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Fiery protests in Basra extinguish hope for Iraq’s pro-U.S. prime minister

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, center, during the first session of the new Iraqi parliament in Baghdad on Sept. 3.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, center, during the first session of the new Iraqi parliament in Baghdad on Sept. 3. (Reuters)
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BASRA, Iraq — Violent protests in this oil-producing city have dealt a fateful political blow to pro-American Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, all but ending his bid for a second term as both allies and opponents blame him for the unrest.

Abadi visited Basra on Monday after a week of demonstrations left at least 15 people dead and government offices, political party headquarters and the Iranian consulate in sooty ruins. He discovered that a fragile calm had returned to the city over the weekend — but that his own political future had at the same time become much more uncertain.

The protesters had fixed their frustrations on Iraq’s entire political class, chanting slogans aimed at both the government and the parties and militias aligned with Iran. But Abadi’s challengers for the post of prime minister have outmaneuvered him, seizing on the public anger to cast him as an impossible choice.

Protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Basra, after five days of deadly demonstrations and destruction of government buildings. (Video: Reuters)

The United States, which had cultivated few alternatives to Abadi’s leadership, now finds itself with little influence over the shape of Iraq’s new government, analysts said.

On Monday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said in a statement that the crisis in Basra underlined the need for a fresh approach to the myriad problems Iraq faces and that he would not support anyone for the prime minister’s post who has already served in a leadership position.

Politicians from the top two tickets in Iraq’s May elections called Saturday for Abadi to resign following a contentious parliamentary session in which the prime minister got into a shouting match with Basra’s governor.

“Abadi has zero chance at the moment,” a person close to the negotiations for the next prime minister said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions.

The twin blows from Iraq’s influential clergy and ascendant political coalitions represent an unprecedented rebuke of Abadi, who had won U.S. backing for a second term after leading his country to victory over the Islamic State and through an economic crisis precipitated by plummeting oil prices.

“Now his reelection is dead, and the U.S. doesn’t have any good options, having put so much effort into getting him reelected,” said Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in neighboring Jordan who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

The top U.S. envoy to Iraq, Brett McGurk, had recently been in Iraq to rally support for Abadi among Sunnis and Kurds in an effort to construct a parliamentary majority in his favor. 

Sowell noted that Abadi had already been hemorrhaging support before the protest movement in Basra exploded into full-scale rioting last week. He had entered into an uneasy pact with nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in May’s election, but lawmakers who ran on Abadi’s ticket began to jump ship in recent weeks.

Sadr himself abandoned Abadi on Saturday, following an emergency parliamentary session Sadr called to discuss the Basra crisis. Abadi was buffeted by heavy criticism during the hearing, at one point angrily telling the governor of Basra — a member of his own party — to leave the session.

The session had an immediate impact. Sadr’s party called on Abadi to resign, as did the prime minister’s chief rivals, a coalition that includes pro-Iran Shiite militia leader Hadi al-Amiri and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Sadr, Amiri and Maliki share a hostility to U.S. influence in the country, but they diverge sharply over Iran’s role in Iraq. While Sadr has cordial ties with Tehran, he has also been critical of its involvement in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, especially Syria. Amiri and Maliki, by contrast, are close to Iran and see it as a bulwark against American interests in Iraq.

But their shared opposition to Abadi does not mean they are likely to enter into a new governing coalition, the person involved in the negotiations said. Each side is seeking to peel off lawmakers from Abadi’s ticket while courting support from smaller Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs.

Reflecting Abadi’s diminished status, protesters took to the streets Monday night, after his meetings with provincial officials and civil society figures, to demand that he leave Basra.

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