Iraqi parliament picks new PM rejected by protesters

Selection of former communications minister Mohammed Allawi is unlikely to appease protesters who have been calling for an overhaul of Iraqi politics.

BAGHDAD - Former communications minister Mohammed Allawi was named prime minister designate by rival Iraqi factions on Saturday after weeks of political deadlock.

The selection of Allawi, 66, a former minister of communications, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of many back-room talks over months between rival parties.

The decision came as a deadline set by Iraq's president for parliament to name a new premier was set to expire Saturday amid renewed pressure from the street after influential cleric Moqtada Sadr called for fresh protests.

Baghdad and the mainly Shiite south have been gripped by four months of anti-government rallies demanding snap elections, a politically independent prime minister and accountability for corruption and protest-related violence.

Faced with pressure from the street and from the Shiite religious leadership, Abdel Mahdi resigned in December after just over a year in office.

But rival parties failed repeatedly to agree on a successor, stoking fears of a spiral into chaos as the country tries to navigate the protests and rising tensions between its two main allies, Iran and the United States.

In a bid to restore some stability, President Barham Saleh sent a letter to the deeply divided parliament this week saying he would nominate a premier unilaterally if lawmakers did not do so by Saturday.

In a normal situation, parliament's largest bloc must nominate a prime minister within 15 days of an election, and the candidate is then tasked by the president with forming a government within one month. But Iraq found itself in an unprecedented situation: no premier has ever resigned and the constitution makes no provision for how to handle such a move.

In a pre-recorded statement posted online, Allawi called on protesters to continue with their uprising against corruption and said he would quit if the blocs insist on imposing names of ministers.

“If it wasn’t for your sacrifices and courage there wouldn’t have been any change in the country," he said addressing anti-government protesters. “I have faith in you and ask you to continue with the protests."

Allawi was born in Baghdad and served as communications minister first in 2006 and again between 2010-2012. He resigned from his post after a dispute with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Parliament is expected to put his candidacy to a vote in the next session, after which point he has 30 days to formulate a government program and select a cabinet of ministers.

Sadrists back, protesters reject Allawi

It took the rival blocs nearly two months of jockeying to select Allawi as their consensus candidate, but his selection is unlikely to calm the protests calling for an overhaul of Iraq's endemic corruption and sectarian political system.

Since a US-led invasion toppled longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, major decisions have been made by consensus among the country's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties.

Any contender for prime minister needs a green light from a dizzying array of interests - the divided political class, the Shiite religious leadership, neighbouring Iran, its rival the United States and now the protesters.

One of the most influential voices in Iraqi politics in recent years has been Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who led the anti-US Mehdi Army militia after the invasion and has since refashioned himself as a populist politician.

He controls parliament's largest bloc and many ministerial posts. But he backed the protests when they erupted in October and his supporters were widely recognised as the best organised demonstrators.

A week ago, he appeared to rethink his support for the protest movement and his hard-core backers dismantled their tents in protest camps across the country.

Within hours of Sadr's withdrawal, riot police moved into burn or tear down protest camps and around a dozen demonstrators were killed, medics and police said.

But on Friday he seemed to flip again, calling for his backers "to renew the peaceful, reformist revolution".

They were back in the streets on Saturday, setting up tents and mingling with politically unaligned protesters who had held their ground when the Sadrists pulled out.

The violence dropped markedly, too.

"Since the Sadrists came back, we've implemented a sort of ceasefire and haven't fired tear gas at protesters," a member of the security forces said near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the capital.

More than 480 people have died in protest-related violence since October, the great majority of them demonstrators killed by live rounds or military-grade tear gas canisters.

Protesters in Tahrir Square had already publicly rejected a number of names floated for prime minister - including Allawi and current intelligence chief Mustafa Kazemi.

Their portraits, marked with large "X"s over their faces, were hanging in the square along with a big blue poster calling for the United Nations to intervene in the crisis.

The top UN official in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert has pushed throughout the week for progress, tweeting on Friday that solutions were "urgently needed" to "break the political deadlock".

And the country's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani piled on the pressure on Friday, saying Iraq must "accelerate the formation of a new government".

"It is imperative to speed up holding early elections so that the people will have their say," he said.