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Iraqi blocs select new PM-designate after weeks of jockeying

BAGHDAD — Former communications minister Mohammed Allawi was named prime minister-designate by rival Iraqi factions Saturday 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 U.S.-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 epicenter 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!”

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’s followers returned in the hundreds on Friday night, three witnesses said, bringing tents and supplies and re-occupying a strategic high-rise overlooking the square known as the Turkish Restaurant, as well as the Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone.

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 U.S. 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 late Saturday, Allawi addressed the nation and said he would hold responsible those guilty of using force against peaceful demonstrators, create and 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.

“I have faith in you and ask you to continue with the protests,” he said.

On Wednesday, President Barham Saleh gave parliamentary blocs until Feb. 1 to select a premier candidate, or said he would exercise his constitutional powers and choose one himself.

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 program and select a Cabinet.

According to the constitution, a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi should have been identified 15 days after his resignati on in early December under pressure from the protest movement. Instead, it has taken rival blocs nearly two months of jockeying to select Allawi as their consensus candidate.

Abdul-Mahdi’s rise to power was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament’s two main blocs — Sairoon, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri.

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

Until Allawi’s selection, al-Sadr had rejected the candidates put forward largely by Fatah, officials and analysts said, during a tumultuous two weeks. The radical cleric held an anti-U.S. rally attended by tens of thousands and withdrew support for Iraq’s mass anti-government protest movement, only to reverse the decision later.

The presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil has become the focus of Iraqi politics in the wake of the strike. Parliament passed a non-binding resolution for their ouster and Abdul-Mahdi had openly supported withdrawal.

The United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert urged the premier-designate to push ahead with a reform agenda.

“The prime minister-designate faces a monumental task: rapid Cabinet formation and parliamentary confirmation to press ahead with meaningful reforms addressing popular demands, delivering justice and accountability,” she said in a UN statement.

Protesters in Baghdad and southern Iraq have been calling for new executive leadership, snap elections and electoral reforms.

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