Iraq
(photo credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)

Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq are maneuvering to topple Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi, who would be the third leader to be deposed in six months.

Zurfi was tapped by President Barham Salih on March 17. Pro-Iranian factions in Iraq, led by Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, have been trying to control the Prime Minister’s Office and consider Zurfi to be too pro-American.

Zurfi has tried to navigate a complex situation in Iraq. In the last year, US-Iran tensions have risen in the country, and Iranian proxies have launched rocket attacks against US forces and the US Embassy. In response, the US carried out airstrikes on the proxies, many of which are part of the official security forces.

At the same time, anti-corruption protests broke out last October, and many targeted Iranian symbols in Iraq. The demonstrators said Tehran has corrupted Baghdad’s politicians and landscape.

This leaves Iraq divided. Populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr leads the largest faction in parliament. He has waffled in his relations with Iran, going to Tehran in September and also meeting pro-Iranian proxies in January. But he also pretended to back the protests. He and Amiri agree that the US should leave. Meanwhile, other factions, such as the Kurdish parties from northern Iraq, tend to be warmer toward the US but also need to work closely with Baghdad on budget issues.

Iraq has a huge looming economic crisis as oil prices drop and the country cannot pay salaries. The US is withdrawing from numerous small bases along with other members of the US-led coalition, meaning that Iraq’s army has to up its fight against ISIS as well.

This leaves Iraqi politics chaotic. Zurfi has a history of working with the US, and he has been accused of being too close to the Americans. In a speech on Sunday, he said while US forces should leave, that does not mean Iraq should have to be saddled with Iranian interference in the country’s internal politics. He has until mid-April to form a coalition government. But the pro-Iranian groups are already conspiring to remove him.

Pro-Iranian proxies, including Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujabaa, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, have upped their rhetoric against the US, claiming the “clock is ticking” or “your end is close” and showing images of previous attacks on the US. Two new anti-American groups have emerged and posted videos threatening the US.

Iranian media, such as Tasnim and Fars News Agency, are flooded with articles against Zurfi, asserting he is working with the US. The pro-Iranian proxies, called Hashd al-Shaabi, also appear in Iranian media discussing how to remove the Americans. This is part of Iran’s wider regional agenda to establish itself as the “axis of resistance” against the US.

Controlling Iraq is key to that role. It needs Iraq as its “near abroad,” or staging area, to move weapons to Syria and Hezbollah. And it needs to control Iraq using Hashd al-Shaabi and pro-Iranian parties without appearing to interfere too much, which can lead to a backlash. That is why Zurfi has not been toppled immediately and why the best strategy Iran has is to control things from behind the scenes without appearing to put its own person directly in the Prime Minister’s Office.

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