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Iraq: Political Butterfly Lands the Top Job

Iraq: Political Butterfly Lands the Top Job

Friday, 5 October, 2018 - 08:15
New Iraqi President Barham Salih and Adel Abdul Mahdi the Iraqi Prime Minister-designate. AAWSAT AR
London - Amir Taheri
Defying the doom-mongers who claim that Iraq is paralyzed by its internal divisions, the political establishment in Baghdad has just forged a compromise on both the presidency and the premiership ending weeks of intense political maneuvering.

Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial post under “new” Iraq’s Constitution, it would be wrong to dismiss it as irrelevant. The president symbolizes the unity of the Iraqi peoples and the dignity of their state. He is also charged with the task of naming a prime minister and, at times of political crisis, is looked upon as a conduit for conflict resolution. Beyond that much depends on the personality of the man named president. As president, the late Jalal Talabani was a larger figure than his ceremonial post.

Though the new President Barham Salih lacks Talabani’s stature or outgoing President Fouad Masum’s charm, he shouldn’t be written off as anything but part of the political décor in Baghdad.

However, the key appointment right now is that of Adel Abdul Mahdi as Prime Minister-designate.

The 76-year old politician who has served as Minister of Finance, Minister of Oil and Vice President succeeded in securing the support of almost all rival groups in the Shiite camp, including the bloc led by Moqtada al-Sadr, who preaches Iraqi nationalism, and the bloc led by Hadi al-Ameri, who is close to Tehran. However, he also won support from the bloc led by outgoing Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and the faction led by Nouri al-Maliki, Iran’s chief pawn on the Iraqi political chessboard.

Because Abdul Mahdi has recast himself as an independent figure by leaving his old Shiite allies clustered around the Hakim family, he is able to be the first prime minister of “new” Iraq to stand above party politics. That could be both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, Abdul Mahdi may be able to steer clear of the shenanigans that have marred Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, however, the rival blocs that have backed his premiership may withdraw their support at any time, leaving him without a majority in the parliament.

Abdul Mahdi could be described as a rare bird in the Iraqi political aviary. He hails from a prominent family of clerics and politicians under the monarchy.

Despite his family’s clerical links, he was sent to the American Jesuit College in Baghdad where Christian dogma and history formed an important part of the curriculum. When the military seized power in Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi was attracted to the opposition Baath Party that preached pan-Arab nationalism with a dose of socialism.

However, Baathism wasn’t to be Abdul Mahdi’s final political home. His next stop was the Communist Party where Abdul Mahdi first came into contact with the concept of political economy and class struggle and dialectical materialism.

Much like a butterfly who can’t dwell on a single flower for long, Abdul Mahdi soon abandoned his Communist abode by joining a Maoist splinter faction. Having spent a spell in prison for his political activities, Abdul Mahdi managed to flee into exile in France where he found another new home in Social democratic groups. Decades of life in France gave Abdul Mahdi an opportunity to directly experience life in a secular democracy while working in various think-tanks and editing magazines in French and Arabic.

For all intents and purposes, France became the second home for Abdul Mahdi. It was there that he married and saw the birth of his four children all of whom have French nationality. It was also in France that Abdul Mahdi built a network of friends among fellow academics and economists.

Through all those changes of political allegiance, Abdul Mahdi remained faithful to one single idea: getting rid of the despotic regime in Baghdad that, from 1970 onwards, was to be identified with the person of Saddam Hussein.

Like many other Iraqi exiles, he looked to Iran under the Shah for support.

However, in 1975 Saddam Hussein signed the treaty that the Shah had dictated and the Shah, in return, ceased all support for the dictator’s Kurdish and Shiite opponents. The 1979 regime change in Iran, brought Iraqi exiles a new potential source of support in the newly created "Islamic Republic" in Tehran. Abdul Mahdi found a new political home and, still in exile in France, hobnobbed with exiles who propagated an “Iranian solution” for Iraq. However, he was careful enough to preserve his independent status both as an economist and an Iraqi political activist.

Despite eight years of exceptionally costly war, the Khomeinist republic in Iran was unable to topple Saddam Hussein. That feat had to wait until 2003 when a US-led coalition broke Saddam’s decades-long hold on power in Baghdad.

The “butterfly” had little difficulty in appreciating a new flower in the shape of the multi-party parliamentary democracy that the American “liberators” offered. Armed with his American Jesuit education and his fluency in English, Abdul Mahdi played a key role in shaping the post-liberation Constitution under which he now becomes prime minister. Senior American military commanders and diplomats identified Abdul Mahdi as one of the most reliable Iraqi political figures with whom they could work in pursuit of common interest.

Abdul Mahdi faces several huge challenges. On the domestic front, he has to curb corruption which has gangrened the entire political system. On the foreign policy front, he has to reconcile the contradictory interests and ambitions of a still expansionist Iran and the increasingly self-asserting Trump administration in Washington. The “butterfly” would need all the toughness it can master.

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