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Riddles and Labyrinths:

Unpacking Al-Zurfi’s Iraq?

by Sofia Barbarani

A Swedish version of this article is available here.

It took Iraq two weeks to confine prime minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to the dustbin of political history and replace him with a new candidate. In an uncharacteristically swift and painless move President Barham Salih, on 17 March, announced Adnan al-Zurfi as the new man in charge of piecing together the country’s interim government.


Allawi, who withdrew his candidacy earlier in March citing political obstruction, left in his wake a trail of shortcomings, among them: unresolved public unrest and empty cabinet positions. Zurfi, who served three terms as governor of Najaf now has until 16 April to appoint all 22 ministers and sell them to the country’s deeply fractured parliament. As if that alone weren’t enough of a monumental task, all this is set to play out against the backdrop of the novel coronavirus crisis, plummeting oil prices and social discontent.


Mass demonstrations in Baghdad and several southern cities swept through the country in October 2019 as protesters took to the streets to demand the overhaul of Iraq’s political system. These same protesters were the first to reject former PM Allawi’s appointment in February, accusing him of belonging to the same political elite they were seeking to dismantle. In Tahrir square, the heart of the capital’s movement, demonstrators could be seen brandishing placards with Allawi’s face covered by a red X sign and the words: “rejected by the order of the people.”


“This commission is a great historical responsibility. I pledge to God and to the Iraqi people that I will do my best to serve this country,” the newly appointed prime minister said in a televised address to the nation in early February. A month into the job, Allawi resigned.   


Sceptics predicted his failure from the start, with some Iraq observers suggesting his lengthy exile in the United Kingdom made him unsuitable to lead the country, despite being among many Shiite politicians to have left Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s repressive rule.


The new candidate, Adnan al-Zurfi, also fled in the 1990’s, but unlike some of his predecessors who resettled in neighouring Iran – including Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki – Zurfi moved to the United States, where he obtained citizenship and lived for over a decade before returning to Iraq when Hussein was toppled in 2003. In January, when parliament voted to remove US troops from Iraq following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Zurfi is alleged to have voted against the withdrawal. Eager to distance himself from his American ties, Zurfi was also cited by local media as saying that his appointment was an internal Iraqi decision. However, important political moves in Baghdad are rarely green-lighted without some form of foreign intervention.


As the deadline for a cabinet formation inches closer, Zurfi’s close ties to the US are likely to serve as a curse rather than a blessing. While Tehran and Washington scramble for power inside the country, Iran-backed Shiite blocs continue to reject his nomination and protesters demand an end to foreign interference.


A Delicate Balancing Act


“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 tweeted on March 17. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, responded to the announcement by saying that the new prime minister would have Washington’s support as long as he upholds the country’s sovereignty, be corruption-free and protect human rights. The US endorsement ruffled some feathers, not least those of Zurfi’s pro-Iran opponents, some of whom view him as an American agent. Parliament’s second and fifth largest blocs – Fatah and State of Law respectively – have both publicly rejected the appointment. Qais al-Khazali’s al-Sadiqoun bloc, known for its anti-American stance, issued a statement calling Zurfi a “US joker.” And although the largest bloc, Sairoon, has not gone as far as opposing Zurfi, its powerful leader Muqtada al-Sadr has not endorsed him either.


Sadr – a Shiite cleric known for his mercurial temper and cult-like following – and Zurfi share a turbulent past that dates back to 2004, when the prime minister designate was appointed governor of Najaf and tasked with bringing down Sadr’s militia Mahdi Army. Ultimately Zurfi failed and the Mahdi Army continues to carry out violent attacks to this day. And, while the relationship between Sadr and Zurfi is said to have improved over time, the latter is still vocal about opposing non-state armed groups. But bringing about the end of Iraq’s powerful militias has always been an improbable task and one that is likely to garner plenty of powerful enemies.


In addition to carrying out a calculated balancing act between Tehran and Washington and rallying Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish blocs in parliament, Zurfi is faced with the consequences of low oil prices and the novel coronavirus.


The Financial Times this week called the slump in oil prices the industry’s “gravest crisis of the past 100 years.” Some analysts, the FT went on to say, are predicting the price could plummet to single digits – by Friday, Brent crude had dipped again and hovers around $25.00 (USD). Iraq is both a weak OPEC member and hugely reliant on oil: more than 90% of its revenues are derived from it. Compounding an already troubled financial situation the US, on Thursday, slashed its waiver allowing Iraq to import Iranian gas and electricity from 120 to 30 days, in a bid to further curtail links to its neighbour. The country is expected to be in for a huge cash crunch.


Like his predecessors the former governor of Najaf could be up against the country’s undiversified economy and ballooning public payroll; but unlike them, he will also be expected to handle the coronavirus crisis. And while the outgoing government is currently responsible for tackling COVID-19 Zurfi, in his 12-point plan, pledged to address the crisis. But Iraq’s healthcare system, devastated by years of conflict and government mismanagement is far from ready to handle the same level of infections as seen in countries like Italy or Spain.


Some Iraqi observers are referring to the combination of problems as the biggest challenge facing the country since the rise to power of the Islamic State in 2014. But even the man praised for bringing ISIS to its knees, former prime minister Haider al-Abadi, could not escape the political fallout when deadly protests erupted in Basra in 2018. By September that year, the once “man of the hour” declared he would not be running for a second term.  




Whether Zurfi will have the political backing and knowhow to lead the country at this delicate time or whether he will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps is yet to see. What we do know is that from now until mid-April at the latest, the prime minister designate will be focusing on piecing together a government capable of garnering enough support to convince a deeply fractured parliament that he can not only get the job done but keep everyone happy while doing so.

30 March 2020

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