Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, ex Iraq’s oil minister and Vice President of Iraq, announced plans to resign in the wake of a rapidly rising death toll in anti-government protests across the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Resigns in Deepening Political Crisis
Mahdi made the announcement on Friday, just one day after security forces opened fire on a protest group in Nasiriya, a city in Iraq’s south. At least 24 people died, and more than 210 were injured, according to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. Four protesters died in Baghdad and 10 died in Najaf Thursday — making it one of the bloodiest days since the protests began in October.
The protests began in opposition to corruption, Iraq’s high unemployment rate, and foreign interference, but have now evolved into a complete rejection of the political establishment. And many protesters have expressed anger over the violent response that has met demonstrators: at least 354 people have been killed by security forces, with at least another 8,104 injured.
Following the violence in Nasiriya, Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top cleric, criticized the government’s heavy-handed approach and urged parliament to withdraw its support from Mahdi’s government to prevent further deaths.
Friday, Mahdi headed that call, saying he was swayed by the religious leader’s words and would voluntarily step aside in order to help Iraq “preserve the blood of its people, and avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos and devastation.”
Following the resignation, protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, at which many demonstrators have camped out for almost two months, burst into celebration. But many noted their joy was mixed with caution: Mahdi’s resignation came at the cost of hundreds of lives and many acknowledged change will not be imminent.
Political rivalries and the influence of Iran led to Mahdi staying on as prime minister when protests initially began in October — at that time, he pledged to stay in his position until a successor was agreed upon. But given it took the country’s ruling parties one year to agree to Mahdi as prime minister, protesters were not optimistic he would be leaving office any time in the near future.
Now that he has agreed to resign, the search for the successor will need to be accelerated. Parliament could vote to accept Mahdi’s resignation as early as Sunday — but that’s just the beginning of a long series of reforms that need to be addressed.
“We want true electoral reforms. We want real change,” a protester named Mortada. “It’s not one man, it’s the whole system that needs to resign.”
This is just the first step in a long road to government reform.
The protests first began on October 1 and were fueled by Mahdi’s demotion of Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a popular counter-terrorism chief. Despite his role in helping defeat ISIS, many presumed al-Saadi was sidelined because he worked closely with the US — which infuriated Iran, a country that’s been criticized for being too heavily involved in Iraqi politics.
While anger over al-Saadi’s demotion lit a fire under many civilians, their grievances against authorities weren’t limited to the official’s treatment. Demonstrators protesting on behalf of al-Saadi also began to vocalize socioeconomic criticisms, from concerns over high unemployment rates, the need for better electricity, and what they said was the government’s neglect of damaged infrastructure.
These demonstrations ballooned into the current, sweeping anti-corruption protests that target the government broadly, demanding power be restructured in the country and rejecting the influence of Iran, which, according to reports by the Intercept and New York Times, has worked to support Mahdi and to meddle in Iraqi politics.
Mahdi’s decision to step down satisfies just one of the protesters’ many demands. Specifically, the protesters are calling for sweeping changes that include: resignation of all high-profile politicians; the resignation of the current parliament and provincial council; electoral reforms; and a rewrite of the constitution.
Or as Taif, one of the protesters occupying Tahrir Square, told: “Until this sick system is destroyed, we won’t leave.”
The current system of government, which was meant to represent Iraq’s Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds, was built with the help of the US after it led an invasion in 2003 that brought down Saddam Hussein. However, the people are pointing to it as the root cause of their grievances, as reported by Vox’s Jen Kirby:
The political class has benefitted as the rest of Iraq has suffered. Corruption permeates every level of government, and officials largely act with impunity. Political leaders benefit from lucrative patronage networks. According to Haaretz, $450 billion in oil revenues that should have gone back to the state has gone missing, most likely into the pockets of political elites and their cronies.
As Iraqis deal with electricity shortages and cities still in ruins, they’re directly linking that political corruption with their own worsening situations.
“This is reaction to 16 years of system failure,” Fanar Haddad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me. “The sense that this is a political system that has cohered that robs the many for the services of the few and those with connections to the few.”
For many of the protesters, Mahdi perfectly represents this “system failure.”
It’s unclear how fast things will move following Mahdi’s resignation announcement. Parliament could vote to accept his resignation as early as Sunday, turning Mahdi’s cabinet into a caretaker government — one that has minimal duties to keep the country functioning — until a new candidate is nominated.
Historically, however, this process has taken months as different political factions try to balance power. It doesn’t help that the constitution doesn’t state how long Mahdi’s government can hold on to its caretaker status if the nomination of a new candidate is delayed.
There’s also concern that the disputes between Sairoon and Fatah will reemerge, throwing the country’s political state into more uncertainty. US officials have voiced fears that should the two parties come to a protracted impasse, it could allow for extremists to grow in Iraq again.
And it’s also unclear to what extent new leadership and current reforms recommended by Iraq’s president will satisfy protesters. Most, like Taif, have signaled no plans to abandon their protests and that they will continue pressuring their government to commit to more extensive reforms.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi al-Muntafiki (born 1 January 1942) is an Iraqi politician who served as Prime Minister of Iraq from October 2018 to December 2019. Abdul-Mahdi is an economist and was one of the Vice Presidents of Iraq from 2005 to 2011. He formerly served as the Finance Minister in the Interim government and Oil Minister from 2014 to 2016.
Mahdi is a former member of the powerful Shi’a party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC. Long based in neighboring Iran, the group opposed a United States administration while holding close ties with the other U.S.-backed groups that opposed Saddam Hussein, including the Kurds and the Iraqi National Congress.
Mahdi was born in Baghdad in 1942, the son of a Shiite cleric who was a minister in Iraq’s monarchy. He attended high school at Baghdad College, an elite American Jesuit secondary school. After graduating, he attended Baghdad University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics in 1963. He worked as a secretary for the Iraqi foreign ministry in 1965 and was an early supporter of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, but left due to ideological disagreements. In 1969, he moved to France where he worked for French think tanks and edited magazines in French and Arabic. In 1972 he obtained another Master of Arts degree in political economy from the University of Poitiers. He later obtained a PhD in economics.
In 2006, Abdul-Mahdi, outgoing Vice President in the transitional government, unsuccessfully ran for the United Iraqi Alliance’s nomination for Prime Minister against incumbent Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He lost by one vote. He was reportedly considered to be a possibility for Prime Minister once again until Nouri al-Maliki became the UIA nominee. Subsequently, Abdul-Mahdi was re-elected as Vice President of Iraq. He exerted his limited authority in that role by delaying the first meeting of the National Assembly in March. He resigned from his position as vice-president on 31 May 2011.
On 26 February 2007, he survived an assassination attempt that killed ten people. He had been targeted two times prior to this latest attack.
In 2009, his bodyguards were the perpetrators of a bloody bank robbery in Baghdad.
In July 2013, Abdul-Mahdi announced his decision to give up his retirement pensions as a former vice president.
On 2 October 2018, Iraqi president Barham Salih selected Abdul-Mahdi to be the Prime Minister of Iraq. Mahdi had 30 days to form a new government. On 25 October 2018, Abdul Mahdi was sworn into office five months after the 2018 elections.
In April 2019, Abdul-Mahdi met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. He announced a $14 billion plan to upgrade Iraq’s electricity infrastructure, with likely cooperation with German company Siemens. Merkel also pledged to strengthen economic and security cooperation between the two countries, and to continue German support for reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Ms. Angela Merkel assures Iraq of Germany’s support to rebuild the country. Following talks with Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi at the Federal Chancellery, Chancellor Angela Merkel assured him of Germany’s support in rebuilding his country. It was the Prime Minister’s inaugural visit to Berlin. (Dumitru Sorin).
Adel Abdul Mahdi and his international security head advisors and lead experts from France, the USA, Iraq and Romania, at his private residence in Souhern Iraq, Basrah Nasiriya Di Qar Province.