Iraq’s president has threatened to step down rather than approve a candidate for prime minister put forward by Iran-linked political parties, pushing Baghdad deeper into political turmoil after nearly three months of anti-government protests.
President Barham Salih has the task of nominating a new premier after Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in November under pressure from demonstrators. The veteran Iraqi Kurdish president is supposed to sign off on the candidate submitted by lawmakers.
Protesters have demanded that the next prime minister be someone unconnected to political parties they accuse of corruption. Yet the Iran-linked Binaa parliamentary voting bloc has nominated Asaad al-Edani, a former minister and governor of oil-rich Basra province.
Binaa’s bloc is mostly made up of the Fatah party led by militia leader turned politician Hadi al-Ameri, who is close to Tehran. The rival Sairoon bloc, headed by populist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said it would not participate in the process of nominating a new premier.
But Mr Salih sent a letter to parliament’s speaker on Thursday outlining his “willingness to resign” rather than nominate Mr Edani. While Mr Salih has not formally quit, a person close to the president said it was likely that his resignation would be accepted by political party leaders.
Mr Salih’s departure would be a blow to the US, whose influence in Iraq is already diminishing, as he has strong ties to Washington. Should Mr Salih’s resignation progress, Baghdad could be locked in political stalemate indefinitely, said Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst.
He pointed out that parliament cannot bypass the presidency in making a prime ministerial nomination. In the absence of a president, the parliamentary speaker can take the position. But parliament would be left trying to nominate the country’s two top executive posts.
Oil-rich Iraq is facing its most serious unrest since the Isis Sunni jihadist insurgency was militarily defeated in 2017, as official security forces and pro-government militias have killed up to 500 people during violence in the capital and cities across the south.
Iraqis are protesting against the country’s failing political system, largely established by the US and its allies after the 2003 US-led invasion which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
The mostly young protesters are demanding sweeping changes, including a new election law which they hope will dislodge political parties they accuse of unfairly monopolising power and putting foreign interests ahead of Iraqi ones.
Both Mr Abdul Mahdi and Mr Salih have submitted election reform bills to parliament, both of which could — if enacted — challenge the entrenched political class, dominated by figures linked to Shia paramilitaries and Shia Islamist movements.