**Written and disseminated to select contacts on March 18, 2020**
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
After the Iraqi parliament failed to appoint a new prime minister within the 15-day deadline set by the constitution, responsibility for choosing the new candidate passed to President Barham Salih, who nominated former Najaf governor Adnan Al Zurfi to the post. It is a choice that could help end political inaction and power imbalance favouring pro-Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU) parties in Iraq.
Al Zurfi has until mid-April to form a cabinet and gain parliamentary approval. If successful, Iraq could form a new parliament by 2021, paving the way for greater pushback against Iranian influence in the country. In the meantime, there is a risk alienated militias will step up attacks on coalition forces and Iraq’s security apparatus. If voted in, Al Zurfi will enact state retaliation against insurgents.
WHY THIS MATTERS
- Salih’s PM-designate pick signals a change in strategy: Rather than opt for an independent technocrat to act as a fragile compromise between the various Shia parties dominating Iraqi politics, in Al Zurfi he has chosen a confident politician capable of addressing cross-sectarian interests, irrespective of internal discord among the Shia
- As a secular US dual national with his own political base, Al Zurfi holds a lot of appeal for Iraqi protesters, who have been occupying the streets since October and are concerned about insecurity, poor services and corruption by militias. The former Najaf governor has a strong security background, with a record of prosecuting Al Qaeda cells, and he has acted as a counterweight to Muqtada Sadr’s militias in the governorate.
- It is very likely Al Zurfi will gain the political support of Sadr, head of the majority bloc Sairoon; Al Hakim (Hikma bloc head); and former PMs Al Maliki (State of Law Coalition head) and Al Abadi (head of Nasr bloc, of which Al Zurfi is a member). He should also gain the approval of the Sunni Speaker of Parliament Al Halbousi (Al Hal party member) and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani (head of Kurdish Democratic Party).
- However, the powerful parliamentary bloc Fatah and IRGC-aligned Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) will oppose his candidacy. There is an increased risk of attacks on the Green Zone and Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) assets over the next 30 days, as the groups may choose to express their dissatisfaction at the development.
- If this happens, the US will pursue a policy of measured self-defence given current global conditions and the fragility of the PM-designate. Any escalation by the US could lead to a loss of support from Sadr, and potentially from former PM Maliki, thereby seriously jeopardising Al Zurfi’s chances of receiving the needed vote of confidence.
- The IRGC is seeking a complete breakdown of relations between CJTF-OIR and the government of Iraq, and sees current global conditions as an opportune time to push back against US forces. Yet, Iran’s own domestic crisis and its failure to unite Iraqi Shia groups against the US presence will prevent it from realising these ambitions.
- Differences in political ambitions among Shia blocs will further complicate post-2018 political arrangements with further dissociation between Shia groups in 2020, and result in a reshuffling of parliamentary seats in 2021 when Al Zurfi steps down to allow fresh elections. At this time, protestors will face improved chances of incorporating their demands into Iraq’s future political discourse.
- As extreme PMU factions feel estranged from these new political arrangements, Iraq will face low-level, internal insurgency backed by Iran throughout 2020. At the same time, the Iraqi government and CJTF-OIR will push back against PMUs by commandeering military bases and armaments, carrying out targeted attacks, and leveraging popular dissent against Iran.
- Iraq’s relations with Arab neighbours and CJTF-OIR will improve as Al Zurfi prioritises relations with those countries that respect Iraqi sovereignty and support counterterrorism efforts.
Daniel Moshashai | Regional Analyst – Geopolitics & Infrastructure | email@example.com