Iraqi blocs select new PM-designate after weeks of jockeying

BAGHDAD (AP) — Former Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi was named prime minister-designate by rival Iraqi factions after weeks of political deadlock.

The choice comes as the country weathers troubled times, including ongoing anti-government protests and the constant threat of being ensnared by festering United States (US)-Iran tensions.

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

In Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Iraq’s four-month anti-government protest movement, demonstrators rejected Allawi’s candidacy.

Demonstrators, who have long said they would not accept a candidate chosen by the establishment, erected portraits of the new premier-designate crossed with an ‘X’. Some chanted “Allawi out!”

Iraqi President Barham Salih (R) with newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday. PHOTO: AP

But many feared they would clash with followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who recently reversed a decision to withdraw support from the protest movement. Officials and analysts said that move was to gain leverage on the street as a deadline to select a new premier drew near. At least three activists said followers of al-Sadr had attacked demonstrators in Tahrir. Some protesters and others were fearful.

“The square doesn’t want him, but the problem is since Muqtada has sided with (the elites), the square cannot refuse him,” said activist Kamal Jaban. “Otherwise there will be bloodshed.”

Al-Sadr issued a statement saying Allawi’s selection was “the wish of the people,” and asked protesters to carry on with the anti-government demonstrations.

If elected by parliament, Allawi will have to contend with navigating Iraq through regional confrontations between Tehran and Washington. Tensions skyrocketed after a US drone strike near Baghdad’s airport killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

That event brought Iraq close to the brink of war and officials scrambling to contain the fallout. He will also have to grapple with an unprecedented popular uprising in Baghdad and Iraq’s south in which at least 500 people have been killed under fire from security forces.

In a speech last Saturday, Allawi addressed the nation and said he would hold responsible those guilty of using force against peaceful demonstrators, create an advisory team that included protesters and would prepare for early elections.

In a prerecorded statement earlier, Allawi called on protesters to continue with their uprising against corruption and said he would quit if parliamentary blocs insist on imposing names of ministerial appointees.

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 once a formal letter declaring Allawi as a nominee from the president is submitted, after which he has 30 days to formulate a government programme and select a Cabinet.