New Iraq prime minister after five months of deadlock

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AFP

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Mustafa al-Kadhimi is a 53-year-old former head of Iraq's National Intelligence Service

Iraq's parliament approved a new government, ending months of stalemate as the country faces an economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

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Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, the third nominee to replace Adel Abdul Mahdi since November, was sworn in as prime minister after Wednesday night's vote.

"Security, stability and the flourishing of Iraq are our way," he tweeted.

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However, Kadhimi will not start his term with a full cabinet.

Political factions are still negotiating candidates for the main ministries of oil and foreign affairs, while lawmakers have rejected their choices of trade, justice, culture, agriculture and migration.

The United States and the United Nations welcomed the formation of a new government, but urged Kadhimi to act quickly to resolve Iraq's problems.

Who is Mustafa al-Kadhimi?

The 53-year-old Shiite Muslim is seen as an independent politician and a pragmatist.

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He is a former journalist who wrote against former President Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran and the United Kingdom before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

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Anti-government protesters rejected Kadhimi's nomination

He served as head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (Inis) from 2016 until last month, when he was tasked with forming a government. The two previous candidates, Mohammed Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi, withdrew after failing to get enough support in parliament.

Kadhimi won the support of the biggest political blocs and was considered an acceptable choice by the United States and Iran. But he still had to commit himself to his proposed list of ministers several times.

What challenges does he face?

Kadhimi told parliamentarians on Wednesday that his government "will provide solutions, not increase the crises" that Iraq faces.

Before Covid-19 arrived in the country in March, thousands of people were taking to the streets of the capital, Baghdad and many southern cities to express their anger at endemic corruption, high unemployment, terrible public services and foreign interference.

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Media captionIraqi protesters promise to remain on the streets until their demands are met.

More than 500 protesters were shot dead by security forces and unidentified gunmen during five months of unrest. Thousands of others were injured.

The demonstrators' demands included sweeping the Iraqi political system, which assigns positions to political parties based on ethnic and sectarian identity, encouraging sponsorship and corruption.

Kadhimi has promised that his government will organize early elections and hold those responsible for killing demonstrators to account.

He must also deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far killed 102 Iraqis and the Iraqi health system has limited capacity to contain, in addition to the collapse of global oil prices and the economic contraction it has caused.

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The World Bank warned that the poverty rate in Iraq could double

Oil sales represent about 90% of government revenue, and Kadhimi faces a struggle to continue paying public sector wages. Interim administration officials were considering cuts in government employee benefits and subsidies.

The World Bank projected Iraq's gross domestic product (GDP) to contract 9.7% this year, the country's worst annual performance since 2003.

The jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has also intensified the attacks, apparently seeking to take advantage of security forces concentrated in the pandemic.

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AFP

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Iraq's economic prospects have sharply worsened over the past six months

Meanwhile, Iraq and the United States will begin a "strategic dialogue" next month to discuss relations that were severely damaged in January by the assassination of the top Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander in a US drone attack in Baghdad.

Iran retaliated by launching missiles at an Iraqi military base that hosts US forces, and allied militias have been accused of carrying out rocket attacks on other bases.

The Iraqi parliament voted to end the presence of US troops after the drone attack, but the decision has not yet been implemented.

What was the reaction to the new government?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received the new government on a phone call with Kadhimi and "discussed the urgent and hard work," said a statement from the state department.

Pompeo also announced a 120-day extension to a waiver of U.S. sanctions to allow Iraq to buy electricity from neighboring Iran as "a demonstration of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success".

In a statement, UN Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert asked Kadhimi to complete the formation of his cabinet, warning that he faced "an uphill battle" and that "there was no time to spare".

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