Iraq’s new PM is drawn from an era of US dominance in the country

Adnan Al Zurfi has a reputation as a strong politician and hits favourable notes with the religious establishment, except for his perceived closeness to Washington

The new Iraqi prime minister-designate is a religious moderate who rose to prominence in the 2000s under a US-installed order that largely succumbed to the influence of Iran.

A presidential decree, made public on Tuesday, announced that Adnan Al Zurfi, a former grocery owner in Detroit, will form a government to replace that of caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

However, Mr Al Zurfi’s perceived closeness to the US is likely to be a significant obstacle in gaining a vote of confidence during the 30-day time frame set by parliament. Iraq's legislative body is dominated by political associates of the Iran-backed militias that hold considerable sway in Iraqi politics and want to end US influence in the country.

While the Kurdish president, Barham Salih, as well as parts of the military and intelligence apparatus are still overseen by pro-US figures – a legacy of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 – many Iraqis want an end to the US presence.

As a parliamentarian in the current Iraqi legislature, Mr Al Zurfi is an ally of Haider Al Abadi, a centrist former prime minster whose efforts to stem corruption had failed.

Mr Al Zurfi was educated in religious studies in Iraq. Unlike pro-Iranian politicians, he wears a suit and necktie, trademark attire for Iraqis who want to distance themselves from Iran. In Tehran, the establishment frowns upon the necktie as a pro-Western relic from the days of the Shah.

After a failed Shiite uprising in southern Iraq against Saddam in 1991, Mr Al Zurfi fled to Saudi Arabia then to the United States. He lived in Michigan, earning a living as a shopkeeper and linking up with the opposition to Saddam in exile.

US forces brought Mr Al Zurfi back to Iraq and appointed him governor of Najaf in 2004. He spent a year in the post and then became an Iraqi intelligence operative, where he amassed a reputation as a strongman, before again becoming governor of the province.

The role was important, given that Najaf is the epicentre of Shiism and home to Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the kingmaker of Iraqi politics who prefers to practice his role with an invisible hand.

Last November, Mr Al Sistani made a rare public intervention, forcing Mr Abdul Mahdi to resign after security forces and pro-Iranian Shiite militias killed hundreds of civilians in a violent crackdown on a mass protest movement demanding the removal of the political class.

Mohammed Allawi, a former telecom minister, was set to replace Mr Abdul Mahdi in February but withdrew his nomination after failing to gain the support of enough MPs to form a government.

Mr Al Zurfi would be faced with the task of containing the spread of coronavirus in Iraq as he takes on a state that's been undermined by corruption. Consecutive governments since the downfall of Saddam have made no significant improvement to infrastructure and basic services, despite Iraq’s ranking as a top Opec oil exporter.

The state has little control over a porous border with Iran and Syria. Iraqi militia supported by Iran have started a war of attrition against US troops in the country that threatens to expand into a larger conflict.

With the huge drop in oil prices, Iraq’s situation is also precarious financially. A member of the parliament’s finance committee, Haitham Al Juburi, said this week the 2020 budget deficit is projected at $85 billion, more than double the government’s forecast before oil prices plunged in February.

A European executive who does business in Iraq said it might be too late to halt Iraq’s slide towards becoming a failed state, even if Mr Al Zurfi is confirmed as prime minister.

"I feel like it is all moot at this point," the businessman told The National. "Iraq must be the single most poorly governed country in the world now."