As Muqtada al-Sadr brings new hope of a new non-sectarian nationalist politics to Iraq, the selection of Barham Salih as president and Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister confirm the positive trend. Marco Cornelos writes on the subject:
On 2 October, the Iraqi parliament appointed Kurdish politician Barham Salih as the new president of the republic. This is good news for the country and for the region.
Salih is a sophisticated and experienced personality, relentless in promoting dialogue and coexistence. He knows the complexities and the shortcomings of his country, the composite interests of its neighbours, and how to address the international community to maintain the support to Iraq. Although the provisions of the Iraqi constitution limit his powers, the new president, through his authoritativeness, will definitely raise the profile of the presidency in Iraqi policy; hopefully, he will also be able to lessen the intricacies of its political system.
Salih could play an important role in steering Washington away from making more fateful mistakes in the region; similarly, he could also soften certain “basic instincts” coming from some political circles in Tehran. In assuming his new role, Salih behaved differently from any other Iraqi politician arriving in such a high position. Only two hours after his oath, he formally asked Adel Abdul Mahdi to form a new government. Someone else would have waited days, maybe weeks, to revel their newly acquired power and take credit for Mahdi’s selection.
The tandem between the new president and the newly designated prime minister could be one of the more promising events that Iraq has been waiting for, for many years.
The challenges facing the new Iraqi leadership are daunting. Three priorities top the long list of what needs to be done. The first one is restoring basic services to the population, particularly in two critical areas: the ones liberated from Islamic State and in southern Iraq, which has been criminally neglected for decades and is now on the brink of an environmental disaster. The second is fighting corruption, together with streamlining bureaucratic procedures to attract investment, relaunch the economy and post-war reconstruction. The third priority is an effective counter-intelligence and law-enforcement effort to completely eradicate Da’esh. Reliable high-ranking Iraqi sources point to at least 20,000 jihadists still at large in the country, not only in the western part but also in north and western Baghdad, western Mosul and Kirkuk.
Nonetheless, a sense of fresh air is provided by the recent political developments. Iraq is distancing itself from its previous religious and ethnic sectarianism. Political blocs have more cross-confessional and cross-ethnic configuration.
Signs of political maturity in the Iraqi scene
One of the evident signs of the increasing political maturity in Iraq is that the same Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) – the Iran-backed militia, which played a major role in defeating IS – are engaged in an outreach exercise towards disgruntled Sunni constituencies. Iraq’s Sunnis have been affected by the shifting power balance in the country, the cruelty of Daesh and the destruction imposed by the conflict in the last four years.
Appointing Salih as president, Iraqi MPs also decided independently and against the will of the main Kurdish political party, the KDP.
Solid rumours point to the selection of Adel Abdul Mahdi for prime minister as the result of a tripartite agreement among the most important Shia power brokers in the region: Iranian IRGC Commander Qassem Suleimani, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Therefore, if Iraq was a boxing match, Suleimani has prevailed over Brett McGurk, the US president’s special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, on points. Washington’s first choice as head of the government, the outgoing prime minister Haider al-Abadi, has been sidelined. Notwithstanding his merits in the successful conflict against IS, certain reservations about him in Tehran and the cold shoulder from Najaf’s Marja’aya, Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority, turned out to be insurmountable.
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