Iraq names new leaders and breaks years of political deadlock

Iraqi lawmakers have elected a new president, breaking a year-long deadlock that has gripped the politically fragile nation since the last nationwide election.

As rockets slammed into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Thursday, Abdul Latif Rashid, 78, a veteran Kurdish politician and former minister, defeated incumbent President Barham Salih in a second secret round of voting. Rashid immediately appointed Muhammed Shia’ al-Sudani as prime minister, paving the way for a government to be formed within the constitutionally prescribed 30 days.

For many Iraqis, it was welcome news after a year of turmoil and instability rooted in a bitter political feud between Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Iran-backed rivals – known as the Framework of Coordination – who failed to agree the composition of a government.

The protracted standoff plunged Iraq into one of its worst crises since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and marked the longest period the country has been without a functioning government since the first US-backed elections in 2005 was.

The feud took to the streets this summer as supporters of both factions held sit-ins in central Baghdad, occupied government buildings and blocked roads. Then came the worst street fighting the capital had seen in years, sparked when Sadr – whose political movement won the most seats in last October’s elections – decided to withdraw from politics, prompting his 73 MPs to resign .

The capricious cleric then called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections, a move that failed and led to bloodshed. Dozens of people were killed in the clashes until Sadr pulled his supporters off the streets, leaving him politically weak. His rivals, now the largest bloc in Parliament with the power to appoint the prime minister, took advantage of his reduced stature – a strategy that finally bore fruit on Thursday.

Sudani, an MP who later served as Minister for Water Resources and then Minister for Labor and Human Rights, is a close ally of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a key player in the coordination framework. Analysts warned that the Iran-backed alliance’s victory would be a blow to Washington, which had tacitly backed a Sadr-led government.

Sudani’s supporters say his proven experience in local and federal government means he can assemble a competent government capable of tackling some of oil-rich Iraq’s ills, chief among them rampant corruption and crumbling public infrastructure.

But others warn that his nomination is a breakthrough in name only: Iraq’s political system is designed for sectarian power-sharing, in which the president is a Kurd, the prime minister is a Shia Muslim, and the speaker of parliament is a Sunni Muslim. Because it relies on consensus, it leads to constant horse-trading between factions competing for top government posts and sources of patronage.

“Just because they managed to bring together Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders to form a government – [this] does not address the deep political tensions in the country. And it doesn’t address the Iraqi people’s deep sense of alienation from the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq Initiative leader at Chatham House.

In fact, only 40% of Iraqis voted in last October’s elections, with many denouncing the country’s broken political system and corrupt elite.

“Today is heralded as a breakthrough for the stalemate. But we still see the same group of characters that have dominated the political scene since 2003, who have stifled reforms and sanctioned political corruption that hurts Iraqis every day,” Mansour said.

Thursday’s vote was the fourth attempt to elect a president this year and came shortly after a volley of nine rockets hit the capital’s green zone, home to government buildings and foreign embassies. No one claimed credit for the nightfall attack. At least ten people were injured, including members of the security forces, the military said in a statement. Iraq names new leaders and breaks years of political deadlock

Adam Bradshaw

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