Iraqi PM-designate struggles to form government amid daunting challenges

To bolster support, Zurfi described the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) as a “legitimate Iraqi force.”
Sunday 29/03/2020
A motorbike passes by a defaced picture of Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan  al-Zurfi in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, March 19. (AP)
Strong opposition. A motorbike passes by a defaced picture of Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, March 19. (AP)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi began informal talks to form a new government, including consulting with Shia political blocs to overcome their objection to his nomination.

Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that Zurfi prioritised talking with parties across the Iraqi political spectrum over trying to fill a cabinet, apparently thinking he must address Shia objections over how Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated him to be prime minister.

Zurfi faces major challenges to convince Shia political blocs to change their opinion about his nomination, less than three weeks before a constitution deadline to have his government ratified by parliament. Although Sunni and Kurdish blocs appear open to Zurfi, Iran’s powerful Shia parties, particularly those backed by Iran, indicate they will not back him or any cabinet he proposes.

“Adnan al-Zurfi will struggle to form a new government and strong opposition has already emerged from most of the Shia political factions, as they consider him to be an American appointee,” Nour Samaha, a MENA analyst at Eurasia Group, was quoted as saying in an S&P Global report.

“Sunni and Kurdish factions will likely support him but, even beyond this, he faces numerous obstacles in selecting his cabinet members: he will need to address the demands of the protest movement by introducing relatively neutral cabinet members, but also keep the sectarian balance within government in order to secure any sort of consensus.”

To bolster support, Zurfi described the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) as a “legitimate Iraqi force.”

“The PMF is an Iraqi military institution that was formed by a parliamentary bill and popular demand to fight terrorism and save Iraq,” he said on Twitter. “I participated in drafting this bill and voting for it as a national duty… the PMF will remain as a solid organisation and its loyalty and sacrifices will remain for Iraq and the Iraqis.”

Zurfi also tweeted: “We rely on a powerful Iraqi foreign policy based on the principle of ‘Iraq First’ and avoiding regional and international conflicts that transform Iraq into an arena for settling scores.”

It was unclear to what extent Zurfi’s comments might sway Shia groups that vehemently protested his appointment. Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Fatah Coalition, described Zurfi’s designation as illegal and warned of “serious consequences.”

Zurfi has pledged “free, fair, transparent elections” within a year after he forms a government. He met with Iraqi parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi on March 26 in Fallujah, as well as other MPs, seeking support.

The developments come as Iraq faces mounting crises, including the coronavirus pandemic and falling oil prices. Reports indicated that many Iraqis were not holding to a nationwide curfew. The Baghdad Operations Command warned residents to abide by the rules or face severe consequences.

The United States extended a waiver allowing Iraq to import electricity and natural gas from Iran, despite sanctions on Tehran, but indicated that this could be the last exemption extension. The 30-day extension will help Iraq at a time the price of oil is continuing to slide, which will have a major effect on the Iraqi economy.

Because of political unrest, Iraq is functioning without a budget for 2020, instead using figures from its 2019 budget, which had been formulated on a global price of $56 per barrel of oil. The price of oil is around $25 owing to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

“When the budget was based on a price of $56 per barrel, it was (still) basically suffering from a deficit,” Basra University for Oil and Gas Professor Ansayif Jassim al-Abadi told Reuters.

“Iraq doesn’t have an economy. We are only a rentier state, we sell oil and we live on its revenues,” he added, calling on the government to prioritise diversification of sources of income and wealth.

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