Designation of Adnan al-Zurfi to form the Iraqi government and the chances of success

EPC | 28 Mar 2020

Following the elapse on 19 March 2020 of the statutory period given to the political blocs to nominate a prime minister and Iraq’s entry into a stage of constitutional vacuum, President Barham Saleh designated former Najaf governor and member of the Nasr Alliance Adnan al-Zurfi to form the provisional government. This was soon strongly rejected by some parties close to Teheran, in spite of their previous participation in the consultations of the seven-member committee in which the main parliamentary blocs were represented. This raises questions about the possible failure of the prime minister-designate to obtain Parliament’s confidence, similar to the previous designate Mohammed Allawi.

This paper sheds light on the behind-the-scenes circumstances of the designation of al-Zurfi, the positions of political blocs vis-à-vis his designation, and the chances of success of his designation.

The behind-the-scenes circumstances of the designation

As expected, the process of designating the leading member of the Nasr Alliance Adnan al-Zurfi was far from smooth, although his name was put forward together with a group of other names on the negotiating table. Yet his chances were not as strong as those of other names in circulation such as chief of the Intelligence Service Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was the first option of President Barham Saleh until the morning of 16 March. Al-Kadhimi rejected the task for two reasons: first, identification with the protesters and fear of creating new divisions within the protest squares, particularly in view of the existence of a large group that is opposed to the assumption of the office of prime minister by any person from within the political system; second, the lack of a Shiite consensus on his nomination and the possibility that his designation would lead to a serious and undesirable crisis with the armed factions, especially in the wake of the threats launched by the Hezbollah Brigades against his designation, including that this would lead to “burning whatever is left of Iraq’s security”. This led the President to invite bloc leaders to put forward a consensual candidate, otherwise he would have to nominate “anyone”.

Earlier, chances of the nominee of the State of Law Coalition Naim al-Suhail were highest after he obtained the support of the Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri, and the Ataa Movement, led by Faleh al-Fayyad, and the non-objection of the other parties, before a document issued by the Commission for Accountability and Justice was disclosed proving the existence of relations between al-Suhail and the dissolved Baath Party.

Until late evening of 16 March, Saleh had no choice but to re-consider his options, the best of which was the nomination by 30 representatives of Adnan al-Zurfi. The designation was accepted by important Shiite blocs, mainly Sairoon and Nasr. It also did not face any objection from the Sunnis and Kurds. However, it was rejected by other blocs such as the State of Law and Fatah which criticized the President accusing him of bypassing political understandings and acting unilaterally, although some leaks referred to the approval by the leader of the Fatah Alliance Hadi al-Amiri of the nomination of al-Zurfi over a phone call with the President. Images from inside the presidential palace also showed the attendance of some personalities from the al-Maliki and al-Amiri alliances, which implies the existence of significant divisions even within the same bloc.

In addition to the justifications by those two blocs for rejecting al-Zurfi’s designation, there are some observations that accompanied the designation process, mainly:

1- The delay of the designation, which was scheduled for 16 March but was prevented by the disagreement of the blocs. The following day, the President attempted to give the negotiations a last chance by announcing the deferral of the designation until noon, but his contacts with the opposing blocs failed.

2- A constitutional violation: similar to the case of the designation of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi a few weeks earlier, the President violated for the third time article 76 of the Constitution which requires him to designate the candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc, which was not the case.

3- Hesitation in the positions of the Shiite political blocs: during the designation meeting, the presence was noted of several personalities belonging to political blocs that are opposed to the nomination of al-Zurfi, such as Fatah, which raised a question about the reason for their presence, although it was justified as personal. Yet the more likely explanation is the existence of differences within the Fatah Alliance. That is why some of its members approved the nomination while others rejected it. Relations within the Alliance have especially entered a new phase of differences over leadership after the assassination of the Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Who is al-Zurfi?

Al-Zurfi was born in Najaf in 1966. He earned a Master’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence from the University of Kufa, and also a Master’s degree in security and strategic planning from the College of Security and Defence in Baghdad.

He joined the Dawa Party at an early stage of his life, specifically in 1983, and took part, in the spring of 1991, in the Shiite uprising against the Baath Party regime, after the suppression of which he had to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia where he spent a few years in a refugee camp in the Refha region before he obtained humanitarian asylum in the United States where he stayed until his return with US troops in 2003 in a controversial capacity. Some sources say that he accompanied US troops as an interpreter, while others mention that he was a member of the paramilitary units organized by Washington in eastern Europe before the invasion of Iraq.

What is certain is that his relations with the Americans were close to the extent that they appointed him governor of Najaf in 2004, during the peak of the battles that went on in the capital of Shiism between US forces and the Mahdi Army militia, led by Muqtada al-Sadr. This was effectively utilized by al-Zurfi to assume a leading position in the Islamic Dawa Party. Thus, he was designated under-secretary of the interior for intelligence from 2006 till 2009, when he returned to the post of governor of Najaf and established the Wafa Movement under which he later competed in all parliamentary and local elections, after he established himself as a major player on the political scene in the governorate, on an equal footing with the sons of the most established religious families. This earned him the enmity of Shiite parties that accused him of propagating non-Islamic demonstrations during his tenure as governor by encouraging the opening of mixed cafes and youth clubs and sponsoring “secular” artistic and cultural activities, in addition to corruption in the award of contracts and projects. This cost him the position in 2012 for nearly a year before he was reinstated in the 2013 local elections only to be dismissed from it in 2015. With the 2018 elections, he joined Parliament as a representative of the Nasr Alliance led by Haider al-Abadi.

As far as protest squares are concerned, al-Zurfi does not currently seem to have an advantage over other potential candidates, apart from not having assumed a ministerial or equivalent post throughout his political career. Besides, his experience as governor of Najaf does not make him sufficiently preferable, especially that he is accused of allegedly corrupt action of up to hundreds of millions of dollars in the “Najaf: Capital of Islamic Culture” project, in addition to other services projects that were not accomplished as required, something attested to by the state of the governorate. Furthermore, the judiciary could not have him brought to account as he was vindicated under mysterious circumstances.

At the level of intellectual orientations, al-Zurfi is known to be a “secular” pragmatist with no religious orientations. He is close to the US side and maintains good relations with it at the expense of the Iranian camp. That is why he was accused of standing behind the recent Najaf incidents, specifically torching the Iranian Consulate and attempting to storm the shrine of the founder of the Supreme Islamic Council Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

Shiite blocs and the declaration of division

Despite the formation of a seven-member committee* of influential personalities on the Shiite political decision representing the blocs of Nasr, Hikma, State of Law, Sairoon, Fatah, Ataa and Fadilah, it could not resolve the crisis of forming the government and nominating a prime minister that is agreed upon by all parties. The state of division appeared clearly after the announcement of the designation of al-Zurfi.

On the one hand, the leader of the Sairoon Alliance Muqtada al-Sadr appeared as one of the hesitant supporters after he described the selection mechanism as a matter that concerns Iraqis and that the choice of al-Zurfi came as a result of the lack of consensus, which “entailed the choice of a person who is not close to you or us”. On the other hand, the Nasr Alliance, led by Haider al-Abadi, warmly welcomed the designation. An implicit approval was given by the Hikma Movement, led by Ammar al-Hakim, despite his reservation about the mechanism and method adopted in this designation.

The Fatah Alliance was the party categorically opposed to al-Zurfi. So much so that militias loyal to its leaders threatened thar they would not allow it to pass and that they would turn everything “upside down”. The same applies to the State of Law Coalition, the al-Aqd al-Watani bloc and the al-Nahj al-Watani bloc after they expressed a significant reservation and objection with regard to al-Zurfi, blaming President Barham Saleh for “exceeding political norms and contexts and violating the constitution”, according to a statement issued in the aftermath of a meeting by those blocs on 18 March. They even threatened to deploy “all legal, political and popular methods to stop this process which, if it continues, God forbid, will endanger civil peace and unravel the national fabric”.

Thus, the choice of al-Zurfi reveals numerous divisions at the level of Shii blocs, mainly:

1- At the level of the political accord between the Fatah and Sairoon blocs: the accord is over, and it is clear that it was not built on robust foundations; rather, it was an interim alliance necessitated by common interests.

2- At the level of the Shiite house: it seems that alliance around the objectives of the Shiite component to maintain governance is no longer capable of driving its leaders to overcome estrangement and varying positions towards public issues after the disappearance of all elements of solidarity that brought them together in 2003, the absence of the architect of relations between them, namely the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Qasem Soleimani, and the crisis brought about by his absence in Iran at the level of strategic leadership, which coincides with the refrainment of Najaf from intervening in the Shiite political affairs.

Sunni and Kurdish positions

Unlike Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi who was previously designated to form the government, Adnan al-Zurfi obtained in principle the support of Sunni blocs represented by the Union of Nationalist Forces and all Kurdish parties. Media outlets had indicated that “representatives of the two components held discussions, two weeks before Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi declared the withdrawal of his candidacy to form a cabinet, at the US embassy in the presence of Barham Saleh, in order to designate one of three names, i.e. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Adnan al-Zurfi or Naim al-Suhail”. This matches what was said by Sunni leader Mahmoud al-Mashhadani in a TV interview one week before al-Zurfi was designated, when he confirmed that the Sunnis are in favour of al-Zurfi and al-Kadhimi.

Media reports also referred to imposing a set of conditions on al-Zurfi in return for offering him support. These are:

1- Preparations would be made for early elections.

2- Non-interference in the designation of ministers on his part and leaving choice to the Sunni and Kurdish components.

3- Combating demonstrations of armament outside the state and enhancing security and the rule of law.

4- Refraining from politically targeting US bases as Iraq needs them.

5- Giving effect to article 140 of the Constitution with regard to disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad.

6- Maintaining the agreements between the Kurds and Adel Abdul-Mahdi concerning oil export and the Region’s share in the federal budget.

7- Meeting the demands of protesters.

8- Granting the displaced Sunnis their rights and re-building their cities.

Obtacles before al-Zurfi

There is a set of obstacles before the prime minister-designate, mainly:

1- Obtaining the support of the political blocs to his government composition in order to gain the confidence of the majority of Parliament members (50%+1), out of a total of 329 members. This can be achieved by getting the approval of the Kurdish blocs whose members range between 58 and 63 (representatives of the minority quotas normally vote with the Kurdish bloc), in addition to the Sunni blocs with 71 seats, the Shiite blocs represented by the Sairoon Alliance (54 seats) and the Nasr Alliance (14 seats), taking into consideration the ambiguous position of other political blocs which have not so far declared their explicit position, such as the Hikma Movement (18 seats), led by Ammar al-Hakim.

2- Convincing the Iraqi street that he is the right choice. This is difficult because protesters reject any personality associated with the parties that ruled the country since 2003, even if he/she did not assume any ministerial or executive post in the state. However, al-Zurfi could neutralize categories of the protest movement by nominating popularly accepted ministers which could give the impression that his government stands at an equal distance from everybody. Besides, the threat of the corona epidemic has come to constitute a huge element of pressure on protesters so that they had to suspend protests until further notice.

3- The capability to convince active international parties in Iraq, particularly Washington and Teheran which control the outcomes of the Iraqi scene.

4- The problem of the al-Hashd al-Shaabi file and the possibility of shifting its command to the Ministry of Defence, in addition to the manner of restricting unruly arms and bringing killers of protesters to account as he promised in his statement.

5- Emergency challenges in the form of the threat of the corona epidemic in Iraq and the failure of the health system to counter it.

6- The upcoming economic crisis because of the fall in oil prices against the fall in demand as a result of the corona crisis and the start of what seems to be a war of prices between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Possible scenarios regarding the designation of al-Zurfi

First scenario: Al-Zurfi gains Parliament’s confidence and manages to pass his government: this scenario assumes that the prime minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi will manage to put forward a cabinet that gains the approval of the absolute majority of Parliament members (50%+1), thus assume the governance of the country during the transitional period pending the conduct of the early elections. This scenario is achievable from the following two perspectives:

First perspective: bypassing the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition in the negotiations to form the government, which is possible if the leader of the Sairoon Alliance Muqtada al-Sadr holds to his position of supporting al-Zurfi up to the last moment. Al-Zurfi needs also to give up his calls for forming a government of independent technocrats and share ministerial posts with other political blocs, particularly the Sunni and Kurdish blocs which demand an active participation in any new government. This also requires that the leader of the Hikma Movement Ammar al-Hakim decide his position which is still unclear in relation to supporting al-Zurfi, and that pressure be exercised on the Sunni and Kurdish blocs either by the US administration or the Shiite blocs supportive of the al-Zurfi government to give up the condition regarding the achievement of “Shiite consensus” on the post of prime minister, and that they be contented with the posts they aspire to.

Second perspective: Al-Zurfi will be able to convince the Fatah Alliance and State of Law Coalition to approve his designation as prime minister in return for certain concessions, mainly giving them good ministerial posts and maintaining their benefits therein, in addition to reaching an agreement regarding the termination of US presence in Iraq and the future of the al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which are two main demands of the pro-Iran blocs.

There is a set of factors which support this scenario, mainly:

1- At the domestic level, al-Zurfi has in principle the support of the Sunni and Kurdish components, in addition to that of nearly 100 representatives of the Shiite component, represented by members of the Sairoon and Nasr alliances. This means that he enjoys serious support within Parliament. On the other hand, he is rejected by the Fatah Alliance, the State of Law Coalition and other small parties whose total does not exceed 130, which is much less than the number required to prevent al-Zurfi from gaining Parliament’s confidence.

2- At the external level, al-Zurfi is known for his close relations with the US side. This would facilitate his efforts to obtain the confidence of the international community, especially that of Arab countries close to Washington. These are vital support factors that would strengthen his position vis-à-vis the challenges. As for Iran, although it still supports the retention of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, it has not vetoed al-Zurfi, and it seems that his rejection by the Shiite blocs loyal to it stems from a subjective position of those blocs but is not driven by an Iranian decision.

3- At the level of public pressure, al-Zurfi will not be rejected by the protest squares whose role has diminished because of the spread of the corona epidemic. Besides, he is one of those who clearly expressed support for the protests since their outbreak in October 2019. He is even accused of supporting the protest movement. Although it is possible that the Shiite parties and blocs opposed to his designation will resort to the street, it is unlikely that they will be able to mobilize even a minimal protest movement.

Second scenario: failure by al-Zurfi to gain Parliament’s confidence: this scenario assumes that the prime minister-designate will fail to gain Parliament’s confidence, or that he will withdraw his candidacy because of failure to secure the support of the majority of Parliament members before the elapse of the constitutional 30-day period he has to form his government, in a repetition of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi’s scene if the parties impose on him names he does not like. This scenario is supported by a number of considerations, mainly:

1- The possibility of backing away by the Sairoon Alliance led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who is known for his inconsistent positions, and the possibility that the Sunni and Kurdish blocs will give up their support of al-Zurfi because of fears associated with exceeding the Shiite consensus which is considered a fundamental pillar in political norms, or because of the proposal of a cabinet that does not take their demands into account. Therefore, the success of his designation is contingent on his capability to negotiate and win the support of those parties.

2- The moves made by the blocs opposed to al-Zurfi’s designation could constitute a pressure factor for rejecting him. Recently, these took the form of holding several meetings aimed at agreeing on a mechanism through which al-Zurfi would be rejected or made to withdraw his designation, such as the joint statements issued by the State of Law Coalition (26 seats), the Fatah Alliance (48 seats), the al-Aqd al-Watani bloc (18 seats) and the al-Nahj al-Watani bloc (8 seats), in addition to the Hikma Movement (18 seats) which remains hesitant between taking part in meetings with the opposed blocs and the demonstration by its leaders of a semi-implicit satisfaction with al-Zurfi’s designation.

3- Abstention by the religious authority in Najaf from any intervention for or against al-Zurfi’s designation. This position by al-Sistani comes after the failure by Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to form a government, especially that some representatives and politicians had previously declared that Najaf supported Allawi’s designation.

4- The possibility to influence the judiciary by filing a lawsuit before the Federal Court to challenge as unconstitutional President Barham Saleh’s decision to designate al-Zurfi and establish the right of the Bina bloc, as the largest parliamentary bloc, to nominate the candidate for prime minister.


* The formation of this committee was one of the fruits of the visit paid by the Secretary-General of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran Ali Shamkhani to Baghdad on 8 March. The committee is made up of the following members: Basim al-Awadi for the Nasr Alliance, Nabil al-Tarafi for the Sairoon Alliance, Ahmed al-Fatlawi for the Hikma Movement, Adnan Faihan for the Fatah Alliance, Hassan al-Sanid for the State of Law Coalition, Abdul Haq al-Musawi for the Fadilah Party, and Haider al-Fouadi for the Ataa Party.


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