Iraq president Barham Salih offers to step down amid protests

He says he would rather leave than back a pro-Iran prime minister rejected by the protest movement

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Iraqi President Barham Salih has handed his resignation to parliament after refusing to endorse a nominee for the prime ministership from an Iran backed political group.

He said that he would rather step down than pick a new prime minister rejected by demonstrators but as the constitution does not allow him to reject a nomination he would resign.

Parliament will now have to meet to discuss and vote on the resignation. If they endorse the move, Mr Salih will step down.

Parliament’s Binaa bloc on Wednesday nominated Assad Al Eidani, the governor of Basra and a former minister of youth and sports. The alliance is led by Iranian-backed politician Hadi Al Amiri.

He said he would prefer to resign than to nominate Al Eidani. In his letter, he pointed out that the constitution “binds the president to nominate the candidate of the largest bloc to form the cabinet, without the right of objection.”

Adding: “since my position about this current candidacy is considered unconstitutional, I, therefore, place my readiness to resign from the presidency in front of the members of parliament, so that they can decide based on their responsibilities as representatives of the people.”

Barham Salih, Iraq's newly elected President greets Iraq's outgoing President Fuad Masum (not pictured) at the end of a handover ceremony at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Barham Salih, president of Iraq. Reuters

He said that the protest movement makes it imperative that politicians look at the interests of the public over personal or political considerations.

“It is better for me to resign rather than to assign an individual that is objected by the protesters to form a government,” he added.

Protesters in Baghdad blocked roads and bridges and in the south demonstrators torched several buildings overnight on Wednesday in response to the announcement of Mr Al Eidani's nomination.

"The government is hostage to corrupt parties and sectarian divisions", said one activist, Sattar Jabbar, 25, in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Smoke and flames from burning tyres in Nasiriyah, Basra and Diwaniyah blocked major roads and bridges across the Euphrates all night, AFP correspondents reported, before some of these roadblocks were lifted in the morning.

In Nasiriyah, demonstrators set the provincial government building ablaze overnight for a second time since the protests began, and protesters also torched the new headquarters of a pro-Iran militia in Diwaniyah.

In his letter, Mr Salih pointed to the ongoing issue over which political bloc in parliament was the largest and therefore allowed to submit their nomination for prime minister. The issue has not been resolved since the election in May 2018.

“We've received various statements about which bloc has the largest number of lawmakers and discussions are ongoing regarding this issue."

Since the start of October, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been on the streets demanding a change in leadership and a government that can tackle endemic corruption, unemployment and improve public services.

Over 450 demonstrators have been killed since the movement began, with security forces and Iran-backed Iraqi militias blamed for bloody crackdowns. More than 25,000 have been wounded.

On December, parliament voted to accept prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, collapsing the government. Since then, no consensus has been reached on a replacement who can start assembling a government.

The move by Mr Salih puts the ball back into Parliament’s court to seek a solution to the crisis. The departure of the president at a time when there is no cabinet would throw the country into a political crisis with no leadership and facing mass rallies across the capital and the south.

"Mr Salih will not be ordered or bossed around by corrupt parties," Ahmed Al Jabouri, the vocally anti-Iran MP for Nineveh province, wrote on Twitter in support of the president. "We reject your resignation Mr Salih because you have stood by the public and by your personal interests by choosing Assad Al Eidani."

Amjad Al Aqabi, an MP in Sairoon bloc, said he rejects the resignation of Mr Salih and that his bloc will support the president's decision in rejecting any "intimidating" figures.

Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr thanked Mr Salih for rejection Mr El Aidani

Within moments of the news, the hashtag “Barham Salih is the People's President" began trending on Twitter in Arabic.