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Iraqi PM-Designate’s Bumpy Road To New Cabinet

Alwaght- On Tuesday, President Barham Saleh of Iraq named a new prime minister, Adnan al-Zurfi, two weeks after the PM-designate Tofiq Allawi resigned from his mission to form a new cabinet to replace the caretaker government of the resigned PM Adel Abdul Mahdi. 

Naming the ex-Najaf governor as new PM comes as a 7-member committee representing the major political parties ended its talks over a new PM with Saleh without any outcome and picked the new figure independently. 

Now the new candidate has 30 days to present his cabinet to the parliament for a vote of confidence after consultations with the political factions. But the question is that how can a politician as controversial as al-Zurfi persuade the various political sides to give their confidence to his cabinet? Will he meet a fate similar to that of Allawi? To give answers to these questions, we first should get his background and records both at home and foreign levels. Then we should bring in the spotlight the levels of convergence and contrast of the political sides with the new PM. 

Who is the new PM and what is his slogan as he starts work? 

Adnan al-Zurfi was born in 1966 in Najaf. He has a Ph.D. in fiqh from the University of Kufa and the MA degree in security and strategic planning from the University of Baghdad. 

In terms of political roots, al-Zurfi has been a member of the Islamic Dawa Party since 1983. He was arrested by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1988 and was given a life sentence. As a popular uprising erupted in 1991 against Saddam rule, he escaped from Abu Ghraib prison. Participating in the uprising, al-Zurfi was wounded in clashes with the regime forces. He fled the country to a Saudi border refugee camp. From 1994 to 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was toppled by the US invasion, he lived in the US. 

A year after the fall of the Baathist dictatorship, he founded the Al-Wafa Movement. He occupied a set of posts in post-Saddam Iraq including member of the Board of Reconstruction, Najaf governor, member of Najaf provincial council, and deputy information chief in the interior ministry. In the 2018 general election, he was elected as the Najaf parliament representative from Nasr Coalition led by former PM Haidar al-Abadi. 

Following his naming by the president, al-Zurfi in his first comments said that he will do his best to hold free, healthy, and transparent parliamentary elections next year. He further promised to disarm all militia forces operating outside the army structure and will bring all of them under the control of the central government. 

Al-Zurfi: Big slogans while not clearly backed by Shiite groups 

Al-Zurfi is a figure who has a level of divergence and even collision with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also called Hashd Shaabi, a popular voluntary force founded in 2014 in opposition to ISIS terrorist group. Since his designation, he said he would dissolve the militia groups out of the government control, indirectly referring to the PMF. Such a big slogan is made while according to the Iraqi constitution, the PMF are part of the Iraqi armed forces. 

His largely demonstrative and relatively radical stances aroused the ire of some Shiite groups which openly rejected him and others which offered conditional support to him. Asaib Ahl-Haq, a Shiite military group, labeled designation of al-Zurfi a “betrayal of the blood of the martyrs” and warned that it would not stay silent in the face of this “conspiracy.” Fatah Coalition, led by the Shiite military leader Hadi al-Amiri, stipulated that it will give the new PM its vote of confidence only if he guarantees that he would implement the parliament’s bill for the expulsion of the foreign forces from the country. 

The positions taken by various Shiite forces signal a difficult road of Al-Zurfi to the premiership. Like Allawi who had the opposition of the Sunnis, and Kurds, now al-Zufri has the opposition of the Shiite forces who dominate the parliament. So, from now, al-Zurfi can be foreseen to have Allawi’s fate, unless he can within 30 days prove his legitimacy for the post to all of the political factions. 

Kurds uncertain about if they should give confidence to al-Zurfi 

Since the moments President Saleh named al-Zurfi new PM, the Kurdish political leaders expressed their postures on him with uncertainty and doubt. On the one hand, some believe that al-Zurfi is an anti-Kurdish figure who wants alteration of the national constitution and putting an end to the Kurdish autonomy in the north of the country. They argue that he backed thwarting the Kurdish independence referendum and will cut the Kurdish Regional Government’s share from the federal budget should he succeed in his cabinet formation. 

On the other hand, some other Kurdish sides believe that al-Zurfi is a moderate politician in favor of the solution of Baghdad-Erbil disputes. They think that he, as a man who lived for nearly a decade in the US, is tolerant and thus they should throw their weight behind him. But it remains to see how the Kurds in the 30 days conclude an approach towards the PM-designate. The Sunnis’ postures are important as well and should be taken into consideration. 

Al-Zurfi and foreign policy 

So far the United Nations and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered their support via their representatives in Baghdad their support to Salih’s pick. This means that he has the Washington backing. Perhaps the American officials set hopes on him, thinking that once he manages to take a seat in the Green Zone palace, he can guarantee the US forces stay in the country against a backdrop of nationwide calls for the American troops to pull out. 

Another important foreign policy point for al-Zurfi is his form of interaction with neighboring Iran. Even some reports suggest that Ahmad Sharbah, a political figure close to al-Zurfi, has been a behind-the-scenes organizer of several times of attacks on Iranian consulate in Najaf. Some other reports say that al-Zurfi is poised to establish closer relations with the US and wants to take Iraq away from Iran. Although these reports remain rumors, al-Zurfi has no friendly relations with Iran as an important regional actor with deep influence in Iraq. 

Now it remains to see how the Iraqi political groups will view his foreign policy, as now the dominant atmosphere in the Iraqi politics and public is largely anti-occupational. In the middle of such an atmosphere, a PM with stances moderate to the American occupation and violation will have a difficult road to the persuasion of the political sides. 

Protestors and al-Zurfi 

The street protestors are another determining factor in the political future of the PM-designate. Over the past five months, they have been running rampant in the capital and southern cities’ streets and chanting against corruption, unemployment, and poor public services. It was their protests that pushed PM Abdul Mahdi to resign only a year after he formed his government with promises of richer public services and fighting corruption and unemployment. Now they apparently play an undeniable role in the determination of the next PM and decision on how long his term will be. 

When the word spread that the president tasked al-Zurfi with forming a government, the demonstrators expressed their opposition to him. The main cause for that could be the record of corruption when he was governor of Najaf. The protestors point to his financial and even moral corruption as they bring as proofs his handling of Najaf international airport and Najaf: Capital of Islamic Culture projects.

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