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story.lead_photo.caption Iraqi women light candles Friday in Basra in memory of slain anti-government protesters.

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's prime minister, pressured by an expanding protest movement and a rising death toll, said Friday that he would submit his resignation to parliament.

The announcement by Adel Abdul-Mahdi came a day after security forces killed more than 40 protesters, and it stirred fears of a political crisis over uncertainty about how or when he would be replaced.

The resignation came in response to Iraq's powerful Shiite Muslim religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called Friday for a change of leadership, according to a statement issued by the prime minister's office.

In Abdul-Mahdi's statement, which began with a Koranic verse about offering oneself up for sacrifice, the prime minister said he "listened with great concern" to the sermon, which was read by an aide to al-Sistani at Friday prayers in the central city of Najaf and broadcast nationally.

Al-Sistani called on the government to "reconsider its options" to prevent further bloodshed, citing tense conditions and a "clear inability" on the part of authorities to deal with the unrest in the country.

The prime minister's statement said his resignation aims to "preserve the blood" of Iraqis as the death toll rises in protests that began Oct. 1 over official corruption, high unemployment and poor government services in the oil-rich nation. More than 350 people have been killed.

"I will submit to parliament an official memorandum resigning from the current prime ministry so that the parliament can review its choices," Abdul-Mahdi said.

Abdul-Mahdi did not specify when he would submit his resignation. Friday marks the start of the weekend in Iraq, and parliament is set to meet Sunday for an emergency session to discuss the ongoing crisis.

Officials questioned Abdul-Mahdi's decision to submit his resignation to parliament, thereby requiring members to vote, rather than sending it directly to the president, who has the power to accept it immediately and demote the government to caretaker status until a new government is formed.

Iraq's constitution does not spell out a process that follows the resignation of a prime minister, said Ziad al-Ali, a lawyer specializing in comparative constitutional law and international commercial arbitration.

If parliament holds a vote of no confidence to compel Abdul-Mahdi to resign, then the whole government has to change, and Abdul-Mahdi would stay on as a caretaker prime minister in the meantime. However, al-Ali said, if Iraq's Federal Supreme Court decides that a resignation is the same thing as a vacancy, then the president of Iraq would temporarily serve as both president and prime minister.

"But in Iraq, according to the conditions and our history in the last 15 years, 'temporary' conditions may remain for a long time," al-Ali said.

TEMPERED CELEBRATION

Word of the planned resignation triggered celebrations by anti-government protesters who have been camped out for nearly two months in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

Young men and women broke into song and dance under the sparkle of fireworks crackling from every corner of the plaza, the epicenter of their leaderless protest movement, which seeks an end to sectarian government, as well as improved elections and anti-corruption efforts.

But the celebrations were tempered by mourning for people killed in the protests and an acknowledgment there will be little immediate change.

"This is the first step," said Hiatt Mehdi, 60, a widow with seven children, including a son who has been demonstrating for the past 35 days without returning home. She went to Tahrir Square to congratulate her son that his efforts seemed to have been rewarded.

"But it's really not enough," she said.

Other protesters agreed, saying Abdul-Mahdi's decision was only a first step.

"The political system will replace him with someone exactly the same," said Taif, a 39-year-old protester, as jubilant demonstrators waved flags behind. "Until this sick system is destroyed, we won't leave."

On the street near the square, another protester named Mortada, 21, watched the fanfare from a distance.

"We want true electoral reforms. We want real change," he said. "It's not one man, it's the whole system that needs to resign."

Both Taif and Mortada declined to give their full names, fearing retaliation.

Ali Dabdab, a protester who has been in Tahrir Square since the first day, said the resignation announcement was not enough. He called for Abdul-Mahdi to be put on trial and held responsible for the hundreds of people killed in the past two months.

"We want to change everything: all these thieves and faces," he said. "This resignation is only step one, but it's not what we came for. We want our country back."

CONSENSUS APPOINTEE

Abdul-Mahdi, a former oil and finance minister and an ex-vice president, was appointed in October 2018 as Iraq's fifth prime minister since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The prime minister was seen as an independent and a consensus candidate. He was Iraq's first prime minister from outside the Dawa Party in 12 years.

His rise to power was the product of months of political wrangling and a provisional alliance between parliament's two main blocs -- Sairoon, led by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units strongly supported by Iran.

In the May 2018 election, neither coalition won a commanding plurality that would have enabled it to name the prime minister, as stipulated by the Iraqi Constitution. To avoid political crisis, Sairoon and Fatah forged a union with Abdul-Mahdi as their prime minister.

Now, with his resignation, unresolved disputes between the coalitions threaten to reemerge, two Iraqi officials said.

Abdul-Mahdi's administration was characterized by small gains to improve the day-to-day lives of Baghdad residents. He moved his offices out of Baghdad's highly secure Green Zone on the first day of his term, saying he wanted to take his government closer to the people, while removing wartime cement barriers that had closed Iraqis off from much of the city.

His office worked behind the scenes to streamline the administration and improve decision-making. But the effects of those efforts were often not visible to the Iraqi public.

Abdul-Mahdi often was caught in the middle of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, with many in the U.S. perceiving his government and certain members of his staff as being close to Tehran.

However, Washington had wanted Abdul-Mahdi to remain in power, fearing that if he were swept away it would lead to chaos or even a renewed civil war. The United States is interested in maintaining Iraqi stability as a bulwark against Islamist extremists.

Iran had also wanted Abdul-Mahdi to remain in power. Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, responded to the resignation announcement by saying it was part of an effort coordinated by Iran's Middle East enemies "to destroy the relationship between our two countries."

"Iranians should know that this is by no means what the Iraqi government, politicians or officials want," Masjedi told Iranian state television. "It's not what the Iraqi people want."

Despite Masjedi's statement, Iraqi protesters have widely rejected Iranian influence over Iraq's state affairs. In Baghdad on Friday, demonstrators gathered around the historic Rasheed Street near the strategic Ahrar Bridge and burned the Iranian flag, chanting "Iran out!"

Information for this article was contributed by Samya Kullab and Murtada Faraj of The Associated Press; by Alissa J. Rubin of The New York Times; and by Mustafa Salim, Sarah Dadouch and William Branigin of The Washington Post.

A Section on 11/30/2019

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