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Iraq protests: Pressured by movement, Prime Minister says he will resign

Iraq Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation would make him another prominent political casualty in a wave of recent anti-government unrest that has swept the region.

By: New York Times | Baghdad | Updated: November 30, 2019 7:46:37 am
Iraq protests: Pressured by movement, Prime Minister says he will resign Young men climb scaffolding to reach the upper levels of an unfinished building overlooking mass protests in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Nov. 1, 2019. (The New York Times: Ivor Prickett)

Written by Alissa J. Rubin

Pressured by an expanding protest movement and a rising death toll, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi of Iraq said Friday that he would submit his resignation to parliament, taking the country into greater uncertainty and possibly months of turmoil ahead.

Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation would make him another prominent political casualty in a wave of recent anti-government unrest that has swept the region.

Deep seated anger over corruption and Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics are the major drivers of the protests across Iraq. In Lebanon, citizen rage over that country’s dysfunctional government pushed its prime minister to announce his resignation in October. And in Iran itself, authorities scrambled to crush protests and riots in 100 cities set off a few weeks ago by an abrupt increase in fuel prices — the deadliest unrest to hit Iran in years.

The prime minister’s announcement was a particularly bitter blow for Iran, which had hand-picked Abdul-Mahdi and on Wednesday suffered an attack on its consulate in the southern city of Najaf. The building was severely damaged by firebombs thrown by protesters.

Iran has repeatedly sought to prop up Abdul-Mahdi since he became prime minister in 2018, according to leaked Iranian intelligence reports obtained by The Intercept and shared with The New York Times. Abdul-Mahdi worked closely with Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power, and for years he served as a member of a large Shiite party tied to Iran. He became an independent in 2017, but the leaked cables suggest he kept close ties to Iran in recent years.

Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement Friday initially prompted jubilant celebrations at the main protest site, Tahrir Square in Baghdad, but the happiness faded quickly, tempered by mourning for people killed in the protests and an acknowledgment there will be little immediate change.

Iraq protests: Pressured by movement, Prime Minister says he will resign Anti-government protesters set fire while security forces close Rasheed Street during clashes in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. (AP Photo: Khalid Mohammed)

“This is the first step,” said Hiatt Mehdi, 60, a widow with seven children, including a son who has been demonstrating for the last 35 days without coming home. She had come to Tahrir Square to congratulate her son that his efforts seemed to have been rewarded by Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement.

“But it’s really not enough,” she said.

Abdul-Mahdi’s decision was announced a day after at least 40 protesters were killed in a violent crackdown following the attack on the Iranian Consulate that fanned demonstrations across Iraq’s Shiite south.

Explained | What’s happening in Iraq?

At least 354 have been killed since anti-government protests began at the start of October and more than 8,000 have been wounded, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said. Its most recent report notes “the actual total is likely to be higher.”

Many of those killed, like one boy, Hussein Abid, 16, who was shot Thursday near Al Ahrar bridge in Baghdad, look even younger than their age; they are largely unarmed and come from poor families. He came from Sadr City, a vast Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad.

Iraq protests: Pressured by movement, Prime Minister says he will resign By offering his resignation, Abdul-Mahdi would be taking the first step to prompt a change in the government.

The protests and accompanying violence have occurred almost entirely in Baghdad and the Shiite south of Iraq, where mostly young people and poorer people have taken to the streets demanding sweeping changes in the political system. They want to see an end to the political parties, which demand kickbacks for licenses, contracts and jobs.

Even young people applying for low-level positions like security guards or elementary schoolteachers who are not affiliated with the correct party might be asked to pay $5,000 for a state job, a large sum for most Iraqis. In Iraq, government positions are viewed as the only secure jobs and the private sector remains small.

Many of the parties that dominate parliament are close to Iran and it is an open secret that Iranian officials helped to set up the current government last year, brokering an agreement that brought in Abdul-Mahdi, President Barham Salih and the house speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi.

Earlier this month Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, Iran’s elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard, brokered an agreement to keep Abdul-Mahdi in office for at least six weeks, but the protests and criticism from Shiite religious leaders in Najaf cut short Abdul-Mahdi’s reprieve.

In Iran, where officials were already furious over the Najaf consulate destruction, Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement only added fuel to their suspicions that Iran’s enemies in the Middle East were behind it. The recent turmoil in both Iraq and Iran was part of a “coordinated regional plot to destroy the relationship between our two countries,” said Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, a former Quds Force commander.

“Iranians should know that this is by no means what the Iraqi government, politicians or officials want,” Masjedi told Iranian state television. “It’s not what the Iraqi people want.”

Iraq protests: Pressured by movement, Prime Minister says he will resign The protestors who are fueled by anger at widespread corruption and poor public services have been trying for days to cross the Tigris River where the government is headquartered. (AP Photo)

In a statement issued by his office Friday, Abdul-Mahdi said he was stepping down so that the government could “reconsider its options” and “preserve the blood of its people, and avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos and devastation.”

Pressure has been building for some time on the prime minister, who was also facing the growing threat of a humiliating parliamentary no-confidence petition. He said his decision was prompted after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, on Friday urged the parliament to “reconsider its options” and to stop procrastinating, or “the country will pay a high price and everyone will regret it.”

Washington had wanted Abdul-Mahdi to remain in power, fearing that if he were swept away — as some protesters have wanted — it would lead to chaos, more extensive bloodshed or even a renewed civil war. The United States is interested in maintaining Iraqi stability as a bulwark against Islamist extremists.

Still, the United States is seeking changes in the Iraqi political system to root out corruption and create an electoral system less dominated by sectarian political parties. Those parties have tended to divide up the spoils and do little to represent the people.

By offering his resignation, Abdul-Mahdi would be taking the first step to prompt a change in the government.

But the potential loomed for protracted delays in forming a new government. Abdul-Mahdi, who a month ago expressed a willingness to step down but held off, has not yet submitted his resignation, though he is expected to follow through this time.

The parliament could accept Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation as soon as Sunday, when it meets after the Muslim weekend. That would leave Abdul-Mahdi and his ministers in a caretaker government until a new prime minister is named by Salih. Under the Iraqi constitution that should take place quickly but in the past agreeing on a prime minister has proved to be a tortuous process of balancing competing political factions that, in Abdul-Mahdi’s case, took a year.

The prospect of delay helps explain why the initial euphoria on the street Friday was diminished by the acknowledgment among the protesters that without far broader changes, Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation would contribute little to their long-term goal of transforming the Iraqi state.

“Adel Mahdi’s resignation means nothing,” said Abdul Mutalib, 26, a pharmacist.

”This is just like a drug, an injection to anesthetize the people,” Mutalib said. “It doesn’t bring any change.”

The protesters have called for a complete overhaul of the system that would push many of the parties out of the parliament, depriving them of lucrative ministries. But it remains to be seen if they can persuade lawmakers to vote to disband a system that has served their interests.

Salih is pushing for an election law that would achieve those goals. But the version he sent to parliament has already been amended into something that seems likely to perpetuate the current system, legal experts say.

For many of the protesters, who have already spent weeks on the street, the events Friday were just one stop on what they expect to be a long road, said Abu Mohammad, 45, a construction worker and father of six.

“We don’t know who Adel Abdul-Mahdi is, he did not come through elections,” he said. “We want all of the government to resign, we don’t want parties, so this step of Adel means nothing, they are trying to fool us and then they will replace him with someone worse.”

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