Seth J. Frantzman
The country has faced uncertainty and protests since elections in May. In September, a Sunni Arab Speaker of Parliament was finally chosen. On Tuesday, Barham Salih, a Kurdish member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, was selected to become the new president. Now Adel Abdul Mahdi will likely become the next prime minister as he seeks to shore up a coalition.
Abdul Mahdi has a difficult task ahead of him. In Iraq, the prime minister holds the most important and powerful post. The presidency, held by Kurdish leaders since the creation of a new constitution after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is largely ceremonial.
However, many Iraqis celebrated the appointment of Salih, who previously served as deputy-prime minister and was a prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Region from 2009-2012. Salih was chosen after the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and PUK struggled to settle on a single Kurdish choice for the presidency. His election has been positively received in Washington, from where anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk tweeted congratulations. Salih is seen as being close to the UK and US.
Iraq is at a crossroads. Having liberated most of the country from ISIS last year, it is now in the midst of US-Iran tensions. The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq voted for independence last year. But Baghdad, under former prime minister Haider al-Abadi, sent tanks into Kirkuk to push the Kurds out and closed airports in the north to punish the autonomous region.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have continued their entrenchment in the country in 2018. In May, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite cleric who was once anti-American but has become increasingly nationalist and hostile to Iran, polled first in the elections, ahead of second-place Hadi al-Amiri, head of one of the largest militias. Abadi, who Washington hoped would be a strongman savior of Iraq, came in third.
Now Abadi has congratulated Abdul Mahdi and appears willing to go quietly into the shadows. He graciously exited with a tweet, wishing the new prime minister “success in shaping and choosing who best to fill the government.”
Abdul Mahdi is seen as a pragmatist who will focus on the country’s economy. Since May, massive protests fueled by anger at failed infrastructure and polluted water, have swept southern Iraq. These protests have become increasingly anti-Iranian. Abdul Mahdi will be called upon to thread the needle between Iran’s interests, Washington’s and Iraq’s new connections to Saudi Arabia, and a multiplicity of other problems. For instance, Turkish troops are stationed in northern Iraq fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party, and last month Iran fired ballistic missiles at Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.
Iran has also fired missiles over Iraq at Syria, apparently without informing Iraqi authorities. This makes Baghdad feel that Iraq lacks basic sovereignty.
Supporters of Abdul Mahdi see him as less ideological than other candidates for the job. He was once a secular communist, but later become a supporter of Iran’s Islamic revolution.
What does this mean for Iraq in general? Can Abdul Mahdi manage the security forces and rein in the militias? Can he bring in the donors to support rebuilding Mosul and other former ISIS-held cities? Can he use the security forces, who have suffered attrition over the years, to defeat a new ISIS insurgency?
Iraq faces major hurdles. For the moment many are hopeful that the new president and his team can help heal wounds and bring the country some momentary peace after decades of conflict.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.