Iran-backed Iraq leaders agree on ‘road map’

Special Iran-backed Iraq leaders agree on ‘road map’
Anti-government protests set fire while security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas near the state-run TV in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (AP)
Updated 05 November 2019

Iran-backed Iraq leaders agree on ‘road map’

Iran-backed Iraq leaders agree on ‘road map’
  • Dramatic changes in the composition of the top senior staff of Abdul Mahdi government proposed

BAGHDAD: Iraqi politicians have agreed on a “roadmap” to resolve the current crisis and meet the demands of demonstrators, prominent allies of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi told Arab News on Monday.

Changing the prime minister’s administrative and military team, a ministerial reshuffle involving more than half the Cabinet, changing electoral laws and the members of the electoral commission are the most prominent points of the proposals, negotiators said.

Baghdad and nine southern Shiite-dominated provinces have seen mass protests since October 1 against corruption, unemployment and a lack of basic services. 

More than 250 demonstrators have been killed and more than 11,000 wounded, most of them in Baghdad, in a brutal crackdown led by Abdul Mahdi and his allies.

The demonstrations, the largest of their kind since 2003, are the first in which Shiite protesters represent have come out against the government, also largely Shiite.

Demonstrators, who returned to the streets last Friday in larger numbers after being stopped for two weeks over killings and arrests, have widened their demands to include the overthrow of Abdul Mahdi and early parliamentary elections, preceded by an amendment to the election laws.

After intense meetings over the past few weeks, Iranian-backed political forces agreed to a package of resolutions aimed at calming demonstrators and pleasing the supreme religious authority in Najaf, which has declared its full support for the demands.

The proposed road map, which includes dramatic changes in the composition of senior government staff, does not include any mention of early elections or the resignation of Abdul Mahdi within the options or solutions on the table.

“With our conviction that Adel (Abdul Mahdi) is not fit to remain as prime minister for another week … we will not allow his dismissal or resignation now,” a prominent ally of the government told Arab News.

“We believe that keeping him as prime minister is a must now, because his fall means we will have to change a prime minister every six months.

“Agreeing on early elections is long story that needs Sunnis and Kurds involved, and this is difficult to achieve in short time.”

Sacrificing Muhammad Al-Hashemi, the head of the prime minister’s office, is the most significant change that will affect the Abdul Mahdi’s personal team.

“Everyone knows that Abu Jihad (Al-Hashemi) is the actual prime minister and is responsible for half of the devastation caused by the government until today,” one source told Arab News.

“If ‘Abu Jihad’ gets out of the prime minister’s office, everything will be fixed.”

Al-Hashemi, or “the bulldozer,” is a prominent leader in the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council and former director of the office of the late Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, the most prominent leader of the Iraqi opposition during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Hashemi, one of the chief negotiators of the pro-Iran Al-Binna’a Alliance, the second largest parliamentary bloc to name the prime minister and form the government in 2018, is credited with getting Abdul Mahdi into office.

“Abdul-Mahdi is tired and weak and his team is in chaos. In addition, ‘Abu Jihad’ enjoys the full support and confidence of the Iranians. This opened the door wide for ‘Abu Jihad’ to expand his powers.

Dismissing Al-Hashemi and other senior officials of Abdul Mahdi’s office is part of the proposed plan presented by Gen. Qassim Suleiman, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of field operations in Iraq, after returning from Najaf Saturday evening following a meeting with a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites and the most influential cleric in Iraq, who seen as the godfather of the political process since 2003, key negotiators told Arab News.

Suleiman’s plan also lists a Cabinet reshuffle, combined with a package of important new laws and amendments.

“We are racing against time. The situation is very critical and we have no more than a week or two to implement what we have agreed to calm the people and please Najaf (Al-Sistani),” a political ally of Abdul Mahdi told Arab News.

“Our priority was to exclude the threat of Shiite-Shiite fighting from the equation, and with the return of Muqtada Al-Sadr to Qom and the intervention of Najaf, this threat is now over.”

Suleiman, who has absolute influence over the majority of Shiite political forces and armed factions, arrived in Baghdad on Thursday and asked to meet Al-Sistani to “calm tensions” between Al-Sistani and Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei.

“Things are heading for calm. Najaf almost approved the plan, but the demonstrations will continue because Najaf wants them (protesters) to remain as well as the Americans, but there will be some kind of truce.”

Influential Shiite cleric Al-Sadr, who has the largest parliamentary bloc and biggest armed faction with millions of followers, also announced his adoption of the protesters’ full demands two weeks ago, and vowed to protect them from any threats.

Demonstrations in the provinces of Amara and Dhi Qar, Al-Sadr’s southern stronghold, have witnessed bloody clashes between demonstrators and armed factions, including the Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, the most powerful Shiite groups.

Suleimani, after leaving Najaf, met Al-Sadr and asked him to go back to Qom, in Iran, which he left a week ago at the request of the Iranian authorities in response to the abuses committed by his followers against the demonstrators.

“Sadr was seeking bloodshed and his removal from the scene was necessary,” one Shiite source told Arab News.

A senior aide to Al-Sadr told Arab News on condition of anonymity: “All that was said about Al-Sadr’s meeting with Suleimani and the agreement between them is not true, and Al-Sadr, wherever he is, will not sell Iraq or sell what he believes in.”

Al-Sistani, meanwhile, will monitor the steps to implement changes in Iraq, “but will not loosen his grip on Abdul Mahdi or his allies,” a source told Arab News.

“Najaf supports any measures to reform the situation in accordance with the constitutional contexts. Keeping Abdul Mahdi with his weak government now ensures that the demonstrators’ demands will be met in a few weeks, because they (his allies) are desperate to defend him, and this will lead them to make more concessions.”