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Why Iraq’s government has been unable to find a new prime minister

Months-long protests in major Iraqi cities have led to the prime minister's resignation, but leaders have been unable to secure a replacement, and those demanding reform remain as animated as ever. Lisa Desjardins reports and speaks to the Atlantic Council’s Abbas Kadhim about what protesters are seeking, why the political elite have been unable to deliver it and where the average Iraqi stands.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Iraq, months-long protests in major cities led to the resignation of one prime minister, bowing to demands for reform. But political leaders have been unable to name a replacement, leaving protesters as animated as ever.

    "NewsHour" correspondent Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look at how the protests have led to the current political gridlock.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Basra tonight, streets lit by the glow of burning tires. The nation has no prime minister, and protesters today have sharply rejected the latest choice for the job by a leading political bloc.

    Asaad Al Eidani is currently a regional governor, but protesters see another entrenched politician.

  • Man (through translator):

    What did Asaad Al Eidani offer? Did he fight corruption? It's still there. Has he brought back services? There are no services. Regarding you, Asaad Al Eidani, whatever you do, you will not gain the prime minister position.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Protesters have a pivotal ally, Iraqi President Barham Salih. In the past day, he refused to designate the new nominee as prime minister, saying it would cause more bloodshed. That refusal may violate the Constitution, and President Salih has offered to resign over the issue.

    Key in this political uprising have been the protests in Basra and surrounding Shiite areas in the south and in Baghdad itself. The map shows another issue for protesters: the influence of neighboring Iran, which backs militias and political blocs in Iraq.

    Rejection of Iran's influence and an outcry against Iraqi corruption sparked a firestorm of protests that began in October. That led directly to the resignation of the last prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, last month.

    More than 450 protesters have died, largely after security forces fired tear gas or live ammunition at them. This leaderless protest is demanding a politically independent leader.

  • Man (through translator):

    We don't want a prime minister from these political parties. We want to topple the political regime, and we want to change the constitution.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    More fuel comes from the economy, anemic overall, with high unemployment among the young, and concern from those who do have jobs that their wages fall short.

  • Man (through translator):

    My mother passed away at the hospital because there was no medicine, and I am a working man on daily payment, and I couldn't afford her treatment.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Tonight, in Iraq, a country without a leader and a protest movement with no sign of backing down.

    For more, I'm joined by Abbas Kadhim. He joins the — he leads the Iraq initiative at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank. He is also the author of "Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State."

    Dr. Kadhim, thank you for coming back to "NewsHour."

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A lot of faces in that story just now.

    And, obviously, this is the third time in a month that Iraq has been unable to name a prime minister. Why is this so difficult and how far out of the norm is this?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    Indeed, there are so many candidates, and all of them come from the same pool that is rejected by the protesters.

    The protesters are not protesting against a government or a party or a bloc. They are protesting against the entire political elite that has been in charge of Iraq since 2003 until now.

    The problems that have been accumulating in Iraq are the accumulation of 15, 16 years of failures. And people are fed up with everyone who was involved. So they are asking for faces that have not been involved in any stage of the past 15 years, and people whose hands have been — have not been polluted by Iraqi money or blood or dignity of the Iraqi people.

    And that's why it is very hard to convince the parties to bring an outsider.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And that leads to another question too.

    The protesters, much like Iraq's population itself, are generally young.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    That's right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, 60 percent, I think, of Iraq is 24 years old or younger.

    They clearly, as you say, don't — know what they do not want. But do these protesters know what they do want? Is there anything that will be acceptable to them?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    That is the problem.

    So far, they have been only practicing their veto power. The parties are presenting names or the media and others who are floating out names, and they're saying, no, we don't want this person.

    Because the protesters do not have an organizing committee or a central nerve that will coordinate every activity they have, they are dispersed all over the south and Central Iraq. So it is very hard to speak to any group, or it is very hard also to find a — again, a spokesperson or a spokes — an entity that will speak on their behalf.

    And it is very hard to see them presenting what they want. And it is easier to see that they will wait for the political elite to present the name or the process to bring up a name, and then the action is normally automatic, no, we don't want this one, even though, in the last couple of days, we have seen some kind of signs that they might be entertaining some of the names that are — been floating around, like Faig Al-Sheikh Ali maybe, who is an M.P. and…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A member of Parliament.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    A member of Parliament. And he is a secular member of Parliament.

    And that is somehow in his favor, because most of the parties that are blamed are the Islamist parties or the traditional parties. He is kind of a new slant of a politician.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Do the average Iraqi agree with the protesters?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    Do they…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The average Iraqi, do they side with the protesters? Is this sort of a general sentiment?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    The protesters are speaking on behalf of all Iraqis.

    Again, this is very hard on the de facto, of course. They are the ones who are speaking. We don't see any counterdemonstrations or any counter voices that are discrediting them from the other side.

    But, of course, on the de jure the only way to know what the silent majority of the 40 million Iraqis want, if you have a referendum or if you have a general election. That's why we hope that the next government will prepare for a general election to know exactly where the Iraqis are standing now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Who could benefit from instability in Iraq, however long this lasts?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    A long list, of course.

    Certainly, the neighboring countries come to mind first, because they are benefiting. The weaker Iraq gets, the more vulnerable, the more they can settle their scores on the Iraqi territory, the more they can advance their interests inside Iraq. Iraq is a trophy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Iran?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, these are the ones that come to mind.

    And, also, of course, the terrorists — there is a lot of terrorism sleeper cells and other terrorist organizations that are trying to find any ungoverned space to expand and stretch and practice their malicious activities.

    So, that is that. Also, let's face it. The Iraqi political elite are — they are interested in this, because law and order and the rule of law is hurting them more is curbing their ability to practice their corruption.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One more question for you. How do Iraqis see the U.S.? Do they think the U.S. has any responsibility for the state of their nation right now, or no?

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    The United States is the midwife, if we can put it that way, that brought this change in 2003. So everything that we have is based on the activity of the United States from 2003 to 2011.

    But there is a lot of blame to go around. And I think a lot on the dysfunctionality of the government is on the Iraqis themselves, because they cannot get their act together.

    But, also, I think it is not just the United States. The Iraqi — average Iraqis — actually, there's actually numbers that we presented at the Atlantic Council recently. Iraqis, over 80 percent of them view the American people in favorable way, and about 20 percent only they favor the United States government.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Government.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    So, there is that…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Interesting.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    … kind of dichotomy in the Iraqi public opinion.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Abbas Kadhim from of the Atlantic Council, thank you for joining us.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    Thank you very much for having me.

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