Iraq’s PM-designate faces resistance of Shia bloc

Shia parties have begun a media campaign against Zurfi, accusing him of corruption while he was governor.
Sunday 22/03/2020
File photo of Adnan al-Zurfi,  then-governor of Najaf. (AFP)
Looking for acceptance. File photo of Adnan al-Zurfi, then-governor of Najaf. (AFP)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi faces a tough task in forming a new cabinet and securing parliamentary approval of his proposed government within 30 days.

Zurfi, 54, a former governor of Najaf, was asked to form a new government March 17 by Iranian President Barham Salih after the two largest parliamentary blocs failed to nominate a candidate. As a senior figure in the Nasr-led bloc of the Iraqi parliament, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Zurfi must bring together Iraq’s fractured political scene.

“Zurfi is a new name and that’s probably more an advantage than a disadvantage,” Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad told Agence France-Presse.

Jiyad said Zurfi would likely have benefited from the experiences of his predecessor, Mohammed Allawi, who had almost strictly Shia political support and was unable to secure a parliamentary quorum for a vote on his proposed cabinet. “You have to strike deals with the blocs and engage with them on cabinet formation,” Jiyad said.

Zurfi has announced a 12-point plan, including promises for early snap elections, to address the coronavirus threat and secure Iraq’s 2020 federal budget.

His pledges on foreign policy, particularly on “avoiding regional and international conflicts” and “seeking to open up to all neighbouring countries and the general international community, in a way that preserves the independence of Iraq as a sovereign nation,” will gain him support from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish groups but could be a concern for Iran-backed Shia groups.

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his powerful Sairoon bloc may not be inclined to back Zurfi, given his role as Najaf governor during which he fought against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and its rebellion against US troops in 2004. However, analysts said that Sairoon could support Zurfi if he offers ministerial portfolios.

The other powerful Shia bloc, Fatah, led by Hadi al-Amiri and associated with the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), rejected Zurfi outright, describing his nomination as unconstitutional.

“The president of the republic (Salih) shall endure full responsibility for the repercussions of this provocative step,” a Fatah statement said. “We will take all measures to prevent this disregard of the law and constitution.”

Shia parties have begun a media campaign against Zurfi, accusing him of corruption while he was governor, as well as being too close to the United States.

Following a failed Shia uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, Zurfi fled Iraq and settled in the United States, returning after the 2003 invasion. He was appointed governor of Najaf by Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator but he assumed the same position in 2009 in an election.

Zurfi has not commented about calls for the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq, demands that gained traction following the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike. Also killed in that attack was PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The stance added to suspicion of Zurfi by pro-Iran Shia groups.

The clout of Shia groups seems to have atrophied in recent months because of the acute health and financial crises shaking Iraq, as well as pressures from the protest movement that opposes foreign encroachment, including by Iran. Experts said the emergence of Zurfi is a blow to the efforts by Soleimani to unify the Shia political bloc.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed Zurfi’s nomination, saying that Washington and the rest of the international community would support him if he implements “a government that upholds Iraq’s sovereignty, provides basic needs, is free of corruption and protects their human rights.”

It was not clear to what extent that Iraq’s protest movement supported Zurfi. Anti-government protesters in Baghdad carried portraits of Zurfi marked with an X. Many demonstrators view him as part of Iraq’s corrupt political class.

Speaking to Iraq’s Al-Hurra TV, analyst Bashir Hajaimi said the protesters were not pleased with Zurfi’s nomination. “[The demonstrators] want to know where he stands on compensation for victims of protests, corruption and recent threats to Iraq’s sovereignty,” Hajaimi said.