Friday, February 22, 2019 05:05:26 AM
AP, Baghdad :
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.
The largely ceremonial role of president has been reserved for the Kurds since Iraq's first multi-party elections in 2005, two years after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Under a tacit accord between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK would hold the federal presidency and the KDP the post of Iraqi Kurdistan's president.
But the Iraqi Kurdish presidency has been left vacant since KDP leader Massud Barzani's mandate ended following the September 2017 referendum that he championed - setting up a showdown in Baghdad.
The vote for an Iraqi president was scheduled for Monday before being postponed due to the lack of a quorum.
In a first round of polling Tuesday, neither Saleh nor Hussein won the two-thirds vote necessary to win outright, forcing a second round.
The independence vote last year saw more than 92 percent of Kurds back secession, but the federal government rejected the poll as "illegal".
Baghdad then imposed economic penalties and sent federal troops to push Kurdish forces out of oil fields in the disputed Kirkuk province that were vital for the autonomous region's economy.
Barzani had backed for president Fuad Hussein, his 72-year-old former chief of staff and veteran of the opposition to Saddam.
But the post went to Saleh, a 58-year-old moderate who has served both as Iraqi deputy premier and Kurdish prime minister.
He was part of an interim authority put in place by the United States following the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam.
He later became deputy prime minister under Nuri al-Maliki then returned to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil in 2009 to become head of the Kurdistan government.
For senior PUK official Khaled Shouani, it was important to put forward a "moderate" candidate for president who would be "accepted by all" and push to repair ties between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.
The new president's tendency to push for consensus would also satisfy both the United States and the PUK's traditional ally Iran, the two main international powers in Iraq, Shouani said.
More than four months after legislative elections, Iraq's parliament has chosen a speaker of the house but the post of prime minister has yet to be decided.
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