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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Iraq PM designate Adel Abdul Mahdi met with cautious optimism 

He is the first elected prime minister since 2003 not to hail from the Shiite Dawa party

Iraq's new prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, centre, leaves the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq. AP
Iraq's new prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, centre, leaves the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq. AP

The appointment of Iraq's new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, was met with cautious optimism.

The former oil minister was picked by newly-elected president, Barham Salih, on Tuesday night, and tasked with forming a government. He has 30 days to submit his cabinet to parliament for approval.

Though hailed as an independent candidate who is not allied with either of the two Shiite-led blocs, Mr Abdul Mahdi's rise to power coincides with significant sociopolitical hurdles in Iraq - including strained relations with the Kurdistan Region, months of deadly clashes in the southern province of Basra and ongoing Iranian interference.

Since the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country has been used as a battleground between Iran and the US, as they have vied for influence in the region.

But Tuesday's election of Mr Salih and Mr Abdul Mahdi produced no clear winner between the Tehran-Washington battle for influence, as both leaders present themselves as moderate and unaligned.

Both critics and supporters of Iran and Washington - like populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and Shiite militia commander Hadi Al Amiri - backed Mr Abdul Mahdi's nomination for the top post.

"It seems that from both sides he was a compromise because he wasn’t perceived to be too powerful and potential threat to either side," Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at London's Chatham House told The National.

Who is Adel Abdul Mahdi?

Mr Abdul Mahdi, 76, is a trained economist who served as oil and finance minister and vice president in previous administrations. He was nominated by President Barham Salih on Tuesday night.

He left Iraq in 1969 for France, where he worked for think tanks and edited magazines in French and Arabic.

He is the son of a respected Shiite cleric who was a minister in the era of Iraq's monarchy.

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According to the Iraqi constitution, the prime minister-designate has 30 days to form a cabinet and present it to parliament for approval.

While some are sceptical about his ability to fix Iraq's troubles, his nomination has been met with optimism by some. He is the first prime minister since the fall of Saddam Hussein not to hail from the Shiite Dawa party.

For some he brings hope to Iraq at a time when sectarianism and political divisions are at an all-time high.

The new administration will take over a country faced with the challenge of reconstruction after a war against ISIS, a displacement crisis that has left millions stranded and a troubled economy.

What’s next?

The winning parties will distribute the ministries and are expected to offer five candidates for each ministry. Mr Abdul Mahdi will select between them.

He is expected to have to balance between what the political parties are demanding of him and whether he can have a minister who can deliver reform, Mr Mansour said.

"The big challenge is to see if he can balance pressures from political parties with an agenda to reform the system and to move away from post 2003 structure," he added.

It remains unseen whether Mr Abdul Mahdi can "bring more power towards state institutions by having people in position of power with power that aren’t necessary tied to political parties," Mr Mansour said.

The prime minister must now succeed in forming a cabinet within a month, or the president will be forced to choose a new candidate.

His chances of forming a new administration within the deadline are "pretty high”, Kirk Sowell, an Iraq expert told The National.

"With ministries to distribute, he has an enormous amount of leverage as he is on good terms with everyone," said Mr Sowell.

Mr Abdul Mahdi's first step would be dividing key posts up between the politicians that back Mr Al Sadr and Mr Al Amiri.

"The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has the presidency so doesn't have to be satisfied, and since the Kurdistan Diplomatic Party lost [the presidency position], they can be given leftover scraps," Mr Sowell said.

"Al Amiri and Sadr get what they demand, Shiite blocs he needs to keep happy next, then Sunnis and Kurds last, since they've already gotten their biggest demand," he said.