How Long Can Iraq Go Without Leadership?

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The game of “Who’s Your Next Prime Minister” playing out in Baghdad for the best part of four months has a new contestant. It is Adnan al-Zurfi’s turn to take the stage and attempt the so far impossible. He has 30 days to form a new government.

He can only survive if the Iraqi political elite has finally exhausted its appetite for chaos, and is willing to set aside petty squabbles for the national good. Alas, this is a very slender hope indeed.

Already, his appointment as prime minister designate is being opposed by Fatah, which is the largest Shiite faction in parliament and Iran’s main instrument of political influence in Baghdad.

To overcome this opposition, Zurfi must win the backing of the other major Shiite faction, the Sairoon group led by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as Sunni and Kurdish blocks. That is the tallest of orders.

On the face of it, Zurfi has some strong credentials — by Iraqi standards, anyway. He has executive experience: three terms as governor of a province that includes two cities regarded as holy by Shiites everywhere, Najaf and Kufa. He has had to deal with the mercurial politics of Sadr, whose base is Kufa, as well as the complexities of mosque and seminary that characterize Najaf. His own politics put him at the middle of the Shiite spectrum.

But he also has a great deal going against him, beyond the opposition of the pro-Iran groups. As a member of the political establishment, he is unlikely to win favor with the popular protest movement that has wracked Iraq. He has frequently been accused of corruption, and his last term as governor ended prematurely with his dismissal.

Zurfi also carries some inconvenient political baggage. He was first appointed to run Najaf by J. Paul Bremer, the American administrator of post-Saddam Iraq. This makes him, in Iraqi parlance, one of those who came to power “on American tanks.”

Worse, Zurfi has dual American-Iraqi citizenship. His predecessor, Mohammed Tawfik Allawi, reportedly tried to jettison his British nationality just before his failed effort to form a government. The street protesters have made it clear that dual nationality is a disqualification.

Like Allawi, Zurfi has promised to protect the protesters, pass a budget and hold quick elections — if he is allowed to form the government. If such assurances didn’t work for Allawi, why should they for Zurfi?

One possible reason: The crises facing Iraq when Allawi was failing his bid have, with the start of the Saudi-Russian oil war and the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, metastasized into a calamity. As they weigh Zurfi’s candidacy, parliamentarians must also reckon with the disastrous consequences of allowing the country to remain headless. The incumbent caretaker Adel Abdul Mahdi  declared earlier that he will no longer perform all the functions of the prime ministership.

Iraq needs an election, one that will allow parliament to be elected by proportional representation rather than the current practice of ethno-sectarian slates. But the virus epidemic makes a snap poll hard to imagine. The country will need governing for several months, at least, before Iraqis can choose their next leader. Until then, they have to depend on the current political elite to agree on a Prime Minister — if not Zurfi, then someone else — without further delay.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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