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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Hope may finally be on the horizon for Iraq

The alliance of Barham Salih and Adel Abdul Mahdi is a cause for cautious optimism

Newly elected Iraqi President Kurdish Barham Saleh greets the crowd during the handing over ceremony in Baghdad. AFP/Sabah Arar
Newly elected Iraqi President Kurdish Barham Saleh greets the crowd during the handing over ceremony in Baghdad. AFP/Sabah Arar

At last, after five months of tense negotiations and amid popular unrest, a government is taking shape in Iraq. Developments in the nation’s parliament on Tuesday unfolded with a pace rarely seen in a country often crippled by a weak parliamentary system installed in 2003. Less than two hours after Barham Salih – a moderate Kurdish politician – was elected to the presidency, he selected Adel Abdul Mahdi as his prime minister designate.

Mr Abdul Mahdi will now set about nominating a cabinet for parliamentary approval within 30 days – a significant feat of its own. This is a powerful moment, one that the Iraqi people and the watching world hope will not be squandered.

Mr Salih’s emphatic victory over his Kurdish rival, Fuad Hussein, indicates overwhelming parliamentary support for the former’s trademark unity politics. There are hopes, therefore, that sectarian divisions, which have bedevilled Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein, might be starting to disintegrate – and pragmatic coalitions emerging. Mr Salih has been active in both Kurdish and national politics, suggesting he could bridge the gap between Baghdad and Erbil.

Meanwhile, Mr Abdul Mahdi will be the first Iraqi premier since 2005 not to hail from the Shiite Islamist Dawa party. The two men face an uphill battle to balance relations with Iran and the US, while Tehran’s pursuit of influence over Iraq’s next government exacerbated the post-election stalemate.

But the challenges do not end there. Today, Iraq faces many problems, from a variety of armed groups to a looming economic crisis. Following a deadly and destructive war with ISIS, large areas of the country require rebuilding. Meanwhile, inadequate service provision has sparked violent protests, most notably in oil-rich Basra. Iraqis are in grave need of a functioning government that puts them first and protects the nation’s sovereignty against the incursions of foreign powers.

There is hope that Mr Adbul Mahdi’s eventual cabinet will do just that. But as ever, a healthy dose of scepticism is required.

With no clear winner in the tussle for influence between Tehran and Washington, jockeying will continue in the next month. The fact that pro-Iran Shiite military commander Hadi Al Amiri backed Mr Abdul Mahdi's nomination because, as one analyst told The National, he did not view the new prime minister as a threat to Iranian influence, is hardly encouraging. In addition, while he will certainly speak for the Kurds, Mr Salih’s election, which sidelined the rival Kurdish Democratic Party – sent ripples through Kurdish dynastic politics.

On a deeper level, both Mr Salih and Mr Abdul Mahdi are political veterans, enmeshed in Iraqi politics since 2003, when the former was part of the US-backed interim government. But the people of Iraq need quick solutions to the country’s many problems. Onlookers should be pragmatic, despite the clear significance of this moment, because in Iraqi politics, destroying alliances takes far less time than forging them.