March 3, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8602

Battle For Iraq's Premiership: Iran-Backed Shi'ite Factions Seek To Marginalize Al-Sistani, Obstruct Appointment of Pro-U.S. Intelligence Chief Al-Kadhemi As PM, And Try To Reinstate Pro-Iran Abdul Mahdi

March 3, 2020
Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 8602

Afraid that their grip on Iraq is loosening, the Iran-backed factions and politicians are attempting to marginalize all the powers in Iraq that could counterbalance Iran – including Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani – in order to secure a prime ministerial candidate who is loyal to Iran at any cost.

Over the past few weeks, the Shi'ite militias have escalated the tone of their threats, warning their Sunni and Kurdish MPs that there will be serious consequences if they do not approve their prime ministerial nominee, Prime Minister-Designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi.

The tone of these threats escalated following Allawi's failure to secure parliamentary approval for his cabinet, which gave Iraq's pro-U.S. president, Barham Saleh, the constitutional authority to push for his preferred candidate. This candidate, intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Khademi, views the Shi'ite militias as "outlaws."

The recent episode of the Iraqi political impasse highlights once more the desperate attempt of the Iran-backed politicians and factions to outmaneuver President Barham Saleh' efforts to form a government not influenced by Iran, with the support of the Kurds, Sunnis and some independent Shiites.

Exploiting Political Vacuum To Assign Pro-Iran PM

On March 2, 2020, Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi announced his resignation after failing the previous day to obtain parliamentary approval for his cabinet. At the same time, the tenure of Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was caretaker prime minister after resigning because Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani had called for a new government, expired on March 2, as per the Iraqi constitution.

To avoid a political vacuum, the constitution empowers President Braham Salih to act as head of the caretaker government and to name a new nominee for the premiership within 15 days.

According to local reports, President Saleh is favoring Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhemi for the post. Al-Khadhemi is viewed by the Iran-backed militias as a U.S. ally who supports the restriction of weapons to state security agencies.

To prevent President Saleh from nominating an anti-Iran candidate, Abdul Mahdi proposed, in a statement issued March 2, the appointment of one of his deputies, or of a minister, to head the caretaker cabinet. He further urged the parliament to call for an early election on December 4.[1]   

Earlier, in January 2020, Abdul Mahdi, then caretaker prime minister, had sought to reinstate himself as prime minister with the support of pro-Iran lawmakers, by demanding an end to the U.S. military presence. This attempt, however, failed.[2]

Adel Abdul Mahdi's March 2 statement

In support of Abdul Mahdi's move, the military spokesman of the Iran-backed Hizbullah Brigades, Abu Ali Al-Askari, tweeted on March 2 that Abdul Mahdi should remain in office and that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani should backtrack from his earlier position that had led to Abdul Mahdi's resignation. Such a request is rarely made of a religious authority as significant as Al-Sistani – unless it is specifically aimed at undermining his status.    

Al-Askari's tweet stated: "It is better to stick with the resigned Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi and restore him to his natural place [so that he can] overcome what has not [yet] been overcome. The main obstacle preventing him [Mahdi] from reassuming his full responsibilities is Al-Murj'ayia's [Al-Sistani] advice, which was [the reason] behind his resignation. If this barrier is lifted, he will continue to carry out his mandate and fulfil his duties."[3]

Al-Askari's March 2 tweet

Al-Askari further accused Al-Kadhemi of helping the U.S. carry out the air strike that killed IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and PMU deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. He said that the Hizbullah Brigades would view an Al-Khademi nomination as "a declaration of war against the Iraqi people that will set ablaze what remains of Iraq's stability."

Al-Kadhemi Fights Back

Responding to Al-Askari's accusation, the Iraqi Intelligence Service issued a statement, on March 3, calling the Hizbullah Brigades an "outlaw" group that "threatens the civil peace" and seeks to "damage the reputation of Iraqi intelligence service chief Mustafa Al-Kadhemi."

Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhemi (Source:

The statement further stressed: "The Iraqi National Intelligence Service has the right to legally prosecute all those who exploit the freedom of opinion to promote false accusations that harm Iraq." It added that the service's responsibilities "are neither subject to political whims nor affected by false accusations."[4]


[1], March 2, 2020.

[2] See MEMRI Dispatch No. 8483, After His Call To End U.S. Military Presence In Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi Seeks To Be Reinstated As Iraq's Prime Minister With The Support Of Pro-Iran Lawmakers, January 9, 2020.

[3], March 2, 2020.

[4], March 3, 2020.


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