image Iraqi PM-Designate Adnan al-Zurfi (on right) seated alongside Iraqi President Barham Salih (Photo: Reuters)

Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister pledges “fair elections” within one year

Iraq’s designated Prime Minister Adnan al-Zurfi has vowed to hold early “free, fair, transparent elections within a maximum period of one year” after he is able to form the next government.

Zurfi was a little-known former regional governor when he was named by Iraqi President Barham Salih as prime minister-designate on 17 March, in another bid to overcome months of unrest and deadlock. He lived in the United States as a refugee in the 1990s after fleeing the regime of former President Saddam Hussein; and seen as a comparatively secular figure in a country long dominated by sectarian parties. After Saddam’s overthrow, he served as governor of the predominantly Shi’ite Najaf province during the U.S. occupation.

Zurfi is the second candidate chosen to succeed Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned as prime minister in November amid mass anti-government protests. The first, Mohammed Allawi, quit on 1 March, after accusing parties of obstructing him and lawmakers have been unable to agree on a successor since then. This comes amid months of ongoing demonstrations by Iraqis demanding an overhaul of the whole political elite, whom they accuse of depriving them of basic services such as power supplies or properly-functioning hospitals, despite the country’s oil wealth. There have also been wide-scale protests against Iran’s burgeoning control in Iraq.

Iraq’s next leader was given 30 days to try and form a government, which must then survive a vote of confidence in the deeply divided parliament. He faces fierce opposition by powerful Shi’ite blocs, which quickly lined up to reject his nomination. The factions are backed by Iran, which has also operated several armed Shi’ite militias in Iraq since Saddam’s downfall, as part of its ideological mission to expand its regional influence.

Just days ago on 12 March, the U.S. military launched a strike on the Iranian paramilitary Kata’ib Hezbollah group, in retaliation for a rocket attack previous day on Iraq’s Camp Taji, a base for troops from several countries. Two American soldiers and one British reservist were killed. More rockets targeted compound on 14 March.

Aṣaʾib ʾAhl al-Haqq (AHH, meaning the “League of the Righteous” in Arabic) is another potent Iranian proxy militia in Iraq. Trained and funded by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), it has claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on U.S. and Coalition forces and was designated by Washington along with two of its leaders, brothers Qais and Laith al-Khazali, as terrorists on 3 January 2020.

AHH has been part of Iraqi security forces since 2018, when it and other Iranian Shi’ite proxy factions such as the Badr Organization, were incorporated as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group when the country struggled to combat the Islamic State (ISIS). AHH has been involved in Iraqi politics since 2017, when it formed a political party under the same name; and Badr is believed to have further entrenched Tehran’s presence in Baghdad by securing official positions at the Defense and Interior Ministries.

In his televised address broadcast on the state Iraqiya TV earlier this week, Incumbent Premier Zurfi said he would work to confine weapons only to the military, eliminate all armed militias and enforce government authority.

104 people were killed and 6,107 others wounded in October 2019 attacks on Iraqi protesters blamed on Iranian-backed militias, including the AHH shooting deaths of 9 protesters trying to burn down the group’s office in Nasiriya.

Zurfi has also vowed to “work hard and seriously to chase the killers (of the protesters) and to reveal the identity of those who were behind those who led to the injury of thousands of peaceful protesters and from armed security forces and sue them at court.”

Promising to represent the many ethnic and religious sectors, the incoming premier also said he aims to “restore the full civil peace and joint coexistence among all (Iraqi people) whatever their variety alike and without discrimination.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Zurfi would have the support of Washington and the international community if he adheres to a number of policy issues, including the upholding of Iraqi sovereignty, be corruption-free and protective of human rights.

The ongoing political instability coincides with a coronavirus outbreak has been spreading from neighboring Iran, which is the epicenter in the region. On Monday, Iraq’s Health Ministry confirmed three more deaths from the deadly coronavirus, bringing the country’s total fatalities to 23. Iraq’s overall infection rate rose to 266 after 33 addition people tested positive for the disease.

As precautionary measures to contain COVID-19, most of Iraq’s provinces decided to close their borders, including Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, while some provinces have imposed a complete lockdown. Last week, Baghdad had shut down schools and universities for 10 days and banned travel to virus-hit provinces.

The medical and political crises hit Iraq at a time when it was rudderless in the wake of Abdul Mahdi’s resignation.  Political infighting prevented government approval of a budget draft for 2020. That bill is now outdated, as it was based on an oil price of $56 a barrel, which is almost double the current level. The OPEC oil producer, which depends on oil revenue for 95% of its income, will have no choice to cut spending due to the spread of coronavirus and the collapse of an oil output deal between OPEC and its allies, they said.

Such a move is likely to fuel greater public dissent.

“When the budget was based on a price of $56 per barrel, it was (still) basically suffering from a deficit,” Basra University of Oil and Gas Prof. Ansayif Jassim Al-Abadi told Reuters, questioning the impact the further drop in prices would have on the country. “Iraq doesn’t have an economy – we are only a rentier state, we sell oil and we live on its revenues,” the professor explained, adding that “From 2003 up until now. There were many voices calling for diversifying sources of income, sources of wealth, mainly the circumstances are suitable now. There is agriculture, there is industry and there is tourism that could be developed.”

“But our politicians focus on the political side and political conflicts on posts and leave the subject of developing and diversifying the Iraqi economy,” said Prof. Al-Abadi. After stating “the Iraqi budget includes costs such as wages, salaries, and government payments, which consequently the government is committed to paying,” amounting to an estimated 77% of the budget, he underscored that “Iraq honestly faces a dark and big danger that needs attention and solutions.”

Director General of the Basra Oil Company, Ihasan Abdul-Jabar commented that “part of the economy will certainly be affected by the shortage of revenues due to a decrease in oil prices,” while pointing out that “we have some measures that might help lessen (the impact of) this crisis.” Among such measures, he said, “we are going to focus on projects that are more production-based and decrease projects in the service industry. We will try to agree with the operational companies on the mechanism of payment. We may change the new contracts for some projects,” with the explicit purpose “to decrease the pressure on the budget.”

Head of the parliament’s financial committee, Haitham al-Jabouri, also said borrowing abroad would be the only way to avert a huge financial crisis.

Iraq will have to postpone key energy projects such as the southern mega-deal including developing oilfields, expanding storage, transport, and export infrastructure, and building by-product gas treatment units.

Also at risk are projects to boost power supplies and revive Iraq’s industrial sector, which is part of a trajectory taken since the relative-improvement in national security following the the defeat of the Islamic State in northern Iraq in 2017.