BAGHDAD — Iraqi President Barham Salih appointed a new Prime Minister Saturday, ending more than two months of political deadlock that touched off widespread protests and exposed deep divides between Iraq’s younger generation and old-guard political elites.
Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, a 75-year-old former government official who resigned amid political disputes in 2012, was tasked with running the country until the next elections, for which no date has been set.
Allawi was seen as a compromise figure among political factions amid months-long anti-government demonstrations. More than 500 people have been killed in a violent crackdown against the protests.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned as prime minister in November after the country’s leading Shiite cleric withdrew his support. Abdul-Mahdi has been serving as a caretaker prime minister since his resignation.
Saturday’s appointment of Allawi followed an ultimatum by the president, saying he would designate a new premier himself if parties did not agree on a candidate.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion removed Saddam Hussein from power, major decisions have required consensus from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers. In practice, they often need the approval of major power brokers such as Iran and powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who also controls militia factions and the largest parliamentary bloc.
Allawi’s premiership was agreed upon by parliamentary groupings tied to Sadr and an Iran-backed faction, according to two members of parliament who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal political affairs.
The new prime minister will face steep challenges, including how to handle the thorny issue of a potential U.S. military drawdown.
Abdel-Mahdi had been under increasing pressure to expel the American troops amid widespread anger at President Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, on Iraqi soil.
Both Sadr and the Iran-backed faction, Fatah, are vocal supporters of a swift withdrawal by U.S.-led coalition troops in the country to fight the Islamic State. Western officials say some of their representatives are more muted behind the scenes, instead favoring an orderly drawdown, or perhaps a reshaping of the mission, that will not affect any push to defeat what’s left of the Islamist militant group.
In a statement Saturday, Sadr said that Allawi, a Shiite, had been chosen by the “people,” not parties, and that the anti-government protests would back him. The cleric had supported the street protests until recently.
In the hours before Allawi’s announcement, activists in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests, reported attempts by some of Sadr’s followers to take control of parts of the square, suggesting an attempt to project support.
But in sections of the square, other demonstrators said they would not back him. “Mohammed Allawi is rejected,” they chanted.
In the southern cities of Basra and Diwaniyah, the same refrain was heard. The protesters in all three cities come from a generation raised in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and they are calling for an end to the current governing system.
More than 60% of Iraqis are under the age of 24. Living standards are low, unemployment is high, and access to jobs often is tied more to connections than merit.
Last week, Transparency International ranked Iraq as 162nd in a list of 180 countries measured for signs of corruption. Iraq is one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, but little of that wealth trickles down to its people.