Disagreement over US presence throws Iraq’s Shia camp in disarray

Abdul-Mahdi and Zurfi both have long-standing ties to Iran and the United States but the pro-Iran Shia camp has a single target: Zurfi.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi (C) meets with the ambassadors of the P5 countries of the United Nations Security Council in Baghdad, March 25. (AFP)
In the crosshairs. Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi (C) meets with the ambassadors of the P5 countries of the United Nations Security Council in Baghdad, March 25. (AFP)

The walls are closing in on Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi, whose task of forming the new Iraqi government remains fiercely contested by pro-Iran factions that accuse him of being “America’s man in Iraq.”

Those pushing back against Zurfi are the same actors who, 17 years ago, toed the line of a controversial pro-US fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ordering Iraqis not to resist occupying forces.

The trade-off paved the way for members of Iraq’s Islamist political class, who have safeguarded very little other than the powers they were granted, to be rewarded for allowing occupiers to trespass their country. The groundwork this laid is crumbling 17 years on.

The path to political legitimacy today relies on the formula’s reversal — a commitment to expel US coalition troops, who, before the coronavirus outbreak, numbered approximately 7,500. An exemplar of this trend are pro-Iran factions that in the past month spearheaded three attacks on military bases housing US forces.

On March 19, which coincidentally marked the 17th anniversary of the war on Iraq, US troops withdrew from positions along the Iraqi-Syrian border as part of plans drawn up prior to the global spread of COVID-19.

In practical terms, a US exit would do little to alter bilateral ties between the two countries. Those cheerleading for the full departure of coalition troops are setting their sights elsewhere — the status quo, Iraq’s leadership ranks, to protect their place within it while fending off figures whose allegiance, they claim, lies with America.

Members of the Islamic Resistance, whose existence is not constitutionally recognised, have consistently called on Zurfi to step down since his nomination was announced March 17.

On March 19, Hadi al-Amiri’s Fattah Alliance fired more criticism at Zurfi, dubbing him an American joker, a term popularised since protests erupted last October to refer to “bad seedlings” — men whose guns were hired to exterminate peaceful protesters and their demands for a US- and Iran-free Iraq.

Before Zurfi’s appointment, former Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi was ushered in to satisfy not only popular demands for a new government but to reassure those in power that their seats would not be lost. Unable to satisfy their ambitions, Allawi’s cabinet was denied the vote of confidence. He resigned on March 1.

The anti-Zurfi chorus that Fattah and others espouse is keen to see the reinstatement of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in late November 2019 amid calls for his ouster throughout the country.

Abdul-Mahdi was one of several names cited in a cable leak last year for their “special relationship” to Iran. Abdul-Mahdi and Zurfi both have long-standing ties to Iran and the United States but the pro-Iran Shia camp has a single target — Zurfi.

As the threat of COVID-19 in Iraq makes the balancing act Zurfi is tasked with ever more difficult, the former Najafi mayor has not defended himself against allegations of serving American interests.

Other prominent figures who faced similar allegations are involved in efforts to firewall Zurfi’s cabinet choices for the sake of the status quo. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, known for his corrosive sectarian-motivated rule and collaboration with various US administrations, is staging a comeback having descended into the shadows after agreeing to relinquish power in late 2014.

Maliki and members of factions of the Islamic Resistance who have been meeting at his home represent a united front against Zurfi but Maliki for years accepted the United States’ presence in Iraq and hand and hand with their officials.

As in 2014, Maliki’s growing leverage casts minds back to the ways in which, as prime minister, he took advantage of security flaws to nurture paramilitaries that grew into the Popular Mobilisation Forces. As COVID-19 forces a critical pause in Iraq’s National Protest Movement, Maliki is behind the scenes trying to exploit this strategic window.

Iran’s inability to sway Iraqi politics in the direction that safeguards its foothold has only raised the stakes and explains Maliki’s latest role as conductor of the Islamic Resistance orchestra.

In early March, Iranian Admiral Ali Shamkhani travelled to Baghdad to unite all strands of Iraq’s Shia leadership, especially over the choice of who should steer the country.

Abdul-Mahdi, whom pro-Iran actors seek to restore to power, was the horse that Tehran backed and sought to protect from being ousted. The man behind those moves, the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the executioner of Tehran’s ambitions in Iraq, made this possible but his assassination left the Shia camp in greater disarray.

Iran’s quislings in Iraq are anxious to preserve powers that the United States handed to them in 2003 but many forget that those actors shared a waltz with America, welcomed its officials into their homes and toured the palaces of Saddam Hussein together.

The point of departure is difficult but not entirely impossible to reach.