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Iraq Names New Prime Minister, Faces Protests

Iraq Names New Prime Minister, Faces Protests

Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi replaces Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who stepped down over popular unrest

Iraqi demonstrators clashed with security forces during antigovernment protests on Saturday. PHOTO: WISSM AL-OKILI/REUTERS


Isabel Coles

Updated Feb. 2, 2020 12:28 pm ETBAGHDAD—Protesters in Iraq on Sunday denounced the appointment of a former communications minister as the country’s new premier after months of political deadlock, calling him Iran’s choice and saying he is little different from the predecessor they forced to step down.

President Barham Salih designated Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the new prime minister late on Saturday. He replaces Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned at the end of last year after the country’s top cleric rebuked him for his handling of popular unrest that erupted in October.

A forceful response by security forces has left more than 500 people dead in four months, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.

Initial demands by protesters for jobs, an end to corruption and poor services hardened into calls for the ouster of the entire political class that has dominated Iraq since it became a democracy after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Protesters blame Iran for propping up the political parties they see as squandering the country’s oil wealth and encouraging corruption.

Mr. Allawi pledged to fight corruption and hold those responsible for the violence against protesters to account. He also vowed to hold early elections, revamp the country’s economy and bring weapons under state control.

But protesters said they had no faith in his ability to deliver on those promises because his nomination was the result of a deal between the same political factions they oppose. Mr. Allawi, like his predecessor, has no political base, which means he must rely on pro-Iranian factions and populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who backed his candidacy.

“The parties chose him and their loyalty is to Iran,” said Abdu Hussein Ali, 58, who was in Tahrir Square—the epicenter of the protests in Baghdad.

Other protesters held signs asking the United Nations to save them.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, protesters blocked roads with burning tires and hundreds of university students marched through the streets chanting against Mr. Allawi. Protesters also blocked roads leading to two refineries in the southern province of Basra.

The protesters form an amorphous movement and haven’t coalesced around a single alternative candidate for the premiership. Demonstrations in recent weeks have been comparatively small after peaking last year and it remains unclear if they would be sustained.

Mr. Sadr and his followers previously joined the protesters, but he is now backing Mr. Allawi’s bid to form a new government and moved to contain the demonstrations on Sunday.

Besides the domestic challenge, Mr. Allawi also takes office at a time when Iraq has become a battleground for Tehran and Washington—two of Baghdad’s main allies—after the targeted killing of a prominent Iranian general by the U.S. on its soil earlier this year. The killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a top Iraqi paramilitary commander has plunged relations between the U.S. and Iraq into crisis and unleashed a tide of anti-American sentiment.

Mr. Allawi will face intense pressure from Iran and allied Iraqi politicians and militia leaders to work toward the expulsion of U.S. troops from the country.

Newly appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi makes a statement in this still image taken from video. PHOTO: REUTERS TV/REUTERS

The Iraqi parliament in January voted in favor of evicting foreign forces, and rockets have repeatedly been fired at bases where American personnel are located in recent months. U.S. officials blame Iran-backed militias for the attacks and say they will stay in Iraq to prevent Islamic State from regaining strength.

“The U.S. regards the security of Iraq as vital and will work with the new government once formed to foster conditions for Iraq’s stability, prosperity and sovereignty,” the embassy in Baghdad said following news of Mr. Allawi’s nomination.

It said Iraq needed an “independent and honest” government to address people’s needs, and that Mr. Allawi’s nomination “must be followed up with efforts to accomplish that objective.”

The U.S. has taken a back seat in the recent political wrangling after being heavily involved in seeking to influence Iraq’s choice of prime minister in previous election cycles.

Iran and its allies in Iraq had sought to keep Mr. Abdul-Mahdi in power and accuse the U.S. of fomenting the continuing antigovernment protests.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi welcomed Mr. Allawi’s designation and said Tehran was willing to help Iraq ease its problems.

Mr. Allawi is expected to hold office for a transitional period of up to a year while preparing for early elections the international community hopes will bring the kind of change protesters are seeking.

His first major test will be forming a cabinet, which Mr. Allawi must submit to parliament to be voted on within 30 days. President Salih must designate a new prime minister should it fail to pass.

In his first speech, Mr. Allawi pledged to form a capable government and reject any ministers imposed upon him by political parties. Political parties in Iraq have turned ministries into fiefdoms, which they use as vehicles for patronage to maintain their grip on power.

Mr. Allawi also said those responsible for violence against protesters must be held accountable and vowed to fight corruption.

Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, an independent politician whom some protesters had identified as a possible candidate, described Mr. Allawi’s nomination as a crime and said he was a replica of Mr. Abdul-Mahdi who had been chosen by Iran and its “stooges.”

Like many of Iraq’s current political leaders, Mr. Allawi lived in exile during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. After the U.S.-led invasion, he returned to Iraq and ran in elections as part of a secular electoral list. He served as communications minister twice.

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