[Published here March 17, 2020]
Baghdad (AFP) – Adnan Zurfi, Iraq’s second premier-designate this year, is respected for focussing on public services and security but faces resistance from factions wary of his close ties with the United States.
The 54-year-old lawmaker is the ex-governor of the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf, has advanced degrees in religious studies and was a long-time member of the Dawa Party which opposed ex-dictator Saddam Hussein.
After a failed 1991 uprising against Saddam, Zurfi fled to Saudi Arabia and then on to the United States, returning to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.
He is an Iraqi-US dual national and his wife, five sons and two daughters still live in the United States.
Under Iraqi law, he would have to renounce his American citizenship to take up the premiership, which is yet to be confirmed by parliament.
Zurfi was appointed Najaf governor in 2004 by the US occupation force, to take on the Mehdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, which was attacking American troops.
He later managed to repair his relationship with Sadr, now a kingmaker in Iraqi politics.
Zurfi has been able to build a public profile in Iraq as a TV talk show regular, clean-shaven and with his silver-tinged hair slicked back.
Fellow MP Sarkawt Shamsaddin said Zurfi had earned respect for taking the initiative on social and economic projects and described him as “a moderate Shiite voice who is supportive of ties with the West”.
In order to win the premiership, he will have to overcome the resistance of political factions allied with Iran, Washington’s arch-rival, which is an influential force in Iraqi politics.
– Young newcomer –
Zurfi’s nomination by President Barham Saleh came on a day crisis-battered Iraq faced new turmoil: a pre-dawn rocket attack on an Iraqi base hosting foreign troops, and looming curfews to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
The rocky security situation and collapsing oil prices come after months of anti-government protests and will form the main challenges for the new premier-designate.
As a relatively young newcomer in Baghdad, there are hopes he could shake up politics after months of paralysis.
“Zurfi is a new name and that’s probably more an advantage than a disadvantage,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst.
Zurfi’s very first challenge will be forming a cabinet that is acceptable to the country’s rival Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish blocs — and to the demonstrators — within 30 days.
There was already one failed attempt: an earlier nominee, Mohammad Allawi, did not manage to form a cabinet by a March 2 deadline due to the competing demands of various parties and opposition from the street movement, which rejected him as too close to the ruling class.
Zurfi served as governor until 2015 and won his second parliamentary term in the 2018 election as part of the Nasr coalition, led by ex-PM Haider al-Abadi.
However, because he has not served in the post-2003 federal government, he would likely not be seen by protesters as “an old face that’s been recycled,” said Jiyad.
He will also have “learned the lessons of Allawi: you have to strike deals with the blocs and engage with them on cabinet formation,” the analyst added.
His senior role in the Nasr coalition also grants him an early advantage over both Allawi and caretaker PM Adel Abdel Mahdi, neither of whom hailed from a political bloc.
In addition to Nasr, Sunni and Kurdish factions in parliament would likely back Zurfi.
– ‘Will, charisma, strength’ –
However, the powerful Fatah bloc, the political arm of the Hashed al-Shaabi military network, has already rejected his nomination.
The Hashed, which includes armed groups with close ties to Iran, has been incorporated into the Iraqi military, but its more hardline factions often operate independently.
Those groups have been blamed for a spate of rocket attacks on foreign soldiers and diplomats across Iraq in recent months that have left three US military personnel, one British and one Iraqi soldier dead.
Such attacks were dragging Iraqi security down “a black hole” and had tainted ties with Baghdad’s one-time ally Washington, said Jiyad.
Zurfi, he said, would be tasked with improving the security situation and repairing those ties.
“We need someone with the experience, will, charisma and strength to rein in unruly elements — and someone who understands the importance of having America on our good side,” he told AFP.
Such a rebalance would however not be easy, he said, given the influence of Washington’s regional rival Tehran.