Iraq’s Shia parties seek to use Kazemi to topple PM-designate

Shia forces in Iraq consider Zurfi to be the preferred candidate of Washington and claim that his goal is to eliminate pro-Iranian forces in Iraq.
Tuesday 07/04/2020
Anti-government protesters pass by a defaced picture of Prime Minister-designate Adnan Al-Zurfi in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. (AP)
Stymied bid. Anti-government protesters pass by a defaced picture of Prime Minister-designate Adnan Al-Zurfi in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. (AP)

BAGHDAD--Shia political forces in Baghdad are scrambling to block Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi’s attempts to form a new government after he called on parliament to vote on his proposed cabinet.

Over the past few days, there has been a flurry of meetings in the Baghdad homes of prominent Shia politicians, including Badr Movement leader Hadi al-Amiri and Hikma Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim. Talks have reportedly focused on ways to stymie Zurfi’s attempts to form a government and replace him as prime-minister-designate with intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kazemi.

Although representatives of the Sadrist Movement did not attend the meetings, Muqtada Al-Sadr did personally inform Hakim on Sunday that there was no point in continuing to support Zurfi, informed sources said. Sadr is leader of Sairoon coalition, the largest bloc in parliament, granting him a powerful role in government formation talks.

Shia forces in Iraq consider Zurfi to be the preferred candidate of Washington and claim that his goal is to eliminate pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. Faced with staunch Shia opposition to his nomination, Zurfi had sought to send domestic and international messages of reassurance over the past few days, but to no avail.

According to sources, Sadr is backing moves to inform President Barham Salih about the Shia consensus against Zurfi in order to ask him to intervene to persuade him to step down. However, Sadr is reportedly not on board with the idea of nominating Kazemi as a replacement.

Also missing from the Shia consensus is former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, leader of the Nasr Coalition which Zurfi belongs to.

The Nasr Coalition has publicly requested that Zurfi be given the full opportunity to form a new government. Zurfi, who was directly appointed as prime minister designate by Salih on March 17, was given one month to form a new cabinet and obtain approval by parliament.

An informed source also confirmed that given that Zurfi’s path to power appears completely blocked by Iraq’s Shia parties, Abadi reassured Iraq’s Shia political leaders that he would try to persuade the prime minister-designate to withdraw.

Zurfi’s team, however, has said that withdrawing before the April 17 deadline is out of the questions and that he intends to submit his proposed cabinet to parliament.

Observers in Baghdad were stunned by the Shia forces’ reported consensus around Kazemi, particularly given his reported role in assisting US forces in the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilisation Units deputy leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a drone attack earlier this year.

Some observers believe that the strategy being pursued by Iran-backed Shia groups in Baghdad could be to use Kazemi as a spoiler to bring down Zurfi, and then subsequently withdraw their confidence from the intelligence chief. who also enjoys extensive relations with the United States and the West.

Zurfi’s team have warned against the consequences of bringing up Kazemi’s name during the negotiations, saying this is nothing more than a stall tactic being used by Iraq’s Shia political blocs.

Despite the Shia consensus that is being formed against him, al-Zurfi continued to send messages of reassurance to Iran and its allies in Iraq.

Zurfi said that he had asked the US ambassador to schedule the withdrawal of his country’s forces from Iraq, considering that Iraq “does not need… foreign armies, and our forces are capable of protecting the country.”

Iraq’s PM-designate said that he wanted “to reverse America’s activity in Iraq from a military one to an economic one,” considering that “there is no benefit at the current stage of the presence of foreign armies” on Iraqi soil.

He said: “I have no hostility with Iran and there is no such thing as an Iranian veto [of my candidacy],” adding “Iran has helped Iraq both militarily and economically.”

With his attempts to woo Iraq’s Shia blocs falling on deaf ears, Zurfi is relying on support from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish parties, although this is also far from guaranteed.

Powerful Parliament Speaker Muhamad Al-Halbousi, who leads the largest Sunni political force, and Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, reportedly do not oppose Zurfi, but will only vote for his cabinet if he cannot obtain the backing of Iraq’s Shia parties.

Given the opposition to his nomination, Zurfi faces a tough task in even securing a parliamentary quorum to vote on his proposed cabinet, something that his predecessor as PM-designate — Mohammed Allawi — ultimately failed to do.