Newly sworn-in PM says Iraq will prioritise its own interests and independence when it comes to helping US enforce Iran sanctions.
Iraq’s cabinet has met for the first time outside the Green Zone, the fortified Baghdad district set up 15 years ago in the wake of the US invasion.
The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and 14 new ministers whose positions were approved overnight by parliament.
The cabinet meeting was held in the highly symbolic former parliament complex that was used under Saddam Hussein, the former president, the AFP news agency reported.
After Saddam’s fall from power in 2003, ongoing violence and insecurity in Iraq ensured the Green Zone endured as an enclave for dignitaries and officials, cut off from the rest of capital.
The US and Britain built diplomatic missions in the zone, while Iraq’s government and parliament similarly retreated behind its blast walls, barbed wire and checkpoints.
Speaking at his first news conference since being sworn in just past midnight on Thursday, Abdul Mahdi announced that he would be moving the prime minister’s office and cabinet outside the Green Zone.
“All of Iraq should be a green zone. Security and beauty should be everywhere in Iraq,” he said.
“Officials must share everything with citizens, the good and the bad. We should share everything with our people.”
Under pressure from competing parliamentary factions who are clamouring for a place in the cabinet, Abdul Mahdi has yet to ask the legislature to approve his candidates for key ministries including interior and defence.
No female candidates have so far been nominated for cabinet portfolios, prompting the United Nations to send a letter registering its concern over the fledgling government’s lack of gender balance.
The prime minister is required to put forward his choices for a vote in parliament on November 6, six months after national elections.
Abdul Mahdi also announced at the news conference that Iraq would prioritise its own interests and independence when it comes to helping the US enforce sanctions against Iran.
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran in May and reimpose sanctions has put Abdul Mahdi’s incoming government in a difficult position, since Iraq’s economy is closely intertwined with neighbouring Iran’s.
“We want to secure Iraq from any interference in issues, affairs of other countries, whether it’s a neighbouring country or it’s any other country in the world,” Abdul Mahdi told a news conference in Baghdad.
The US and Iran, increasingly at odds, are Iraq’s two biggest allies, and Washington has said there will be consequences for countries that do not respect the sanctions.
Abdul Mahdi’s statement on Thursday did not deviate much from the stance of his predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, the Reuters news agency reported.
In August, Abadi said Iraq was against the sanctions “as a matter of principle”, but that the country would follow them.
“We consider them a strategic mistake and incorrect but we will abide by them to protect the interests of our people. We will not interact with them or support them but we will abide by them,” he said.
Abadi’s government later asked Washington for permission to ignore some sanctions on its neighbour.
Abdul Mahdi did not say on Thursday whether his government would continue to seek the exemptions.
The next wave of sanctions are due to come into effect on 4 November.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Abdul Mahdi and the new foreign minister, Mohamed Ali al-Hakim, a former ambassador to the UN, in separate phone calls on Thursday.
Pompeo and Abdel Mahdi also discussed the enhancement of bilateral relations, according to a statement from the prime minister’s media office.
The US secretary of state pledged to work closely with Abdul Mahdi to “help his government deliver stability, security and prosperity for all Iraqis,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.