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Iraq’s PM-designate resigns after failing to form a cabinet
Iraqi students shout slogans during a demonstration at Tahrir Square against the naming of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the country's prime minister-designate. (Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Iraq’s PM-designate resigns after failing to form a cabinet

Lack of support from Sunnis, Kurds and protesters doomed PM-designate’s efforts to form new government

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi withdrew his nomination to become prime minister on March 1, reflecting a power vacuum in Iraq that further complicates the country’s efforts to deal with large-scale unrest and the spread of coronavirus.

Allawi’s resignation came after he failed to form a cabinet approved by parliament, and leaves outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who said he would stay as prime minister until Allawi formed a cabinet, with an uncertain political future.

Ahmed al-Badri, a protester from Baghdad, said pressure from the protests caused the disagreement over cabinet positions that preceded Allawi’s departure.

“The political process is unable to agree on quotas and sharing positions because of the presence of a political actor in the field – they are the protesters,” Badri told The Media Line.

Allawi’s inability to form a new government highlights the difficulties pro-government Shia parties face. Without support from Kurdish and Sunni parties, as well as the protest movement, Allawi was not able to fulfill his mandate, making Iraq’s political future unclear.

Current Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi first resigned in November amid widespread anti-government protests in the capital Baghdad and the south but agreed to remain prime minister until a new one was selected.

The protesters oppose rampant corruption, poor services, sectarianism and Iranian and other foreign influence in the country. One of their demands is a presidential system in which the head of state is elected directly.

Iraq currently has a British-style system in which the public votes for political parties, who are then tasked with forming a government. Power is divided between ethnic and religious groups, similar to Lebanon. The prime minister is a Shia Muslim, the speaker of the parliament a Sunni Muslim, and the president a Kurd.

In February, Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated Allawi, who had until March 2 to form a cabinet approved by parliament. Allawi previously served as a minister under long-time prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Allawi said he supported the protests after his nomination, but was rejected by the demonstrators for being relatively old, having the approval of pro-government parties and serving in a past Iraqi government.

Allawi returned the mandate to form a government in the early hours of March 1 in an address on state television, saying that he had promised to form an independent government and preferred to quit rather than renege on this.

Only 120 members of parliament attended a vote on Allawi’s cabinet nominees, short of the 165 attendees needed. Many Kurdish and Sunni political parties deliberately missed the vote due to concerns that their choices for cabinet positions would not be considered, according to the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.

Many protesters were happy following Allawi’s departure. Badri said that Allawi’s nomination was another example of the sectarian power-sharing in place since the US invasion in 2003.

“Allawi is a continuation of the sectarian and ethnic quotas approach, which has continued since 2003, in the way of selecting the ministerial cabinet and sharing it between the parties of the authority,” he said.

Another student protester in Baghdad said he hoped the president would now choose a candidate tolerated by the protesters, instead of a safe candidate approved by political parties.

“We are relieved he is out of the picture and are now hoping Barham Salih will not let us down twice and bring us an ‘uncontroversial’ interim prime minister,” Karrar, who declined to give his full name, told The Media Line.

Karrar said he doubted the protests had an effect on Allawi’s decision to step down, though.

“We don’t believe he was affected by the pressures from the streets as he’s well-entrenched in the cave the advisers have created for him,” he said. “And from his previous comments, he seems deluded enough to think that he has some sort of support from us.”

Karrar’s comments demonstrate the continued frustration that the largely youthful protesters have with the government. Protesters are still turning up en masse in Baghdad, despite coronavirus concerns.

The lack of participation by protesters and some Sunni and Kurdish parties in forming the government shows that Iraq’s pro-government parties can no longer form a government on their own.

Groups like the Fatih Alliance, which is affiliated with Iran-backed and pro-government armed groups in the country, supported Allawi’s nomination. However, the refusal of Sunni and Kurdish political parties in particular to show up to vote on his nominees shows that pro-government parties lack the political capability to approve a cabinet on their own at present.

Sunni and Kurdish political opposition to the Iraqi government did not start with Allawi’s nomination. Many Kurdish, Sunni and also Christian members of parliament did not attend the January vote on expelling US forces from the country, either.

At that time, Iraq’s Speaker of the Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi warned that the vote was being cast without minority support and could lead to economic consequences, a leaked video shows.

The opposition to Allawi is not a sectarian conflict, however. Though Shia parties supported his candidacy, most of the protests occur in Shia-majority areas. There are also Christian and Sunnis participating in the protests. Powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has waffled between supporting and opposing the protests, also publicly pressured Allawi over his inability to form a cabinet.

Fadel Abu Raghef, a Shi’te Iraqi political analyst and security expert, told The Media Line that the current situation in Iraqi has to do with the control by political blocs in the Iraqi parliament, which created cracks that generated different alliances.

“Currently there is a Shi’ite-Shi’ite alliance and a Sunni-Sunni one, as well as a Kurdish-Kurdish alliance, in addition to a Shi’ite-Sunni one,” Abu Raghef continued. “There’s a clear exclusion of the Sunni and Kurdish components in the country.”

“Iran,” he explained, “sponsors these alliances in Iraq and supports them to maintain its influence in the country. Tehran has influence in the whole area, and not only Baghdad, despite the fact that Iraq is like the Iranian backyard and its historical root.

Regarding an early elections, Abu Raghef affirmed that Iraqi people will not be patient until December to do so, especially with the absence of a parliament, as well as the current health and political threats, “at the same time Iraqi people will not accept any foreign influence in the country, we don’t want Iran to take over Iraq, not any other country.”

President Salih is now tasked with naming another prime minister-designate to form a government, which he has yet to do. Outgoing Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s role is now unclear, and Iraq could soon be without a head of government. Abdul-Mahdi previously said he would leave office on March 2 if a government failed to be formed, according to Reuters.

The same day, some Iraqi media outlets posted claims that Abdul-Mahdi would be taking a “voluntary absence” from the government.

In the meantime, the pressure on the government to nominate a would-be prime minister with more popular support is unlikely to subside.

“Our protests have seen some success but the real win is when we derail the traditional political system in favor of the people,” said Karrar.

Speculation as to who will be the next prime minister-designate has already begun. One member of Iraqi Hizbullah, one of the Iran-backed Hashd militias, warned against Iraq’s intelligence services head Mustafa al-Kazimi becoming the next prime minister. The official, named Abu Ali al-Askry, claimed Kazimi helped the US assassinate Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani along with Hashd leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

“He’s one of those accused of helping the American enemy carry out the crime of assassinating Soleimani and Muhandis,” he wrote on Twitter. “We would see his candidacy as a declaration of war against the Iraqi people.”

Dima Abumaria contributed to this report.

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