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Iraq's new prime minister faces expectations to change, rebuild the country

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT -- After five months of political wrangling, Iraq's former oil minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was chosen last week to form a new government -- the latest hope for reconstructing a county ravaged by war and hardship.

His predecessors came to power amid existential battles against the Islamic State and a Kurdish succession bid that promised to dismember the country. But as prime minister he faces an arguably greater challenge: appeasing an electorate that has lost patience with the entire political class and is eager to see results more than 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion.

An economist who lived in exile in France for many years before returning to Iraq in 2004, he served as finance minister and vice president, and sat on a committee to write Iraq's constitution in 2005. At 76, Abdul Mahdi is the oldest person to hold the prime minister's post in the post-Saddam Hussein era, and has a reputation for quitting when things don't go his way. He resigned as both vice president and oil minister.

"He's been in the establishment. He was a former communist, then became a Baathist, a Marxist and an Islamist. ... He is a very close friend to the Kurds," said Renad Mansour, an Iraqi expert at the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank.

"He's someone who is respected across the board, and that's difficult considering how he flipped between parties."

His supporters point to his status as an independent as proof that Iraq is finally moving away from the sectarian politics that have divided the country. All agree he is an affable man, displaying neither the violent streak of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nor Haidar al-Abadi's aversion to bare-fisted politics when he led the country.

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Abdul Mahdi comes to power very much a compromise candidate, one agreed upon by parliament's top blocs, including the faction headed by nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Iran-friendly, Shiite-dominated militias led by former commander Hadi Ameri. Abdul Mahdi also comes with the imprimatur of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top religious figure.

Even the U.S. and Iran, two countries that have long used the premiership as a proxy for their own battles, accepted him as a draw: He wasn't the United States' first choice, but nor was he Iran's.

"These are people that we know pretty well. They've been around the Iraqi government scene for some time," said U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at a news conference in Washington.

"What we talked about was building out an Iraqi government that was ... interested in the welfare and future good fortunes for the Iraqi people, not controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran."

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