Iraq's prime minister announced Friday that he would submit his resignation to parliament, a day after more than 40 people were killed by security forces in protests and following calls by Iraq's top Shiite cleric for lawmakers to withdraw support.
The move by Adel Abdul-Mahdi, which came 13 months after he took office, triggered celebrations by anti-government protesters who have been camped out for nearly two months in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Young men and women broke out in song and dance as news of the imminent resignation reached the square, the epicenter of the leaderless protest movement.
But in the event of an actual resignation, the road to a new government was uncertain and the possibility of political crisis hung in the air, Iraqi officials and experts warned.
In a statement, Abdul-Mahdi said he had "listened with great concern" to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's sermon and made his decision in response to the cleric's remarks and to "facilitate and hasten its fulfillment as soon as possible."
"I will submit to parliament an official memorandum resigning from the current prime ministry so that the parliament can review its choices," he said. Abdul-Mahdi was appointed Iraq's fifth prime minister since 2003 as a consensus candidate following months of political wrangling between rival political blocs.
If accepted when put to vote, Abdul-Mahdi's resignation would signal a return to square one in those slow-moving negotiations, Iraqi officials and experts said.
Abdul-Mahdi would be the second prime minister in an Arab country to be forced out by mass protests recently. In Lebanon, the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri exactly a month earlier, on Oct. 29, led to further political gridlock and uncertainty.
Abdul-Mahdi's rise to power was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament's two main blocs — Sairoon, led by cleric Moqtada 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.
Now, with his resignation, unresolved disputes between the coalitions threaten to re-emerge, two Iraqi officials said.
"The two of them need to come to an agreement again for us to see a new prime minister," said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Abdul-Mahdi had alluded to this challenge implicitly in earlier statements, saying he would resign, but only if an alternative candidate was found for the premiership.
Officials also questioned Abdul-Mahdi's decision to submit his resignation via the more time-consuming route of parliament, requiring MPs to vote, rather than sending it directly to the president, who has the power to accept it immediately and demote the government to caretaker status until a new one is formed.
One Iraqi official said one of two things could happen: "There's going to be a lot of horse-trading going on, or it could be paralysis, and nothing changes."
The resignation also creates legal uncertainties as the constitution does not provide clear procedures to guide lawmakers in the event of a premier stepping down, experts said. The key issue was how long Abdul-Mahdi's government could maintain caretaker status in the event of protracted political negotiations.
"To my understanding there is no clause (in the constitution) that says how long he can remain in the post once his resignation is accepted," said Sajad Jiyad, the managing director of Bayan Center, an Iraq-based think tank.
The federal Supreme Court might have to step in, he added, if the caretaker government stays for too long and if parliamentary blocs are unable to come to an understanding.
In his weekly Friday sermon delivered via a representative in the holy city of Najaf, Al-Sistani said parliament, which elected the government of Abdul-Mahdi, should "reconsider its options." His comments prompted political parties to issue calls for the government to step down.
"We call upon the House of Representatives from which this current government emerged to reconsider its options in that regard," al-Sistani said in the statement — a clear sign he was withdrawing his support for the prime minister.
It was not immediately clear whether Abdul-Mahdi's resignation would placate protesters, who are now calling for the removal of the entire political class that has ruled Iraq since the 2003 downfall of Saddam Hussein. Nearly 400 people have been killed in the bloody crackdown on protests since Oct. 1, most of them young demonstrators who were shot dead or killed by exploding tear gas canisters fired by security forces.
Amira, a 25-year-old protester, said the resignation should have come weeks ago.
"We will not stop with the prime minister. We still have more fighting to do. We will push forward until our demands are met," she said, declining to give her full name, fearing retaliation.
Forty protesters were shot dead by security forces in Baghdad and the southern cities of Najaf and Nasiriyah on Thursday, in a sharp escalation of violence that continued Friday.
Three more protesters were shot and eight wounded by security forces Friday in Nasiriyah when demonstrators attempted to enter the city center to resume their sit-in, security and hospital officials said. Security forces had fired live rounds the previous day to disperse protesters from two key bridges, killing 31 people.
Al-Sistani also said protesters should distinguish between peaceful demonstrators and those seeking to turn the movement violent, following the burning of an Iranian consulate building Wednesday in Najaf. Government officials said the fire was perpetrated by saboteurs from outside the protest movement.
After the sermon, the Islamic Dawa party called for parliament to convene immediately and choose an alternative government. Fatah said it would convene with other political blocs to discuss options.
A former oil and finance minister and an ex-vice president, the 77-year-old Abdul-Mahdi was seen as a political independent when he took the post in October 2018. He was Iraq's first prime minister from outside the Dawa party in 12 years.
His administration's policies were characterized by small gains to improve the day-to-day lives of Baghdadis. He moved his offices out of Baghdad's highly secure Green Zone on the first day of his term, saying he wanted to bring his government closer to the people, while removing wartime cement barriers that had closed Iraqis off from much of the city.
In the halls of power in Baghdad, his office worked behind the scenes to streamline the administration and improve decision-making. But the effects of those efforts were not visible to an Iraqi public impatient for reform.
Abdul-Mahdi was also often caught in the middle of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, with many perceiving his government and certain staffers as being close to Tehran. Reducing Iraq's reliance on Iranian electricity imports to meet consumer demand was a key concern of Washington.
Protesters widely reject growing Iranian influence over Iraq state affairs. In Baghdad on Friday, demonstrators gathered around the historic Rasheed Street near the strategic Ahrar Bridge and burned the Iranian flag, chanting "Iran out!"