Iraqi PM hopeful meets senior Kurdish official, discusses Erbil-Baghdad ties, economy
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Iraqi Prime Minister-Designate Adnan al-Zurfi on Wednesday met with Finance Minister Fuad Hussein, a Kurdish official in the cabinet of outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.
Hussein received Zurfi in his place of residence in Baghdad and “wished him success” in his government formation efforts, according to a statement from the minister's office posted on Twitter, which added that they discussed “developing national and international issues.”
They also spoke at length about Zurfi's proposed government program as well as lingering issues between Iraq's federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and ways to resolve them.
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Iraqi President Barham Salih personally appointed Zurfi to form a new cabinet on Tuesday, despite strong objections to the move by pro-Iran politicians following months of political deadlock after the resignation of Abdul Mahdi in late November. The former premier stepped down after violent crackdowns against anti-government protesters by Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed Shia militias who have so far killed over 600 and wounded close to 20,000.
The leadership of the self-proclaimed largest parliamentary grouping, the Tehran-aligned Bina Bloc—which is primarily made up of political representatives of some of the armed groups killing demonstrators—and firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr proposed a successor to Abdul Mahdi in February.
After a month of political jockeying, Mohammed Allawi was not able to garner enough votes to pass a parliamentary vote of confidence. Protesters, seeing him a member of the country's ruling elite that has squandered much of the nation's substantial oil wealth, rejected him. Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and some Shia Arab lawmakers shunned the session that would see Allawi and his proposed cabinet voted into power.
As the stalemate dragged on, Salih decided to choose a new candidate himself, a move which Bina members have described as “unconstitutional,” but one that Article 76 of the Iraqi Constitution appears to suggest is possible.
Zurfi is an Iraq-US dual national and is seen as having good ties with Washington. Tehran-backed militias allied with Bina, mainly Kata'ib Hizbollah, have carried out repeated strikes against US and anti-ISIS coalition forces, killing two Americans and one British service members in a recent attack.
Iran and the US have been locked in tensions since the Trump administration withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers and reimposed successive rounds of punitive sanctions. Strains reached new heights after Washington assassinated both top Iranian general Qasim Soleimani and militia leader Abu Mahdi Muhandis in Baghdad.
Speaking to reporters by teleconference on Thursday, David Schenker, Assistant US Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, endorsed Zurfi's nomination.
Zurfi “appears to have the support of Sunnis and Kurds and a number of Shi’a,” Schenker noted. So “we are hoping that pro-Iran parties—that is, Iran and its allies—do not move to scuttle the nomination,” which he described as “an inflection point for Iraq,” which will show whether its leadership “will choose sovereignty or whether they will choose to become a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.”
Whether or not Zurfi can indeed obtain a majority vote in parliament remains to be seen. In the event of success, he would appear to have to hit the ground running with substantial political acumen to address a slew of domestic, regional, and international issues he would immediately face.
In Wednesday's meeting with Hussein, the two reviewed the country's overall financial situation and plans for the potential economic fallout of the current unfolding crises which include the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices precipitated by aggressive competition for market share between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Editing by John J. Catherine