Iraqi PM’s future uncertain as allies turn on him

Iraqi PM’s future uncertain as allies turn on him
Erstwhile parliamentary allies of the Iraqi Prime Minister have been discussing his departure as protestors defied security forces to gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
4 min read
30 October, 2019
Adel Abdel Mahdi’s former allies are discussing his ouster [Getty]

The future of Iraq's embattled Prime Minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, was in the hands of his erstwhile parliamentary backers on Wednesday, as they deliberated over his ouster after mass anti-government protests that have left over 250 people dead and nearly 8,000 wounded.

Massive rallies broke out in Iraq's capital and south this month against corruption and unemployment, spiralling into angry calls for a total overhaul of the political system.

By Wednesday, demonstrators were waiting to see whether the first fruit of their struggle - the ouster of the prime minister - was finally within reach.

"Isn't it the people who have the power? Isn't it the people who put them all there?" asked protestor Athir Malek, 39.

Read more: Iraq’s protests in pictures

He had come from Diwaniyah, 200 kilometres (130 miles) further south, to join the biggest rallies so far in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, where celebration was in the air.

As rumours swirled that Abdel Mahdi's days were numbered, people rallied in the square for a seventh consecutive day on Wednesday. Despite the high toll of dead and wounded, they have defied orders to clear the streets.

The largest numbers yet - tens of thousands - flooded Tahrir overnight amid blaring horns, fireworks and loud Iraqi music.

Protesters have shrugged off a litany of government reform plans and piled the pressure on Iraq's entrenched political class, saying they want to "weed them all out".

Youssef, 33 expressed optimism late Tuesday as he spent his sixth straight night in the square.

"They said we wouldn't be able to do anything. But even if we change one name, now we have a voice," he said.

Parliament has demanded that the premier appear "immediately" for questioning amid speculation he will face a no-confidence vote.

Athir Malek however retained some scepticism.

"They'll replace Abdel Mahdi with someone else just like him," he told AFP.

Shifting alliances

Abdel Mahdi, 78, came to power last year through a tenuous partnership between populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and powerful paramilitary chief Hadi al-Ameri. But the kingmakers' alliance has since drifted apart.

The protests exposed more clearly than ever the rift between Ameri and Sadr's powerful Sairoon (Forward) bloc, the biggest in parliament, which has backed the demonstrators.

The paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces' - also known as Hashd al-Shaabi - political arm, Fatah, headed by Ameri, is the second-biggest bloc and has so far backed the government.

Several Hashd offices were torched in southern Iraq by protesters last week. Protesters have called for an end to Iranian influence in Iraq.

Sadr extended a hand to Ameri late Tuesday, inviting him to coordinate on a no-confidence vote in Abdel Mahdi and using Twitter to urge the premier to "Get out!"

Hours later, Ameri announced he and Sadr would "work together to achieve the people's demands" - hinting he may agree to a vote on the premier's future.

Sadr took to Twitter again Wednesday to pile on the pressure, warning that failing to oust Abdel Mahdi would "turn Iraq into Syria or Yemen", both engulfed in bloody conflicts.

While the premier's departure would be seen as a "victory" for demonstrators, it would "give protests a break but not break them", said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Demonstrators have demanded deep-rooted reforms, including a new constitution, a reworked electoral law and mass resignations from a government they see as corrupt.

Fantappie cautioned that "even an election with the same election law would bring the same figures into parliament and the same process as last year in selecting the prime minister, which puts you once again at square one".

Since the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq's political system has been gripped by clientelism, corruption and sectarianism.

Corruption, clientelism and sectarianism

That means getting a job in government - by far the country's biggest employer - is often secured with bribes or connections. The country is ranked by Transparency International as the 12th most corrupt in the world.

Read more: Why are people protesting in Iraq?

Anger at the state of affairs had been swelling among the youth, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 40 million people.

Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, while one-in-five live below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.

Inequality has been a major rallying cry for protestors.

An initial six-day wave of demonstrations broke out on 1 October but was met with violence that left 157 people dead, mostly protesters in Baghdad.

The demonstrations resumed on 24 October, with clashes breaking out in the south and heavy use of tear gas canisters in Baghdad, leaving another 85 dead.

They included at least one protester killed overnight in the Shia holy city of Karbala, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.

But the threat of violence did not prevent 55-year-old Hussein Nuri returning to Tahrir Square on Wednesday.

"We want to take back everything they stole," he said.