Why Abdel Mahdi has to go: Many mistakes by the US, Iran and the Marjaiya.

By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai

The democratically elected Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has fallen. 241 members of parliament voted for his resignation, in accordance with the request of the Marjaiya in Najaf, the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani: Abdel Mahdi must end his term much earlier than planned in response to his mismanagement of the civilian uprising. 

Abdel Mahdi is not responsible for the longstanding corruption in Iraq where, as in Lebanon, the political system is controlled by “whales,” political parties that control the ruling system and share the wealth among themselves. However, as commander in chief of the security forces, he is responsible for the killing of a large number of protestors. Most of these protestors are not beholden to Iran, the US, or any other country in the region. They are the new Middle Eastern generation, unwilling to accept the submissiveness of their parents and ancestors to a long-dominant, unfair and corrupt ruling system. 

The US liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein but committed serious mistakes, starting from the beginning of their rule in Mesopotamia. Iran imposed its influence when a vacuum arose, but Iran also made mistakes. The Marjaiya in Najaf became involved in the political process after the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein; it became directly involved in parliamentary politics.  The Marjaiya pulled out of politics when it realised the impossibility of navigating within Iraq’s corrupt political system and took its distance until the recent protests. Iraq’s culture differs from other Middle Eastern countries; it is more susceptible to rumours and manipulated mobs. Today, Iraqis are taking over the streets with one agenda: changing everything and everybody. Moqtada al-Sadr and other regional and international players (the US and the United Arab Emirates mainly) seek to manipulate this protest movement. Where is the country headed? What roles will the US and Iran play in Iraq’s future?

Both the US and Iran seek a friendly government in Baghdad that will not threaten their respective strategic plans in the Middle East. The US does not want Iraqi democracy. President Donald Trump, who jokingly calls Egypt’s al-Sisi his “favourite dictator”, will be happy with a sympathetic authoritarian regime in Baghdad. The US would like to see Baghdad behaving as submissively as Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, which serves as a permanent base for US troops, US investors and is friendly to Israel. Iran’s goals are to break the US sanctions, maintain quasi-state actors in Iraq in harmony with its ideology in case the government in Baghdad becomes hostile, and to see US forces leave Iraq.

The Iraqi population has another agenda. Notwithstanding the fragile but democratically elected parliament and government in the country, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of many cities, mainly but not exclusively Shia majority cities. Demonstrators are not demanding a change in the democratic system but the end of government mismanagement, the arrest of corrupt politicians, a new electoral system that allows people to choose leaders directly rather than from the major political parties, new job opportunities- nevertheless with serious constitutional reforms. The brutal response of the security forces leftover 432 killed and thousands of injured. Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi – whose resignation was accepted by the Parliament last Sunday – is responsible for the attacks on so many youngsters in the streets. As head of the security forces, he had asked his military commanders to prevent the blockage of main roads, end the attacks on official institutions and police HQ by some protestors, and to contain protestors. His orders were carried out only as understood by the military command. However, after seeing the results, he asked that the commanders he sent to stop the unrest be subject to courts-martial (that is the case of Brigadier general Jamil al-Shim’ari and General Mohammad Zidan in Dhi-Qar province). That earned him both the anger of the streets and the distrust of security officers who feel unprotected while fulfilling their commander’s orders. Although Abdel Mahdi is close to the Marjaiya, it was necessary for him to pay the price for his failure in managing the protests and the slow reforms to meet the street’s demands.

The US was always distant from Abdel Mahdi: although they went to Erbil, President Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence refused to go to Baghdad to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister and President when they visited Iraq allegedly for “security reasons”. Both Trump and Pence landed at a military base controlled by US forces in Ain al-Assad, Anbar province. These same reasons did not apparently apply when the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper visited Baghdad last month. 

The message was received in Baghdad. The US attitude is perceived as a response to several of Abdel Mahdi’s actions. These include his accusation of Israel for its attacks on several targets in Iraq, his signing multi-billion contracts with China, his decision to open borders with Syria, his refusal to impose US sanctions on Iran, and finally his rebuff to dismiss the Iraqi security forces known by the name of Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilisation forces created in 2014 to defeat the “Islamic State” terrorist group.

Iran has made serious mistakes in Iraq. Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, responsible for Iran’s relationship with Iraq, has not stopped his support for several groups operating outside the government’s control. Soleimani is criticised even by his closest supporters in Iraq for his support and mismanagement of non-state actors. According to well-positioned sources in Najaf, some groups are provoking the Marjaiya and acting as bandits and outlaws in many areas. Iran enjoys excellent relationships with Iraq as a state and therefore doesn’t need independent actors in Iraq like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The PMU, who played a key role in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, have already been integrated into Iraq’s military. The reproduction of Hezbollah in Lebanon is not possible in Mesopotamia due to different circumstances, cultural differences (even if both are Shia), and geopolitical differences. 

The Marjaiya in Najaf demanded a constitution from the Iraqi parliament during the initial occupation of Iraq by the US forces; the US wanted to postpone the formulation of a constitution. After playing an essential role in forming the “United Iraqi Alliance” (555) during the parliamentary election in 2005, Grand Ayatollah Sistani sent an envoy to supervise the conduct of parliament but failed to develop an MPs’ coalition that would prove loyal in the long-term; Sayyed Sistani’s envoy was attacked by his own political partners. At that point the Marjaiya pulled out from parliamentary politics completely, having realised the corruption and incompetence of Iraqi politicians. “Where do we get a qualified ruler?”, Sayyed Sistani has asked me over the years, during and after the formation of every Iraqi government. The Marjaiya was aware not only of the incompetence of the leadership but also of the controlling influence of the major political groups (Sadrists, Badr, Da’wa, Al-hakim and Fadilah) and the distribution of the all-powerful positions among themselves.

Sayyed Sistani asked Abdel Mahdi to stand down for the many victims fallen in the last days of the protests, for the slow reaction of the government due to the major political parties’ lack of collaboration with the Prime Minister, and for fear of being attacked himself if not siding along with protestors. Sayyed Sistani repeatedly indicated the necessity of keeping Iran, the US and regional countries (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) away from Iraq. Notwithstanding his apparent prestige, Iraqi politicians, mainly Shia, don’t always listen to the Grand Ayatollah wishes. They do so mostly when it suits them.

Iraq is not a country under the US or Iranian control. When a Prime Minister tries to shift the balance towards one side or another, it is hard for him to rule. Iraq is in the hands of its people now. It is stronger than ever, notwithstanding the unrest in many cities that gives the impression of contagious spreading chaos. But it should be borne in mind that appointing a new Prime Minister may not be enough to calm the protestors and therefore the protests. The new Prime Minister is expected to last no more than one year until a new election can be organised with amendments of the constitution. Will the protestors wait?

Proofread by C.G.B and Maurice Brasher

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