Who is Adnan al-Zurfi, the second prime minister-designate tasked with forming Iraq’s transitional government?

While Zurfi has proven more divisive than men chosen to form previous cabinets, it is unclear whether he can succeed where his successors failed.
Sunday 22/03/2020
President Barham Salih (L) meeting with Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi in Baghdad, March 17. (AFP)
Arduous process. President Barham Salih (L) meeting with Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi in Baghdad, March 17. (AFP)

In a moment eagerly awaited by international observers and Iraqi protesters, Iraqi President Barham Salih designated Adnan al-Zurfi as prime minister-designate, two weeks after Mohammed Allawi resigned.

“It is with great honour and a greater sense of a moral and nationalist duty that I accept the task of forming a transitional government,” Zurfi posted on Twitter on March 17, hours after the announcement. As granted by Iraq’s constitution, he has 30 days to carry out the task.

However, Zurfi appears to fall short of protesters’ demands for an independent candidate with a clean record.

Since 2003, Zurfi, 54, has held various political posts. He entered the post-Saddam political arena as a Dawa Party-aligned parliamentarian before securing his candidacy as mayor of Najaf after vetting by Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer.

Zurfi was Najaf mayor from 2004-05 and 2009-14. In the intervening years he secured a seat on Najaf’s Provincial Council and served in the Interior Ministry as an assistant.

No different than members of the governing political class, Zurfi was an ardent opponent of Saddam Hussein’s government, attending Iraqi opposition conferences, including one at the London Hilton, he revealed previously to Iraqi satellite network Alsumaria News.

Against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, Zurfi joined the Dawa Party in 1983. He was sentenced to life in Abu Ghraib prison in 1988 for ties to militant groups. He escaped after the 1991 uprising aimed at ousting Saddam.

Fearing rearrest by regime forces, Zurfi fled to Saudi Arabia’s Rafha camp before migrating to the United States. In 1994, he settled in Chicago and later in Dearborn, Michigan. He then returned to Iraq to carve out his place in the new Iraq.

Zurfi’s opponents, largely pro-Iran cohorts and militias, cite his time in the United States and dual Iraqi-US citizenship in alleging Zurfi is an American agent. Not even Zurfi’s image as a Shia moderate who studied Islamic jurisprudence has blunted criticism against him.

Despite Zurfi’s intimate ties to parties and paramilitaries aligned with Iraq’s clerical establishment, he was categorically rejected by hardliners connected to Tehran. Factions that represent the self-prescribed Islamic Resistance pointed to Zurfi’s membership in former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Coalition, Al Nasr, as proof of his US leanings.

Pro-Iranian parliamentary factions and armed groups slammed Salih’s move as unconstitutional. They argue that nominations are lawful if chosen from the biggest parliamentary bloc but a legal position on that point is not clearly stated in the Iraqi Constitution.

Factions opposing Zurfi’s nomination congregated at former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s home. Fatah Alliance, the State of Law Coalition, the National Contract Bloc and the National Approach issued a statement vowing to use “all necessary means to halt moves that threaten peace and our national fabric,” Mayadeen News reported. Fatah may use its leverage in parliament to deny Zurfi a parliament vote of confidence victory.

Armed groups are likely to strike on US installations in Iraq, similar to recent strikes against Camp Taji.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq-affiliated Sadiqoun bloc issued a statement that unanimously rejected Zurfi, describing him disparagingly as a “US joker.” Jawad Talabawi, the official Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq militia spokesman, threatened to disrupt the country and Shibl al-Zaydi, the head of Kata’ib al Imam Ali, wrote on Twitter: “United, we can defeat the greatest enemy but if we are divided ‘Salih’ rules.”

Sairoun parliamentarian Salam al-Shammari described the nomination as the first step towards resolving Iraq’s national crises while COVID-19 greatly affects Middle Eastern countries, whose health-care systems seem ill-equipped to handle the pandemic.

Zurfi’s rejection has also been heard in Najaf but increasingly on online platforms after the government declared a nationwide curfew to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Local media reported on Zurfi’s record as mayor of Najaf and alleged corruption. Al Masalah News claimed Zurfi used his position to secure investment licences for partner or ghost firms, in direct violation of Iraq’s Tenders Law.

While Zurfi has proven more divisive than men chosen to form previous cabinets, it is unclear whether he can succeed where his successors failed and whether the vote of confidence will be the rug that opponents pull from under his feet.