Iraq’s prime minister: from anti-Saddam activist to crackdown leader

Adel Abdul Mahdi is one of many Iraqi politicians who have gone from grand plans for reform to presiding over a bloody attempt to end mass protests

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 23, 2019, Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi attends a symbolic funeral ceremony in Baghdad for a commander of the Iraqi Federal Police's Fourth Division, who was killed in Samarra, north of the Iraqi capital. As anti-government protests sweep his country since the begining of October 2019, Iraq's embattled premier has found his decision-making powers clipped by rivals and his entourage subject to increasing pressure from Iran, Iraqi officials told AFP. Adel Abdel Mahdi, 77, came to power last year as the product of a tenuous alliance between populist cleric Moqtada Sadr and pro-Iran paramilitary chief Hadi al-Ameri, with the required blessing of the country's top Shiite religious authority. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is one of the central figures in a government that has killed more than 300 people in a bloody response to mass protests in the past six weeks.

The soft-spoken, French-educated economist hails – like many in senior positions in Iraq – from an exiled generation who once struggled, largely peacefully, against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein before 2003.

Many in official positions once discussed how to protect human rights and freedoms after the US-led invasion. Many, especially Iraq’s Shiite politicians, spent years as the target of Saddam’s violent suppression of dissent.

These figures have now undergone a 16-year transformation from being opposition voices to becoming leaders of their own crackdown of protests, a crackdown that one cleric described as being reminiscent of the Saddam era.

Mr Abdul Mahdi’s reason for this, the cleric and an associate who closely worked with him told The National, is the prime minister’s political pragmatism. It also, they both said, comes as no surprise.

The 77-year-old adhered to a pre-Saddam strain of Iraqi-Baathism, Trotskyism and Maoism, before pivoting towards political religion after he fled the country when Saddam came to power in the late 1960s.

Mr Abdul Mahdi realised his ambition to become prime minister last year after post-election backroom negotiations failed to come up with another consensus figure acceptable to Iran and the US.

For Shiite politicians like Mr Abdul Mahdi, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Al Sadr was a key inspiration. One of Iraq’s most eminent theologians, Al Sadr was executed by Saddam in 1980, along with his sister, educator Amina Al Sadr.

Al Sadr was an Islamic reformist whose scholarship sought to harmonise the religion with constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law – the same values Mr Abdul Mahdi and many of the Iraqi elite vowed to uphold after the fall of Saddam.

In December 2003, Mr Abdul Mahdi was one of four Iraqi politicians who visited Saddam in his Baghdad prison days after he was captured by US forces.

Mowaffak Al Rubaie, who later became Iraq’s national security adviser, asked Saddam why he executed Al Sadr and his sister, a question Saddam reportedly mockingly dismissed.

Then Mr Abdul Mahdi asked the former dictator why he killed Abdul Khaliq Al Samerrayi, an Iraqi Baathist leader who was once Mr Abdul Mahdi’s mentor until he was executed by Saddam in 1979.

“None of your business,” Saddam replied, according to an account of the meeting by the late Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, and by Mr Al Rubaie.

The question showed how much the extrajudicial execution of Mr Abdul Mahdi’s old comrade had affected him, almost a quarter of a century later.

Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr. Wikimedia Commons
Iraqi theologian Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Al Sadr, whom Saddam Hussein had executed in 1980, along with Al Sadr's sister, the educator Bint Al Huda. Al Sadr called for constitutionalism and the rule of law and sought to harmonise Islam with modern democracy. He inspired a generation of Iraqi opposition figures who took power after the US-led invasion of 2003. As soon as they became the new ruling class, however, they started betraying the universal values Al Sadr regarded as being inseparable from Islam. Alamy

Inspired by Al Sadr, Mr Abdul Mahdi was part of a group in the vanguard of calling for human rights and the rule of law in the post-Saddam-era, holding a consistent view about the “new Iraq”.

They started off as widely respected and regarded in Iraq as providing a positive influence as the country sought a new political class after the post-2003 de-Baathification.

Just two weeks before US forces invaded, Mr Abdul Mahdi put his name to an opposition manifesto hammered out in Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq.

Saddam’s main opponents – who at the time were poised to take power in a matter of months – pledged to “dismantle all Iraq’s repressive institutions and end those currents of thought in Iraq that gave rise to tyranny”.

The parties sought to build “a democratic Iraq based on the rule of law, characterised by internal peace, [which would be] the best guarantee for the spread of peace and stability with other countries”.

The 16 years since 2003 have, however, been anything but peaceful.

Even two years after the invasion, when he was re-running on a sectarian Shiite list for parliament and hoping to become prime minister, Mr Abdul Mahdi still echoed these ideals when he said Iraq needed to “develop the concept of citizenship”.

But once he was in power, Mr Abdul Mahdi ignored similar acts of violence carried out with impunity that had been widespread under Saddam.

Picture released by Iraq's official news agency INA 07 January 2003 shows President Saddam Hussein (3rd L) speaking to senior officers at the Republican Guards headquarters in Baghdad, in the presence of their chief, his son Qusay (grey suit/4th R). UN arms experts hunting for Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction used helicopters today for the first time since launching inspections last November 27 after a four-year break.  AFP PHOTO/INA/HO (Photo by INA / AFP)
Saddam Hussein speaking to Republican Guard officers in Baghdad. AFP

As vice president in the mid-2000s, he avoided criticising Shiite death squads during the bloody chapters of Iraq’s post-invasion civil conflict.

Most politicians in Iraq were still opposed to a Saddam-style state dominated by intelligence operatives. But soon after the invasion, the split emerged between those who believed a continued US presence could help Iraq’s recovery – as it did for Germany after the Second World War – and those who turned to Iran.

Mr Abdul Mahdi chose a third way – remaining on good terms with both sides. The ticket to Mr Abdul Mahdi’s ascent was ultimately his association with the Al Hakims – a powerful religious-political family that took him under its wing – and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq that they helped found in Tehran in the 1980s.

The council’s armed wing, the Badr Corps – later renamed the Badr Organisation – became Iran’s main paramilitary tool in Iraq.

But Mr Abdul Mahdi was considered to be more open-minded than some doctrinaire Shiite figures.

Even after he had turned to political Islam, he still translated a book on development from French to Arabic by the late Marxist economist Samir Amin.

Given his history, when the security forces and Iran-backed militias first opened fire on the Iraqi protests in early October, some expected Mr Abdul Mahdi to take a stand.

Instead, he recycled old economic development plans and ordered more troops on to the streets, in line with tough action advocated by Iran.

Reports indicate Mr Abdul Mahdi’s continued role as prime minister is thanks to the intervention of shadowy Iranian Quds Force head Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani.

Iraqi demonstrators gather on several storeys of the  "Turkish restaurant"  an abandoned building in the capital Baghdad, overlooking the Tahrir square and the al-Jumhuriya bridge that leads to the high-security Green Zone, which hosts government offices and foreign embassies, during the ongoing anti-government protests on October 31, 2019. The "Turkish restaurant", a relic from the time of Saddam Hussein, has become the control tower of the revolt against power in Iraq. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Mass protests at Tahrir Square and the Al Jumhuriya Bridge in Baghdad. AFP

Sheikh Ali Al Uboudi, an independent Shiite cleric who is among the most outspoken religious figures to support the uprising, cautioned demonstrators early on not to expect the prime minister to be any different from other governments.

The cleric told The National that those in power today have no qualms about being as brutal as Saddam, even though they suffered under his rule.

“Abdul Mahdi is weak, and a weak personality can be the most violent,” Mr Al Uboudi said.

Iraqi journalist Ali Nouri said Mr Abdul Mahdi has become isolated, partially explaining “the degree to which his rhetoric has become so callous, talking about budgets and projects and construction while the youth of Iraq are being annihilated”.

For an old friend of the prime minister, the protesters’ resolve to bring down the entire political class put Mr Abdel Mahdi on the side of the government’s most brutal elements and in opposition to the streets.

The associate of Mr Abdul Mahdi, who described how they worked together in the late 1990s and early 2000s on legislative and human rights issues in preparation for a post-Saddam era, talked about the shift in the prime minister.

“Adel has behaved first and foremost like a politician”, but this did not absolve him, the friend said. “Whether he gave orders to shoot the protesters or not, he bears responsibility.”

Despite lofty aims and ideals of enforcing the rule of law, neither Mr Abdul Mahdi nor his other Shiite predecessors appear to have made significant attempts to build the state laid out in the 2003 manifesto they put their names to.

After 2003, Al Sadr’s unmarked grave was exhumed and his body moved to an imposing new resting place in Wadi Al Salam (the “valley of peace”) in a sprawling cemetery in the Shiite city of Najaf.

Since then, Iraqi Shiite leaders have thronged to his graveside to bolster their own credentials. While many still talk about the values Al Sadr once espoused, they do not seem to be translating these into the actions of the current administration.