Iraqi PM designate Abdel Mahdi faces challenge to form government

Several different blocs in the Iraqi parliament are jostling for power following elections in May, which has so far stymied the formation of a new government.

BAGHDAD - Veteran Iraqi politician and now prime minister designate Adel Abdel Mahdi Wednesday began the tough task of forming the next government, seeking to overcome sharp differences and unite fractious political parties.

In a surprise move late Tuesday, new President Barham Saleh handed Abdel Mahdi -- seen as an independent -- the difficult responsibility only hours after being elected.

It comes as several different blocs in the Iraqi parliament are jostling for power following the May elections -- in-fighting which had so far stymied the formation of a new government.

The largest bloc traditionally appoints the prime minister and presides over the formation of the next government.

But the exact contours of a new governing coalition are yet to be drawn.

Outgoing prime minister Haider al-Abadi threw in the towel last month after deadly unrest in the southern city of Basra cost his fragile alliance the support of populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Sadr's list won the largest share of seats in the May polls. And after dumping Abadi, it swung behind the pro-Iran bloc led by Hadi al-Ameri's Conquest Alliance -- a coalition of anti-jihadist veterans close to Tehran.

A spokesman for Conquest Alliance, Ahmad al-Assadi, told reporters late Tuesday that "the largest coalition resolved the issue by naming the prime minister" hinting his bloc had supported Abdel Mahdi's nomination, but without offering up any concrete evidence.

Power-sharing system

Iraq has a proportional system designed to prevent a slide back into dictatorship following the 2003 ouster of late dictator Saddam Hussein.

The largely ceremonial role of president, now taken by the 58-year-old Saleh, has been reserved for the Kurds since Iraq's first multi-party elections in 2005.

Under the power-sharing deal, the post of prime minister is held by a Shiite, while the speaker of parliament is Sunni Arab -- a post filled last month by Mohammed al-Halbusi.

The 76-year-old Abdel Mahdi, a former Iraqi vice president, has proven political credentials and is seen in Iraqi circles as an independent.

In a country long a political battleground between the United States and Iran as they fight for influence, he is regarded as a rare figure of consensus.

An economist by training, he was once a senior member of a party close to Iran. But he has also won the backing of US and European leaders.

In 2014, Abdel Mahdi took up the post of oil minister under Abadi before resigning two years later.

Now he has just 30 days to navigate tangled Iraqi politics and form a government. If he fails, then another candidate will have to be chosen to pick up the baton.

A Shiite and native of Baghdad, he is nonetheless credited with having good relations with a number of Kurdish leaders. This could be crucial, coming a year after a disastrous referendum in which Iraqi Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Kurdish ties

The vote triggered a punishing backlash from Baghdad, which imposed economic penalties and sent federal troops to push Kurdish forces out of oil fields vital for the region's economy.

Under a tacit accord between the region's two main factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK hold the federal presidency and the KDP the post of Iraqi Kurdistan president.

But the Iraqi Kurdish presidency has been left vacant since KDP leader Massud Barzani's mandate ended following the September 2017 referendum that he championed.

In a bitter dispute for power, Barzani had backed for president Fuad Hussein, his 72-year-old former chief of staff and veteran of the opposition to Saddam.

But in a blow to Barzani, the post went to Saleh, a moderate who has served both as Iraqi deputy premier and Kurdish prime minister.

He was part of an interim authority put in place by the United States following the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam.

He later became deputy prime minister under Nuri al-Maliki then returned to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil in 2009 to become head of the Kurdistan government.

Meanwhile, results are also due late Wednesday after Sunday's polls for the Kurdish parliament.