Corruption Iraq Resilience & Society
MENASource October 31, 2019

With Abdul-Mahdi offering to resign, what’s next for Iraq?

By Middle East programs

Atlantic Council experts react to the announcement of the Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigning.

Abbas Kadhim is the Director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

“In his address to the Iraqi people on October 31, President Barham Salih referred to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s offer to resign if the two major parliamentary blocs (Sairoon and Fatah) that made a deal to nominate him for the post can agree on a replacement. Abdul-Mahdi was responding to a letter from Muqtada al-Sadr who had asked him on October 28 to “go to the Parliament and announce an early elections under UN supervision and soon.” Abdul-Mahdi’s response on the following day put the ball in the court of the political parties that nominated and confirmed him. These same political parties did not show true support for Abdul-Mahdi’s program of governance and instead continued to blackmail his ministers for corrupt favors.

President Salih seems to have given everyone a reasonable way out. If his plan is accepted, the protesters can go home having accomplished what they demanded, albeit not immediately, Abdul-Mahdi will avoid a vote of no-confidence, and Iraq will be saved from an unprecedented constitutional stalemate. Most importantly, there will be hope for significant reforms sponsored by the president and supported by a mandate from the protesters if the political elite honor their end of the deal. Iraq has great potential but is short on statesmen who can lead the country to reach that potential.”

C. Anthony Pfaff is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“The resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) Adil Abdul-Mahdi should come as no surprise, but it should also come with a muted sense of relief. Mahdi’s security forces killed over a hundred protestors and wounded countless others. It is very difficult to come back from crossing that line and maintain the legitimacy required to make the reforms needed to address the protestors’ demands. However, that sense of relief should be muted as it is not clear who can take his place and do any better. The next Iraqi PM needs to direct government funds away from corrupt and inefficient agencies and towards recovery and reconstruction. He needs to invest in major infrastructure improvements, especially energy and transportation, so the economy can grow. Even trickier, he needs to promote development of a private sector without destabilizing the state-owned institutions that are Iraq’s biggest employers. While doing all this, he also needs to avoid the appearance of sectarian loyalties, and especially not appear under the influence of foreign powers, especially Iran and the United States.

None of that is going to be easy. Addressing any of those concerns attacks entrenched interests resulting in more protests. Having said that, the new Iraqi PM is not without resources. The Iraqi public is ready for change. Moreover, as these latest protests have demonstrated, this public is fed-up with sectarian politics and are looking for a leader who can unite them. If he can unite this public sentiment to push through the variety of measures described above, Iraq could finally be on a road to real recovery. The international community can help, but Iraq needs to demonstrate this commitment to reform first. While a real nationalist could emerge, the Iraqi parliament does not have a history of picking the best qualified candidate, but rather the least threatening to their interests. If they cannot do better this time, it will be business as usual and given the enduring nature of these protests, it is not clear how much longer that can go on.”

Thomas S. Warrickis a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi offered to resign as Prime Minister of Iraq to give Iraq’s other political parties a chance to see if they can agree who should replace him. Because it takes an absolute majority in the Iraqi parliament to name a new Prime Minister, it’s not at all clear that they can.

Abd al-Mahdi is one of the most experienced and skilled Iraqi political leaders of his generation. There are no obvious successors acceptable to the Iraqi people. If his successor also has to be acceptable to the United States and Iran—a factor that held up agreement over previous prime ministers—the question who will succeed Abd al-Mahdi becomes ten times more difficult.

The current crisis started in September with popular demonstrations sparked by the dismissal of Lt. Gen. Abd al-Wahab al-Saadi, a popular general who led the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Some Iraqi security services over-reacted with violence against protesters. This helped transform popular discontent into a social force—but one that does not fit into the current sectarian and ethnic-based political parties that dominate the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s parliament.

Abd al-Mahdi suggested earlier this week that two key Iraqis should try to agree on his successor. Muqtada al-Sadr, known in Washington for fiery anti-Americanism during the 2003-2011 occupation, is now regarded as leading a movement that is both anti-corruption and anti-Iran. Though not in parliament himself, he has what many regard as the largest number of parliamentary supporters in Iraq’s fractionated parliament. Hadi al-Amiri, former head of the Badr Organization, a group funded for years by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force, leads the second-largest bloc in the Council of Representatives. Both of these groups have significant opposition. Even if these two blocs got together, it’s hard to see whether they could form a lasting government, or whether it could achieve the reforms Iraqis have demanded.

It’s increasingly clear that Iraqis need to consider serious constitutional reforms. Iraq’s present constitution, adopted in 2005, was drafted by Iraqis with some American and international help that, to put it charitably, could have been much better. The present system intentionally gives a lot of power to the sectarian and ethnic-based parties recognized by the United States and Iran after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. It’s a recipe for gridlock and an inability to legislate or to govern. Serious reform of the current system, which many Iraqis recognize is both ineffective and corrupt, is almost impossible under the current constitution. Abd al-Mahdi has rightly insisted that whatever happens should be done under the current constitution. A challenge to the principle of constitutional government would not be in the interest of Iraqis, the West, nor even Iran. While one group of Iraqis needs to solve the immediate problem of finding a prime minister broadly acceptable to Iraqis—which, ironically, could be Abd al-Mahdi himself—other Iraqis should consider constitutional reform if constitutional government in Iraq is to be saved.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Abbas Kadhim, C. Anthony Pfaff, and Thomas S. Warrick

Image: Iraqi demonstrators wearing masks attend an anti-government protest in Najaf, Iraq October 31, 2019. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani