by Austin Bay
October 11, 2018
After four months of vote recounts and bitter negotiations following May's indecisive election, in September Iraq's strife-ridden Council of Representatives voted to form the nucleus of a stable government when its parliamentarians agreed to select Barham Salih as president.
In early October, Salih chose Adel Abdul-Mahdi to be prime minister and charged him with forming a new national government. Abdul-Mahdi must accomplish this feat in 30 days.
Agreed, a nucleus is a tenuous achievement and the emerging Iraqi coalition is fragile.
However, given Iraq's horrific recent history and its political and social problems, a governmental seed that over time might produce stability and reform is most encouraging.
Reform: the word matters. In the minds of the vast majority of Iraqi citizens, reforms like implementing the rule of law, punishing governmental and commercial corruption and penalizing mismanagement are the keys to genuine societal and institutional stability.
The new nucleus does not differ structurally from previous post-Saddam Hussein governments.
The three main posts are still distributed according to an ethnic-sectarian formula. The largely ceremonial Iraqi presidency has been reserved for a Kurd and Salih is a Kurd. Adel Abdul Mahdi, in the prime minister's power position, is a Shiite Muslim Arab. The Speaker of the Council of Representatives is Mohammed al-Halbousi, a Sunni Muslim Arab.
All three have flaws and possess complex political backgrounds, but then Iraq is a complex place. Iraqi media regard Salih and Abdul-Mahdi as "consensus" political leaders, meaning they have worked with almost everyone.
A trained economist, Abdul-Mahdi was once a member of the Baath Party, and then became a Marxist, and then an Islamist influenced by Shiite Iran. He has frequently allied with Sunni Kurds and has many Kurdish supporters.
A motley record like that usually indicates lack of principle, whatever the culture and political organization. However, the consensus opinion in Iraq is Abdul-Mahdi is a competent, independent technocrat who successfully served as vice-president and oil minister. In 2004, he served as Iyad Allawi's finance minister in the U.S.-backed transitional national government. Judge his diverse experience as you will, but he enters office with Iranian and American connections.
Moreover, he has the approval of Iraq's senior Shiite religious leader, devout voice of conscience and relentless critic of corruption, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani's support, coupled with his own reputation for honesty, make Abdul-Mahdi a credible reformer.
Which returns us to Iraq's recent history and debilitating problems.
Ethnic and sectarian tensions plagued Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. That isn't a joke; it's a fact. However, Saddam's power grab in 1979 began four decades of intensified turmoil. Sunni Arab Saddam waged war on his own people, attacking Kurds with poison gas, slaughtering Shiite Arabs, murdering Sunni opponents. In 1980, he attacked Shiite Iran. Both Iraq and Iran suffered World War I-type casualties. In 1990, he attacked Kuwait, which sparked war with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and an international coalition.
Debate the wisdom of the 2003 U.S. attack to topple him, but Saddam's dictatorship either created, seeded or exacerbated Iraq's problems, economic, social, political and environmental. Iraq's current water crisis and agricultural issues have roots in Saddam's destruction of Iraq's agricultural sector and failure to invest in infrastructure.
The 2014 invasion by the Islamic State added another level of destruction and distrust. The Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Iraqis blame their own corruption and -- when pressed -- also the withdrawal of American troops by the Obama administration for the Islamic State's invasion. U.S. forces were regarded as a politically neutral, stabilizing element.
In 2018, Iran's dictatorship is fighting a proxy war in Iraq with the goal of keeping Iraq impoverished and weak. For Iran, Iraq is another battlefield for waging war on America.
Abdu-Mahdi's frail nucleus confronts huge challenges. Creating a stable and functioning governmental entity will take a decade or two of focused effort by the Iraqi people and the staunch support of key allies like the U.S.