Two weeks ago, Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated Adnan Al-Zurfi as prime minister-designate and tasked him with forming a Cabinet to be approved by parliament. This was the president’s latest effort to form a government after Adel Abdul Mahdi stepped down in November last year in the face of widespread public criticisms of his government’s failure to provide services to the people.
Al-Zurfi faces a daunting challenge. A former governor of Najaf province, he has dual US-Iraqi citizenship and has been associated with Iraq’s politics since the US invasion in 2003. He took a tough stand against the militia of Muqtada Al-Sadr in 2004. He is the head of the Nasr parliamentary grouping that includes former Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
While Al-Zurfi enjoys the backing of several Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups in parliament, he is being opposed by the Fatah Alliance that is closely linked to Iran and by several militias that together make up the Iran-affiliated Popular Mobilization Units. He is viewed by them as being pro-US and thus a threat to continued Iranian influence in Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah has been particularly vociferous in criticizing Al-Zurfi’s nomination, with its spokesman even saying that it is a “declaration of war against the Iraqi people that will burn what remains of Iraq.”
Though he backs the street protests, Al-Zurfi is also being opposed by the young demonstrators who have been agitating for wide-ranging reform since October last year. They have been demanding an end to Iraq’s “spoils” system in parliament, which is based on sectarian and ethnic affiliations, and have been insisting on a prime minister who has no links to Iraq’s earlier politics or with foreign entities — Al-Zurfi fails to fulfill both of these criteria.
Iraq’s political system is experiencing paralysis at a time when the country is facing several challenges — both economic and military — which have been complicated by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus outbreak has dealt a body blow to the national economy by slowing down domestic economic activity and retarding Iraq’s trade ties with its principal partners, Iran, Turkey and China, which are fighting their own battles against the virus.
What has worsened the situation is the collapse in oil prices. Oil exports provide more than 90 percent of the revenue for Iraq’s annual budget. The budget for 2020, not yet approved by parliament, provides for an outlay of $135 billion, with most of the expenditure going toward paying the salaries of 7 million government officials. The budget was based on assumed oil prices of $56 per barrel. Now that oil prices have fallen to less than half this figure, the government will struggle to meet its obligations to public servants, while also paying for its local and foreign debt, providing urgently needed public services and investing in national development projects.
Amid these economic concerns and popular discontent, Iraq remains the main theater of contention between Iran and the US. Throughout March, Iran-affiliated militants targeted American bases with rockets, at times killing and wounding armed forces personnel. These attacks have led to strong US responses, generating fears that the conflict could expand across the country. Occasionally, the US attacks have hit civilian targets, such as the airport at Karbala, leading to widespread condemnation from Iran’s allies and even government sources.
In the face of these rocket attacks, the US announced the closure of its bases in three areas — the Qayyarah base in Nineveh province, Al-Qaim base on the Syria-Iraq border, and the K1 base in Kirkuk province. US officials have denied that these closures are due to the attacks, saying that they were planned last year. The American presence was meant to fight Daesh, but Iraqi forces are now well equipped to handle this responsibility.
The withdrawal from Al-Qaim is particularly significant. This border town was wrested from Daesh more than two years ago and, across the border in Syria, there are Iran-backed militias as well as US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces, largely made up of Kurdish fighters. There are concerns that Al-Qaim could see the penetration of pro-Iran militants, possibly from Kata’ib Hezbollah, rather than elements from the Iraqi army.
This period of uncertainty and tension has encouraged rumor-mongering in Iraq. Toward the end of March, Baghdad was awash with talk (perhaps from pro-Iranian sources) of a US-sponsored coup in the country to get rid of the present leaders, end the stalemate and usher in a new order. People were encouraged to stay at home and stockpile as much food as possible.
US sources also might have encouraged these fears. The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had called for the planning of a “new campaign” inside Iraq and that “secret plans” were being developed to fight the Iran-backed militias. The closure of US bases is being seen as reducing targets for the militants.
Alongside the expanding scourge of the coronavirus pandemic, Iraq is confronting a multiplicity of crises. But its avaricious and feuding politicians appear impervious to the emerging calamity. Not surprisingly, the slogans of the demonstrators include: “Corruption is the real virus,” and “politicians are the real virus.”