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The Iraq Report: The changing of the guard will not change Iraq

Adel Abdul Mahdi has been asked to form a government by beginning of November [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 October, 2018

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Our fortnightly round-up from Iraq features more on the new premier, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has close ties to both Iran and the United States.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

In what has been a long, often painfully drawn out process, Iraq once again has a government under a new prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker, with the new cabinet due to be unveiled in days.

The new premier, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has close ties to both Iran and the United States, with many analysts believing this means he can balance the interests of both powers while furthering Iraq's. However, the elderly statesman has many Iraqis concerned that he may be yet another out-of-touch politician in a long line of prime ministers who have achieved little for Iraq.

Although Mahdi's administration is yet to fully form itself, it seems likely that little will actually change for Iraqis suffering from 15 years of mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and skyrocketing violence.

Very recently, people have been killed for "looking gay," or being popular fashion icons on Instagram, beauticians, and for being strong women involved in the civil rights movement.

The Iraq Report: Women's rights in danger after top activist and social media star assassinated
Read also: Women's rights in danger after top activist
and social media star assassinated

A health crisis and epidemic looms over Basra, one of Iraq's most populous and historic cities. The sense of fear and despondency in Iraq looms ever greater and ever present, and a new government will do little to nothing to fix that.

Adel Abdul Mahdi's second coming

Earlier this month, Iraq's parliament elected Kurdish Barham Salih as president and Shia Arab, Adel Abdul Mahdi, as prime minister, with the former directing the latter to form a government by the beginning of November.

These top-level appointments follow the election of Mohammed al-Halbusi as parliamentary speaker last month, breaking a deadlock in talks to form a new government, and paving the way for former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to leave office. 

Read also: Who is Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's prime minister-designate?

Mahdi is the first Iraqi prime minister to take office since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq to not hail from the Shia Islamist and Iran-backed Dawa Party. While this may be cause for celebration for many fearful of ever-increasing Iranian influence on Iraqi affairs, Mahdi is not only a former Baathist and communist, but he is also a Shia Islamist himself and is a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has since rebranded to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

From when it was known as SCIRI until today's ISCI, the party has well-documented connections to the Iranian theocratic regime and seeks to establish an Islamic revolutionary government in Iraq along the lines of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime that overthrew the secular Iranian dictatorship in 1979.

Arguably, then, there is little difference between having a member of the Dawa or ISCI in power, as they fundamentally agree on the direction Iraq should take and are subservient to the wishes of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on religious-political grounds.

Mahdi also enjoys close ties to the United States, having been willing to cooperate with the American occupation and served firstly as finance minister before becoming vice president in 2005.

Under the Abadi administration, he also served as oil minister for two years from 2014. Mahdi is thus part and parcel of the post-invasion system, and his premiership can be viewed as something of a second coming for the elderly politician. 

However, he may not be viewed as being representative of the Iraqi people. Iraq's May 12 elections saw a record low 45 percent turnout, and the top executive posts were not appointed by direct elections, but by alliance making and deal cutting in parliament.

Indeed, the current president Barham Salih is also connected to Iran by way of his long-standing senior role in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party and Speaker Halbusi is also viewed as being pro-Iran

Added to that is Mahdi's age which, at 76-years-old, risks making young and unemployed Iraqis feel that their new premier is out of touch with the problems they face daily.

Although Mahdi's administration is yet to fully form itself, it seems likely that little will actually change for Iraqis suffering from 15 years of mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and skyrocketing violence
Adel Abdul Mahdi (L) meets Chairman of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) Arshad al-Salihi (R) at ITF office in Baghdad on October 12 [Getty]

'Looking gay' results in brutal murders

Among the myriad problems Iraqis face are Iran-backed Shia Islamist militias who – like the Sunni Islamic State (IS) – are seeking to impose their worldview on the rest of the population, despite Iraq being nominally a democracy. 

Unlike IS, however, the militias are often closely intertwined with the ruling elite and enjoy close support from a major international backer, neighbouring Iran. 

Almost a fortnight ago, a 14-year-old Iraqi boy, Ahmad al-Mutairi, was killed in a frenzied stabbing by a gang for "looking gay".

Harrowing footage of the aftermath of the stabbing has been widely shared on social media, with Mutairi screaming for his mother as he asked his attackers about his wounds, with the gang taunting him "it's your guts" and asking him who his boyfriend was. The attack was widely blamed on ultra conservative Shia militants. 

Shia militias have been notorious for their use of violence and savage brutality to put their message across – conform or die. 

In 2012, Shia militias associated with election winner and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organisation controlled by senior Shia Islamist Hadi al-Amiri engaged in weeks of violence specifically targeting "emo" teenagers. Reports indicated that these emos were being stoned to death, while others had their heads smashed between two slabs of concrete in a savage display of violence.

The violence followed the interior ministry's announcement that emos were "Satanists" and the "Morality Police" would deal with such people, with the ministry then and now being under the direct control of the Badr Organisation. Vice News also released an internal document it had obtained from a leak within the interior ministry that appears to sanction the killing of gay or gay-seeming people.

The murders have sparked fears of women's rights taking a backseat as hardcore Islamists take greater control over the country's affairs

More recently, trailblazing Iraqi women have been targeted and murdered in a spate of deadly attacks, seemingly for going against the grain of the conservative society the Shia militants want to impose.

Souad al-Ali, a prominent civil rights activist, was murdered in Basra not long after militias warned protesters that they would be punished for "collaborating with the Americans". Separately, three other women involved in the beauty industry, including famous social media superstar Tara Fares were also murdered, for their alleged promiscuity and for encouraging immorality.

The murders have sparked fears of women's rights taking a backseat as hardcore Islamists take greater control over the country's affairs.

Cholera epidemic feared as water crisis continues

Another problem facing the incoming Iraqi cabinet will be the ongoing water crisis that has now multiplied and exacerbated despite many months of protests by Basra residents.

The water crisis has been an embarrassment for the Iraqi authorities as visiting football teams in the Iraqi premier league are struck down with cases of water poisoning, and even visiting diplomats and dignitaries from the European Union not being spared the filthy state of Basra's water supply. The EU's Ambassador to Iraq, Ramon Blecua, fell ill after being poisoned with water pollution in Basra.

An outbreak of cholera is now feared as health officials warned over the weekend that the water crisis was reaching breaking point.

Waste water produced by the country is poisoning the Tigris and Euphrates [Getty]
An outbreak of cholera is now feared as health officials warned over the weekend that the water crisis was reaching breaking point

An official source from the Basra health department confirmed to The New Arab's Arabic-language service that there had been a marked rise in waterborne diseases, and an absence of support from the federal health ministry in Baghdad was compounding the problem. More than 100,000 people have sought medical treatment since the crisis began in the summer, while critical medication to treat these diseases were lacking.

However, water problems affect more than just Basra, as even Baghdad's famed Tigris River has been running polluted, endangering not only the environment and ecosystem, but also threatening the rites of ancient religious communities.

Every Sunday in Iraq, the small Mandaean religious community bathe themselves in the waters of the Tigris to purify their souls, according to their beliefs. However, unlike in ancient times, Baghdad's storied river is so overrun by pollution that it now flows with untreated sewage, toxins and dead fish. This has led to many Mandaeans facing the risk of acute water poisoning.

While it is early days yet in Mahdi's administration, it does seem that he has an almost insurmountable task ahead of him. Not only does he have to juggle two major power brokers, Iran and the US, but almost all of the problems Iraqis face are deeply structural, and Mahdi is a part of that structure.

Ultimately, Iraq's problems may require a different breed of politician and political movement to resolve them.

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