Iraq's top cleric calls for quick formation of government

Iraq's top Shiite cleric is calling for the quick formation of the next government as political deadlock led Parliament to miss a constitutional deadline to name the next prime minister

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's top Shiite cleric called Friday for the speedy formation of a government and early elections as ongoing political wrangling caused Parliament to miss a deadline to name the next premier. That has sparked concerns of protracted political crisis and uncertainty.

Blast walls were erected by security forces on a bridge leading to the presidential palace in the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government. The move came in anticipation of future demonstrations there as discontent over President Barham Saleh's inability to name the next premier mounts among anti-government protesters.

Protesters currently occupy three bridges leading to and near the Green Zone — Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar — in a standoff with security forces. The demonstrations engulfed Baghdad and southern Iraq on Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets to protest government corruption, poor services and rising Iranian influence in state affairs. At least 450 protesters have died as security forces used live fire and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Pressure from the demonstrations led Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful religious authority, withdrew support for his government.

Al-Sistani, in his weekly sermon delivered by a representative in the holy southern city of Najaf, called for political blocs to form the government quickly.

“We hope that there won’t be a long delay in the formation of the new government, and it must be an uncontroversial government that responds to the requirements of the current stage, and be able to gain back the state authority and calm down the situation," Al-Sistani said.

The constitution requires Parliament’s largest bloc to name a candidate for the premiership within 15 days of its acceptance of Abdul-Mahdi's resignation, which expired on Dec. 19. The deadline was extended until Dec. 22, two lawmakers said.

Political deadlock has so far marred the naming of the next premier and the identity of the largest parliamentary bloc, which is legally required to name the candidate.

Abdul-Mahdi’s nomination as prime minister was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament’s two main blocs — Sairoon, led by cleric Moqtada 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 alone. To avoid political crisis, Sairoon and Fatah forged a precarious union.

But now, that tenuous partnership is unraveling, with Sairoon insisting that the candidate be selected by the anti-government protesters on the street. The Fatah-led coalition is adamant that their preferred candidate take the helm.

“Sairoon will not go along with a candidate that is from the previous ministers and someone likely to be rejected by protesters,” said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Bayan Center, an Iraqi think tank. Fatah's coalition, meanwhile, “is intent on breaking the partnership with Sairoon and will insist on putting forward their candidate.”

In Tahrir Square, the hub of the protest movement, names of rumored candidates are rejected outright. At one point when Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, a former human rights minister under Nouri al-Maliki's administration, was considered a top contender there was outcry in the square. Instead, protesters circulated their own lists of names for the premiership.

“This political system will never produce a candidate that will be acceptable to us,” said Zaidoun, a protester who only provided his first name.

Al-Sistani also said “the nearest and safest way to get out of the current crisis and avoid the unknown, chaos or internal fighting ... is to return to the people by holding elections early, after legislating a fair law for it.”

Anti-government protesters are calling for snap elections and a reformed electoral law that would give them greater say in how lawmakers are elected. They consider the current draft being considered by Parliament to be unsatisfactory.