Iran-backed forces threaten Iraqi prime minister over minister standoff

BAGHDAD: Iran-backed political forces in Iraq are preparing to launch mass demonstrations in Basra to pressure the new prime minister to choose their candidates for the key security ministries. 

Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was sworn in as prime minister alongside 14 ministers last week, failed to win the required parliamentary support for his full cabinet. Eight out of 22 ministries, including interior and defense, are still vacant.

The Iraqi parliament has given Abdul Mahdi until Tuesday to change his candidates or persuade the opposition parliamentary blocs to ratify them.

An agreement at the end of September between the two main rival Shiite-led parliamentary blocs to back Abdul Mahdi and his cabinet broke a political deadlock that had gripped the country since elections in May. 

But the divisions between the US-backed Reform Alliance, sponsored by the powerful cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and the pro-Iranian Al-Binna’a, resurfaced during a session to approve the government last week.

Reform refused to vote on the candidates of Al-Binna’a and walked out of the session after just 14 ministers and the government program had been approved.

Since then, tension between the two parties has been at a high and frantic negotiations by Al-Binna’a have been underway to gain the necessary support for their candidates inside parliament. They have also made preparations to mobilize street protests in Basra, 600km south of Baghdad, to put pressure on Abdul Mahdi, MPs and security officials told Arab News.

Small protests took place on Thursday but more are expected in the coming days.

The Shiite-dominated city is home to the largest oil fields in Iraq and provides the backbone to the country’s economy.



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But it is also impoverished and has been rocked by violent protests through the summer against poor government services. The demonstrations have been fueled by parties exploiting the political stalemate in Baghdad.

Any further protests that threaten the oil institutions or companies in Basra could cause serious damage to the Iraqi economy. 

Renewed demonstrations fueled by pro-Iran factions in Basra would aim to force Abdul Mahdi and his backers to accept the candidates of Al-Binna’a. The alliance is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, the commander of Badr Organization, a powerful Shiite armed faction.

The alternative would be a risk of fighting between pro and anti-Iranian Shiite groups, security officials and observers said.

Bloody clashes erupted in September between Iraqi forces and demonstrators. At least 14 protesters were killed and dozens of people were wounded, including members of the security forces. During the violence, demonstrators attacked and burned a number of government and party headquarters, including the Iranian consulate in Basra.

MPs from Al-Binna’a, including from the armed factions Badr and Assaib Ahl Al-Haq, have called on people in Basra to participate in the demonstrations. 

The political protests are timed to coincide with demonstrations demanding an improvement in basic services, in particular clean drinking water. Tens of thousands of people have fallen ill during the past two months from the water, local activists told Arab News.

“Adel Abdul-Mahdi deliberately rejected to hand over a ministerial portfolio to Basra and ignored its people’s demands in the government program,” Udai Awad, an MP from Assaib Ahl Al-Haq said last week.

“We will re-organize the demonstrations again … and we will stand in the face of anyone who tries to suppress the demonstrations and silence the voice of Basra.”

But a prominent Shiite leader involved in the talks between the two alliances told Arab News that Al-Binna’a “are trying to blackmail Abdul Mahdi and Al-Sadr to force them to accept some of their candidates.”

Al-Binna’a have been pushing for Faleh Al-Fayadh, a former national security adviser, to be interior minister and had previously wanted Faisal Fener, a former commander of dictator Saddam Hussein’s private jet squadron, to be defense minister. Both men are supported by General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of  Iran’s Quds Force. Reform strongly objects to both.

“The pressure is great. We succeeded in excluding Fener and replacing him, but Fayadh is still a candidate,” a key Shiite negotiator from Reform told Arab News.

He said Soleimani had been “investing all his influence in Iraq” to support Fayadh.

Al-Binna’a have also already attempted to topple some of Abdel Mahdi’s ministers. Mohammed Halbousi, the speaker of the parliament and one of the key leaders of Al-Binna’a on Monday ordered background checks on all the new ministers. 

At least three will now probably lose their positions due to links with Saddam’s Baath Party, corruption and Al-Qaeda, Al-Binna’a leaders told Arab News.

Local activists in Basra who have taken part in protests against the government said they were helpless to stop fresh  protests being hijacked by the pro-Iran factions.

“We know this and we cannot stop it. What we care about is access to clean water, services and jobs, the rest we can’t deal with it and we can’t stop because of it too,” Kadhim Al-Sahlan, a local activist told Arab News.

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