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No consensus yet on new Iraqi PM as deadline looms

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Baghdad (AFP)

Iraqi political parties struggled to reach a consensus on a new prime minister Monday amid unprecedented protests as the deadline for a parliamentary vote loomed.

Iraq's competing factions typically engage in drawn-out discussions before any official decision, but replacing outgoing premier Adel Abdel Mahdi has been further complicated by the scrutiny of the months-old protest movement that forced his resignation.

For over two months, Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south have been rocked by protests against the government and Iranian influence, rejecting in advance any politician from the "corrupt system" in place since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The protest movement erupted on October 1 and was met with violent suppression, with some 460 people killed and 25,000 wounded to date.

Abdel Mahdi's resignation on December 1 was precipitated by a wave of violence against demonstrators and the intervention by top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose influence looms large in Iraqi politics.

Abdel Mahdi continues to carry out day-to-day government business pending the naming of a new premier.

In an official letter made public late Sunday, President Barham Saleh said he'd received a letter from the speaker of parliament accepting Abdel Mahdi's resignation "on December 4".

According to the constitution, parliament has two weeks to designate a new prime minister, making the deadline Thursday.

- Several names circulated -

In his own letter, Saleh asks parliament to tell him "what is the largest coalition" in the assembly, from which the new premier should theoretically come.

When naming Abdel Mahdi 13 months ago, parliament remained vague on the "largest coalition" and the premier was approved as soon as he was designated by Saleh.

The prime minister then formed his government with the support of two allies, now divided in their responses to the protest movement.

In one corner is the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who holds the largest bloc in parliament and supports the protesters calling for an overhaul of the political system.

In the other is the bloc made up of veterans of the Hashed al-Shaabi pro-Iranian paramilitary group now integrated into Iraqi security forces. Making up the second largest bloc, they see the protest movement as the product of a foreign "conspiracy".

Several names have circulated, including 49-year-old Mohammed al-Soudani, a former minister and ex-governor of a southern province.

He has already been rejected by protesters, who demand an "independent" candidate.

Several sources told AFP Soudani's approval by parliament was "risky", with one saying "there is a big risk his candidature will be rejected".

Saleh "is betting on this rejection, so he can present the candidate of his choice" without needing parliament's approval, as the constitution stipulates, this source added.

Another complication in the negotiations is the unusual disassociation from the process of Sistani, 89.

While he has played kingmaker of Iraqi governments since 2003, Sistani said ten days ago that this time he intended to play "no role", only expressing a wish that the choice be made without "foreign interference".

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