x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Popular governor in a boiler suit: Iraqi PM in waiting?

In a country where many view their elected leaders as corrupt and distant, the 47-year-old has won plaudits in the southern province of Maysan for concentrating on providing basic services and meeting the people.

AMARA, Iraq // Ali Dawai is enormously popular on Facebook, with countless photos of the Iraqi provincial governor picking up rubbish or sipping tea with people while wearing his trademark blue boiler suit.

As officials count the votes from the April 30 general election, Mr Dawai’s Ahrar movement, linked to the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, is touting him for a much bigger role – that of prime minister.

Mr Dawai is among several potential challengers to the incumbent Nouri Al Maliki and his bid for a third term.

In a country where many view their elected leaders as corrupt and distant, the 47-year-old has won plaudits in the southern province of Maysan for concentrating on providing basic services and meeting the people.

“We have completed thousands of projects in Maysan, especially those linked with infrastructure,” Mr Dawai said, sitting in a cavernous room in the provincial government headquarters.

“The distance we have covered in the past three years has been big. Many projects have been completed, and we have rebuilt and focused on the priority of basic services for the people.”

Declining to be drawn on his chances for the premiership or what he would do in the job, he says the federal government should devolve more power to the 18 provinces.

Mr Dawai lists Iraq’s three biggest challenges as deteriorating security, poor basic services and a lack of unity among ethnic and religious groups.

Born in Majar Al Kabir, a small town near Maysan’s capital Amara, Mr Dawai said he spent several stints in prison and on the run from former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

He worked in a government sugar factory in the province and after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, joined the provincial anti-corruption watchdog, which he soon headed.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies in 2008, and then, following the 2010 parliamentary election, he became governor of Maysan as part of a deal between Mr Al Maliki and the Sadrists.

Mr Dawai is among the few declared candidates for Mr Al Maliki’s job, but others have been mooted, including former vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi and the former interior minister Bayan Jabr Solagh.

But all of the candidates have flaws.

Mr Abdul Mahdi is tainted by the alleged involvement of former bodyguards in a 2009 bank robbery and Mr Solagh presided over the interior ministry when it was rife with militia infiltration.

As for Mr Dawai, rival parties say he is benefiting from projects approved by his predecessors, and that he is being excessively praised, given that Maysan’s provincial council and other parties have also contributed to improvements.

Critics also say Mr Dawai has concentrated on services and the poor at the expense of the middle class, health and education.

There is also the fact that if he became premier, he could not speak to the United States.

Because of his party having opposed Washington’s military involvement in Iraq, and Mr Al Sadr’s partisans having taken up arms against US troops, the Sadrists publicly refuse to meet American officials.

That means Mr Dawai would be unable to talk directly to Baghdad’s biggest arms supplier, a country with which it has a strategic partnership agreement.

The deputy governor Nadhim Al Saadi, who belongs to Mr Al Maliki’s political alliance, said “it is impossible”.

“We have a strategic treaty with the US; we have so many agreements with them. How can we implement these strategic agreements with the US” if Mr Dawai becomes prime minister.

Mr Dawai dismisses the criticisms, and focuses on listing his successes.

Electricity supply in Maysan is better than elsewhere, Amara’s streets are markedly cleaner and new bridges and infrastructure projects are going up across the city.

In one neighbourhood, voters had only praise for Mr Dawai, and insist he can handle the top job.

“He is noble, loyal and honest, and he is always helping the people,” said Hassan Radhi Kadhim, the owner of a toy shop.

“Ali Dawai built up the poor areas (of Maysan) ... so if he becomes prime minister, he will build the country.”

The province has several key advantages that make reconstruction easier than elsewhere in the country.

It is sparsely populated, with less than three per cent of the nationwide population, it has largely avoided the near-daily violence in much of the rest of the country and it gets a budgetary bounty from Baghdad.

Maysan benefits from what local officials describe as three budgets: one from the central government that is awarded to all provinces, a supplementary allocation based on its substantial oil production and a third for rehabilitation of marshland drained by Saddam.

As a result, new projects are under construction across Amara, including a US$35 million (Dh128.45m) amusement park and open area dubbed Maysan Entertainment City that Mr Dawai said will rival Baghdad’s sprawling Zawraa Park.

On a recent inspection visit he drank sweet black tea while talking to labourers, and even climbed a rickety ladder to what will soon be a public toilet.

As the governor strode through the massive site under the scorching sun, in his boiler suit and baseball cap, one of his staffers turned aside and said: “This is Ali Dawai.”

* Agence France-Presse