Damascus: Shortly after angry demonstrators torched the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Basra earlier this month, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani announced that no old faces were entitled to the Iraqi premiership anymore. This sealed the fate of the incumbent US-backed Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi, who has been in power since 2014.

Al Sistani is the highest religious authority in the Iraqi Shiite community. His approval was vital for the naming of every prime minister in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation of 2003. He now is calling for “a new face, known for competency, integrity, courage, and firmness.”

Iran is furious with Al Abadi, a former protégé of Tehran who parted ways in mid-2017 and mended relations with the Gulf states, paying two visits to Saudi Arabia, where he was received by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. More recently, he announced he was going to abide by renewed US sanctions on Tehran, instructing the Central Bank of Iraq to stop doing business with Iran.

Iran believes Al Abadi failed to protect its premises in Basra, and might have secretly encouraged its destruction. Shortly after Al Sistani announced his position on September 10, prominent cleric Muqtada Al Sadr — also a former ally of the Iranians — backed out on the Prime Minister. His support was essential, given that Sadr’s Sairoon bloc won 54 seats in last May’s parliamentary elections, making it the largest in the Iraqi Chamber.

Prime Minister Hopefuls

Sistani’s verdict is also a slap in the face of Al Abadi’s main rival, ex-prime minister and current Vice President Nouri Al Malki, who also entertained hopes of returning to power, after having been ejected in 2014, where he was blamed by many for the systematic elimination of the Sunni opposition and for the dramatic rise of Daesh. He has teamed up with the powerful commander of the Iraqi Mobilisation Units, Hadi Al Ameri, and the ex-National Security Adviser Faleh Al Fayyad, both viewed as Iranian proteges.

After Al Sistani’s verdict, Al Abadi, Al Maliki, and Al Ameri have announced they would personally no longer seek the premiership, with the incumbent premier saying: “We are not going to hold on to power. We are committed to constitutional procedures and we respect the directions of the Marja’a, and respond positively to them.” The last to withdraw from the race was Al Abadi, on September 18.

His surrender has raised speculation that the premiership might end up with either Al Fayyad or Shiite heavyweight Adel Abdul Mehdi. A senior commander of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) Abdul Mehdi is a French-trained economist who served previously as oil and finance minister, then as vice-president of Iraq from 2005 to 2011.

Some lawmakers are speculating that Al Sistani’s verdict applies to any politician who assumed government office in the past and not just former prime ministers.

Iraqi analyst Wathiq Aljabery told Gulf News: “Not all politicians who assumed office are blacklisted, but only those with a record of failure. There is no room to repeat that experience.” He believes the election of a new parliament speaker last Saturday will hasten resolution of the premiership dilemma, after lawmakers failed to do so in the first session of parliament on September 3.

“It also applies to former ministers as well,” said prominent analyst Najah Mohammad Ali, who noted the Shiite religious establishment doesn’t rule out Fayyad, and nor do the Kurds. “He is being marketed as a man of difficult missions”, who enjoys balanced relations with all parties concerned, locally, regionally, and internationally. He is even on good terms with the Russians and the Turks.”

Al Fayyad, a former prisoner under Saddam Hussain, was recently relieved of his duties as National Security Adviser while Al Ameri, a former minister of transportation, still commands the powerful Badr Organisation, set up with Iranian funds back in the 1980s to fight Saddam’s army during the Iran-Iraq War. Abdul Mehdi is still powerful, unaffected by the political tug-of-war of recent years. According to Najah Mohammad Ali, Al Sadr and Al Ameri have both decided to back Abdul Mehdi in the days ahead.

Ripple effects of Basra

The Basra demonstrators have snowballed in recent days, resulting in the death of 16 civilians and the burning of ambulances and hospitals. Apart from imposing a curfew, Al Abadi failed to address their grievances or to punish police officers stationed in Basra. For the first time since the US occupation, the sectarian war in Iraq was no longer Sunni-Shiite but an internal division within the Shiite community, with pro-US figures on one side, led by Al Abadi, and Iran-backed others led by Al Ameri, Al Fayyad, and Abdul Mehdi, who also happens to be a former communist.

The two sides have been bickering on who controls the biggest bloc in Parliament. Deprived of Al Sadr’s support, Al Abadi has just 45 out of 329 seats in parliament, while the Al Ameri/Al Fayyad/Al Maliki alliance boasts of 145. If Al Sadr decides to back them after withdrawing support from Abadi’s Nasr Coalition, they would be acknowledged as the biggest coalition capable of naming a premier. The matter is currently in the hands of the Supreme Federal Court, which is expected to issue its final say on the matter by the end of this week.

“I think we will get a prime minister with broad powers,” said Aljabery, speculating that “independents outside the main blocs stand a higher chance.”