Government obstacles in Iraq

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 2 Apr 2020

The formation of a new government in Iraq appears fated to drag on, with the largest group in parliament rejecting the nomination of Prime Minister-designate Adnan Al-Zurufi


The Fatah Alliance’s “veto” power has revived fears that the process of forming a new Iraqi government, recently mandated to Prime Minister-designate Adnan Al-Zurufi, will soon break down again.

The Fatah Alliance, the largest parliamentary bloc in Iraq, maintains that the mechanism used to appoint Al-Zurufi was unconstitutional, according to bloc leader Mohamed Al-Ghabban.

If, as this suggests, Fatah is insisting that negotiations over the appointment of a prime minister-designate for Iraq are not over yet, Al-Zurufi may meet the same fate as the preceding designate, Mohamed Tawfik Allawi, who resigned after failing to win a vote of confidence in February.

Although the Fatah Alliance has framed its opposition to Al-Zurufi’s appointment as a legal objection, observers believe it is also personal. A dual Iraqi-US national, Al-Zurufi is seen as being too close to the US and is not looked on favourably by political and security forces close to Tehran, such as the State of Law Coalition headed by former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki and MPs aligned with the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) group.

Analysts see two possible scenarios. One is that Al-Zurufi, who faces opposition from more than half of Iraq’s 329 MPs, may be forced to resign as Allawi did earlier. According to local reports, Shia political forces are sharply divided over his appointment, and negotiations are still in progress between them. The Fatah Alliance, which has spearheaded the opposition to the prime minister-designate, appears to have a nominee of its own in mind and may be lobbying to rally support for him.

The other possible scenario is a compromise solution in order to mend fences within the Shia political community. A recent spate of meetings in the home of Ammar Al-Hakim, leader of the National Wisdom Movement Coalition, is a sign of movement in this direction. However, even if this works, it still offers no guarantee that Al-Zurufi will succeed, as he would still have to overcome the major hurdle of having to satisfy the Shia political party quotas in his government.

Although the appointment of a prime minister has become a Shia decision, with the Iraqi Kurds holding the country’s presidency and the Sunnis the position of speaker of parliament, Sunni and Kurdish views are nevertheless taken into account.

The Kurds and a majority of Sunni forces had opposed Mohamed Tawfik Allawi’s appointment, whereas Al-Zurufi has obtained around 70 signatures of support from Kurdish and Sunni blocs. This suggests a significant shift in parliamentary custom, as until recently the Kurdish/Sunni approval of the Shia choice for the premiership had been virtually automatic.  

For example, the Kurds and Sunnis approved of the choice of outgoing prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, just as the Shia forces approved of the Sunni choice of Mohamed Al-Halbousi as speaker of parliament.

The current parliamentary dilemma is a function of numerous complicating factors, some of them relatively new. The first is what has been described as the “Shia rift”. Analysts agree that three months of disputes and negotiations between the Iraqi political forces in order to form a new government is not a manifestation of healthy political diversity as much as a sign of a fundamental and multidimensional structural problem.

A major component of this has to do with the sectarian quota system that Iraq’s Shia forces see as a historical gain and are therefore resistant to moves to change. But another component involves calculations related to the balance of power between the Shia forces.

The Fatah Alliance, the largest and most influential bloc, sees itself as kingmaker in the selection of the prime minister and is determined to assert its “prerogative” in this regard. However, the most critical factor at the heart of the rift is Iraq’s relationship with Iran and the Iranian agenda in Iraq now and in the future.

The dilemma also intersects with other political developments in complex ways. First and foremost is the youth protest movement in Iraq that forced the last government to resign. Despite the current lull in this movement that erupted last autumn owing to the Covid-19 crisis, it remains a major factor in political calculations.

The heightened tensions between Iran and the US following the assassination of the Iranian Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Al-Soleimani in Iraq have also had a crucial impact in feeding the Shia rift, as evidenced by the opposition to Al-Zurufi’s premiership by the Fatah Alliance, the State of Law Coalition, the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Badr Organisation (formerly the Badr Corps).

There has also been considerably speculation over the position of the senior Shia religious establishment in the city of Najaf with respect to Al-Zurufi’s nomination as prime minister. Some politicians said that the religious authorities had opposed “the US embassy’s candidate.” However other sources stated that senior Shia clergy in Najaf do not wish to meddle in the choice of the prime minister.

However, this does not mean that the clergy are not a decisive factor at some level, especially given their influence. They are known, for example, to have supported most of the positions of the demonstrators in the recent uprising.

The government that Al-Zurufi has been assigned to form is only a transitional one that will be tasked with certain limited functions, and this epitomises the strains between the political forces and alliances in Iraq at this time. It also helps to explain much of the polarisation and intransigence that is going on at present, as the work of this government will shape the political process in Iraq in the forthcoming period.

Essentially, the contention is over how and to what extent the next government will be able to change the political rules that have taken root in Iraq over the two decades since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime.

There remains the question of legitimacy. The controversy over the role of the president, the Fatah Alliance’s possible recourse to legal action to challenge the constitutionality of the selection of Al-Zurufi, and the controversy over the functions of the current acting government are all likely to cast a long shadow extending well beyond the appointment of Al-Zurufi.

In view of these and other complicating factors, the process of forming a new government in Iraq appears slated to drag on for the foreseeable future. In addition, the coming months may also pack in some further surprises that could not have been anticipated due to rapid developments in the region and the world, especially with respect to US-Iranian tensions and how they play out in Iraq.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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