Iraqi PM sees power clipped with Iran calling shots

Although Adel Abdel Mahdi had intended to resign after the outbreak of protests in Iraq, he has since found that he is not in a position to push back against Iranian influence.

BAGHDAD - As anti-government protests sweep his country, Iraq's embattled premier has found his decision-making powers clipped by rivals and his entourage subject to increasing pressure from Iran.

Adel Abdel Mahdi, 77, came to power last year as the product of a tenuous alliance between populist cleric Moqtada Sadr and pro-Iran paramilitary chief Hadi al-Ameri, with the required blessing of Iraq's Shiite religious leadership.

He was seen as an almost professorial figure who could tackle unemployment and government graft as Iraq's first prime minister since the defeat of the Islamic State group.

Most observers expected summer protests would put an early end to his mandate, and even he said he had his resignation letter "in his pocket."

So when popular demonstrations erupted in early October over corruption and lack of jobs, the premier readied a resignation speech to deliver live on television, three government sources told AFP news agency, requesting to remain anonymous.

He never gave it.

"He was fully intending to resign during the first week of protests - but stayed under pressure from the different factions," one of the officials said.

Instead, Abdel Mahdi appeared in a stern pre-recorded address that aired around 2:00 am on October 3, proposing a package of reforms that protesters angrily dismissed as insufficient.

He has since resisted intensifying calls for him to step down and for the political system to be overhauled, adopting a noticeably tougher stance towards the demonstrators.

"The premier is shackled by the political parties that brought him to power," a second official said.

'In a bubble'

The root cause of Iraqi protesters' grievances is the sectarian power-sharing system of governance introduced in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Many see political elites as subservient to one or another of Baghdad's main allies, the United States and Iran, who use Iraq as a proxy in their struggle for regional influence.

The first week of rallies ended with at least 157 people dead, most of them protesters shot dead in Baghdad, according to a government probe. After a two-week lull for the Shiite Arbaeen pilgrimage, protests resumed on October 24, with the death toll rising to over 250.

But Abdel Mahdi said protesters were being used as "human shields" by "infiltrators." This appeared to echo the Iranian government line that US and regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia were manipulating the protests, in Iraq as well as Lebanon, to ramp up pressure on Tehran.

Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iran-backed militias, similarly said this week that the US, Israel, Gulf nations and unspecified local officials are working to "incite strife and chaos."

"He's in a bubble, and being told that the protests are a conspiracy against his government and that he should stay in power. He's started to believe it," one official said about Abdel Mahdi.

Two government sources said the premier was no longer communicating with President Barham Saleh, seen as his top ally in the absence of his own popular base.

"Saleh was the first one to suggest finding an alternative to Abdel Mahdi, and their ties got worse after that," one of them said.

The president has hosted meetings with leading politicians to set out a roadmap to a snap general election, which would pave the way for a new prime minister. But Saleh's suggestion of an early election, once a new voting law and commission were agreed, appears to have angered Iranian officials trying to close rank around Abdel Mahdi and the current government.

Iran holds sway across Iraq's political spectrum, and Saleh's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party has long been seen as close to Tehran.

"Iran isn't happy with the role that Barham Saleh has played in the current crisis. He abandoned those who brought him to the presidency at the first fork in the road," a source close to top decision-makers told AFP news agency.

Abdel Mahdi on Tuesday dismissed the idea of an early election as unrealistic, in a rare recorded cabinet session that was later aired on television. 

"He thinks that if he goes down, everyone should go down with him," an Iraqi official said.

Others said he was also under growing pressure from Iran and its Iraqi allies, who pushed him to sideline several military commanders seen as close to the US.

One official said Abdel Mahdi "is not in a position to push back against Iranian influence".

"He knows if he does not follow the Iranian line, he will be forced out and then blamed for what is going on," he said.

Officials said a consensus was forming that would keep him at the helm of a transitional government, but he was likely to remain paralysed politically.

Iraqi analyst Issam Faili said the divisions would continue to hamstring any "independent decision-making."

"If you have a broad and solid political base, then you have room to manoeuvre," Faili said. "Abdel Mahdi is the victim of all the infighting around him."

Closing ranks

The pressure on Iran-allied politicians only intensified with the arrival of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, shortly after the protests began.

Soleimani has since held multiple meetings in Baghdad and Najaf to convince top party officials to close ranks around the current government.

"He's calling the shots," one official said. Soleimani is seen as the architect of Iran's regional military interventions, who has helped direct the response to the rallies.

The populist cleric Sadr had previously urged his main political rival Ameri, whose Fatah Alliance of Iran-backed militias is the second-biggest political force in parliament, to help push out Abdel Mahdi and hold an early election.

Early signs indicated that Ameri was willing to endorse Abdel Mahdi's departure, issuing a public statement agreeing to “work together” with Sadr - but that changed after Soleimani's intervention. Ameri changed his tune, insisting that getting rid of Abdel Mahdi would cause more chaos and threaten stability. In response, Sadr issued a statement swearing to "never enter into alliances" with Ameri again.

For decades, Iran has carefully crafted ties to a vast range of Iraq political and military actors, from the Shiite opponents of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein to Kurdish factions in the north and even Sunni tribes in the west.

The political and economic sway is perhaps more valuable than ever amid Washington's increased efforts to isolate and economically handicap Iran under the Trump administration.

The Islamic Republic therefore plays a crucial mediating role in Iraq's political crises, and Soleimani often visits Baghdad during such times.

Tehran also backs many of the factions in Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which was formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group. The Hashed formally reports to the prime minister but have their own command structure outside the military.

Iran is also a significant economic partner for Iraq, selling electricity and natural gas to supplement Iraq's gutted power sector, and is Baghdad's second-biggest source of other imports, from fruit to carpets and cars.

Longstanding grievances

Nevertheless, the outbreak of protests in Iraq, as well as those in nearby Lebanon, have exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran's regional influence, with protesters' slogans targeting the political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran.

"There's a lack of respect. They act like they are the sons of this country and we are beneath them," said Hassanein Ali, 35, who is from the Shiite holy city of Karbala but traveled to Baghdad to join the ongoing protests. "I feel like the Iranian Embassy controls the government and they are the ones repressing the demonstrators. I want Iran to leave."

That the protesters are mainly from Shiite areas undermines Iran's claim to be a champion of Shiites, who are a majority in Iraq and Iran but a frequently oppressed minority in the wider Muslim world.

"This has embarrassed Shiite leaders close to Iran," said Wathiq al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based analyst. "After these demonstrations, Iran may lose Iraq by losing the Shiite street."

In Baghdad's Tahrir Square, protesters have brandished crossed-out pictures of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as Soleimani. Demonstrators have beaten the posters with their shoes in a replay of scenes from the ouster of Saddam Hussein 16 years ago.

On Sunday night in Karbala, protesters climbed the walls of the Iranian Consulate by the light of burning tires as the crowd chanted "The people want the fall of the regime," one of the main slogans from the 2011 Arab Spring. Security forces dispersed the protest, killing at least three people and wounding nearly 20.

The demonstration came less than a week after masked men suspected of links to Iran-backed militias opened fire on a demonstration in the Shiite holy city, killing at least 18 people.

"People make a direct connection between the failure and the corruption of the Shiite political establishment, both politicians and some clerics, and the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs," said Maria Fantappie, an expert on Iraq with the Brussels-based Crisis Group, a global think tank.

She said that there has been a "drastic change" in the perception of the Hashed al-Shaabi, which helped oust the Islamic State terrorist group from the territory it had seized in Iraq. Many protesters now view the Iran-backed militias as an instrument of repression. A broader crackdown on the protests "would backfire on them in a massive way."