Iraq’s president takes office, independent tapped as PM

Iraq's new President Barham Salih, center right, walks with new Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, center left, in the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. Iraq's new president has tasked veteran Shiite politician Abdul-Mahdi with forming a new government nearly five months after national elections were held, state TV reported late Tuesday. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD (AP) — A veteran Kurdish politician assumed office on Wednesday as Iraq’s new president after tapping an independent Shiite politician for the post of prime minister, ending nearly five months of political deadlock.

Barham Salih, 58, who previously served as Iraq’s planning minister and the prime minister of the self-ruled Kurdish region, was elected president by parliament and sworn in on Tuesday. He then tapped Adel Abdul-Mahdi, 76, an independent Shiite politician and former vice president, to form the next government.

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq’s presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni. Both Salih and Abdul-Mahdi are longstanding members of the political class that has dominated Iraqi politics since then.

On Wednesday, State TV broadcast a formal handover ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where Salih was saluted by an honor guard and received by former President Fuad Masum.

Abdul-Mahdi emerged as a compromise candidate after two Shiite-led blocs each claimed to have majority support in parliament. He had strong backing from Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers won the most seats in the May elections and who formed a bloc with the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

The other bloc, which is dominated by politicians and militia leaders close to Iran, initially rejected Abdul-Mahdi but then agreed to support him after Sunni and Kurdish parties rallied to his side, according to a Shiite politician who took part in the discussions. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The politician said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, had made it clear through mediators that the job of prime minister should not go to someone who had held the post before and had urged consensus.

“The opinion yesterday was to have Abdul-Mahdi tasked quickly in order not to delay the process any further,” the politician said.

Abdul-Mahdi, an economist by training who comes from a prominent Shiite tribe based in southern Iraq, spent several years in exile in France, where he worked for think tanks and edited magazines in French and Arabic.

He joined Iraq’s Community Party in the 1970s, but later switched to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exiled opposition group established in neighboring Iran. He remained with SCIRI, which emerged as a powerful religious party after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, until the party split last year, when he became an independent.

After the invasion, he served as vice president, finance minister and oil minister.

He has 30 days to submit his cabinet to parliament for approval.

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