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Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite Leader – and, Apparently, Iran – Embrace PM-designate
Anti-government protesters are shown on November 15 at a barricade in Baghdad separating them from security forces. (Adam Lucente)

Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite Leader – and, Apparently, Iran – Embrace PM-designate

Nomination of Mohammed Allawi stokes further resentment among anti-government protesters, who seek out-and-out change

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on followers to return to their everyday activities and end their anti-government protests after President Barham Salih chose Mohammed Allawi as prime minister-designate.

Salih’s decision, announced on Saturday, came to the chagrin of protestors, who have been demonstrating since October 1 for a complete change in governance, the removal of ruling elites and an end to corruption – not to mention Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs.

Protesters in the capital and the South rejected Allawi’s nomination immediately, with people taking to the streets in Baghdad, the holy Shi’ite city Najaf and the ancient city of Babil. The Arabic-language hashtag “Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi is rejected by the people’s order” is trending on Twitter, where other anti-Allawi messages have appeared.

“Allawi’s appointment will do little to assuage the fears of the Iraqi protest movement, but we have to also acknowledge that the protests are being hijacked by characters like Muqtada al-Sadr, who is keen to maintain his ‘man of the people’ image despite his proximity to the Iranian regime,” Tallha Abdulrazaq, an expert on Middle Eastern security and counterterrorism at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, told The Media Line.

Sadr’s Sunday Twitter statement fell on the backdrop of flip-flopping demands issued to his followers about participating in the protests, which have been taking place since October 1, so far claiming close to 500 lives.

Salih’s selection of Allawi shows he made good on his pledge to designate the next prime minister if Iraqi lawmakers, including followers of Sadr, could not do so themselves, as is the usual course in Iraq, by February 1. Parliamentarians were considering Allawi, but the two biggest Shi’ite parties were said to be in a deadlock.

“The political parties chose… Mohammed Allawi after the elimination of all other candidates [until] the race simply went down to two choices, and he is the one who got the approval of the major parties,” Farhad Alaaldin, a former adviser to Iraqi presidents and now chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, a Baghdad-based non-profit, told The Media Line.

Allawi, who apparently has the support of many of Iraq’s political parties, has one month to form a new government. If he can do so, he will succeed Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi, who resigned from the post almost two months ago due to the anti-government protests, and was since serving in a caretaker capacity.

According to Alaaldin, Allawi’s next moves will be crucial.

“His success in forming a government depends very much on the type of candidates he puts forward to become ministers, and how he negotiates the approval of the political parties,” he said.

Allawi is a former communications minister. He resigned in 2012, citing corruption. It is said that he did not get along with the prime minister at the time, the US-backed Nuri al-Maliki.

The prime minister-designate’s family has long been influential in the country’s politics – which does not help his standing among the protesters, who want to kick out the old guard.

“It will not escape their attention that he’s the cousin of former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, one of the pillars of the US-led occupation authorities and founders of the present sectarian system,” Abdulrazaq said.

Hasan, a protestor who has participated in the Iraqi demonstrations and asked that his last name not be used, is not thrilled with Salih’s selection Allawi.

“I’m very disappointed because it’s also Iran’s will. The militias succeeded in installing their new guy,” he told The Media Line, referring to the country’s Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, which are reputed to have played an active role in combating the protests with rooftop snipers.

Iran’s interventionism in Iraq spiked after a US drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ clandestine Quds Force, on January 3.

Hasan shared with The Media Line a photo of the front page of an Iranian newspaper. It had pictures Allawi, Sadr and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of an Iranian-backed Iraqi party that the US considers a terrorist organization.

Their pictures appeared under a headline saying: “The fruit of Iraqi unity,” an apparent claim that it was Shi’ite harmony that enabled Allawi’s selection.

Yet it is not entirely clear how Tehran feels about him.

“I don’t think [the Iranians are] particularly concerned right now, because they can muster their influence to cripple his chances of forming a government,” Abdulrazaq said.

“Allawi [is] very close to Washington, but Tehran could easily scupper his attempts at forming a government or it could force its [own] candidates into key cabinet positions and leave [Allawi] in as a figurehead prime minister with little power,” he continued. “They’ve done that before and will likely do it again because there’s no way they will accept losing power in Iraq.”

Karrar, another protester who declined to give his last name, told The Media Line: “It is of utmost disrespect that after all the blood that’s been shed, the candidate is proposed by the same parties we protesters rose up against.”

The demonstrators had been demanding that the next prime minister be young and not have served in any cabinet that has governed Iraq since the 2003 US invasion.

“The parties brought someone from an ancient generation who has no clue of what is going on in today’s Iraq,” Karrar said. “Nor has he lived in the catastrophic environment we are subject to every day.”

Allawi is 65-years-old, according to media reports.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech in the United States, told The Media Line that while Iran has congratulated Allawi, the future of ties between Tehran and Baghdad remains to be seen.

“It is too early to say what impact [Salih’s choice] will have on Iran-Iraq relations [as Allawi] has to succeed in forming a cabinet,” he told The Media Line.

“Having the support of… Sadr is important for him due to the number of votes Sadr’s blocs control in parliament,” Boroujerdi said, adding that Iran’s backing is crucial to whether these blocs will fall in line.

Lawk Ghafuri, a journalist at the Kurdish media outlet Rudaw English, says logic shows that Allawi would not have been nominated had the Islamic Republic not given its blessing.

“Pro-Iran political parties in parliament and pro-Iran militias in the streets highly supported Abdel-Mahdi for a reason,” Ghafuri told The Media Line, referring to the previous prime minister. “[Allawi] would never have come to power if Tehran had not given the green light.”

Ghafuri added his belief that Washington also had a say.

“The same goes for the US,” he stated. “No one can come to power without acceptance from both sides.”

Adam Lucente filed from Erbil, Iraq.

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