McLARTY FIRST TAKE: Iraq PM Abdul-Mahdi Resigns

December 3, 2019


    • Iraq’s parliament voted yesterday to accept Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation in response to growing violence and unrest.
    • Protests have continued, and Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation is unlikely to satisfy the protesters who continue to call for transformative political reform.
    • The conflicting dynamics between the two most prominent forces in Iraqi politics, Muqtada Al-Sadr and Hadi Al-Amiri, will make the process of confirming a new prime minister an arduous task.
    • This unprecedented development underscores the sharp decline in support that Iran has enjoyed amongst the Iraqi Shia population and the uncertain future of Iran’s ability to project influence into Iraq’s politics and government.


The Iraqi parliament accepted PM Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation yesterday, satisfying the protesters’ primary demand. The two-month-old movement has further precise demands, including drafting a new election law and ending the power-sharing arrangement between Iraq’s sectarian parties. Despite the government’s implementation of measures intended to quell the protests, including economic reforms, a cabinet reshuffle, and muscular security interventions, demonstrations have been ongoing for the past two months and resulted in the death of over 430 protesters. While the situation is still fluid, there is no sign that protests will abate in the near term, especially considering that parliament has yet to agree on the path to forming a new government.

The spark that led to Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation was Iraq’s top Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s call for a new government this past Friday, following the death of more than 50 protesters the day before. The bloodiest single day of protests in the past two months, security forces killed more than 50 protesters in Baghdad and Iraq’s primarily-Shia southern cities of Nasiriya and Najaf, prompting Al-Sistani to condemn lethal force against demonstrators and call for a new government, sending the signal for Abdul-Mahdi to resign hours after Al-Sistani’s statement.


Unlike past protests, this wave of demonstrations has sustained its momentum and put enormous pressure on Iraqi political elites, who remain unable to adequately satisfy protesters’ demands. Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation is a tangible concession to the protesters, but his departure could mean Iraq will face a more profound political crisis.

The question of confirming Iraq’s next prime minister is further complicated by conflicting dynamics between Iraq’s two most prominent political figures, Muqtada Al-Sadr and Hadi Al-Amiri, and their respective parliamentary blocs. An Iraqi nationalist, Al-Sadr is a prominent Shia cleric who supports the protests and directed his parliamentary bloc Saairun – which holds the most seats in parliament – to refrain from naming a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi and instead support the public’s choice of PM. Last month, Al-Sadr promised never to work towards a political agreement with Al-Amiri, leader of the second-largest parliamentary bloc, the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), after Al-Amiri flipped on an agreement to subject Abdul-Mahdi to a non-confidence vote in parliament. This split between Saairun and the PMF means that a political stalemate is likely, although the crucial question is whether protesters will accept any outcome put forth by parliament.

While the situation is still unfolding, we are closely watching three potential developments:

  1. An escalation of violence: Protests have shifted from marches to camping out in Tahrir Square, near the Green Zone which is home to the Iraqi government and foreign embassies, creating a recipe for escalating violence against the protesters. With demonstrations unlikely to recede in the near term, the threat of violence will also continue.
  2. A political stalemate: Since this wave of protests began, Al-Sadr and his coalition have called for early elections. Now, Al-Sadr is calling for protesters to continue to press their demands and for a popular referendum to choose the next PM. Al-Sadr aims at solidifying his legitimacy among the demonstrators, which will deter him from reaching consensus with other political forces.
  3. Iran’s response: The support that Iran once enjoyed among the Iraqi Shia population has sharply declined, as evidenced by the protests themselves, as well as Shia protesters burning the Iranian consulates in Najaf and Karbala. Iran is deeply reluctant to see its influence erode and thus will increase efforts to assert itself via the PMF and other political and/or security actors that could lead to increased levels of volatility.

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