BAGHDAD – Iraqis were divided Friday by their president’s threat to quit his job rather than accept a pro-Iran coalition’s candidate for prime minister, with some saying it was unconstitutional but others praising his civic-mindedness.
Barham Saleh has resisted attempts by a pro-Iran coalition to put forward nominees for prime minister, including a resigned minister and a controversial governor.
On Thursday, Saleh said he was “ready to resign” rather than accept Fatah-backed candidate Asaad al-Eidani, who has already been rejected by the protest movement that brought down the previous government.
Some 460 people have been killed and 25,000 injured since protesters hit the streets in unprecedented numbers in October, demanding a deep overhaul of the political system.
After a relative lull, rallies have surged again as parliament wrangled over who would succeed Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who quit last month in the face of massive protests and a rising death toll.
With the country in crisis, some were hoping that the weekly sermon of influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani would offer a way forward.
The 89-year-old is Iraq’s top Shiite cleric and his opinion has long been decisive in the country’s politics.
But he remained silent on the political situation Friday, further distancing himself from the ruling elite.
In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square — the epicenter of the protest movement — a banner was unfurled overnight alongside portraits of rejected candidates for the premiership, their faces crossed out in red.
“Thank you, Barham, for siding with the demands of the people and rejecting the candidates of corrupt parties. We are with you,” it read.
But not all protesters shared this view.
Saleh’s resignation would “lead to chaos and give the political parties even more control over the country,” said Ali Mohamed, a protesting teacher in Babylon province south of the capital.
“The president needs to stay to resist these parties, he is the only barrier in place to ensure that a nationalist candidate is nominated.”
Further south in the protest encampment in Diwaniyah, Mohamed Mehdi said he hoped Saleh’s resignation would be accepted.
“That would lead to the dissolution of parliament. Then early elections could oust all these corrupt leaders,” he said.
In the halls of power, reactions to Saleh’s gambit were equally divided.
The pro-Iran bloc that claims to be the largest in parliament — and should therefore be entitled to nominate the premier — called on lawmakers to “take legal action against the president for violating the constitution.”
But the list of ex-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, now in opposition, called on Saleh to “reconsider his resignation” and work with all towards a “radical change in the balance of power.”
Abadi’s list — which came third in the last elections but has since lost many of its lawmakers to the pro-Iran camp — said blocs must “abandon the mentality of treason, intimidation and domination” threatening to plunge Iraq “into the unknown.”
The pressure mounted by the pro-Iran camp is enormous, according to the Wataniya list of secular former premier Iyad Allawi.
The list applauded Saleh’s “civic position” but called on him to stay on to form a “reduced transition government” under United Nations supervision to lead Iraq “from this impasse.”
The deadlock is pitting the pro-Iran camp against determined protesters, who have shut down schools and public buildings across the south.
The civil disobedience will continue, protesters say, until they obtain what they have been demanding since October 1.
Protesters want a total overhaul of a patronage system that distributes posts according to sect and are calling for the resignation of a political elite that has remained unchanged for 16 years.
In their place, they hope fresh polls could elect experts unaffiliated with the political system installed by the United States after it led an invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
But despite parliament passing a new electoral law, many of the protesters’ demands may be difficult to meet.
Since Saddam’s fall, Tehran has wielded considerable influence in Iraq — as has its arch-rival Washington, which is pitted against Iran in multiple theatres across the region.
On Wednesday evening, rockets hit a base hosting American soldiers north of Baghdad, the army reported, without saying who was responsible.
U.S. forces say they have already been the target of 10 similar attacks in the past two months and attribute them to armed factions equipped and financed by Tehran.