Anti-government demonstrators on Sunday rejected Iraq's new prime minister-designate following his nomination by rival government factions, compounding the challenges he'll have to surmount in order to resolve months of civil unrest.
Meanwhile, new divisions emerged among protesters and supporters of a maverick and often inscrutable Shiite cleric, who initially threw his weight behind the uprising but now is re-positioning himself toward the political establishment, after elites selected a candidate for prime minister that he endorsed.
On Sunday, Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers camped out among protesters in the capital and in the country's south to unblock roads and restore normalcy, angering protesters who felt al-Sadr had betrayed them and the reformist aims of their movement for political gain.
Saturday's selection of former Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi, 66, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of months of back-room talks between rival parties, ending a political stalemate.
Hundreds of students voiced their rejection of Allawi at rallies in Baghdad's central plazas and in southern Iraq. Protesters hung portraits of Allawi marked with an "X" on bridges and tunnels around Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the four-month protest movement.
"We don't want Allawi because he is a party member chosen by the parties," said Hadi Safir, a protester in Tahrir. "We want an independent nominee."
Others were more diplomatic, saying they'll wait and see how Allawi delivers on promises to hold early elections.
Iraqi officials said it was likely Allawi would face the same political realities that bedeviled his predecessor, who was often caught between rival political blocs Sairoon, headed by al-Sadr, and Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Ameri.
"He is not known as being tough or outspoken, so some see him as an even more pacified version of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and will just serve the will of the parties," said one Iraqi official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
But Allawi will have to cope with shifting sands of power in the Iraqi arena, with al-Sadr currently gaining the upper hand after showing his dominance over the Iraqi street. The cleric recently staged an anti-U.S. rally that brought tens of thousands to the street. By asking his followers to return to Tahrir Square, al-Sadr gained an advantage in the negotiations for prime minister.
"The groups we call pro-Iranian ... are taking a backseat now as al-Sadr emerges as more active in shaping the new government," said Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Following the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Hasan said "the conviction increased that (Iraq's) military apparatus and militias would be unable to put an end to the protest movement and at the same time secure a new deal for the new prime minister without that help of al-Sadr — that strengthened his position."
Student demonstrations were also held in the southern city of Basra rejecting Allawi's candidacy. Other protesters burned tires in the holy city of Najaf.
"We did not choose this person; we demanded certain qualifications," said Ahmed Ali, a protester in Basra. "Mohammed Allawi is rejected by the people."
Mass anti-government protests erupted on Oct. 1 in Baghdad and the predominately Shiite south. They have decried rampant government corruption, poor services and lack of employment, and came with lofty goals: overthrow the political establishment, pass electoral reforms and hold snap elections. Security forces have killed at least 500 protesters since.
Al-Sadr's followers returned to the demonstration camps on Friday after the cleric reversed his decision to stop supporting the protest movement.
Upon returning, al-Sadr's followers consolidated control of strategic areas in Tahrir Square, including key bridges leading to the fortified Green Zone, the seat of government. Significantly, they also moved into a skeletal high-rise building nicknamed the "Turkish Restaurant," which offers a strategic lookout over the protests.
Militiamen interviewed said they had come to clear the area of "trouble-makers" and drug-users.
"We came here to clean this place up," said one militia member, standing guard outside the building.
Many protesters said al-Sadr's followers had threatened them to toe the cleric's line or leave the square.
"They will never mix with us," said protester Mariam Nael, 18. "We are here for our homeland, they are blindly following the tweet of one cleric."
Former communications minister Mohammed Allawi was named prime minister-designate by rival Iraqi factions Saturday after weeks of political deadlock, three officials said.
The choice comes as the country weathers troubled times including ongoing anti-government protests and the constant threat of being ensnared by festering U.S.-Iran tensions.
The selection of Allawi, 66, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of many back-room talks over months between rival parties.
On Wednesday, President Barham Saleh gave parliamentary blocs until Feb. 1 to select a premier candidate, or said he would exercise his constitutional powers and choose one himself.
In a pre-recorded statement posted online, Allawi called on protesters to continue with their uprising against corruption and said he would quit if the blocs insist on imposing names of ministers.
"If it wasn't for your sacrifices and courage there wouldn't have been any change in the country," he said addressing anti-government protesters. "I have faith in you and ask you to continue with the protests."
Allawi was born in Baghdad and served as communications minister first in 2006 and again between 2010-2012. He resigned from his post after a dispute with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Parliament is expected to put his candidacy to a vote in the next session, after which point he has 30 days to formulate a government program and select a cabinet of ministers.
According to the constitution, a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi should have been identified 15 days after his resignation in early December. Instead, it has taken rival blocs nearly two months of jockeying to select Allawi as their consensus candidate.
Abdul-Mahdi's rise to power was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament's two main blocs — Sairoon, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri.
In the May 2018 election, neither coalition won a commanding plurality, which would have enabled it to name the premier, as stipulated by the Iraqi constitution. To avoid political crisis, Sairoon and Fatah forged a precarious union with Abdul-Mahdi as their prime minister.
Until Allawi's selection, al-Sadr had rejected the candidates put forward largely by Fatah, officials and analysts said. Sairoon appears to have agreed to his candidacy following a tumultuous two week after the radical cleric held an anti-U.S. rally attended by tens of thousands and withdrew support for Iraq's mass anti-government protest movement, only to reverse the decision later.
"Sairoon has approved and Fatah has approved," a senior Iraqi official said.
If elected by parliament, Allawi will have to contend with navigating Iraq through brewing regional tensions between Tehran and Washington. Tensions skyrocketed after a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad's airport killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The tumultuous event brought Iraq close to the brink of war and officials scrambling to contain the fallout.
The presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil has become the focus of Iraqi politics in the wake of the strike. Parliament passed a non-binding resolution for their ouster and Abdul-Mahdi had openly supported withdrawal.
Abdul-Mahdi's resignation was precipitated by ongoing mass protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protesters are calling for new executive leadership, snap elections and electoral reforms. They have said they would not accept a candidate chosen by the political establishment.
At the Arab League emergency meeting held on Saturday in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers voiced rejection to the recently released US Middle East peace plan.
"Rejection of the US-Israeli 'Deal of the Century' comes as it does not fulfil the minimum rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people," said the final communiqué issued by the foreign ministers following the meeting.
The statement described as "unfair" the peace deal, announced on Jan. 28 by US President Donald Trump, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin said on Saturday that US sanctions against Hezbollah is hurting Lebanon amid its current crisis, local media reported.
"We should work on uniting the efforts of counties that are keen on keeping Lebanon away from conflicts because the country is currently experiencing a serious crisis," Zasypkin was quoted as saying by Elnashra, an online independent newspaper.
Zasypkin said Russia and France are keen to support Lebanon while the US insists on taking measures against Hezbollah.
"We have to help Lebanon as a government; this is how we can support the country in overcoming its challenges," he said.
Lebanon has recently formed a cabinet supported by the Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal Movement, in addition to the Free Patriotic Movement.
Arab foreign ministers are meeting Saturday in Egypt's capital to discuss a White House plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would grant the Palestinians limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank, while allowing Israel to annex all its settlements there and keep nearly all of east Jerusalem.
The meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo was requested by the Palestinians, who responded angrily to the U.S. deal.
President Mahmoud Abbas, who said "a thousand no's" to the proposal, is planning to attend the gathering. He said the Palestinians remain committed to ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
The Arab League's head, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, said on Wednesday that an initial study of the plan's political framework showed that it "ignored legitimate Palestinian rights in the territories."
He said the Palestinian response would be key in shaping a "collective Arab position" on the plan, which he noted was a "non-binding U.S. vision."
Majdi al-Khaldi, a diplomatic adviser to Abbas, said the meeting aims at issuing a "clear declaration" rejecting the deal.
Al-Khaldi, who accompanies Abbas on his trips to world capitals, said the Palestinian leader would meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to discuss measures to "protect the Palestinian people's rights."
U.S. President Donald trump unveiled the long-awaited proposal Tuesday in Washington. It would allow Israel to annex all its West Bank settlements — which the Palestinians and most of the international community view as illegal — as well as the Jordan Valley, which accounts for roughly a fourth of the West Bank.
In return, the Palestinians would be granted statehood in Gaza, scattered chunks of the West Bank and some neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem, all linked together by a new network of roads, bridges and tunnels. Israel would control the state's borders and airspace and maintain overall security authority. Critics of the plan say this would rob Palestinian statehood of any meaning.
The plan would abolish the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war and their descendants, a key Palestinian demand. The entire agreement would be contingent on Gaza's Hamas rulers and other armed groups disarming, something they have always adamantly rejected.
Ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman attended the Tuesday unveiling in Washington, in a tacit sign of support for the U.S. initiative.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Arab states that are close U.S. allies, said they appreciated President Trump's efforts and called for renewed negotiations without commenting on the plan's content.
Egypt urged in a statement Israelis and Palestinians to "carefully study" the plan. It said it favors a solution that restores all the "legitimate rights" of the Palestinian people through establishing an "independent and sovereign state on the occupied Palestinian territories."
The Egyptian statement did not mention the long-held Arab demand of east Jerusalem as a capital to the future Palestinian state, as Cairo usually has its statements related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Jordan, meanwhile, warned against any Israeli "annexation of Palestinian lands" and reaffirmed its commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, which would include all the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel.