BAGHDAD: Pro-Iran parties in Iraq reached a deal on Thursday to join a parliamentary coalition overseen by anti-Tehran cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr that ends Haider Al-Abadi’s hopes of hanging on as prime minister.
The compromise means members of the ruling Shiite Dawa Party will be excluded from competing for the post to lead the next government, negotiators involved in the talks told Arab News.
Al-Abadi, the head of Dawa’s political bureau, who was looking to win a second term, was the biggest loser in the deal. Nuri Al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister and head of the State of Law coalition, who was hoping to play a key role in nominating the new head of government also lost out.
Iraqi’s Shiite rivals have been frantically competing to form the largest parliamentary coalition, since elections in May.
Muqtada Al-Sadr, one of the most influential Shiite clerics, whose Sairoon list came first, formed a 154-seat coalition including Al-Abadi and his Al-Nassir list.
At the same time, Hadi Al-Amiri, who heads the pro-Iranian Al-Fattah list, formed a coalition of 108 members, including Al-Maliki and his State of Law alliance.
Both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri tried to register their coalitions in the first session of parliament on Sept. 3. The federal court had been requested to rule between them.
Violent demonstrations broke out in Basra, Iraq’s main oil hub, shortly afterwards. At least 15 demonstrators were shot dead, scores wounded and dozens of government and political party buildings set on fire, including the Iranian consulate.
Some political leaders saw the violence as an attempt to pressure negotiations in Baghdad, and Al-Sadr agreed to resume negotiations with Al-Amiri.
Several meetings were held between the two men in the last week at Al-Sadr’s residency in the holy city of Najaf, sources said.
“We have reached preliminary understandings with Al-Sadr and are working to turn them into agreements under the umbrella of Marjiyaa (the highest Shiite clerics in Iraq),” a key Al-Fattah negotiator told Arab News.
“Both Abadi and Maliki are out. Abadi is a part of the (new) coalition but he is not a candidate for the prime minister post.
“Amiri also is not a nominee anymore. As long as Abadi will not be nominated (by Sadr or his allies) then Amiri will not be nominated.”
The offer, which was presented by Al-Fattah through the UN delegation in Iraq, suggests that both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri had to make some concessions to form the coalition.
Al-Abadi as a candidate for prime minister and Al-Maliki and his alliance as part of the coalition were sacrificed for the agreement, negotiators told Arab News.
Both men are cornerstones of the Dawa Party and have been the heads of successive governments since 2005 but they had a bitter fall out in 2014. Al-Abadi stood in as a compromise candidate for prime minister when Al-Maliki’s nomination for a third term was widely rejected because of his sectarian policies. Those policies were blamed for fueling the resentment that allowed Daesh to seize a third of Iraqi territory.
“Everyone is angry at the Dawa Party and they blame its leaders for what happened in Iraq since 2005. So it was not difficult to abandon it and its candidates,” a negotiator for Al-Sadr’s alliance said.
Al-Abadi’s nomination for the prime minister post had been backed by Al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of Hikma, who controls 22 seats and is one of Al-Sadr’s key allies.
Both invested a large effort in promoting Al-Abadi during negotiations with the other blocs. They said he had not enough time to achieve his program in government because the first three years of his last term were dominated by fighting Daesh, the sources said.
“The problem of Abadi is he has not helped himself and has not helped us. He was creative in making mistakes along the last six months and his negotiating and media teams are weak,” a second Al-Sadr negotiator told Arab News.
“Now we have to find a candidate who is acceptable for Iran, the US and Najaf.
“Najaf is deeply involved this time and they (the clerics) have been using Sadr as their stick to pressure the political rivals.”
Najaf is led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani the most revered Shiite cleric. The city’s clergymen are seen by Iraqis as the sponsor of the political process that emerged after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and allowed the majority Shiites to take the reins of power through elections.
Sistani has been reluctant to interfere directly in the political process, but on Monday he made a rare intervention that changed the course of forming the next government.
Sistani’s office issued a statement saying he refused the nomination for the post of prime minister any politician who had previously exercised power.
“Abadi is out. That’s it. None of us would publically challenge the desire of Sistani,” a senior Shiite politician involved in the talks told Arab News. “We have many other more important things to worry about, so we moved on.”
The final decision over all the details related to the new ruling coalition and the nomination of the next government, including the president, the speaker of the parliament and the prime minister have to be concluded before Sept. 15.
Iran and the United States, the two main international players in Iraq’s political and security scene since 2003, seem to have agreed on this scenario, three negotiators from the various sides told Arab News. The US has backed Al-Abadi for a second term while Iran saw him as a threat to its interests in Iraq specifically after he announced his support for the economic sanctions imposed on Iran since Donald Trump withdrew America from a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
“It becomes clear for the Iranians that going without Sadr is not in their interest and that they have to deal with reality,” a key Al-Sadr negotiator told Arab News.
“The reality indicates that Fattah cannot form a government, which would be accepted by local, regional and international forces. The US would topple it within weeks.
“The Iranians do not have the ability to open a front against the Americans in Iraq, so they are satisfied by the blow that they directed to the Americans by burning Al-Abadi.
“Now, they (the Iranians) have decided to step back to let Sadr and the Americans to lead the negotiations and form the new coalition.”