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Abdulmehdi’s Resignation: Scratching the Surface of Reform

After two months of protests that have resulted in the deaths of roughly 400 protestors (the most violent political unrest in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein), Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdulmehdi submitted his resignation to the parliament, which was approved on December 1, 2019. This comes only one year after the formation of his government, which in its short tenure was unable to curtail corruption or combat unemployment. In spite of the fact that these issues were not endemic to the Abdulmehdi government, protestors ultimately determined he was unable to bring tangible results that met the expectation of his promises. Although this decision is a victory for protestors, the reforms and changes they demand are not expected to be enacted simply through Abdulmehdi and his cabinet’s removal, as similar gripes motivated Iraqis to take to the streets in 2018 months before Abdulmehdi even came to power.

The immediate factor leading to Abdulmehdi’s resignation was the killing of 44 protestors in AlNasiriya and Najaf by Iraqi security forces which led Iraq’s highest cleric Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to call on Members of Parliament (MPs) to reconsider their support for the current government.[1] [2] According to the PM’s resignation statement, AlSistani’s letter was cited as the official justification behind his decision. Escalations in Iraq that have occurred over the past week, which in addition to the aforementioned massacres included the burning of the Iranian consulate in Najaf, arguably left the PM with few options besides resignation.

Like the popular discontent leading to his resignation, the formation of Abdulmehdi’s cabinet occurred under similar pressure from street demonstrators, who in 2018 began protesting issues of corruption, unequal wealth distribution, and high unemployment. The fact that these 2018 protests were thought to have propelled more qualified candidates into government left Iraqis under the initial impression that Abdulmehdi’s cabinet could bring better results than previous governments that were overly influenced by the political party quota system.

Despite high expectations, since the eruption of the protests on October 1, 2019, Abdulmehdi’s government had been unable to lower tensions with the demonstrators, nor prevent violations by security forces accused of employing excessive force.[3] [4] Within the first two weeks of the protests, President Barham Saleh and Speaker Mohammed AlHalbousi managed to open negotiation channels and lower tension between protestors and the cabinet. Yet, mediation failed due to the violence of security forces and an increased number of casualties among protestors.[5] Meanwhile, the complexity and intensity of the unrest grew as both the demonstrators and the government acknowledged that unknown militias were apparently assassinating and kidnapping activists.[6]

Outside Iraq’s immediate domestic political crises, the Iranian factor may be the most notable instigator of both the 2018 and 2019 protests. The burning of the Iranian consulate in Najaf was only one of several attacks conducted by protestors against Iran’s diplomatic representations and centers of Iranian-backed armed militias and parties. The protests overall were flush with anger against Iranian influence in Iraq, as protestors linked the Islamic Republic to corrupt politicians and outlawed militias. Moreover, in 2018 polls showed that Tehran’s popularity among Iraqis dropped noticeably by the year’s end. A survey targeting thousands of Iraqis in November 2018 showed that the percentage of Iraqi Shiites with favorable attitudes toward Iran dropped from 88% in 2015 to 47% in 2018. Of equal importance, the number of Iraqis with unfavorable attitudes toward Iran increased from 6 % to 51% between 2015 and 2018.[7]

Yet, despite Abdulmehdi’s removal (a nominal win for protestors), the demands of these same street demonstrators evidence their understanding that he was not the problem in and of himself. Rather, their questioning of parliamentarians accused of divvying positions and power based on quotas that preserved their own positions over the best interests of the state, show that the protestors’ grievances run deep.[8] In turn, Iraqis have called for reforms that remove corrupt politicians and enact a new election law that prevents the exploitation of power by the different political parties. Still, the resignation of Abdulmehdi will likely result in the election of a similar candidate, as the selection will take place from among the same parliamentary majority that previously had selected the now-ousted PM. Meanwhile, the current care-taker government cannot form new laws or reform the High Commissioner for Elections, a grievance on the top of the protestors’ list of demands.

Since his resignation was approved by the Parliament, Abdulmehdi has become the first Iraqi PM to resign since 2003. Subsequently, the President will nominate a new PM for the position, which will leave Iraqis with a few scenarios. First, if the name ultimately selected is from among those loyal to the current political parties perceived by protestors as corrupt, demonstrations will likely remain in the streets. Second, should the parliament decide to instead assemble a technocratic government, tensions may ultimately decrease. However, protests and unrest will likely erupt again unless tangible improvements are made to the economic situation in Iraq. Only the course of the coming days will determine if protestors will recede to give space to the Parliament and President to form a new cabinet. Regardless, the coming weeks (and likely months) will be crucial in Iraq’s history and will undoubtedly shape the future of Iraq for years to come.



[1] Arwa Ibrahim, “’Bloodbath’: Dozens of protesters killed as army deploys south,” Aljazeera, November 29, 2019

[2] John Davidson, “Iraq PM says he will quit after cleric’s call but violence rages on,” Reuters, November 29, 2019

[3] Khalid Mohammed and Hadi Mizban, “Anti-government protests in Iraq lead to clashes, killing 2,” ABC News, October 1, 2019

[4] “Iraq: Lethal Force Used Against Protesters,” Human Rights Watch. October 10, 2019

[5] Josheph Krauss, “Iraq president bows to protesters and calls for new voting law,” PBS, October 31, 2019

[6] John Davison and Ahmed Aboulenein. “Threats, arrests, targeted killings silence Iraqi dissidents,” Reuters, November 29, 2019

[7] Munqith al-Dagher. “Iran’s influence in Iraq is declining. Here’s why.” IIACSS. November 16, 2018

[8] Farah Najjar. “Iraq protesters insist on system overhaul after US call for vote,” Aljazeera, November 11, 2019

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