Sami Moubayed

Iraq's new political order can fix the country

  2018-10-13 18:46      364 View        Comment

Baghdad’s broken politics and structural challenges are among the key priorities that new President Salih and Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi have to confront.
At face value, the two new leaders of Iraq, President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, seem to have very little in common, standing at opposite ends of the political spectrum. The former is a secular and maverick politician who dabbles in fluent English, handles his own Twitter account, and has never carried a gun in his life; while the latter is a hot-tempered Communist-turned Islamist who hails from a religiously driven political party. They are two generations apart: Abdul Mehdi was born under monarchial rule during the midst of the Second World War, and Saleh in 1960, early in the years of military dictatorship. A scratch beneath the surface, however, shows multiple layers of overlapping interests and agendas, revealing two very pragmatic leaders, capable of restoring some normality to their war-torn country.

For starters, both come from decent families that valued hard work and “clean money”. This makes them automatically different from the many politicians who rose to power after 2003, dying to make an overnight fortune. President Salih’s father was a judge at the Iraqi Court of Appeals, who graduated from Baghdad University in 1952. He had a tremendous intellectual impact on his son, and so did Abdul Mehdi Al Muntafiki, father of the new prime minister — a Shiite notable who served as member of parliament from 1925-1949, and briefly as Cabinet minister under Iraq’s founding monarch, Faisal I. As Minister of Education in 1926, Al Muntafiki sent Iraqi students on scholarship to study in Europe and hired top Egyptian educators to teach in Baghdad. No wonder he sent his son to an elite American college, then to the University of Poitiers in France, one of the oldest in Europe.

Abdul Mehdi had studied Economics in Paris, while Salih obtained a degree in Civil Engineering from the Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, followed by a PhD in Statistics from the University of Liverpool. The two men entered politics during their teens, with Salih joining the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1976, and Abdul Mehdi flirting first with the Iraqi Communist Party, then with the Iran-funded Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, later renamed the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). One sought a secular independent republic in Kurdistan, the other a theocracy in Baghdad. Both were on the same page, however, when it came to opposing Saddam Hussain and supporting the 2003 invasion of the country by the United States.

Both milked their party affiliations to death, using them to join the post-Saddam order, although by then, both had outgrown their juvenile political dreams. Salih scaled one peak after another, becoming prime minister of Kurdistan in 2001-2004, and deputy prime minister of Iraq in 2004-2005, and then again in 2006-2009. Abdul Mehdi was less lucky, having repeatedly failed at becoming prime minister in the past, although he served as cabinet minister, and as vice-president of Iraq from 2005-2011. Trying to come across as a pan-Iraqi politician, rather than a Shiite statesman, he parted ways with SIIC in 2017, while Salih left the PUK, creating the independent Coalition for Democracy and Justice, also seeking cross-ethnic legitimacy. Within traditional Shiite and Kurdish circles, both have been accused of opportunism and backing out on their traditional allies.

Now that they are the helm, the two men face colossal challenges. It includes manoeuvring with neighbouring Iran, which still controls large chunks of the Iraqi Shiite street and is capable of creating havoc. Abdul Mehdi’s predecessor Haidar Al Abadi lost Iranian support after cuddling up to Saudi Arabia and agreeing to abide by US sanctions on the Iranian economy. Learning from his mistakes — and subsequent fall from grace, Abdul Mehdi stuck to his Iranian allies during last May’s parliamentary elections, while shortly after assuming power, President Salih appointed Aras Shaikh Jangi, a good friend of Qasim Sulaimani, as his personal adviser. Both cannot cross the US or Iran, and will have to stand at arms-length from the two countries who are currently at daggers drawn.

Lack of basic services

The two men also need to find solutions for the port city of Basra, gripped by non-stop street demonstrations carried out by angry Iraqi Shiites who are fed up with lack of basic services such as regular electricity and clean drinking water. They feel abandoned and betrayed by consecutive Iraqi governments since 2003 and are pinning their hopes on the incoming prime minister. If solutions are not formulated, they will continue to protest, crippling the new team, from day one.

Another challenge is how to mend relations between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, strained after a full independence vote carried out in September 2017. This will be particularly difficult for President Salih, who supported the vote and yet, has to come across today as a Iraqi leader, rather than a Kurdish one. Then, the two men have to find ways to rebuild destroyed cities and towns, some razed to the ground by the 2014-2018 war on Daesh. According to the Iraqi Government, rebuilding cities such as Mosul and Tikrit will cost a whopping $88 billion (Dh323.66 billion) — money that Iraq does not have, but can raise, thanks to increased oil production, higher oil prices and reduction in military spending, now that the war on Daesh is coming to an end.

From Al-Jazeera English

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former carnegie scholar.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: 
At the frontier of the New Jihad.

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