BAGHDAD — Pressured by an expanding protest movement and a rising death toll, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi of Iraq said Friday that he would submit his resignation to parliament, taking the country into greater uncertainty and possibly months of turmoil ahead.
Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation would make him another prominent political casualty in a wave of recent antigovernment unrest that has swept the region.
Deep-seated anger over corruption and Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics are the major drivers of the protests across Iraq. In Lebanon, citizen rage over that country’s dysfunctional government pushed its prime minister to announce his resignation in October. And in Iran itself, authorities scrambled to crush protests and riots in 100 cities set off a few weeks ago by an abrupt increase in fuel prices — the deadliest unrest to hit Iran in years.
The resignation announcement by Abdul-Mahdi was a particularly bitter blow for Iran, which had hand-picked Abdul-Mahdi and on Wednesday suffered an attack on its consulate in the southern city of Najaf. The building was severely damaged by firebombs thrown by protesters.
Iran has repeatedly sought to prop up Abdul-Mahdi since he became prime minister in 2018, according to leaked Iranian intelligence reports obtained by The Intercept and shared with The New York Times. Abdul-Mahdi worked closely with Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power, and for years he served as a member of a large Shi’ite party tied to Iran. He became an independent in 2017, but the leaked cables suggest he kept close ties to Iran in recent years.
Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement Friday initially prompted jubilant celebrations at the main protest site, Tahrir Square in Baghdad, but the happiness faded quickly, tempered by mourning for people killed in the protests and an acknowledgment there will be little immediate change.
“This is the first step,” said Hiatt Mehdi, 60, a widow with seven children, including a son who has been demonstrating for the last 35 days without coming home. She had come to Tahrir Square to congratulate her son that his efforts seemed to have been rewarded by Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement.
“But it’s really not enough,” she said.
Abdul-Mahdi’s decision was announced a day after at least 40 protesters were killed in a violent crackdown following the attack on the Iranian Consulate that fanned demonstrations across Iraq’s Shi’ite south.
At least 354 have been killed since antigovernment protests began at the start of October and more than 8,000 have been wounded, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said. Its most recent report notes “the actual total is likely to be higher.”
Many of the parties that dominate parliament are close to Iran and it is an open secret that Iranian officials helped to set up the current government last year, brokering an agreement that brought in Abdul-Mahdi, President Barham Salih, and the house speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi.
In a statement issued by his office Friday, Abdul-Mahdi said he was stepping down so that the government could “reconsider its options” and “preserve the blood of its people, and avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos, and devastation.”
Pressure has been building for some time on the prime minister, who was also facing the growing threat of a humiliating parliamentary no-confidence petition.
By offering his resignation, Abdul-Mahdi would be taking the first step to prompt a change in the government.
But the potential loomed for protracted delays in forming a new government. Abdul-Mahdi, who a month ago expressed a willingness to step down but held off, has not yet submitted his resignation, though he is expected to follow through this time.
The parliament could accept Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation as soon as Sunday, when it meets after the Muslim weekend.