Iraq forms new government after six months of uncertainty

New PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi says coronavirus and accountability for protester deaths will be priorities.

Iraqi PM-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the parliament for vote of confidence
Newly confirmed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the parliament for vote of confidence [Iraqi Parliament/Handout/Anadolu]

Iraq’s parliament has approved a new government, after six months without one, as parties squabbled until the last minute over cabinet seats in backroom deals.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s intelligence chief and a former journalist, will head the government but will begin his term without a full cohort of ministers after several candidates were rejected, it was announced on Wednesday.

“We are going through a critical phase in our history. Iraq is facing so many challenges – in our security, economy, healthcare and even socially, but it is not bigger than our determination to stand up to these challenges,” Kadhimi said after the parliament vote. 

He said his priorities would be tackling the coronavirus pandemic and holding to account those who killed protesters in previous months of anti-government unrest.

Former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has been leading a caretaker administration, resigned last year after thousands took to the streets calling for the departure of Iraq’s ruling elite accused of driving the country into dysfunction and economic ruin.

The battle over government portfolios since Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in November prevented two previous nominees for prime minister from forming a cabinet.

Kadhimi’s candidates for cabinet posts including interior, defence, finance and electricity passed with the support of the majority of legislators present.

Voting on the oil and foreign ministries was delayed as the parties failed to agree on candidates. They rejected Khadmi’s choices for justice, agriculture and trade.

‘Dangerous precedent’

To earn the vote of confidence, Kadhimi had to appease the main political parties by letting them pick ministers in his cabinet – an informal yet deeply entrenched power-sharing system known as apportionment.

“He had 10 percent of freedom to choose his cabinet, and 90 percent were determined by the parties and blocs,” political analyst Fadel Abu Ragheef explained. 

Some parties which did not secure ministries, including Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance and Iyad Allawi’s National Coalition, boycotted the vote.

Kadhim Al Shammery, a member of the National Coalition, criticised the voting process, which he said was dominated by the Shia parties.  

“This is a strange approach and it’s a dangerous precedent in the Iraqi political scene. The candidates of his cabinet – that’s 12 ministers – were presented to the Shia parties, and they gave their point of view but it was not shared with the rest of the political parties. It’s as if the Shia powers are the guardians of the political process, he told Al Jazeera. 

Iraqi PM-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the parliament for vote of confidence
Fifteen out of 22 ministers from the cabinet of prime minister-designate Kadhimi received a vote of confidence from Iraq’s parliament [Iraqi Parliament/Handout/Anadolu]

The vote ended months of political deadlock after mass anti-government protests calling for a complete overhaul of the political system forced Abdul Mahdi to step down.

Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from Baghdad, said: “To many, his appointment signals the preservation of the status quo rather than a first step on the road towards the change they have demanded.”

A few demonstrators convened to express their disapproval of the new government at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Wednesday.  “Any government that is formed inside parliament without the opinions of protesters will be rejected,” said Abdullah Salah, who was at the gathering. 

Multiple challenges 

Kadhimi’s government must deal with an impending economic crisis precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused the prices of oil – Iraq‘s principal source of revenue – to plummet.

It also faces a growing armed uprising by the ISIL (ISIS) group which has stepped up attacks on government troops from hideouts in remote areas of northern Iraq.

“Kadhimi has put forth an ambitious government programme, but it remains to be seen whether he will have to power to execute it,” said Al Jazeera’s Foltyn. 

A student wears a protective face mask, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as she carries the Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests in Basra
A student wears a protective face mask, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, during anti-government protests in Basra in early March. Protesters blame Iraq’s political elite for the country’s economic decline and lack of jobs [Essam al-Sudani/Reuters]

Iraqi officials say Kadhimi is acceptable to the United States and Iran whose battle for influence over Iraq has boiled into an open confrontation in the past year.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday welcomed the government formation and in a phone call congratulated Kadhimi on taking office.

They discussed “working together to provide the Iraqi people the prosperity and security they deserve”, the US State Department said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies