Iraq’s Slippery Politics to Test New Prime Minister

Iraq’s Slippery Politics to Test New Prime Minister
You can change the font size of the text by pressing the + and - buttons.

Appointment of Adnan al Zurfi as Iraq’s new prime minister has evoked mixed reactions in the country.

After months of deadlock, withdrawal of candidacy by Mohammed Allawi and failure of rival parties to zero in on a successor to Abdul Mahdi, who had resigned in December following protests, President Barham Saleh finally handed the baton to Zurfi, a former governor of Najaf province.

He was appointed governor by Paul Bremer in 2004 who led the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S.

While Kurdish, Sunni and a section of Shiite politicians have welcomed the move, other Shiite political blocs supported by Iran have severely objected to the appointment. They have already begun lobbying to block his path.

The main political actors in Iraq, the protesters on the streets, who brought down Mahdi government, the U.S. and Iran have responded differently at this new development.

Since Allawi withdrew his candidature early this month, seven important Shiite parties representing in the parliament were deliberating to choose the new candidate. Three of them could not agree on the choice offered by other parties. President Salih ultimately took the matter in his hand and zeroed in on Zurfi, one of the names which were suggested to him for the post earlier.

Hailing from the southern province of Najaf, Zurfi was imprisoned by the Saddam Hussain regime after the suppression of rebellion launched against his Baath Party in 1991. He, however, soon escaped from the prison and took the flight to Saudi Arabia, where he spent two years in a refugee camp.

In 1993, he migrated to the U.S. attained its citizenship and lived there till 2004. He returned Baghdad, a year after President George Bush invaded the country and ousted Saddam Hussain from power. He was soon appointed governor of his home province Najaf. He later held senior positions at the Interior Ministry from 2006-2009 and served as the governor of Najaf once again from 2009-2015.

Kurdish, Sunni groups supportive but cautious

In other words, Sadr called on Iran and the U.S. not to interfere in the process. He did not oppose Zurfi's candidature in principle. But it is worth considering that Sadr, whose political maneuvers are unpredictable and is known for switching sides, may have made a surprise choice.

Ammar al-Hakim -- cleric and politician who led the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, from 2009-2017 – also did not oppose Adnan Zurfi as a name. But he criticized the appointment process, questioning procedures and demanded consensus.

As for the former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is in the same political coalition as Zurfi, is one of the prominent players supporting the new prime minister.

The Iran-backed Fatah Coalition which includes another former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other parties has objected to the appointment, describing it “unconstitutional”. They have charged that Zurfi was a “man of the U.S.” Iranian-backed political groups have also indicted President Salih for choosing Zurfi.

Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of Fatah Coalition, described Salih's decision to appoint Zurfi as illegal and provocative. He said Salih will have to bear serious consequences of his decision.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) -- Iranian-backed Shiite political party- leader Kays al-Hazali said Salih has endangered the peace. Another member of the Coalition Badr asked MPs to overthrow Salih for breaching the constitution.

But Salih has stood by his decision, saying he had appointed the new prime minister with the approval of the Federal Court. He said the charges that his decision was illegal is unwarranted.

Zurfi allergic to pro-Iranian militias

Their criticism stems from the fact that Zurfi has been allergic to pro-Iranian militias when he was governor of Najaf. It is also no secret that he wants Hashdi al-Shabi, a Shiite mobilization force that fought Daesh/ISIS in the north to be fully integrated into the Iraqi army. Indeed, in his statement, as soon as he was appointed, he hinted that the group should only operate under the state orders. Therefore, it seems clear that the militias, which have transnational goals, do not like Zurfi.

Further, the new prime minister in the past has severely criticized Iran's influence over Iraq. He has also called for having a balanced foreign policy. All political parties know that he encourages better relations with the U.S.

Zurfi supported U.S. presence in Iraq

Even after the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani head of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard along with Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Zurfi had favored continued U.S. presence in the country. Therefore, Zurfi will be a serious obstacle to the goals of the Iranian-backed militias.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that these militias got political prominence after the weakening of the Islamic Invitation Party and the defeat of the ISIS/Daesh. The political branches of the Iranian-backed militia have achieved a decision-making position in the Shiite political bloc following the 2018 elections. Therefore, the exclusion of these political formations in a possible Zurfi government would also mean their loss of political face. Of course, in such a case, it should not be forgotten that groups owing allegiance to Muqtada Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim will gain prominence and become politically decisive.

Protests against the government, which have been going on for nearly six months, have plunged Iraq's political elite into the biggest political crisis. The anti-government demonstrations forced Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign. Therefore, the political determination and the convictions of the young masses has become a new sociological reality that the political forces cannot ignore. In this respect, the attitude of the protesters regarding Zurfi's candidacy is critical.

Protesters divided on Zurfi’s appointment

A section of protesters has rejected Zurfi. They consider him representing the status quo. But it is also a fact, that Zurfi’s candidature was not opposed as vehemently as that of Muhammed Allawi.

Ayatollah Sistani -- one of the most powerful and influential clerics and spiritual leaders of Iraqi Shia Muslims – who supported peaceful protests against the government has not yet expressed his opinion on Zurfi’s appointment.

While the appointment of the new prime minister in Iraq’s internal issue but is closely linked to the power struggle between the U.S. and Iran in the region. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and David Schenker, head of the Near East Office have conditionally supported Zurfi's candidacy. They expect that he will prevent attacks on the U.S. bases in Iraq in the short term, and in the long-term edge out Iran and its Iraqi allies.

In this respect, the option of any action against Iran and its allies depends on Zurfi's process of forming a government.

The new allegations are that Hassan Daneyfar, Iran's former ambassador to Baghdad had come to Iraq to reconcile the Shiite groups. Only the coming days will show whether these contacts have yielded results. But current process shows that Iran is trying its luck through media and political lobbying.

Iran backed parties reject Zurfi

The Iranian-backed Shiite parties, which have been pushing for the withdrawal of Zurfi's candidacy and are demanding a replacement have proposed three new candidates. One of them Mohsen al-Zalimi, has already turned down this request. Thus, these groups, which until now had been insistent on appointing only their preferred politicians, appeared to be running low on the bargaining power.

But the fact that the Iranian-backed groups are waging a political and psychological war against Zurfi suggests that they will not risk a vote of confidence. Another aspect of this psychological war is to use the global coronavirus of the COVID-19 crisis to delay political decision-making processes. That will allow Adil Abdul-Mahdi to continue as the prime minister.

Zurfi has three weeks to form a government. He may be a politically stubborn character, but his main mission now is to convince and persuade dissenting Shiite blocs. However, considering the political and psychological war launched against him, it is not difficult to predict that his road would be difficult.

In this case, three scenarios seem to be on the horizon. The first, and the toughest, is the possibility that the parties will make mutual concessions after lengthy negotiations and reach an agreement. Secondly, Zurfi withdraws from his candidacy, believing that his consultations would yield no results. The third possibility is that Zurfi will opt for seeking a vote of confidence in the parliament, with the support of Kurds, Sunnis and half the Shiite bloc.

As a result, it is too early to say whether Zurfi will be able to form a government on Iraq’s slippery political landscape. His main challenges are to convince political leaders with very divergent priorities and more importantly to respond to the demands of the protesters.

This article was first published in 26.3.2020 at Anadolu Agency.