By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Iraqis have reacted with messages of hope and relief following the election of Barham Salih as President. He will take over from Fuad Masum at a time when Iraq is at a crossroads following the defeat of ISIS and as it navigates Iran-US tensions.
How it came about
Salih was born in 1960 in Sulimaniyeh in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region. He joined the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and was arrested by the Ba’ath regime before moving to the UK. He also served the PUK in the United States and then returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He served as Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq and also Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He voted in the Kurdistan referendum in 2017 and also formed his own party called the Coalition for Democracy and Justice. He returned to the PUK and was considered as a candidate for the presidency in September.
In mid-September Iraq finally elected a new Speaker of Parliament after months of coalition talks following the May election. Electing a new president became problematic because of the internal politics of the Kurdish region. The Kurdistan region held its own elections on September 30. After the KDP performed well, the question of who Kurds would put forward for president was debated. There had been several candidates, but a unified candidate was sought. Under the nature of Iraq’s system since 2003 the President has been Kurdish and generally from the PUK while the Speaker of Parliament has been Sunni Arab and the Prime Minister has been Shi’ite. Many non-Kurdish Iraqis who had opposed the Kurdistan independence referendum in 2017 blamed the KDP for the referendum and it was unclear how a KDP candidate could be elected president of an Iraq that the KDP had so recently considered independence from.
However in Iraq’s complex politics there were disputes in the Kurdish region between the various factions. This has to do with different levels of influence, including that of Iran, over local politics. It also had to do with the KDP seeking to broker a deal to keep Haider al-Abadi from becoming Prime Minister again. The eventual deal was for Salih to be president, although it’s unclear what that means for the KDP’s overall role in the KRG and Iran’s role in Iraq amid the Iran-US tensions.
“Not even Reuters can use their cliché ‘pro-Iran’ line this time,” tweeted Hayder al-Khoei. The famous blogger and website Mosul Eye was optimistic, noting that after the speaker had been chosen and Salih, it was likely Adil Abdul Mahdi would be Prime Minister. Yesar al-Maliki also wrote that it brings hope to Iraq.
Joyce Karam put a 2008 photo of Salih and Adel Abdul Mahdi with then US President Bush. Some posted photos of Salih in Iraq’s southern marshes. Some pointed to the feeling that it is offensive that Iraq is seen as a “football match” between Iran and the US, and that the team of Salih and Abdul Mahdi may be free from that.
Brett McGurk, the US anti-ISIS envoy, congratulated Salih.
The general feeling appears to be hope, pride and relief that there is finally a President and may be a Prime Minister and full government soon. This is a celebration of a successful and peaceful democratic transition.
Hanan Mohsin writes “We congratulate Dr. Barham Saleh for winning the position of President of the Republic of Iraq and call on him to succeed in his great task of preserving the unity of Iraq and protecting the constitution.” Another commentator writes “Salih is an acceptable figure by all, the only Kurdish who can fill the void left by the late Mam Jalal.” Many other Kurds expressed pride in the election of Salih.
Shi’ite Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais Khazali tweeted: “Following the success of the Parliament in selecting its President, the success of the election, without exceeding the constitutional deadline, and despite the complexities of the issue, proves that the current Members of Parliament have the courage in their decision and that their decision is Iraqi with distinction. Mr. Mubarak to the President of the Republic of Iraq.”
There were also comments about how Iran had been outplayed in the election of Salih.
Fadi al-Shamri writes: “President of Iraq, the will of good and reform has triumphed for all of us and we hope that the beginning of real change towards a stable, independent and secure development.” A “balanced man with leadership,” writes another.
“Eloquent as ever setting out his vision for the Iraqi presidency, dignified and an inclusive pitch. His election will undoubtedly transform the presidency and reshape the norms of Iraqi politics,” –Shwan Zulal.
“The most qualified.” – Feisal Istrabadi.
“Active and effective after 12 years of slumber,” writes one commentator.
“He will be the best since 2003,” writes another.
But others still critiqued the sectarian nature of the political system.
Some Kurdish voices have been critical of Salih. Ari Mamshae writes “Personally I knew that the Iranians and the Iraqi Shi’a blocks would never let a KDP candidate to become the Iraqi president when alternatively there is the PUK which would do everything possible for their appeasement such as the October 16 treason.” However other Kurds feel that his election will reduce reliance on family politics in the Kurdish region and he will stand up to the KDP. This shows how the lasting anger over the referendum and Baghdad’s retaking of Kirkuk in October 2017 are still raw.
Barzani Hussein writes “The difference in character between Mam Jalal and Barham Salih as Iraqi President is, Mam Jalal fought for Kurdish rights in
#Iraq, whereas Barham Salih fights for Iraqi rights in #Kurdistan.”
What comes next?
With a new President, Iraq no must find its footing with its more powerful Prime Minister selection.
It is not clear if Abdul Mahdi has the support of the other large lists in the government. Mustafa Habib writes that Hadi al-Amiri agreed to accept Mahdi as did Sadr.
However Mahdi will have a difficult job trying to bridge the gaps between the different large parties in parliament, including Sadr, Amiri and Abadi, as well as former PM Nouri al-Maliki. He will have to navigate the economic and infrastructure protests. He will have to do deal with the continuing ISIS threat and the need to rebuild large parts of Iraq. And he will have to work to bridge the rancor with the Kurdistan region and also to deal with the growing US-Iran tensions. This includes questions of what to do with various Shi’ite militias of the PMU.
Priase for Abadi
One of the main outcomes of the election has been praise for Abadi and citing his “gracious” and statesmanlike conduct as he welcomes the new Prime Minister. There is a lot of talk about the success of a peaceful transition of power and what that means for the future of Iraq. Dr. Abbas Kadhim writes: “Many see the empty half of the political cup in Iraq. Optimistic people see this. We who lived through decades of resurrection, we were preparing this position of miracles. And also most of the Middle East today: they may not see it in their lives.”
Abadi’s full comments can be found at this tweet.
“Speaker, President & PM changed, & instead of blood, flowers r being distributed. It’ll be a complete success story for
#Iraq if d new gov will be able 2 defeat corruption, bring jobs, services & a good welfare system. An achievement to be better than ur predecessors, Abadi did,” Kamal Chomani noted.
Yerevan Saad: “I am worried about the inverse implications of Iraqi presidency on kurdish politics now. Nothing good comes out of this. KDP is a wounded tiger seeking revenge.”
US Senator Marco Rubio felt that the election was a win for Iran. “The clear winner is Iran. IRGC leader Soleimani personally brokered this deal. This is a major & troubling development,” he Tweeted.