Iraq's PM designate mired in Cabinet dilemma

Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi is unable to form a Cabinet accepted by Iraqi protesters and political parties.

al-monitor Iraqi demonstrators carry posters depicting the newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, to express their rejection of him during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 2, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili.

Feb 28, 2020

BAGHDAD — Following his latest failed effort to form a Cabinet this week, Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, who was nominated as a compromise candidate for solving the political deadlock between the protesters, the state and varied political parties, is losing support from all sides.

Sunni and Kurdish blocs boycotted a parliamentary session Feb. 28, leading to its cancellation. The blocs complained that Allawi had not consulted them about selecting his Cabinet.

The next session is expected to be held Feb. 29 or March 1, but this is not yet confirmed. Still, there is no sign of agreement between the political parties over Allawi's Cabinet.

Allawi's failure to form a government came as no surprise. He had previously complained that different political parties were pressuring him and not allowing him to choose nonsectarian, independent Cabinet ministers.

Allawi tweeted: “I heard that there is a plan to prevent the Cabinet from receiving confidence from the parliament in order to continue corruption and thefts, because the ministries will be headed by independent and impartial ministers. They are paying money to the members of the parliament to fulfill their scheme.” 

Allawi is facing contradictory demands from conflicting parties, which makes his task in forming a compromise government impossible. He published his government program Feb. 25, including his agendas and policies such as planning for an early election and undertaking reforms. The plan includes selecting independent ministers who are not affiliated with or nominated by the political parties. However, it seems unlikely that the political parties will accept Allawi's Cabinet selection method, as it eliminates their political influence.

The fact is, Allawi is not affiliated with any political party that would support him making deals with other parties. He is under immense pressure, wedged between conflicting demands from rival parties that are impossible to deliver.

The conflicting parties are the protesters, Sunni blocs, Kurdish blocs and the United States, which wants to maintain a power balance between the aforementioned parties.

Protesters were the source of all the political changes that led to the Allawi nomination, and they are now calling for a nonsectarian, nonpartisan Cabinet. The two main Shiite blocs that nominated Allawi, the Popular Mobilization Units' Fatah Alliance and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, agreed to give Allawi the freedom to independently form his Cabinet. However, Kurds and Arab Sunnis want their own share of Cabinet members.

After the Kurdish delegation met with Allawi to discuss his Cabinet and program last week, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani headed a meeting in Erbil Feb. 24, in which he concluded that “the steps taken by Mr. Allawi so far have not earned the trust of many Iraqi parties and communities. Therefore, we ask that his work plan and agenda be revised in a way that the future government will address and meet the demands of all Iraqi communities.”

On the Sunni side, the Iraqi Forces Alliance, which is affiliated with parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi, announced it would not vote in favor of Allawi's Cabinet. The alliance questioned the Cabinet's independence. Mahasin Hamdoun, a representative of the Iraqi Forces Alliance, said Allawi was nominated by certain political parties — referring to the Fatah and Sairoon alliances — and that Allawi's Cabinet represents their agendas and ignores the concerns of Sunnis and other Iraqi parties.

Muqtada al-Sadr accused Kurds and Sunnis of prioritizing their interests over the nation's, urging them to set aside their partisan politics and allow Allawi to form his government.

“I don’t say [Allawi] shouldn’t induct a Kurd or a Sunni [into his Cabinet], since as components they are part of the mosaic of Iraq — but not partisan ones,” Sadr said told al-Sharqiya news Feb. 24.

Sadr previously threatened to pull his support from Allawi if his Cabinet was not independent.

While Sadr and protesters seem to both want a Cabinet independent from political parties, protesters have recently chanted slogans against Sadr, describing him as “the killer” after the Sadrist "Blue Hats" killed and beat protesters last week. This shows the complexity of the political scene, which is one of the main challenges before Allawi. 

Hamdoun accused the Sairoon and Fatah alliances of covertly dominating Allawi's Cabinet while demanding Sunnis and Kurds not ask for their share of power in the Cabinet. He means that Fatah and Sairoon are actually putting their men in the Allawi Cabinet while asking others to not do the same. 

Meanwhile, the main US concern is to maintain a power balance between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. In a phone call with Allawi Feb. 23, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Allawi to strike a deal with Kurds and Arab Sunnis before moving forward to parliament for a vote on his Cabinet.

Pompeo also "stressed Iraq’s obligation to protect US and coalition diplomats, forces and facilities,” according to the State Department. This is while the Fatah Alliance had obliged Allawi to set a deadline to end the presence of US troops in Iraq. Iraq's parliament — in the absence of Kurdish and Sunni members — voted Jan. 5 to oust all US forces from Iraq following the US strike on Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Soon after, US President Donald Trump threatened sanctions on Iraq if US troops were forced out. He asked the Iraqi government to promise to keep American troops in Iraq.

Holding early elections is a controversial component of Allawi's program. Some parties, such as Fatah, insist on setting a specific election date, yet the Kurds and Sunnis are not interested in that.

Finally, although the Fatah and Sairoon alliances might be able to gather enough votes for Allawi — as they did in voting for the expulsion of US troops — it will place the country on the dangerous step of further division, pushing Kurds and Sunnis to take serious action toward separation. The United States would most likely not reject such actions this time as it rejected the 2017 Kurdistan referendum.

Political turmoil continues as protesters reject the prime minister designate and political parties remain unable to overcome their differences. The United States and Iran, meanwhile, prepare to outmaneuver each other in Iraq. The question remains as to whether Allawi can overcome these challenges to form his government and appease his supporters.

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