iran and the United States affect the relationship between the United States and Iraq,” he said.

For now, the emergence of Mr. Salih and Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, appears to be something Washington and Tehran agree is a good thing.

Iran praised the result of the coalition talks Tuesday night, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman expressing hope that it would result in the strengthening of “age-old, firm and brotherly ties between the two neighbors,” according to Iranian state media.

Compromise candidates

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq’s presidency a largely ceremonial role is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliamentary speaker is Sunni. The speaker position remains up for grabs.

Mr. Salih and Mr. Abdul-Mahdi are long-standing members of Iraq’s political class over the past 15 years.

Mr. Salih has served as Iraq’s planning minister and prime minister of the self-ruled Kurdish region.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi emerged as a compromise candidate after two Shiite-led blocs led the May voting but failed to secure an outright majority. He had strong backing from Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery nationalist whose followers won the most seats in the May elections and who formed a bloc with the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

The other bloc, which is dominated by politicians and militia leaders closer to Iran, initially rejected Mr. Abdul-Mahdi but then agreed to support him after Sunni and Kurdish parties rallied to his side, a Shiite politician who took part in the discussions told The Associated Press.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric and an influential political voice, had made it clear through mediators that the job of prime minister should not go to someone who held the post before and urged consensus. “The opinion [Tuesday] was to have Abdul-Mahdi tasked quickly in order not to delay the process any further,” the politician told the AP.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, an economist by training who comes from a prominent Shiite tribe based in southern Iraq, spent several years in exile in France, where he worked for think tanks and edited magazines in French and Arabic.

He joined Iraq’s Communist Party in the 1970s but later switched to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exiled opposition group established in neighboring Iran. He remained with SCIRI, which emerged as a powerful religious party after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion until the party split last year, when he became an independent.

After the invasion, he served as vice president, finance minister and oil minister. He has 30 days to submit his Cabinet to parliament for approval.

Iraqi officials said they expect the process of putting together a new government to go quickly.

“If we had gotten these two guys four years ago, it would have been a totally different situation,” one official said.

Mr. Mahjoub told reporters that Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s background in economics fits precisely with what Iraq needs right now.

“He is one of the leading experts in economics in Iraq and in the world,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said. “This gives us hope that Iraq can overcome its economic crisis.”

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